While you were sleeping

Germans are crazy about all things Kiwi

NORMAN FRANKE
Last updated 08:42 13/10/2012
TOWERING: An impressive display at the Droemer stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair
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TOWERING: An impressive display at the Droemer stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair

A visitor with the hanging books at the New Zealand stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. The fair is the largest in the world and runs from October 10-14
Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images
A visitor with the hanging books at the New Zealand stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. The fair is the largest in the world and runs from October 10-14

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Waikato University humanities lecturer Norman Franke reports on New Zealand's role at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Fifty years ago, even the most voracious German bookworms would have been hard pressed to name a New Zealand author. These days, major newspapers in Berlin and Frankfurt, but also in Budapest, Prague, Stockholm and Vienna, run whole page articles about famous New Zealand authors like Anthony McCarten and Witi Ihimaera, as well as relative newcomers such as Kate De Goldi and Greg McGee. As guest of honour at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest book and media fair in the world, New Zealand has truly arrived on the global stage of international culture. The guest of honour status also marks the peak of bilateral cultural relations between New Zealand and Germany, a success story that has a distinct Waikato dimension.

The fair is an annual event organised by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association and is the main international gathering of book publishers and multimedia companies. There is a strong focus on negotiating publishing, licensing and translation rights. Last year's German book market alone had a turnover of NZ$15.7 billion. English and German are the main trading languages. This year's fair, from October 10-14, is the biggest yet: more than 7300 exhibitors from more than 100 countries and an expected 300,000 visitors. Guest of honour status has increased the sale of New Zealand titles by more than 500 per cent (more than 80 had been translated into German before the fair started). Visitors to the book fair include Deputy Prime Minister Bill English, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, and the most recent German-writing recipient of the Nobel Literature Prize, Herta Muller.

When Mr Westerwelle and New Zealand Minister of Culture, Art and Heritage Chris Finlayson signed the agreement for the Frankfurt Book Fair in Wellington last year, expectations for cultural transfer and commercial opportunities were high. Sarah Ropata, who co-ordinates the promotion of New Zealand literature for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage promised “a thrilling, entertaining and thought-provoking” event. Many of these expectations have already been exceeded. Under the motto “Wenn es bei euch hell wird” (While you were sleeping), New Zealand is showcasing the breadth and diversity of its literary and cinematographic culture. There are 70 New Zealand artists at the Frankfurt Book Fair. They are involved in readings and discussions, film screenings, exhibitions of contemporary art work and photography, concerts, dance performances and stand-up comedy. Many of the readings and interviews are being broadcast by major European TV and radio channels.

Most activities are centred on the 2300 square metre New Zealand pavilion designed by Waikato-born Andrew Patterson and Inside Out Productions. The pavilion alludes to New Zealand's magical landscape. Surrounded by water and domed by a vast starry sky, at the pavilion's centre is an island on which huge screens and video installations tell the stories of books, films and authors. Like stars, books dangle from the ceiling. Since the pavilion's permanent twilight makes for less than perfect light for reading, those who want to actually read the books are better off seeking out Frankfurt's many cafes and bars. Nonetheless, as a reporter from Hessischen Rundfunk, one of the biggest TV channels in Central Europe said, “This is the greatest landscape outside New Zealand.”

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Germans are crazy about all things Kiwi. New Zealand hosts more tourists from Germany than from any other European Union country apart from Britain. At New Zealand universities, including the University of Waikato, German-speaking students make up the largest contingent of international students from Europe.

Within the last 20 years more New Zealand books have been translated into German and more dubbed versions of New Zealand films have been shown in Germany than anywhere else in Europe. In a densely populated industrialised country, the prospect of empty beaches and walks in unspoilt bush conjures up visions of paradise.

There are two types of Germans - those who have already been to New Zealand and those who are saving up to come. It is not just New Zealand's clean green image that attracts visitors from Cologne and Dresden. A growing number of visitors combine the chance to be close to nature with cultural tourism. The national museum, Te Papa, in Wellington and the new Auckland Art Gallery are huge attractions. In the Waikato, Sir Peter Jackson's take on Tolkien's Middle-earth - Hobbiton, near Matamata - is the ultimate magnet. And on a warm summer evening in Raglan's Bow Street, chances are you'll also hear some German voices.

