Monthly Archives: December 2015


Mathematicians and cryptographers seem to have a strange fascination for most people. Although their work is highly relevant (think of the Enigma codebreakers, or the computer pioneers) their abstract world is far removed from the ordinary life we all lead, and the geniuses in that field often combine extraordinary intellectual abilities in their specific field with an obsessiveness that borders insanity; borderline disorders, autism, paranoia and schizophrenia seem to be much more frequent among them as in the average population; and even when they are not mentally challenged they seem to act frequently odd and helpless in everyday-life situations. Mathematicians and cryptographers make therefore potentially excellent characters for many books and movies (think of A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game – a mediocre movie that distorts the real story of Bletchley Park and its protagonists almost beyond recognition -, or the brilliant π by Darren Aronofsky).

Also the hero of Mai Jia’s novel Decoded is a mathematician and codebreaker. Rong Jinzhen, the main character is an orphan that grows up in a provincial town in China under the guidance of a Mr Auslander, a foreigner that worked for decades in China as an English teacher. The rather isolated life of Mr Auslander and his advanced age seem not to be the best atmosphere for a child to grow up that shows already very early a rather strange and secluded character, although on the other hand, the old gentleman does his very best for the boy and is visibly very attached to him. (I was particularly touched when the author mentioned that on the day when Auslander decided to take the orphan into his home, he – already a rather frail old man – climbed a ladder and attached a swing for the boy at one of the trees in his garden.)

After Mr Auslander’s passing, the boy is taken in by some relatives. Due to his fantastic talents in mathematics, Rong Jinzhen is allowed to enroll in the local university which has a quite famous mathematics department founded by a member of the family of Rong Jinzhen. One of the teachers there, Professor Liseiwicz, a Polish-Jewish emigrant and famous cryptographer and mathematician, becomes Rong Jinzhen’s mentor. Liseiwicz, who wants to work in the field of artificial intelligence, sees in Rong Jinzhen a genius and treats him very different from other students – thereby creating suspicions that he wants to use the prodigy for his own work.

Although mathematicians of the calibre of Rong Jinzhen or Liseiwicz seem to live in an ivory tower, their work in a world of wars and secret communication is of extremely high importance to politicians and intelligence experts, and to secure their talents is a question of national security. And so we see Liseiwicz and Rong Jinzhen drift in different directions – while Liseiwicz leaves China in order to work in X country (Israel? The U.S.?) and perform work whose nature most people can only guess, Rong Jinzhen is taken away from his university to become part of a secret military research unit which aims at decrypting ciphers of enemy nations; Rong Jinzhen soon becomes the most important person in this unit. He breaks the high-level cipher PURPLE in a very short time and with the most unorthodox approach. But when another high-level cipher, BLACK, pops up, a real nightmare starts for Rong Jinzhen. 

I don’t want to give away more of this story which is a real page turner. Mai Jia has been hailed as the Chinese answer to John Le Carré, and after reading this book I know why. Every comparison is a bit doubtful, but he for sure knows how to entice the readers with a fascinating story that encompasses more than half a century – turbulent times for China which had to face a civil war, a war with Japan, the communist revolution and the so-called Cultural Revolution that all left a deep mark on the characters of the book.

Books that are written by authors from such a complete different culture as the Chinese are for the reader not always easy to understand. Therefore I was a bit sceptical in the beginning if I would grasp all aspects of the story. But Mai Jia is telling us a universal story, the story of an extraordinarily gifted man, a man who is burdened by the fact that he is a genius in his field.

The portrait of Rong Jinzhen is that of a man with many facets. Although introvert and deeply obsessed by resolving the tasks and challenges he is facing in the strange world of cryptography, he shows great attachment to Mr Auslander (whom he calls Daddy) and later to his adopted family, particularly to his adopted mother and sister (whom he later saves from the pogroms of the Cultural Revolution); he reads the Bible and becomes a Christian, he reads also novels and books on many other topics, he interprets dreams of his colleagues and shows a genuine interest in games, particularly chess. With Liseiwicz he is developing a chess variation that is so complicated that it is only played by a small group of mathematicians. Surprisingly for everyone Rong Jinzhen even marries, although this marriage proves to be very unconventional.

It is also a story of the rise and fall of an extraordinary person, and thanks to the fact that the author presents us Rong Jinzhen not as an “idiot-savant” with an insular talent, but as a person with its incredible strengths and also weaknesses, his hopes and dreams, and also his almost unbearable loneliness (during his adult life he seems only to be connected with Liseiwicz and the only person he ever admired, the enigmatic German cryptographer Klaus Johannes, whose book is as it turns out is a sophisticated cipher in itself. and with whom he has a kind of dialogue in his dreams), the reader can relate to the main character and his fate even when he hasn’t got the slightest idea about ciphers and cryptography.

