Editor Charlotte Ryland and acting editor Jen Calleja discuss the last – and next – twenty years of the magazine.
Jen Calleja: When did you begin editing NBG and what interested you in the role initially? Has your focus changed over time?
Charlotte Ryland: Being appointed to edit NBG in autumn 2009 was a bit of a dream-come-true for me. I was working full-time in academia, having recently finished a doctorate in German literature, but was becoming aware that an academic career wasn’t for me. I was keen instead to get involved in some sort of outreach work – to spend more time talking to people, basically – and to do more journalistic writing alongside my academic research. I must admit that, having spent ten years in the world of German Studies, I knew relatively little about contemporary German literature, and I was genuinely surprised by the quality of the books that I started to encounter. I also had no idea what a vibrant community I was about to join – the world of literary translation – and I guess my focus since has been influenced by that community. I’d only been in the job a year when I set up our ‘Emerging Translators Programme’, which is one of the things that I’m most proud of.
JC: It feels like such a significant achievement that NBG has been going for twenty years, what’s its life-blood (apart from the editor that is)?
CR: This is an easy one. NBG has an incredible support network, and is a great example of successful international cooperation. We are supported financially and in other ways by a wonderful set of partners from Austria, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and the USA, and the collaboration really works. Our steering committee and editorial committees meet regularly and are full of very experienced people who really care about the project and its aims. Add to that the translators, reviewers, writers, designers and many others who support our work in a variety of ways, and you get an impression of the huge number of people working with a common aim. As editor, this means that life is bursting with emails and phone calls, and that can sometimes be overwhelming, but I’m certain that it’s the core of NBG’s success.
What was it like for you, jumping into a project with such a huge network?
JC: Well, having graduated my MA in German Studies only a year previously and having just finished a six month internship at the magazine before you offered me the role I definitely wasn’t prepared for the well-oiled and very serious machine that is NBG. I’d done my own small Anglo-German magazine Verfreundungseffekt before that, but I definitely didn’t have to coordinate committees for it. Or lead annual report meetings. Or stick to any kind of super tight schedule. I mean, we usually have task lists that have to be completed down to the week or more often the day otherwise things can start to slide. I remember being in awe of how positive and enthusiastic all the partners were from the start, and I quickly came to understand how NBG connects up so many people who speak so highly of it.
The magazine was founded out of a real need to get more German-language books published in English translation, and twenty years on it feels like we need it more than ever, would you agree?
CR: Yes! In fact, I don’t really know where to start in responding to that question. The referendum on the UK’s EU membership, and its aftermath, have been such an enormous blow, and it’s hard to see quite where to go next. I would usually say that there is a surfeit of books dealing with Germany’s 20th Century history in English translation – that it doesn’t reflect the wealth of German-language literature out there. But it’s starting to seem that an enormous number of people have already forgotten what happened in the 1930s and 40s, and have completely divorced their understanding of the EU from its founding concepts of peace and community.
How do you think that NBG can best respond to what’s happened this year?
JC: That’s obviously an enormous question – I would say that NBG and projects like it just have to keep going and not doubt for a second that they’re worthwhile and necessary. On bad days it might seem insignificant, but it is ultimately a gesture of being open, tolerant, curious and outward rather than inward looking. Sharing stories and communicating with one another are the most human of compulsions.
What have been your favourite NBG memories or moments? And what have been your greatest challenges?
CR: I’ve been very fortunate to travel to some wonderful literary festivals and gatherings while working for NBG. Leukerbad festival in the Swiss mountains was a particular highlight, as were the ‘Literature Days’ by the Danube in Austria. Spectacular backdrops for encounters with fascinating people – and it’s definitely the people that make the job so enjoyable. Challenges would have to be the enormous work-load and the never-empty inbox – which for a part-time freelance position can be tricky. And most recently, managing the redesign of our print issue was a challenge from which I may never recover. I’m really pleased with the outcome, but I vow never to manage a design committee again.
JC: The new – 40th! – issue has just come out, which we got to edit together. What are your personal highlights?
CR: Flattery aside, it was a genuine highlight to edit it with you! As you know, despite the huge support network, the editor’s job can be rather solitary and there’s certainly a major burden of responsibility for each issue. Sharing that, and having somebody else get to know the project so well, has been fantastic. In terms of this issue’s content, my two highlights are the interview with Anthea Bell – celebrating her 80th birthday – and the piece on the Emerging Translators Programme (ETP) and the NBG internship. Anthea is a wonderful person and working with her on the editorial committee has been a definitely career highlight. She has such a way with the written word, and this comes out beautifully in the interview – you can hear her speaking as you read, and it brings a smile to my lips every time. Just looking at the photos in the ETP piece makes me happy – I’m really pleased with how the programme has developed and with how well so many of the ‘graduates’ have done since then. Working with them all has been a very enriching experience.
And what about your highlights from the past two issues that you’ve edited?
JC: I think from issue 39 – the women’s issue – it would have to be the interview with Karen Duve on feminism: ‘femininity is like a bucket full of jam that gets tipped over your head as a child and then drips down on you throughout your life’. I’m so glad I bothered her publisher for an interview at the last minute. And in our anniversary issue I love the statements from past and present editors and partners for the anniversary spread. I vow to honour Rebecca Morrison’s traditional post-issue vodka and espresso while I’m here at Frankfurt Book Fair. I should probably wait till after all my meetings are done. I think I loved everything in the two issues I edited in 2013-2014 because I was so happy and proud that they got to print and I didn’t ruin everything.
What do you think the project’s greatest achievements have been since your time editing it began and what are your plans for the future?
CR: This question takes me back to the network idea. I think the project has expanded by interacting with other people and organisations, while still retaining its core focus of the twice-yearly magazine and the website. For the past four years we’ve been the media partner of the German Book Prize, publishing all the English material for the shortlisted authors, which has been a great development, and we’ve worked hard to expand our virtual presence through social media and the newly revamped website. Now that NBG is twenty, I’m keen to explore new avenues, particularly with a view to new collaborations. There are a huge number of organisations now that work to promote literatures in other languages, and we all share the single aim of bringing more literature in translation into the English-speaking world. I think that we can better achieve that aim by working together, and look forward to making that happen in the years to come.