There are other reasons for New Zealand's great popularity in German-speaking Europe. As Jim Bade's two volume book German Connection points out, historically, German-speaking immigrants are the second largest European immigrant community in New Zealand. It is no coincidence that this book, which comprises essays by expert New Zealand scholars, appeared both in English and German editions (Oxford University Press, Edition Temmen).

Many contemporary Germans develop an interest in New Zealand through films and books. Since 2001, the New Zealand writer in residency scheme in Berlin has familiarised audiences in the German capital with texts by such outstanding New Zealand writers as Sarah Quigley, Tina Shaw, Kapka Kassabova, Philip Temple, Tim Corballis, Lloyd Jones and James McNeish. New Zealand writers who have written about German history and culture in the 20th century include Catherine Chidgey, Nigel Cox, Maurice Gee and Elsbeth Sandy. Both Chidgey and Sandy have been University of Waikato writers in residence. Ken Gorbey, who had a brief stint as the director of the Waikato Museum in 1987 and went on to become director of museum projects at Te Papa, was sought out by the inaugural director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin to bring his experience and expertise with interactive and multicultural exhibits to the task of designing and setting up the Berlin museum. As part of Gorbey's team, Nigel Cox was also involved in establishing and running the Jewish Museum in its early years.

Of course, the transfer of literature and culture is impossible without translators. Several of New Zealand's most sought-after translators are based in the Waikato. One of them, Hamilton-based translator Anja Welle, presented her recent translation of Peter Walker's novel The Fox Boy in Frankfurt. Published by Mana-Books, a German publisher specialising in New Zealand literature, Anja Welle's own young-adult novel, Magnus, is set partly in the Waikato. Among other translators of literary and academic texts in Hamilton are former students of the German Programme at Waikato University, such as Joseph Fagan, who also undertakes technical translations for such international heavyweights as Mercedes Benz and Claas. Staff in the German programme have themselves translated numerous academic and literary texts. Several of their books are on display at the fair.

Another former University of Waikato graduate, Ian Hector, who worked for the New Zealand Embassy in Berlin at the time of the German opening of the film adaptation of Whiti Ihimaera's novel The Whale Rider is another great example of how a high level of proficiency in foreign languages combined with sound intercultural skills can create win-win situations. The film became a huge box office hit in Germany and the German translation of the book a bestseller. And if any further evidence of the link between New Zealand's third and fourth largest industries, tourism and culture, were needed, the success of the film and the book also led to a spike in numbers of German tourists visiting the East Coast.

Located less than 50 miles from Mainz, where Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the late 15th century, the Central German city of Frankfurt am Main has always been a major book publishing and trading centre and by the 17th century, the city's book fair had become the most important book fair in Europe. The invention of the printing press marked the beginning of several technological and intellectual revolutions. During the Middle Ages, when most of the population was illiterate, many texts could only be reproduced by hand. Printing made books and pamphlets cheaper and more widely available. By the 18th century, most of the Western and Central European middle class was literate and this trend continued on a global scale in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Reflection and critical thinking and the distribution of information and knowledge became a dominant trait of modern culture. Of course, the modern media also has a flip side: propaganda and misinformation can also be spread more effectively. Indeed, one of the hot topics in Frankfurt this year is the rise of the e-book and self-publishing by authors. Do these spell the end of the Gutenberg era?

Despite the rapid growth of the e-reader market in Europe, sales figures for printed books have remained stable for the past five years. Many industry insiders believe that there will always be a market for a good yarn, as the Frankfurt sales of Keri Hulme and Albert Wendt's novels, and Paddy Richardson and Paul Cleave's thrillers show. However, with so many forms of media and entertainment vying for their attention, the time we spend reading books is shrinking. What's more, the tendency of media industries to focus on a relatively small number of mega-stars, such as E L James, might have serious consequences for the book trade, as unconventional authors and topics face greater hurdles to being published. On the other hand, self-publishing and crowd-funding may open up opportunities for as yet undiscovered authors. This may be of particular benefit to places like New Zealand that are geographically remote and have a small domestic readership relative to those of many other countries.

- Waikato Times

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