The description of the life of Rong Jinzhen in the headquarter of the cryptographic complex which seems completely isolated from the rest of the world and in which he spends the biggest part of his conscious existence without hardly ever leaving this area, has something suffocating, deeply depressing. Mai Jia created with this novel a unforgettable hero and a fascinating story with many unexpected twists.

A few minor remarks about certain aspects of the books that prevent me from calling it a masterpiece:

Liseiwicz supposedly met in his younger years an Austrian aristocrat with an interest in mathematics that wanted to build up and fund a research institute in Austria. While it is possible and therefore credible that such a person existed, it is extremely improbable that a member of the Hapsburg family (that was banned from entering Austria during that period and that would run into the risk of being arrested and have his property confiscated) would ever even have dreamt of doing this. This is simply impossible because of the particular legal position of the Hapsburg family in Austria after WWI.

ENIAC was one of the first computers to be built (in 1946), but of course not the first as the author claims. (Konrad Zuse completed the Z1 in 1938, and the Z3, the first Turing complete computer, in 1941.) 

Chess and to some extent also Go play a certain role in the book. Liseiwicz and Rong Jinzhen play a lot of chess (in which Liseiwicz has practically grandmaster strength) and chess variations. But the explanation of the chess variation the two invented left me in the dark about the nature of this game. The same goes in general for the cryptographic part of the book. The descriptions are always very general, touching always more the surface of things – a little bit more information about how concretely the ciphers on which Rong Jinzhen worked would have been extremely interesting. As it is, the descriptions of the ciphers are as elusive as the main character of the book.

When the narrator meets late in the book Rong Jinzhen’s replacement at the research facility, this man from which the narrator gets important information on the later years of Rong Jinzhen and the cracking of the cipher BLACK, this man is described as a Go player that has become so strong that it was allegedly difficult for him to find opponents – he was considered to be too strong by almost anyone. That is of course a rather ridiculous claim. Go has contrary to chess a handicap system that levels the chances of players according to their kyu/dan grade. When you play a very strong player it means that the chances are nevertheless more or less equal because the stronger player has to play with a very high handicap.  

These are small misgivings I have about the book, but it is definitely an entertaining read, a well-crafted story and it makes me curious to read more by this author and probably also more fiction by Chinese authors. The translation reads very smooth, but of course I cannot compare with the Mandarin original edition.

Mai Jia: Decoded, transl. Olivia Milburn and Christopher N. Payne, Penguin Random House 2015

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

aus: Verbotenes Meer von Blaga Dimitrova

В началото бе Словото,
а в края – безсловесен?
Приемам смъртта,
както детето не я приема.
Забранено море!
За въображението
забраненото е
като вятър за огъня.
Словото е моето
открито море.
Хвърлям се в него
сама със слово в гърлото
като камък на шията.
Потъвам, потъвам –
запечатана бутилка,
за да изплувам в слово.

Думи, времекрушенци-думи,
мои сираци-думи,
стигнете до някакъв бряг
и тръгнете по стръмното
с подпухнали жени на раздавач.

Думи, сплетени в корабно въже,
завързани в примка на бесилка.
Думи, повтаряни и преповтаряни
напевно, както в училище за заекващи.
Думи, безчерупкови охлюви,
полазили по стената нагоре
към тавана, все към тавана.
Думи, набрани билки за болки,
думи, изкоренени дървета,
преметнати над въртопа
до другия ронещ се бряг.
Думи, ръкомахащи като глухонеми,
за да изразят МОРЕ-ВРЕМЕ-МЕНЕ.
Думи, написани с дъха ми по вода.

Забранено море,
в теб искам да проникна чрез словото
навътре, навътре до корена ти,
усукан от улегналост и от вълнение,
дълбоко, дълбоко до самото дъно,
за да извадя шепа небе.
Непримиримо море,
бъди ми пример
как да изхвърлям от себе си
тленното и нечистото.
Море, бъди ми

Преглъщам соления горчилак на словото:
     Ако и словото ми забранят,
     ще приема смъртта,
     за да освободя словото
     за своето прераждане.

