Five Novels I’ve Read Translated from German

I’m sure it’s a statement of the obvious for more seasoned readers of translated fiction but I’ve learned to check the translator’s name when choosing what to read. Out of the five novels below, Cover imagefour are translated by particular favourites of mine – two by Charlotte Collins and two by Jamie Bulloch – although I’m beginning with Margot Bettauer Dembo whose name I’m sure I’d add to that list of favourites if I could track down more translations by her. Each of the five are linked to my review.

All three books I’ve read by Judith Hermann are characterised by the delicacy of their writing but my favourite is Letti Park, a collection of short stories, some just a few pages long. Memories are examined, epiphanies are experienced, encounters with strangers or people from characters’ pasts quietly change lives. Much is left unsaid, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions: a man mentions video footage of a trip taken with a friend; a woman observes the controlling behaviour of the partner of someone who was once lively and in charge of their life. It’s a fine collection, thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life is the book that sent Charlotte Collins to the top of my translators’ list. There’s something Cover image for A Whole Life by Robert Seethalervery attractive about a slim novel which encapsulates the life of an ordinary person, someone whose life might well be judged narrow by those who stride across the world’s stage but which turns out to be rich and well lived. Andreas Egger leaves his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia. Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he’s a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the twentieth century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s experience.

Cover image for The End of Loneliness by Benedict WellsBenedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness, my second Collins translation, is about an altogether more complicated life. Forty-one-year-old Jules is in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident and looking back over his life. In 1984 his parents were killed in a car crash. Each of their three children deal with their loss differently: Liz takes to promiscuity and drugs; Marty loses himself in study and Jules becomes a dreamer, trying his hand at all sorts of work but unable to settle at anything. Narrating his novel through Jules’ voice, Wells explores grief and death with empathy and compassion neatly avoiding the maudlin while facing what many of us might prefer to avoid contemplating.

In Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back Adolf Hitler wakes up withCover image for Look Who's Back by Timor Vermes a dreadful headache, bemused to find that it’s August 30th 2011. He’s at a loss to know what’s happened but before long he has his own TV show. The trouble is, nobody quite gets it: they think he’s particularly edgy stand-up comic, he thinks he’s launching a campaign to restart National Socialism. Satire can often go horribly wrong but Vermes carries it off beautifully, chucking lampoons in all directions and almost always managing to hit his mark. Horribly plausible, Hitler spends much of his time in a state of furious astonishment at the idiocy of the modern world. Hats off to translator Jamie Bulloch, not just for an excellent translation but also for adding a short essay on the German historical and political context for the novel.

My fifth choice is also translated by Bulloch and also has an eye on the past. One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century is renowned German playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s first novel. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border Cover image for On Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the 21st Century by Roland Schimmelpfennigbetween Poland and Germany. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t. This carefully constructed intricate piece of fiction offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one: Tomasz is an economic migrant, uncomfortable in Berlin and longing for home; the ageing remaining occupants of the apartment block he’s helping to gentrify in the old east Berlin are determined not to be ousted; Elisabeth’s mother bitterly resents her ex-husband for thwarting her artistic career while Micha’s father has taken to drink in the face of economic decline. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by his novella’s fragmented structure in which deftly handled coincidences abound.

Any books translated from German you’d like to recommend?

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29 thoughts on “Five Novels I’ve Read Translated from German”

  1. The Book of Words by Jenny Erpenbeck, after which you will become hooked and read everything she has ever published (except for Go, Went, Gone which I did not like as much as her other works (

    Everything by Thomas Bernhard.

    I also recommend “an Untouched House” by Willem Frederik Hermans (, and Chess Story and Magellan, my personal favorites by Stefan Zweig.

    Finally, for whoever is into 20th Century German literature, anything and everything by Thomas Mann who is in a category of his own (I recommend the James Wood translations whenever available). The Thomas Mann Everest was for me “Joseph and his Brothers”. What a monumental masterpiece (

    Sorry for going overboard with my recommendations, just couldn’t stop, and there are many more.

    1. Please don’t apologise! Recommendations are always welcome here. I’ve enjoyed the Erpenbecks I’ve read, particularly The End of Days, but haven’t yet read The Book of Words. The Untouched House is a chilling little masterpiece but the others are new to me. Thanks so much.

  2. I’ve read Look Who’s Back and I adored A Whole Life. The other three all sound very tempting! I also look out for Jamie Bulloch and Charlotte Collins. I’ve not heard of Margot Bettauer Dembo so thank you for pointing her out too.

  3. Charlotte came to HomePlace before Covid along with Frank Wynne and Daniel Hahn and it was so interesting to hear them talk about their processes. Since that I’ve been meaning to read The End of Loneliness. I adored A WHole Life.

    1. Oh, me, too, and I”m sure you’d enjoy The End of Loneliness That sounds like a brilliant event, Cathy. I’ve read translations by both Wynne and Hahn and enjoyed them.

  4. The cover on the Hitler book–nailed it! I’d recommend All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski, translated by Anthea Bell. I gave it 4.5The Vintage Springtime Club by Beatrice Meier, translated by Simon Pare. I reviewed both on my blog.

    1. Thanks – I remember an outpouring of love for Anthea Bell when she died recently.

      The Vermes is a little overlong but other than that I’d heartily recommend it. Altogether horribly believable, even more so now, almost a decade since it was published here.

  5. I remember enjoying the Schimmelpfennig a lot – and like you I love Jamie Bulloch’s translations. I’ve still not managed to read Timur Vernes – I will search my copy out at make it one of the 20 Books of summer.

    1. The Schimmelpfennig is so cleverly put together, isn’t it. Must have presented a few challenges while translating it. I’ll look out for your Vermes review. I read it before the Trump presidency. It’ll be interesting to see what you make of it having lived through that.

  6. Judith Hermann’s short stories sound good as does A Whole Life. Look Who’s Back is the one that sounds most memorable, satire can be hard to get right, it sounds like the author did a good job here.

    1. He did, and it was a very risky way to approach the subject. The novel was a bestseller in Germany, apparently. Both the Seethaler and the Hermann are delights. Highly recommend them.

  7. Ooh, I’m reading a Charlotte Collins right now! I haven’t read a lot of translations from German so I didn’t take much notice of her name. The book is The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili and it’s very good so far.

  8. I think I’m out on a bit of a limb in being one of the few readers that didn’t click with the Seethaler, despite my fondness for this type of fiction. Have you read Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, by any chance? It’s not a translation, but it does something similar by aiming to convey a whole life in a slim novel. The degree of compression is remarkable. Well worth a look if you haven’t read it already.

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