"Funny foreign stuff"

The translator Michael Hulse on Herta Müller, the Nobel Prize and world literature

The Swedish Academy's decision this month to award the Nobel Prize for Literature to Herta Müller generated an enormous quantity of debate on both sides of the Atlantic.

Müller, a Romanian-born German novelist, has remained relatively unknown in English-speaking literary spheres for her entire, three-decades-spanning career. Indeed, only four (or five, depending on who you ask) of her novels have been translated into English, and even Harold "How To Read and Why" Bloom reportedly reacted to the choice with the following: "Nothing to talk about, because I have never heard of this writer." So it was inevitable that a number of familiar questions would be asked once again: are the Nobel Committee's decisions too deliberately obscure, too Eurocentric, too overtly political? What is the prize still good for, 108 years after it was first awarded?

I decided to put those questions -- and others -- to Michael Hulse, a man better qualified to answer them than most. Hulse is a poet and academic who has translated, from the original German into English, two novels by the 2004 Nobel Laureate, Elfriede Jelinek, and one of Herta Müller's, as well as work by the likes of Goethe and Rilke. His responses were fascinating:

One assumption is that some people who have got the prize are obscure. Obscure to whom, though? Herta Müller sparked off from a Polish colleague a very enthusiastic email to me -- he's read all of her novels, in Polish translation. So in Poland, for example -- and this could be replicated throughout Europe -- she is very well known. There is a big cultural issue behind this, which is the pitiful record of the English-speaking world in translating other literatures and paying deep, real, serious attention to the literatures of the rest of the world. What happens in practice is that just one or two writers make it through the sieve -- all the others are considered too cumbersome and culture-specific, and they're not translated. Then people are in their comfort zone: they don't want to do this funny foreign stuff.

Hulse's opinion of this year's Nobel Laureate is interesting, too:

It's sort of a miracle, I think, that Herta Müller was translated at all. I have to say that I personally may not rate her as the most extraordinary of German-languagewriters or of writers around Europe, so I might myself question the award to her, in spite of having translated a book of hers, on grounds of merit. I do admire, though, the tenacity with which she went at the substantial -- and familiar -- problems of people trying to lead ordinary, civilised lives under the pressures of obdurate, anti-human regimes.

He suggests that the notion of "excellence" of itself justifies the existence of the prize, and argues that "serious interests, and writing about them in a serious way" must be celebrated. He was also highly complimentary about the Swedish Academy, with which he worked a decade ago, describing its members as "quite extraordinary [and] deeply informed". Does this mean he endorses the recent suggestion of the current chairman of the Nobel Literature Committee, Per Wästberg, that Sweden's own cultural status, at once inside and outside the European literary tradition, gives him and his colleagues a unique vantage point from which to judge literary merit? Hulse rejects this out of hand:

I think the location of the Academy is a historical accident. I don't think there's any profound difference in Sweden that gives it a special status on the fringes. I wouldn't want to go down that road, because I don't think it's right. I think there are issues to do with whether it is a European prize. The Academy has to be conscious, of course, of pursuing excellence wherever it finds it. But does the fact that Herta Müller is European disqualify her? There's a different way of looking at this: the warnings about oppressive and inhuman totalitarian regimes which are at the core of her writing need to be resounded for every generation, and we need to have people who've written about that back in the forefront.

He does allow, however, that there are parts of the world where the prize "could be said to not be doing its job sufficiently well": Asia, Australia and New Zealand (he mentioned Les Murray and Janet Frame as having "a tremendous claim") and Africa. I suggested that, as Franco Moretti has identified, what we call the "European tradition" is principally an Anglo-French affair. To refer to Müller's success as "just more Eurocentricism" is perhaps to miss the point. Hulse agrees:

The individuality of her background is, of course, important, because being born into that German-speaking minority in Romania gives you a particular take on life. It's remained problematic in the postwar years, and there have been very complicated issues of persecution that have affected that minority. So the individual circumstances of her case, and of the group that she was born into socially, nationally, is of course very important.

Nowadays, Hulse says, "It's assumed that translation and traffic across the national, linguistic and cultural borders can only happen with an EU grant!" So, does he feel a special responsibility translating into English, a language that in many ways rules the world?

It's a deeply responsible task, translation, because you are mediating between two -- or more than two -- cultures. The problem with the English language is that it has emerged as top language. We spoke just earlier about the difficulty of getting things translated into English, and it is a real difficulty. For some minority languages -- Finnish, Danish, Estonian -- they will say, "Well, you complain about a Romanian-German. When was the last time that any of our writers made it into your consciousness?" So there is a serious difficulty there, because I think that the biggest moral responsibility that the English language has, now that it has so plainly and manifestly emerged as the most important and influential language in the world, is to take seriously its role as a disseminator: it should be doing that, it should be translating more. That is where the responsibility lies. It should be doing more to familiarise the world with the less powerful.

Michael Hulse's latest collection of poetry, "The Secret History", has just been published by Arc (£9.99)

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.