Im Anfang war das Wort,
und am Ende  – die Sprachlosigkeit?
Ich nehme den Tod an,
so wie ihn das Kind nicht annimmt.
Verbotenes Meer!
Für die Vorstellungskraft
ist es das Verbotene
wie Wind für das Feuer.
Das Wort ist mein
offenes Meer.
Ich werfe mich hinein
allein mit dem Wort in der Kehle
wie ein Stein um den Hals.
Ich versinke, versinke –
eine versiegelte Flasche,
um im Wort wieder aufzutauchen.

Worte, von der Zeit verbrauchte Worte,
meine Waisen-Worte,
erreichen irgendeine Küste
und nehmen den Anstieg
mit den geschwollenen Venen eines Briefträgers.

Worte, geflochten zu einem Schiffstau,
zu einem Galgenstrick geschlungen.
Worte, wiederholt und wiedergekäut
melodisch, wie in einer Schule für Stotterer.
Worte, Nacktschnecken
die die Wand nach oben kriechen
zur Decke, weiter zur Decke.
Worte, gepflückte Kräuter gegen Schmerzen,
Worte, entwurzelte Bäume,
über den Strudel geschlungen
zum anderen bröckelnden Ufer.
Worte, gestikulierend wie Taubstumme
um auszudrücken MEER-ZEIT-MICH.
Worte, mit meinem Atem ins Wasser geschrieben.

Verbotenes Meer,
in dich will ich mit dem Wort eindringen,
drinnen, ins Innere deiner Wurzel,
verdreht durch die Schwerkraft und durch die Strömung,
tief, tief zum Grund,
um eine Handvoll Himmel hervorzuholen.
Unversöhnliches Meer,
sei mein Vorbild
wie man das Vergängliche und Unreine
von sich abwirft.
Meer, sei mein

Ich schlucke die salzige Bitterkeit des Worts:
     Wenn sie mir auch das Wort verbieten,
     werde ich den Tod annehmen,
     um das Wort zu befreien
     für seine Wiedergeburt.

Aus dem Bulgarischen von Thomas Hübner

Blaga Dimitrova: Forbidden Sea – Забранено море, bi-lingual edition, transl. by Ludmilla G. Popova-Wightman and Elizabeth Anne Socolow, Ivy Press, Princeton, NJ, 2002

Blaga Dimitrova: Забранено море, Georgi Bakalov, Varna 1976

© Ivy Press, 2002
© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Hewlett-Packard vs. Reprobel – a “big success” for authors?

As readers we usually are not very much interested in the business or even legal aspects of publishing. We simply take it for granted that we can read books and that there is a functioning book market. But there are some recent developments in the European Union that have a deep impact on the book market and the position of authors and publishers, and in the end also on readers, about which every reader should have at least an idea.

Therefore I intend to devote from time to time some blog posts to important new developments related to copyright law. I feel entitled and equipped to do so because I am not only to a certain extent familiar with the publishing business, but I am also an economist who holds additionally a degree in European Law (LL.M.Eur.) – the topic of my master thesis was “The application of the competition rules of the EEC Treaty on industrial and intellectual property rights” – and I am following new developments of this topic ever since.

A functioning copyright law that protects the rights of the creators of works (and that includes of course also books or other written texts), but also of translators or other people who lawfully own rights – like in many cases the publishers, although their rights are derived, and not original because they are usually ceded by authors for a certain period – is one of the most important pre-conditions for a functioning and thriving cultural life. On the other side, in all societies the copyright has always been limited in one way or the other.

Copyright holders/authors hold the exclusive right to authorise or prohibit the reproduction of their works (books, films, music, etc.), under the 2001 Directive on the harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society. The Directive allows member states to make exceptions to this right, for example with private copying. But exceptions are not harmonised across the EU. 

The owners of rights cannot forbid so-called private copies but they must be compensated for lost revenue if their works are copied as one of these exceptions. (That a lot of the so-called file sharing is NOT to be considered as private copying goes without saying; what for example the website Chitanka to which I was recently referring sarcastically is doing when it is infringing the rights of authors, translators, and publishers is completely illegal.)

It is common for member states to provide this compensation by levying a tax on electronic hardware that can be used to store copies of cultural works (like blank DVDs, recording equipment, MP3 players, photocopiers, etc.).  These levies amount to approximately 500 million Euro per year within the EU.

While some countries like the UK, Ireland, Malta, Cyprus, and Luxembourg have no private levy collecting system at all, and Greece is not enforcing its system, the development in the rest of Europe has been quite contradictory in the last years.

France, Germany and Belgium for example have been increasing the levies on electronic hardware considerably, Finland and Spain have abolished their levy collecting system completely and have it replaced with a government fund designed to compensate artists for private copying of protected works.

