Sunday, November 01, 2009

Books I can't read

Oder, so viele Bücher, die ich nicht lesen kann.

This is the scene that greeted me upon entrance to a typical German bookstore. Historical novels everywhere. Some had separate sections labeled "Historiche Romane" (and when's the last time you saw that in an English-language store?) while others had piles and piles of them front and center. This photo comes from a mall store in Nürnberg's old city.

I had always heard that historical fiction was alive and well in Germany, and I now have firsthand proof of it. My two years of college German from 20 years ago were nowhere near sufficient for me to read any of them cover to cover, but I got the gist of the setting and characters from the titles and back cover blurbs.

There was a good selection of novels translated from English and other European languages. Can you spot Judith Merkle Riley's The Water-Devil, Jane Harris's The Observations, and C.J. Sansom's Revelation in the pile, not to mention several by Bernard Cornwell? The majority were, of course, written in German. Next to none will ever be translated into English, and they cover many subjects and settings that simply aren't covered in English-language fiction. There is no market here, apparently, which is very frustrating. So if you want to read a novel set in medieval Würzburg or 17th-century Bavaria, you'd better know how to read German or you're out of luck. And believe me, I'm tempted.

You'll gather that the headless woman trend is doing just as well there as it is here, and most of the novels do seem to have female protagonists; however, in my admittedly limited sampling, the emphasis on royalty isn't nearly as strong.

I know this blog has some German-speaking readers, and I'd love to hear their opinions! I can think of several historical novels written in English that appeared in German long before they were published in the US or UK (or elsewhere)... such as the Riley novel above and Donna Gillespie's Lady of the Light, sequel to The Light Bearer.

So, book shopping wasn't a major component of this trip, unlike my last visit to the UK (when I brought home a suitcase full). But I did do a lot of browsing.

What was I saying about some English-language content appearing first in German translation? Pope Joan, the film based on Donna Woolfolk Cross's bestselling novel of the same title, premiered October 22nd in Germany. You couldn't walk down the streets of of any major city without running into posters. The one at left comes from the Nürnberg Hauptbahnhof (main train station). The novel Die Päpstin was prominently displayed in every bookshop window we saw -- and in multiple sizes and covers.

I knew that the movie had been filmed in English, but the film that was being shown appeared to be in German, so we asked the desk clerk at our Nürnberg hotel and he confirmed it. After some googling around, I discovered that rather than subtitle Hollywood films for German-speaking audiences, the producers dub them into German using voice actors. There's a large foreign film cinema in Nürnberg called the Roxy, and the clerk advised checking there, but they weren't showing it in English -- because the English-language version, the original, hadn't been released yet (edited to say: or so I'd thought -- see comments for an update from a German reader). We could have gone to see the German version but decided to wait until it's available in the States. I hope it will be soon.


  1. the English version of the Pope Joan movie had been released in Germany and I was able to watch it myself (since I hated the dubbed version)

    So far it alread has a distributor for the US but no release date had been set.

  2. Thanks for the update. I had guessed that the version the author saw for the premiere was the English one, but I looked through an online cinema directory and didn't see it playing anywhere else in the cities we visited. I will be patient.

  3. I loved Pope Joan the novel and think it would make a fabulous movie. I'm very impatient for it to premiere in the U.S.

  4. (Sorry for this late response, Sarah).

    I'm delighted that the market for histfict is so strong in Germany, though I'm frustrated that there are so many great novels which never appear in English. One German novelist whose works I really, really wish would be translated into English is Rebecca Gable - some of her novels are set in medieval England and include one about the Wars of the Roses and one about Edward III. Surely there'd be a market for these novels, at least, in English-speaking countries?

  5. Hi, Alianore! I saw many of Rebecca Gablé's novels there... I'd love to be able to read them. The only historical novel I saw, out of the hundreds of them, that already had an English translation was Frank Schatzing's Tod und Teufel/Death and the Devil. I have a copy, but reviews are all over the place. It's staring at me from my bookshelf, but I haven't started it yet.

    I have a renewed appreciation for translators after this trip, that's for sure.

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