"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)

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times