Whether fair compensation for private copying acquired through annual public grants via the State budget is compliant with Article 5(2)(b) of the InfoSoc Directive has still to be decided by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). This article gives Member States the right to provide a private copy exception to reproductions rights if right holders receive a “fair compensation,” a concept which is, as stated by the CJEU in the so-called Padawan case,

“an autonomous concept of European Union law which must be interpreted uniformly in all the Member States that have introduced a private copying exception.”

A recent case, a law suit between Hewlett-Packard and Reprobel, the Belgian levy collecting society has shed new light on the system of copyright levies in many European countries and has potentially big consequences for authors and publishers – if one can trust the almost collective outcry from the side of publishers’ associations in several European countries.

What was it about?

Hewlett-Packard – and with it probably all members of DIGITALEUROPE, a lobby group and business association that represents the interests of many national associations of the digital industries and many companies from that sector – was taking proceedings against Reprobel in Belgium over the system of copyright levies that were collected in Belgium.  Because some of the disputed issues were related to European Law, the Belgian courts appealed to the CJEU regarding the main question if the levies collecting system in Belgium was in accordance with or against European Law.

The CJEU made it clear that the levies’ collecting system in Belgium is illegal and against European Law. for several reasons.

A major weakness of the system in Belgium was the lacking definition of what is legal and what is illegal copying, and what is to be considered private and what is considered to be commercial use. Reprobel had  increased the levies on multifunctional printers according to how fast they printed. The court rejected this argument and provided that fixing the compensation solely by reference to the speed of the device is incompatible with EU law.

A second reason why the system in Belgium is infringing EU copyright law is the fact that the levies that are collected by Reprobel are shared between the authors and the publishers; according to the CJEU these levies belong exclusively to the owners of the primary copyright, the authors – and publishers have to get no share of it.

A third reason why the system in Belgium is infringing EU copyright law is the fact that the levies collecting society was charging a fixed sum from the sale of a device – in that particular case from a multifunctional printer – as well as a fee based amount on the number of copies of a copyright-protected work. This amounts to a double payment, concluded the CJEU.

As a result, HP won on all accounts, and Reprobel has to revise its levies collecting system completely. Although this case is targeting the situation in Belgium, the levies collecting systems in France, the Netherlands, and Germany are very similar, and the court decision found therefore a very big media echo in those countries, particularly in Germany.

It is interesting that the German Publishers’ Association exclusively focused their public statements on the second aspect of the decision from Luxembourg, condemning it in very harsh words as a serious threat to the flourishing book market in the German-speaking countries. (In Germany publishers receive so far 50% of the collected levies – this system has to be revised now, and publishers in Germany face for 2016 not only a big decrease in their incomes, but are potentially also threatened by claims of authors for the last ten years to receive their share of the copyright levies that was unlawfully distributed to the publishers.)

Indeed, this decision is a serious blow to the existing system. If it is one to one applicable for the situation in other European countries has to be seen. What will be the probable consequences?

If you read the overwhelming majority of media reports, you got the impression that this is all a big victory for the European consumers (they need to pay less for a device with a storage or copying facility in Belgium and other countries with a similar system because the copyright levies are excessive, according to the CJEU), and the authors in Europe (since they get now all collected levies, and not only 50% of it).

But, to give you my two stotinki here, neither the first nor the last claim is true. The big – and probably only – winner here are the members of DIGITALEUROPE.

Who has a little bit insight into the calculation praxis of big international companies like HP will know that the prices for HP multifunctional printers (or any other product in that market by any other producer) will not go down accordingly – but the profits of HP and others will go up in this oligopolistic market. Unless, the CJEU will rule in a few years time that these companies are infringing EU competition law. But this will take time, don’t you worry…

The surprising thing for me was that almost no one who discussed the court ruling had grasped that the authors will not profit even a little bit from this new decision. The cake will not be divided any more between authors and publishers, that’s true, but it will be also considerably smaller than before.

Additionally, publishers will in the future consider their new position when they negotiate contracts with authors. Authors will get (maybe not in all cases, but in the tendency) a reduced authors’ honorary; furthermore, many publishers will think twice if they will proceed with risky projects – when the share they used to get from the copyright levies will not be available any more, many book projects, especially non-commercial one’s will not make sense in the future, and there is a high probability that this will reflect on the number of published titles and the variety of the published books.

Unless, of course, an alternative system is established that compensates authors and possibly publishers for the copied works from a state fund (that is hopefully designed in a way that is considered compatible with EU law by the CJEU.). In a time when less and less files are physically stored on devices but in “the cloud”, this might be sooner or later the only reasonable option.

