Judith Keller studied German language and literature in Zurich as well as literary writing at the Swiss Literature Institute in Biel and the German Literature Institute in Leipzig. Judith Keller’s book Die Fragwürdigen (The Questionable Ones), published in 2017 by Der gesunde Menschenversand, won an award from both the City of Zurich and the Canton of Zurich. Die Fragwürdigen was also performed as a theater production and featured as an audio play for Swiss radio. In 2021, Judith Keller’s experimental novel Oder? (Or?) was published by Der gesunde Menschenversand and in 2022, The Questionable Ones will be published, in English translation by Tess Lewis, by Seagull Books early in 2023. Later next year, Verlag Luchterhand will publish a new novel by Judith Keller.
INTERVIEW WITH JUDITH KELLER
Your residency at Deutsches Haus at NYU was originally planned for 2020, but had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that you're finally here, how does it feel to be back in New York after so many years? What are you most looking forward to doing or visiting in New York City? What are your plans?
It's really a big pleasure to finally be here. I've been here for two and a half weeks. When I came back yesterday from a short visit in Providence I already felt at home when the train arrived in New York. Every day is still full of surprises and just walking along the streets is exciting. I’m mostly looking forward to walking around; seeing and hearing the spirit of the city. And then of course all the cinemas, jazz cellars, readings, museums…restaurants. My plan is to improve my English and to enjoy as much as I can while I’m here.
Many of your texts are short prose and poetry, but you are also involved in writing workshops and theater projects. You have also just published your first translated book in English and written a second novel. What kind of literary projects do you like best and why? And what do you enjoy most about your varied day-to-day life as a writer?
Maybe I like literature most, how it brings us in the moment, into something that seems real, more than in reality. This is the interesting thing about literature. Maybe because reality is full of narratives, not conscious fiction, as if we were actors in a series, without knowing who has written us. In short prose every sentence tells you a lot about the absence of other sentences.
I like that the job of a freelance writer is varied, that it takes you to many people and places, like right now.
And that writing a new literary text always seems like unfamiliar work. You always have to find out anew how it could go, and that includes doubting a lot.
In addition to your literary writing studies in Biel and Leipzig, you also studied German as a foreign language in Berlin and Bogotá. How has this experience affected your perception of your native language? And to what extent has it influenced your writing and perspective?
Being surrounded by languages you do not completely understand helps to reflect the perception we have of our own languages. I especially find the different grammar systems and metaphors interesting. But I think, to write literature, it means in general to take a foreign point of view on language.
Your first book, “Die Fragwürdigen,” contains short stories with lots of wordplay. What inspired you to write your book in this way?
I wanted to make language, even idioms, visible as something in which we settle, which determines our perspective on things. There are idioms like "to pursue a job", which in German has the preposition „nach" in English “after” (einer Arbeit nachgehen) as a fixed preposition. If you understand this fixed idiom literally, it implies that work is always something that runs away from you. One is too slow in the face of it.
Language basically shows us how far we are from things, and how we have settled into it because it is precisely what surrounds us.
Why I have a preference for short stories is a good question too.
I think, the less text there is, the more you can imagine. I think of short stories as a springboard to imagination. I understand it as something that refers to something not yet imagined, outside text, which cannot be grasped with the language.
“Die Fragwürdigen” was recently translated into English by the renowned literary translator Tess Lewis. What was your experience collaborating with the translator like?
We had a very pleasant collaboration. There were only a few questions. Two of the short texts, which worked a lot with sound in German, didn't have any interesting meaning when they were translated and I was happy that Tess Lewis asked me to leave them out or replace them by two newer texts, which we did.
She only called me once, on December 24, and asked about a word she didn't understand because, unbeknownst to me, the word didn't exist. That can happen to you quickly in German. She really needed to know the word because she had to turn in the book the next day. It was an interesting experience for me to be able to redeem her for that Christmas Eve by explaining that word. And I was sorry that I had not answered her earlier.
Then there is a funny anecdote. There is a text called "Vreneli". This is a Schweizerdeutsch [Swiss-German] abbreviation for the female first name "Verena". Tess Lewis didn't know this Swiss-German abbreviation, and when she researched it, she came up with the word "Gold-Vreneli," which is the most famous gold coin in Switzerland that is still collected. Things like that sort themselves out over the phone.
Even the German title “Die Fragwürdigen” and its translation into “The Questionable Ones” are linguistically exciting to consider, as they differ slightly in meaning. What were/are the challenges and remarkable things during the process of translating?
Yes, the adjective "questionable" is made up of two words. On the one hand it contains "the question" and on the other hand the word "worthy". In German, in addition to the more skeptical meaning usually used, the adjective can also have a more positive meaning: something is worthy of the question. This is omitted in English. Nevertheless, I am very happy with the title because the word "questionable" is still there, and used in this way, it also has an open-ended meaning.
Another word that caused trouble in translation was "ausgerechnet". („Warum muss ausgerechnet ich das tun?" would be in English, "Why do I of all people have to do this?" In German, there's an interesting tension there because of the meaning of calculating. The word refers to numbers and the predetermination of fate in a number-determined world. That really didn't translate. So we left it out of the text.
Overall, Tess Lewis has found very good English equivalents.
When you write, do you write specifically for a German-speaking audience? Has that shifted now that one of your books has been translated into another language? Do you feel that the meaning and the wordplay of your texts translates effectively into another language, or is there some aspect of your writing that cannot fully be translated?
There is probably an equivalent in English for most German phrases. In the case of the adjective „ausgerechnet“ there is no English equivalent used. This is the reason why texts that draw their meaning from an examination of the respective hidden metaphor do not always work.
And there can certainly be evidence of sound lost in a translation. Instead, a new sound, which sounds familiar in English, is added. That is why translators are also authors.
In your recently published book “Oder?,” the protagonists take the lead in their story because they feel "badly told." Could you tell us something about your interesting stylistic choices and the process of creating this book and your characters?
The two protagonists in „Oder?" no longer want to be told. They want to free themselves from the plot and write themselves. That's why they set out to find their author, who is somewhere in Greece, steal his notebook, and fill it themselves. For me, this was an interesting way of dealing with myself as an author, because sometimes I feel sorry for my characters that they are only defined by my choices. I'm glad then, when, in writing, another voice fights back and demands alternatives. After all, writing always has a lot to do with possibilities, between which one chooses, while making this choice invisible most of the time. With "Oder?" I was interested in understanding a novel, in a certain sense, as a fanning out of possibilities.
What projects do you plan to work on during your time as writer-in-residence at Deutsches Haus at NYU? What can you share with us at this point?
On the one hand, I'm writing a new collection of short texts I've already drafted and on the other hand, I'm trying to write down everything surprising I experience here. At the moment in the form of diary mail. From these, perhaps, I will be able to extract my own texts again later. Then I will have to work a little on the editing of my novel. But above all, I want to go outside as much as possible and bite into this Big Apple.