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Q&A with Festival Neue Literatur’s Ross Benjamin

By Jessie Chaffee

Words without Borders spoke with Festival Neue Literatur curator Ross Benjamin about FNL’s seventh annual celebration of German-language literature from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, which will take place from February 25–28 in New York City. 

Words without Borders: How does Festival Neue Literatur differentiate itself from other literary festivals?

Ross Benjamin: FNL is the only US festival to showcase literature originally written in German. At the same time, it’s transnational, featuring authors from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and organized by cultural institutions of those countries in a collaboration that highlights the plurality within their shared language. All the events are held in English in New York City, where the German-language writers are joined by US authors. This year we have Vea Kaiser and Xaver Bayer from Austria, Sibylle Berg and Pedro Lenz from Switzerland, Iris Hanika and Christopher Kloeble from Germany, and Jenny Offill and James Hannaham from the US. Intercultural exchange is in the festival’s DNA, as is translation. FNL offers English-speaking audiences a glimpse of what’s happening now in a literary culture with tendencies, concerns, tensions, and contradictions that diverge from and intersect with our own.

WWB: Festival participants include German-language authors, translators of other languages, and US writers and publishing professionals. Why do you feel it is important to include this variety of voices in a festival dedicated to German literature?

RB: One of the premises of FNL is that opening the lines of communication between different literatures invigorates our cultural life. Bringing in voices from even beyond German-language literature is an extension of that core principle. If you’re trying to counter Anglo-American parochialism, it’s not sufficient merely to champion some other literature in isolation, since that just reproduces a notion of walled-off, inward-directed cultures. Far from reinforcing cultural boundaries, we want to draw attention to what German-language literature has to offer in a way that helps dissolve those boundaries.

WWB: The theme of this year’s festival is Seriously Funny, and several events will focus on the use and power of humor in literature. Can you speak a bit about why you selected this theme?

RB: Partly, I wanted to counter a certain stereotype of German literature and culture as particularly humorless, grim, or heavy. But I didn’t want to just say, “Look, German writers can be funny too,” though, in my view, the writing featured in the festival does illustrate that point. Beyond that, however, I wanted to bring to light currents of literary humor that might be less immediately apparent to our American sensibilities. These have little to do with the anesthetic humor of escapist entertainment. On the contrary, the title Seriously Funny is intended to emphasize humor that confronts and navigates serious and difficult themes. I suspect that we might have something to learn about this strain of humor from the German-language literary tradition, in which what’s funny—for example, in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth, or Thomas Bernhard—has so often been inseparable from the urgent quandaries and complexities of human existence. By bringing to the fore this dimension of the German-language writing presented in the festival, we can also illuminate how prominently it figures in the work of the participating American authors.   

WWB: How does the theme relate to the work of the eight showcased authors?

RB: In the work of all eight authors, humor is found less in this or that funny line or moment—though there are plenty of those too—than in the authors’ overall way of seeing and depicting the world. Christopher Kloeble unearths the dark secrets of a Bavarian family’s history; Iris Hanika explores the breakdown of meaning in post-Wall Berlin; Pedro Lenz tells the story of a Swiss ex-con trying to find his place in the world; Vea Kaiser satirizes provincial life in an isolated Austrian mountain village; Sibylle Berg and Jenny Offill portray marriages in crisis; Xaver Bayer blurs the boundaries between the inner and outer world in a series of at once quotidian and surreal prose miniatures; and James Hannaham chronicles a Southern black family torn apart by racism, drug addiction, and human trafficking. These writers reveal profound truths by conveying funny or absurd aspects of human predicaments and relationships, and show how laughter can be a response to pain, suffering, and trauma. 

WWB: This is the seventh annual Festival Neue Literatur. How has FNL evolved over the last seven years and what distinguishes this year’s programming from previous editions?

RB: This is my first year as curator of FNL, but I have a sense of some pivotal moments in its development. One such moment was the addition of the Friedrich Ulfers Prize, now in its fourth year. Endowed by the renowned scholar for whom it’s named, the prize is awarded at the festival’s opening ceremony to someone who has made significant contributions to German-language literature in the US. With this year’s recipient, the brilliant and acclaimed translator and professor Burton Pike, we’re recognizing someone from outside the publishing profession for the first time, an important step in celebrating the variety of people who advance German-language literature in the English-speaking world. Another way the festival has evolved is in the selection of the authors. In the beginning they were typically up-and-coming writers who hadn’t yet been translated into English. Over the years it has become more of a mix of translated and non-translated, emerging and established writers (this year, for example, Christopher Kloeble’s and Pedro Lenz’s novels have already been published in English translation). This has allowed us to present a wider array of voices.

Last year, under the curatorship of Tess Lewis, FNL introduced an event devoted to the art of translation that consisted of editor/translator pairs from various languages. This year we’ve branched out to explore even more facets of the process of bringing translated works into English-speaking culture. The panel will include German writer Daniel Kehlmann, who will be talking about his relationship with his translator, the recently deceased Carol Brown Janeway­, who won the first Ulfers Prize; the trio of Mexican novelist Álvaro Enrigue, his translator Natasha Wimmer, and their US editor Laura  Perciasepe; and Italian author Elena Ferrante’s translator Ann Goldstein and the New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman, who has written on Ferrante’s novels and other works in translation.

Bob Weil (2015 Friedrich Ulfers prize recipient), Friedrich Ulfers, and Ross Benjamin

WWB: Magazines like Words without Borders and festivals like Festival Neue Literatur are committed to introducing international literature to an American audience. One of the challenges is to reach readers beyond those already interested in “literature in translation.” How does FNL strive to reach a broader audience and how do you feel those of us committed to this work can most can effectively incorporate foreign literature in American literary life?

RB: I’m hoping the theme of this year’s festival is something that will arouse more people’s curiosity and interest. The involvement of celebrated American writers—including the moderators of the panel discussions, Siri Hustvedt and John Wray—alongside previously unknown German-language authors might attract people and also give them some orientation, almost the way an online bookseller recommendation works: “If you enjoyed Jenny Offill, you might also like Sibylle Berg;” “If you enjoyed James Hannaham, you might also like Xaver Bayer;” and so on. As the festival has evolved, we’ve also tried to engage people through social media. A few years ago, for example, we began working with Twitter sensation Eric Jarosinski, whose feed, @NeinQuarterly, has been lauded for comically and compellingly resuscitating the German tradition of philosophical aphorism for the twenty-first century, and who creates witty postcards for the festival. This year we’ve added podcaster Gil Roth, who is featuring FNL participants on his Virtual Memories Show.

There are formidable hurdles for literature in translation in American culture, and the ongoing development of effective techniques for disseminating and promoting it is important. But there is also an existing audience and appetite for it with the potential to grow, which we can cultivate by maintaining a commitment to making work of great caliber and significance available.

All Festival Neue Literatur events are free. Register for events at Eventbrite and follow the conversation @FestNeueLit and #srslyfunnyFNL.

Ross Benjamin is a translator of German-language literature living in Nyack, New York. He received a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on the first English translation of Franz Kafka’s complete, unexpurgated Diaries, to be published by Liveright/Norton. His previous translations include Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperion, Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew, Joseph Roth’s Job, and Clemens J. Setz’s IndigoHe was awarded a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship for Translation, the 2010 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for his rendering of Michael Maar’s Speak, Nabokov, and a commendation from the judges of the 2012 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for his translation of Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a DogHis literary criticism has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, The Nation, and other publications. He was a 2003-2004 Fulbright Scholar in Berlin and is a graduate of Vassar College.

Published Feb 25, 2016   Copyright 2016 Jessie Chaffee

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