The CJEU ruling in the case Hewlett-Packard vs. Reprobel is not the only important new development in the field of European copyright law. I will come back to other important news related to that matter in the future. 

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of 
this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or 
owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and 
clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and 
specific direction to the original content.




An easily accessible book

One of the things about Finnegans Wake I love most is the fact that it is such an easily accessible book.

An example – but I could quote from any page:

“…for to plaise that man hog stay his stomicker till her pyrraknees shrunk to nutmeg graters while her togglejoints shuck with goyt and as…”

Have you read Finnegans Wake? What is your opinion about the book?

Finnegans Wake

James Joyce: Finnegans Wake, Viking Press 1966

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of 
this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or 
owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and 
clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and 
specific direction to the original content.

German Literature Month 2015 – wrap-up


German Literature Month in November was again an extremely interesting event, just like last year. The two unfatigable hosts Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life) once again created an event with plenty of opportunities to join in. In the end 44 bloggers had published 166 posts, mainly about fiction and poetry, but also including some featured articles and several non-fiction reviews.

Over the years, this event has become increasingly popular and the index on the website that links to all articles that were published in all editions of the German Literature Month has become a major resource for anyone who wants to get informed about German literature. Check it out, the variety of authors and opinions is truly amazing! (Thanks, Lizzy!)

Interestingly, the most reviewed author this year was Stefan Zweig (14 reviews of 12 works), followed by Schiller (10 posts related to Schiller’s works and books about Schiller). Goethe on the contrary was ignored by everybody – maybe we should include a Goethe week next year?

After several months of being not very active, this event has brought me back to blogging on a more regular basis. I discovered plenty of new books, got reminded of some others I should re-read again in the future and I also discovered a few book blogs which I hadn’t known before but will follow in the future. It was fun to read the comments and to comment myself sometimes. I read literally all reviews, but time restrictions prevented me so far to comment on all of them.  Just like last year  I thoroughly enjoyed this event, and just like last year, I won a giveaway, Ulrich Plenzdorf’s Werther novel which I will review one day of course. (Thanks, Caroline!)

This year, I published ten posts – compared to eight last year. Beside a featured anecdote about Jean Paul, nine of the posts were reviews:

Veza Canetti: The Tortoises

Thomas Kling: Collected Poems

Schilleriana (9 publications of Deutsche Schillergesellschaft)

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: New Selected Poems

Walther von der Vogelweide: Poems

Detlef Opitz: The Books Murderer

Jean Paul: The strange company at New Year’s Eve

Joseph Roth: Letters from Germany

Gertrud Kolmar: Poems

Several of the books I had intended to read for German Lit Month, I had to postpone for the time being, while others popped up in the last moment. I reviewed/presented more poetry than last years and a bit less prose by contemporary authors. Who knows what I will be up to next year?!

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A short rant on the translation of book titles

You probably all know the phenomenon: you read a translated book, the quality of the translation is excellent, good, average, poor, a crime – and all shades in between; if the language is good or not in the original edition you usually don’t know for sure unless you are able to compare. Many great books have been spoilt completely by an inadequate translation and there are also cases when the translation reads much better than the original. Fortunately, there are many excellent translators, and for a translated book the name of the translator has for me great importance because I know already what I can expect in terms of quality of the translation.

A particular annoying case are book titles that are not a translation of the original title, but that reflect the fact that nowadays the marketing departments of publishing houses seem to have greater importance as, mind you, people who wrote, edited and translated the book.

A few examples: Elias Canetti’s Die Blendung (The Blinding) becomes Auto-da-fé, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Morts sans sépulture (The unburied dead) becomes The Victors or Men without Shadows, or Boualem Sansal’s Le village de l’allemand (The village of the German) transforms miraculously into An Unfinished Business or The German Mujahid. The Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles was for decades published as Der Hund von Baskerville (as if the English title would be The Hound of Baskerville!) and only the newer translations use the correct Der Hund der Baskervilles. Most German editions of Dostoevsky’s Преступление и наказание have been published under the title Schuld und Sühne (Guilt and Atonement), some under the title Raskolnikov, when the obviously best translation would be Verbrechen und Strafe (Crime and Punishment), which was used for the translations of Alexander Eliasberg in the 1920s and by Svetlana Geier in the 1990s and which now fortunately seem to stick. And, dear publishers, there was a reason why Herta Müller chose the poetic Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt (Man is a great pheasant in the World) and not the prosaic Der Pass (The Passport), as the English edition of one of her books suggests. It is a lack of respect to the author and also to us readers to change such a title – do you marketing guys even believe that the book sold better because you invented a new title for it?

