Judging books by their covers: Herta Müller in translation

Since Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in 2009, there have been a whole host of re-issues, new publications and translations of her writing. It’s fascinating to see how the books are now being marketed (aside from the ubiquitous stickers saying ‘Nobel Prize winner’, of course), and what their cover images say about the writing inside.

Hanser’s handsome hardback versions have minimal images and muted colour schemes. I particularly like the architectural street view and blue wash on their version of Müller’s 1989 Berlin novel, Reisende auf einem Bein: the focus is on the plane in the sky, with its intimations of departures and arrivals. In the novel, the sky above the city – a frequent theme in texts set  in Berlin – is both a reminder of division and suggests the potential to cross boundaries.

Fischer’s paperbacks have a set of surreal botanical close-ups and sculptures (such as an aubergine standing on forks, for the novel Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger). Mildly reminiscent of Müller’s collages, with their mutilated, out-of-proportion bodies, animals and fruit, they also draw on imagery from the texts, as in the plums selected for the novel Herztier: an odd choice perhaps, but the English title of the book is The Land of Green Plums, and the plums feature as a motif within the text. It’s hard not to conclude that the English title may have had an influence here – similarly, the new Hanser hardback version of the same novel looks rather reminiscent of the Granta paperback edition of the English translation by Michael Hofmann (which won the Impac Dublin prize). It’s a far cry from Rowohlt’s early paperback version with its stylised, barely recognisable graphic of a heart and animal eyes (the German title literally means ‘heart-animal’), in eye-popping blue and red.

Yesterday I got sidetracked from more worthy lines of research into looking at images of Müller’s last novel, Atemschaukel (literally: Breath-Swing), in various translations. It’s hard to believe that these are all the same novel:

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In order from left to right, these are: German (Hanser), Romanian, trans. Alexandru Al. Sahighian (Humanitas), French, trans. Claire de Oliveira (Gallimard), Galician, trans. Marga do Val (Edicións Xerais de Galicia), Portuguese, trans. Carola Saavedra (Dom Quixote), and Dutch, trans. Ria van Hengel (De Geus).

Let me know in the Comments section what you think of them! personally I prefer the German and Galician versions (which are in a similar vein: indeed, my preference may well be influenced by having read the German version first). The Portuguese strikes me as too modern a design for a text set some 60 years ago and too graphic a representation, although it’s appropriate subject matter. The Romanian is certainly dramatic, with that stark black background and the bullfinch, but to me it doesn’t match the text. And the French I’m afraid I find too pretty for what is a rather gruelling, if literary, text (the Galician verges on that too, with the mist and the pale pink), and the Dutch one is just rather dull.

Aside from the very different imagery, the Portuguese title also stands out: it is the only one not to translate the German (relatively) literally, and it takes the same quotation (from the first line of the novel) as the English version, Everything I Possess I Carry With Me, due out early 2012. (You can read Donal McLaughlin’s translation of the first chapter here in the meantime.) Just as book covers are intended to arouse expectations of content, genre, style, mood, so too do their titles create expectations in the reader. Does a novel become a different book when the title changes? when it is translated? when it gains a new cover image? insofar as all of these have the potential to alter the dynamic of the interaction between reader and text, perhaps the answer is yes.

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4 thoughts on “Judging books by their covers: Herta Müller in translation

  1. I prefer the Galician cover, myself. That’s the one I’d be most likely to pick up at the bookstore. I had to knock out the German and Portuguese because I’m not usually a fan of people on covers.

    1. The figure on the Portuguese cover look slightly familiar – maybe it’s just that haunted look – which makes me wonder if they have actually used a photo from a different time/place/camp (I really doubt there were colour photographs of the gulags). If you’re going to purport to render the book’s setting, I think you do have to be accurate – as it is, I’m rather distracted by wondering where the photo actually came from.

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