Old friends Pedro Lenz and Donal McLaughlin meet under the arcades of the 18th-century Kornhaus in Bern. They have come to perform literary alchemy in the old baroque granary as part of the city’s literary festival.
Both Lenz, from central Switzerland, and McLaughlin, whose childhood was split between Northern Ireland and Scotland, grew up speaking a language that was very different from the written word they learned at school.
Through separate paths, they have come to write in their own dialects – Bernese Swiss German in Lenz’s case and Glaswegian in McLaughlin’s case – eventually collaborating on the audacious translation of Lenz’s novel Der Goalie bin ig (literally ‘I am the Goalie’) into the Glaswegian title Naw Much of a Talker.
A tale of two cities
The book in Glaswegian form owes its existence to a literary exchange between Bern and Glasgow. Donal McLaughlin, today a leading translator of German-language Swiss literature into English, spent six months in Bern in 2004.
The following year, Pedro Lenz went to Glasgow for six months, an experience that provoked a sea change in his writing. Up until that time, apart from some audio recordings, Lenz had only written in standard German, also known as high German.
McLaughlin was his guide in Glasgow and the Swiss author was soon made welcome among the community of Glaswegian writers, who had been writing fiction for years in their own dialect.
“They gave me so much courage. And they said if you speak Swiss German all day then you should write in Swiss German. That is your language. You know exactly how it should sound.”
And so Lenz was inspired to overcome his “complex” about the validity of Swiss German as a language in relation to standard German.
“Scottish colleagues like Tom Leonard, Gerry Loose and Donal said to me: There is no wrong and right, high and low. We are here and we speak how we speak. That is nothing against the English or against the Americans, it is just how we speak. It’s just the same in Switzerland. I don’t speak Swiss German against the Germans, but I speak how I speak.”
“And that emboldened me so much that I came home and wrote only in Swiss German from then on.”
Der Goalie bin Ig was Lenz’s first novel in Swiss German, and it became a bestseller in Switzerland. The film of the same title, based on the book, won best feature film at the 2014 Swiss Film Awards.
The book tells the story of a likeable drifter who goes by the nickname Goalie. Just out of jail and struggling to get back on his feet, Goalie tries to keep despair at bay with humour, drink and a bid for love.
The voice is so authentic that some readers in Scotland have had trouble believing that Goalie is not Scottish and find it difficult to accept he’s drinking coffee with schnapps and eating almond croissants.
Warmth and colour
For McLaughlin, writing in dialect is a passion.
“These forms of language have a lovely music and rhythm to them. There’s a lot of heart and soul and warmth and colour in these dialects and they’re just so important.”
But producing a translation in a dialect unfamiliar to most speakers of English is not the most commercial decision in the world.
The translation was supported by the Swiss arts council Pro Helvetia which took some of the financial pressure away, but it was still an artistically-driven choice, according to Lenz.
“Naturally we discussed this issue but for me it was clear from the beginning that the sound took precedence over commercial considerations.”
Naw Much of a Talker has received glowing reviews from fans of Scottish literature but also from further afield. The Financial Times wrote that “the rendition works beautifully, capturing both the melancholy and the verbal music of Goalie’s monologue”.
That’s encouragement for McLaughlin, who has published two short story collections in Glaswegian.
“These forms of language do not necessarily rule out commercial success. You don’t have to assume that because you use these voices in your writing that you won’t be read in London or you won’t be read in New York.”
“I always feel that audiences just need to be open to possibility of understanding this. Most people need to read a page or two or read aloud in order to find their way in but once they find their way in they’re hooked,” he added.
If the reaction of the Swiss audience to McLaughlin’s reading from the book in Bern is any indication, this form of English is well capable of crossing linguistic and cultural boundaries.
The World According to Goalie
Here are some choice phrases from the book “Naw Much of a Talker” to try out on your Scottish friends:
Kid ye slip me a fifty tae Monday? (Could I borrow fifty [pounds] ‘til Monday?)
Ah get ma kick fae the present (I get my kick from the present)
It’s guid craic, listenin tae a French-speaker tryin tae speak German (It’s good fun, listening to a French speaker trying to speak German)
Marta but was greetin aw the way home. (Marta was crying all the way home)
Looks like his wife picks stuff ootae her stupit catalogue fae him – ivry couple ae years. (Looks like his wife picks stuff out of her stupid catalogue for him – every couple of years.)
Ah wis nivver someone who imagined a new place wid make a new person ae ye. (I was never someone who imagined a new place would make a new person of you.)