It would be easy to add dozens, if not hundreds of examples of wrong title translations. I am sure most readers of this post have their own list for this phenomenon.

There are a few cases when a different title for a translation seems acceptable or necessary. Not in every case the book appears in the original edition under the title which the author had in mind. Ismail Kadare’s The Siege (an exact translation of the Albanian title would be The Castle or The Fortress) should have been published under the title The Drums of Rain (in Albanian), and the title of the French edition Les Tambours de la pluie is therefore highly appropriate.

Another case may be copyright issues or the existence of a book under the exact same title that is already on the market. Nigel Barley’s Island of Demons was published in German as Das letzte Paradies (The Last Paradise) probably because almost at the same time another book by Lothar Reichel about Bali was published as Insel der Dämonen – both books referring to Walter Spies and Victor von Plessen’s movie Insel der Dämonen, and both with a cover illustration based on paintings by Spies. In such a case when even the content of the book is similar, a different title seems unavoidable.

The worst are for me always such title translations which seem to be more or less correct, but are indeed not and that even by that change the intention of the author or suggest an interpretation of the text that is wrong or misleading.

An interesting case is the title of Christoph Hein’s novel Landnahme in English: Settlement. Settlement is an excellent novel which I intend to review later and the translation is overall good. My first reaction was that the title is obviously wrong. But the case is more tricky as it seems.

The main character is what was called in West Germany a Heimatvertriebener (literally “one who was expelled from his home place”), a German who had to flee from what was after WWII becoming Polish territory and resettled in his case in Eastern Germany, the future GDR (where these people were called Umsiedler, literally meaning “those who have resettled”).

The word Landnahme in German means literally “to take the land”, it is clearly an active, possibly even an aggressive act, depending on if the land was already occupied by someone (in that case it would be translated as “conquest” in English), or if the land was acquired by legal means (buying or acquisition by a lawful redistribution of the land).

Settlement is therefore under no circumstances a literal translation of Landnahme. The author plays with the ambiguity of the word in his text, showing how difficult it is for the main character to make this land (in every sense of the word) his own, and by all means.

Acquisition would have been a much better literal translation of this word, or even Conquest – although the ambiguity of the German word would have been lost. So what to do as a translator in such a situation? Go for the “correct” literal translation and decide to use either Acquisition or Conquest? Or go for another solution? The translator went for the second option, and rightfully so I suppose.

Settlement means in English either an inhabited place, a village, a community of people living in a place, but it means also an arrangement to settle a conflict or a dispute, so although it is not a “correct” literal translation of Landnahme, it keeps the ambiguity of the German title – and that is what counts most in my opinion. So contrary to my first reaction, I have to concede that Philip Boehm, the translator, has done an excellent job to find this title for Hein’s novel in English.

Do you have annoying examples of wrong translations of book titles, or of ingenious one’s as the last example?



Christoph Hein: Settlement, transl. by Philip Boehm, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2008

(review to follow)

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Drei Gedichte von Iglika Dionisieva


Благодаря ти, Господи,
че след градушката
оставяш и за мен:
някоя и друга череша,
някоя и друга пчела
в градината ми,
някое и друго
за написване


Danke, Herr,
dass du nach dem hagel
mir lässt:
die eine oder andere kirsche,
die eine oder andere biene
in meinem garten,
das eine oder andere
zum aufschreiben




Проливен дъжд.
между очите на кайманите
Лилии цъфтят.


Рибите са медиуми
в порите на водата
Махалото на пясъка сияе.


Морето е следствие
от целувките на мидите
Водата ми горчи от спомени.   


Sintflutartiger regen.
zwischen den augen der kaimane
blühen lilien.
Fische sind medien
in den poren des wassers
das uhrwerk des sandes glänzt.
Das meer ist eine folge
der küsse von muscheln
mein wasser ist bitter von erinnerungen.


