The Danish newspaper Information has printed a number of articles discussing the German edition of my novel ‘The Woman at 1000°,’ which was published in Danish last month. The German version is 30 some chapters shorter than the Icelandic (and the Danish) one. The articles accuse me of caving in to “censorship” by my German publisher, regarding Nazi-related episodes. Erik Skyum-Nielsen, the literary critic at Information, and a long time translator of Icelandic literature, has now written no less than four articles about this affair.
The story is this: My German publisher wanted to have a new book by me ready for the Frankfurt Book Fair 2011 when Iceland was the guest of honor. This was a big occasion of course. To be on the safe side, translation work started before I had finished writing the whole thing. But when the translator had finished the first half, it was already 400 pages in German. (A text in German is always longer than it is in Icelandic.) The publisher worried that the book would end up being 800 pages long. Even I thought that would be too long. After some discussion we agreed that an editor would start making cuts to the German text, to shorten the book.
But two weeks before print, 150 pages remained to be translated. Some SOS phone calls were made and it was decided that I should make some heavy cuts towards the ending, in the text that remained to be translated. This was the only way to have the book published in time for the Book Fair. So it was with great stress and sadness that I set out to cut a chapter here and a chapter there, and to build a bridge between the remaining ones. It was a terrible job, but I did my best to save the core and trim just the fat.
These are the two main reasons why the German edition is shorter than the Icelandic one, plus of course the fact that I had an extra two months to work on the Icelandic version.
The cuts that were made were in no way done for political reasons. When you cut 30 chapters from a book that is 60% about WWII some of them will inevitably be about Hitler and Nazism. Therefore it is possible to scream “censorship!” but to do so in the year 2013 is not only absurd, but also a very serious accusation.
In a quick phone-interview with Information I got a chance to explain my side of this affair. There I mentioned a chapter about Hitler that was cut for sensitivity reasons. This is chapter 49 in the Icelandic and Danish versions, titled “Birthday Boy.” After digging through my pile of emails from 2011, I found the reason for this sensitivity. The chapter is one big metaphor, describing Hitler as the loneliest man in the world, who turned all of Germany into his own birthday party where everybody had to salute him by his name. In the end he “drowned in his own loneliness.” My German editor advised me not to keep this chapter; in Germany it could be seen as showing sympathy for Hitler, excusing his actions out of his loneliness. This comment came as a surprise to me, but as I said in the interview, I did not know the exact score of the Hitler debate in today’s Germany, so on this matter I had to trust my German editor.
It’s possible to call this “censorship,” but not at all in the sense that Erik Skyum-Nielsen does. Never during this process did I experience that the Germans tried to soften my tone on Germany’s actions in the war. On the contrary, I was happy to see that the most hard-core chapters on the Führer were saved. And I consider it one of the sweetest moments in my writing career when a German guy called from the audience at my reading at Literturhaus Kiel, begging for the chapters about “Halb Hitler” to be read. To be able to write such “outrageous” things about Nazism, Hitler and his father, and have them translated, published and read in German is quite rewarding for an Icelandic author.
Erik Skyum-Nielsen’s accusations of me caving in to censorship and “pleasing” my German publishers are totally unfounded. To bring forth such accusations in the year 2013 is both unbelievable and outrageous. Accusing a German publishing house of Hitler-censoring in the 21st Century is an even more serious matter.