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Lucy Jones: “Brigitte Reimann gets under your skin”

We spoke with Berlin-based translator Lucy Jones about translating Brigitte Reimann's DDR novel Siblings in English for the first time.

Photo: Yana Kaziula

Since moving to Berlin in 1998, Lucy Jones has become a regular fixture of Berlin’s English-language writing scene. She ran the Fiction Canteen indie reading night for many years and her literary translations have been published far and wide, as has her own prose work. Recently, she has established herself as the translator – and tireless anglo-sphere advocate – of Brigitte Reimann (1933-1973), a cult DDR author long beloved in both parts of Germany but curiously unknown to English-language readers.

In February, Penguin Modern Classics and Transit Books will publish Jones’s translation of Siblings (Die Geschwister), Reimann’s first work of fiction to appear in English. This moving novel, originally brought out in 1963, narrates one family’s personal and political ruptures after the closing of the German-German border. Reimann is also the author of literary diaries (Seagull), the first volume of which was translated by Jones, as well as the vast unfinished novel Franziska Linkerhand, the story of a promising young architect who experiences trouble in love and her growing frustration with the DDR.

Brigitte Reimann is fascinating and brilliant, but until now, she wasn’t well-known to English readers. How did you first encounter her?

Christa Wolf is a great writer, but Brigitte Reimann takes me onto a totally different emotional plane. She’s angry!

In 2011, I attended a seminar at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, a meet-up for translators, and we visited the Aufbau Verlag as a group. When I met Inka Ihmels, the Foreign Rights editor there, I asked her what she’d recommend to a translator from German, and she said, “Oh my god, Brigitte Reimann, I think she’s the best ever.” And she stuffed me full with every book Reimann had ever written. And that’s how it started.

I then asked Seagull about publishing her diaries: I translated the first volume, and Steph Morris did the second one. It took a long, long time – a lot of research and to-ing and fro-ing. Sometimes I had to put the project on ice for a while. My part came out in 2019. Then Penguin and Transit were showing interest in Reimann’s fiction, both Siblings and Franziska Linkerhand. Siblings was the obvious choice to go with first because it’s shorter, so they could see how readers react to her. But already, even before publica- tion, the response to Siblings has been very enthusiastic.

Reimann’s diaries in particular give the impression of an intoxicating personality. Do you feel she’s been accompanying you, imprinting on you, throughout these years?

Yes! I call her my invisible flatmate – my invisible alcoholic flatmate, hanging around in my kitchen with a bottle of vodka and a smoke. And I’ve definitely felt like I’ve been channeling her. Both me and Steph – and the Spanish translator who’d been working on Franziska Linkerhand, who when I met him had these massive rings under his eyes (laughs) – we all said, “Christ, she’s controlling us all from the other side.” Reimann gets under your skin. She is very charismatic. And I’m really happy that Penguin have now said they’re interested in Franziska Linkerhand, because I’ve loved it ever since I read it in 2012. But now, having followed her for such a long time, I’ve got access to so many more layers of the book.

Are there any particular challenges to translating Reimann’s work?

She’s been described as somebody who wants to write about everything all at once. So she does very strange things with tenses, and she piles layer upon layer upon layer. In Siblings, she has this extended flashback – a flashback within a flashback – and I had a lot of discussions with the amazingly talented copyeditor from Penguin about what to do there.

Franziska Linkerhand jumps between first and third person, it jumps in tense between past and present, and it’s all addressed to her lover. I personally think that you can cope with all of that as a reader if the writing is compelling enough, so I don’t think there’s any problem with that. And in any case, that’s how she wrote it, and I’m the translator, so it’s my job.

What do you find so compelling in the style – what draws you to her writing?

Oh, it’s her voice! She has this incredibly captivating way of telling stories. She can take you into a panoramic view of a situation; she moves around with great agility. And she’s able to inject the right amount of scepticism, too, with quite a modern sense of humour.

Siblings had the editor at Penguin in stitches at one point. It’s not what you’d expect from a book written in the 1960s in East Germany, with that very deadpan humour and funny one-line answers. Reimann really doesn’t play by the rules – just as her characters don’t play by the rules. They’re always questioning and undermining authority.

I call her my invisible flatmate – my invisible alcoholic flatmate, hanging around in my kitchen with a bottle of vodka and a smoke

Is that what made her stand out, this willingness to stick her neck out?

I think that’s what saved her from being written off as somebody who didn’t really question the Party line for such a long time. I dispute that reputation anyway, because she did question the Party and she really did put herself out there at times. And she died early, in 1973.

Look at all these German writers; they absolutely adore her. Because she has a certain set of values. When you say Reimann, they think of these values. She’s never boring – she’s literally the opposite of boring – and yet she represents this idea of socialism that ultimately proved not to work out, but which, at that moment in history, seemed like a really good idea, especially compared to what had just happened.

Generationally, she has a lot in common with Christa Wolf, but they seem to have very different vibes…

Yeah, what she is trying to do is completely different. Christa Wolf is a great writer, but Brigitte Reimann takes me onto a totally different emotional plane. She’s angry! I am always attracted to complex female characters, especially if they’re angry – and funny. I suspect it’s a conduit for my own anger.

Like most girls, I grew up reading stories that featured boys as the protagonists and agents of action. The female characters felt one-sided, very well-behaved, very limited, like foils to the male characters, and I got used to gender-swapping myself into the male characters who were usually getting to do all the interesting stuff. So it feels very liberating to inhabit the world of female characters who are not playing by the rules, who break away from expectations, who get things wrong and are transgressive. I think that applies to all the protagonists in the books I’ve translated.

It’s not what you’d expect from a book written in the 1960s in East Germany, with that very deadpan humour and funny one-line answers

You’ve talked about Reimann’s humour. Does that pose a particular challenge for the translator?

I mean, I have to say what I’ve translated aloud, and try it out on other people. I might test a line or two on real-life people around a dinner table. When David Sedaris does a reading, he’ll draw a skull in the margin if nobody laughs, and then he’ll edit the joke out, because it didn’t work. Something could look great to you on the page, but then it’s dead in the water when you say it aloud.

I think anger and humour lie very close together. Like humour is the coping mechanism of anger (laughs). We can run around the streets shouting at each other – and I have been known to do that, I did that today to somebody – but I’d much rather share a joke with them, you know?

I think that’s what Reimann does in her writing: she makes humour possible, even when she’s describing disturbing things. She pushes the boundary. I think that’s probably why she didn’t live very long, because she just didn’t accept things, you know? She put all the energy she had into every situation.

BIO: Lucy Jones studied German and Film in her native England and worked as a photographer for several years before delving into literature. Next to writing her own fiction, she has published translations by authors including Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Anke Stelling and Silke Scheuermann.