Планините са тези
имат нещо да ми кажат
но мълчат и черно-синьо
а върховете им белеят
и ме викат с поглед
и ме притеглят близо-близо
близко е това което казват
докато аз потъвам
в техните лавини
и се давя в хоризонта
самоуверено надвисват
върху мене
засенчват ме
като избистрени желания
има ли за мене знак и ехо
Планините никога не могат
да бъдат толкова големи
че да мерят образ с тебе


Die Berge sind diejenigen
mir etwas zu sagen haben
aber schwarz-blau und
vielsagend schweigen
und ihre gipfel erbleichen
und rufen mich mit einem blick
und ziehen mich ganz nah heran
nahe ist das was sie sagen
während ich in ihren
lawinen versinke
und am horizont ertrinke
bewusst hängen sie sich
an mich
überschatten mich
wie klargewordene wünsche
gibt es ein zeichen für mich und ein echo
hier ist es
Die berge können nie
so groß sein
um sich mit deinem abbild zu messen


Иглика Дионисиева (Iglika Dionisieva): Déjà vu Hug, Scalino, 2015

Texte in diesem Blogpost übersetzt aus dem Bulgarischen von Thomas Hübner

© Iglika Dionisieva and Scalino, 2015
© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

“Wenn die Welt im Arsch ist…”

Neulich beim Lesen rot angestrichen:

„Wenn die Welt im Arsch ist, wird der Arsch der Welt zu einem Ort, wo man es aushalten kann.“ (aus: Reinhard Kaiser: Der Zaun am Ende der Welt) 

Das kann ich inhaltlich nur voll bestätigen!

Mit freundlichen Grüssen

(aus einem Ort, wo man es aushalten kann),

x x


Reinhard Kaiser: Der Zaun am Ende der Welt, Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, Frankfurt am Main 1989/1999

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Glückel of Hameln’s Memoirs

Glückel of Hameln (1645-1724) was a remarkable woman. Not only could she read and write – in a time when most women had no formal education at all -, she also proved to be an energetic business woman after the early death of her first husband. That involved also extensive traveling in a time when this was difficult and dangerous. And on top of it the mother of fourteen children wrote the first autobiography of a woman in Germany.

Glückel’s memoirs were not written with the intention of a publication. They were meant as a distraction after her beloved husband’s passing and also with the idea to let her twelve surviving children (two more children had died early) and countless grandchildren know where they came from. There is also a strong educative element in her writing: look what happened to us and our friends, family and neighbors and learn from it! And learn to understand that you need to trust in God, but you need to be also wise in your own decisions.

As the name indicates, Glückel was born in Hameln, and got engaged at the age of 12, as was the habit at that time, to a boy called Chajm to whom she was married two years later. The young couple set shop in Hamburg, lived first with Chajm’s parents before they could afford their own small home.

Child after child was born while Chajm became a trader in gold, pearls and jewelery with a good hand for business. Although the marriage was arranged at an age that seems unsupportable from the point of view of today and was concluded in a rather business-like manner, Glückel and her husband seem to have been a good match. She speaks with the greatest expressions of respect and love of her husband, who seems to have been always attentive and respectful toward her and her family and the mutual children. His temper was obviously more on the soft side and as much as he enjoyed his trade and the money he made with it, the well-being of his family seems to have been his only real concern.

When he died at the age of 44, it must have been a catastrophe for his widow who was from one moment to the next alone and with very little funds but had to support many children who were still living with her at that time. But somehow she made it: against all odds, she keeps the business running, travels to fairs and business partners in Germany and Holland. But it came at a price: we can feel from her writing that at times she must have been completely worn out. When an offer from a rich banker from Metz to marry him arrives, she gives in, hoping that in her old age she will have a comfortable home after so many hardships. But her second husband goes bankrupt, she loses all her savings and has to live in her last years, again widowed with one of her children.

This is a remarkable book, not only because it is the first autobiography written by a woman from Germany. Also Glückel’s life was everything than dull and average, although she must have been a modest person that frequently blamed herself for her own mistakes; once she writes about a successful business transaction she never forgets to thank God or to mention the part that other people had in this success.

Since the book was meant for her family members, she refrains from mentioning the names of some persons that behaved badly towards her or her first husband when these persons were still alive at the time she wrote the autobiography. On the other hand she describes her emotions very openly when something bad happened to her or someone from the family. As a reader, I could not help but to admire her for her persistence when it came to do the best for her family. She comes across as a strong, very modest woman with an incredible energy and family sense. 

The book is touching in itself as the story of a woman in very hard times. But it offers also a lot of insights in the everyday life of people in Glückel’s days, and especially in the life of the Jews.

Jews were not people with equal rights at that time and that included in most places that they had to pay Leibzoll, a kind of customs duty for themselves when entering a town, a deeply discriminatory act only applied in relation to the Jewish part of the population. Since Germany was divided in more than 2000 independent territories, traveling was for Jews extremely difficult. Additionally there were big differences in the living conditions of the Jews depending on the place where they lived.

