Mainstream Is A Dirty Word

In Conversation with translator Amanda DeMarco about her recent projects and boredom with German literature.

When I rang at Amanda DeMarco’s workspace in Neukölln, she came out with a handful of books and immediately led me to a busy café a few meters away. There, she stacked the books—Gaston de Pawlowski’s “Inventions nouvelles et dernières nouveautés”, Franz Hessel’s “Walking in Berlin” and Marcus Steinweg’s “The Terror of Evidence”—on the windowsill, within reach.

Amanda DeMarco: „Inventions nouvelles et dernières nouveautés“ is a catalogue of absurd imaginary inventions from 1916 that I’m working on translating. It was written by Gaston de Pawlowski in the middle of World War I, and it’s the idea that consumer projects that were being developed and innovated and then marketed are worse than the original things that they describe. The classic example would be soap with spikes so that you can’t drop it in the shower. It’s a book of dumb jokes that make fun of the idea of progress and technology, and whether our life is really improved by innovation, which proves to be quite relevant.

As for other projects, The MIT Press recently bought translation rights to a bunch of philosophy books from Matthes & Seitz and is releasing them over the next couple of years, and I’m working on several of them. Philosophy is really a lot of fun. I feel like I’m doing puzzles all day long. It’s intellectually stimulating, and it’s also refreshing going from a literary work to a very literary work of philosophy. There’s a different emphasis in the text—the weight between content and style for example. One thing I notice is that when I’m translating a novel, I feel a very strong need to endorse it, to endorse everything in it. I wouldn’t translate a novel unless I felt like it was really good. And I also want to translate philosophy books that are really good, but I don’t feel like I have to be responsible for the content in the same way. What’s important to me is to respect the thought, but I don’t need to identify with it in the same way. I want to translate brilliant works of philosophy even if I disagree with them. With a novel, it feels much more personal.

Do you have to remain more closely tied to the language when translating philosophy texts?

I think it’s the nature of argument. There’s this line of thought and you recreate it. It’s very well articulated and delineated. And when you’re translating a literary work, you might be able to summarize what it’s about, but it’s so much more nebulous. It’s hard to establish distance from it. With philosophy there are more definite contours, so it’s easier to have a different sort of relationship to it. I don’t want this to be mistaken for me saying I have less respect for philosophy, or I don’t prefer it. It’s been really interesting to explore how that relationship is different.

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Walter Benjamin is quoted on the cover of “Walking in Berlin”. Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” is an important text for understanding the role of the contemporary translator. Do you agree that a translation is a work in its own right—not secondary to the original work?

I take my work very seriously, and I think translators deserve the upmost respect for their work, but I do not see it that way. I think that there are works that warrant that attitude, but those works are rare. I think that with most books you encounter, if you encounter them with creativity, ingenuity, and deference, you produce something that is secondary to the work and that is not a problem. Depending on the form of the work, there are works whose translation requires a ‘new being’, but based on my own practice, I am rather level-headed about this. As a translator, I have a closer relationship to the original book than anyone who’s reading it, so maybe I’m even more skewed to this original-centric view.

I’m not saying that I don’t give lots of thought to how a new version will have its own life and will be independent. You’re familiar with this in an American context—you put the translator’s name on the book, and you’re sort of elevating the translator to artist—but I think I tend to view my work in a different light.

Do you in turn view yourself as a cultural transmitter?

Yeah, definitely. Sometimes it can feel like the scale is really small, like you’re not reaching that many people. One of my recent translations, “Walking in Berlin”, has done shockingly well. So I feel like I’ve transmitted this little piece of Weimar culture, in a way that I didn’t expect. With a historical work like this it’s a cultural time capsule that you send across.

Are there any books that you are dying to translate?

I would love to translate Sascha Macht’s “Der Krieg im Garten des Königs der Toten”. I get bored of German literature quite often actually. I’ve been here for too long. It’s a good sign that you’ve been somewhere for too long when you get bored of a country’s literature. This is a book that excites me in a way that I haven’t been excited about in a while.

When I say I’m sick of German literature, I mean, you have a relationship with reading that changes over the course of your life and goes through many phases, and some of the phases are not as fun as the other phases. As you develop a relationship with a country’s literature, you go through phases of feeling restricted by it or less in love.

I’m currently in a phase where I’m searching for good, interesting contemporary German literature, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to come across a lot of works. One theory is that a lot of what’s being published is coming out of writing schools, and as a result, a lot of young literature has similar plot lines and writing styles.

I’m always reluctant to lean too heavily on that interpretation. I think the truth is probably that there are very few exceptional things in general. When you arrive in a place, you’re so interested in what’s new—what’s new to you. It takes a while to get a sense for what’s conventional.

And yet when I talked to the Dallas-based publisher Deep Vellum, who publishes only translated literature, about why they hadn’t published any German books, their response was…

They’re boring.


It’s terrible. Shockingly. I think Germany has this very strong middle-brow, bourgeois book culture that propels itself forward. The way the American book market broke down left a lot of room for things that were super smart, super weird, super different and no longer seem so marginal. The center fell in and all of these things that were maybe more towards the edges weren’t…that boring.

Austrians have a little bit better of an attitude towards that. They often sort of cultivate it as a marketing technique. That’s sort of their “thing”. Which is maybe odd at a national level.
But I think a lot of it is the critical culture here, and that so many things are hand sold in shops and depend more on booksellers. But to be honest, it’s completely unhealthy to have a vibrant experimental scene. It indicates that the center has collapsed.

Still, I have the sense that the most interesting things happening in publishing are actually going on in the art scene and with art publishers. This may have a lot to do with funding. Art initiatives simply get funded better than literary publishers.

Right, literature gets treated like a business. This is something that I find very strange. It’s almost because the literary industry here is too strong and the fact that it can fund itself. And it’s another one of the reasons that it tends to be more middle-brow. If literary publishing had the same support as visual arts did here, it would be much more experimental.
In the U.S. we have publishing non-profits, which you don’t have here, so that could very well be another reason.

What are you reading at the moment?

I just got done reading a bunch of books by Can Xue. She’s sort of the leading Chinese experimental novelist. I just read seven novels by her to write a review. I’m also reading Mary Gaitskill. In 1989, she wrote this collection of stories called „Bad Behavior“ about losers in Manhattan—lowlives and drug addicts, psychopaths and masochists. Story after story about people behaving badly, but it’s written in a way that is not trying to be gritty or authentic. It’s just hilarious and real. And her first collection of essays called „Somebody with a Little Hammer“ is about to be out. So I’m re-reading „Bad Behavior“ to better appreciate „Somebody with a Little Hammer“.

It seems like you are rather drawn to subcultures.

I think we’re all fascinated with that nowadays. Mainstream is a dirty word, right? So I don’t think that’s specific to me.


Foto: Anastasia Muna