In Altona, now a suburb of Hamburg, then an independent town that belonged to Denmark, the situation was very satisfactory for the Jews. The Danish King was known for his liberal opinions and was considered a friend of the Jews.

In neighboring Hamburg the situation was different: the Senate, the representative government body of the rich traders and bankers was rather friendly to the Jews; the Burgerschaft, the lower house of the Hamburg parliament on the contrary made life for the Jews very difficult by introducing rules that made it almost impossible for Jews to live in Hamburg. (Exempted from these harsh rules were the Portuguese Jews, descendants of Jews from Portugal who had settled in Hamburg after the reconquista; the Teixeiras, the de Castros and other Sephardic families were already considered as “real” Hamburgers and held influential positions in Hamburg; a certain rift between the Sephardic and the Ashkenazy Jews is clearly visible from Glückel’s writing. Although they shared the same belief, there seems to have been very little contact between these two groups. The sophisticated Sephards seem to have thought not too highly of their Ashkenazy brethren.)

Even worse was the situation in places like Leipzig, an important trading place that most Jewish traders visited twice a year – but Leipzig had for a reason the reputation of being a particularly anti-Semitic town that exposed Jews regularly to harsh treatment and extortion.

It may be rather strange for us readers today that Glückel is always so concerned about money. There is not a single page and for sure not a single characterization of a person that forgets to mention the exact amount of money someone’s fortune is worth.

To marry off her children to a good, i.e. a wealthy family, is the major concern for her and her husband. The wedding “market” was small and match makers seem to have been an extremely important institution at that time. Marriage was the chance for upward social mobility and that was the main concern for parents at that time. In lucky cases – like obviously in Glückel’s first marriage – love developed once the complete strangers were married and got to know each other. But it seems to be the exception, not the rule at Glückel’s time.

This – for us – obsession with money has of course a reason: money provided a limited protection for the fragile existence of the Jews at that time. It was important not in itself, but as a means to buy favours, ensure loyalties, pay off extortionist governments, assure a comparatively elevated social status in the Jewish community. As a reader we never get the intention that Glückel or her husband were gready people; if necessary, they part easy with their money. But it wouldn’t have been reasonable in their position with so many children not to permanently think about their pecuniary situation.

Glückel’s autobiography also reflects political events, for example several wars which affected the life of the family or of friends and business partners. A particularly happy moment is the participation of the Prussian Crown Prince as a guest at the wedding of one of her children. I found it also extremely interesting to read about how much the Jews in Germany were affected by the appearance of the “false messiah” Sabbatai Zevi who was Glückel’s contemporary, although he lived far away, in the Ottoman Empire.

Another aspect of Glückel’s writing that I find fascinating are her descriptions of her or her husband’s traveling. As already mentioned, traveling was no fun, especially for Jews. And there were pirates, robbers, or marauding soldiers all over the place. (One of the rare funny moments in the autobiography is also related to a travel experience; it involves a good servant of Glückel who got a drinking problem – but I will not give away the story here.) Hamburg saw several pandemics at Glückel’s time, most notoriously the plague which spread a fear of visitors from Hamburg all over Germany for many years, a fear for which Glückel gives us readers also a very disturbing example in her autobiography.

The book is also rich in descriptions of Jewish life, the importance of community life and of celebrating the big feasts together. All in all this book was an interesting and touching reading experience, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

A word about the manuscript: Glückel wrote the manuscript in Hebrew script and in Western Yiddish language. Western Yiddish is even closer to Standard German than its Eastern Yiddish variation. The original text reads like an archaic German with plenty of Hebrew loan words; grammar, syntax and about 90% of the vocabulary are German.

The original manuscript was passing within the family from generation to generation; the first publication was issued in 1896 in Yiddish; Bertha Pappenheim, a descendant of Glückel – readers of the book Studies on Hysteria by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud know her as Anna O., one of the most famous case studies in the history of psychoanalysis – , translated the book 1910 in German for a non-public edition that was circulated in the family; in 1913 a second German edition followed, this time for a general audience. Since that time also translations in other languages (also two times in English) have been published.

A truly fascinating autobiography!


The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln, transl. by Marvin Lowenthal, Schocken Books 1987

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A very special book sign

You can say what you want. Those people in the Vienna Libraries are really innovative!

And since some of you may still look for a suitable Christmas gift for a beloved one, I think the special book sign for Paulo Coelho books is a brilliant idea for those souls who read this author, isn’t it? 


“Speibsackerl” – the Austrian German sounds so much nicer than the Standard German “Brechtüte”…

© Büchereien Wien, 2015
© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.