Impressions from a Romance Reader Overseas

by Vivien Fritsche (July 1999)

One of the first English novels I read in the original was Jane Eyre, and I was immediately captivated by Charlotte Brontė's evocative writing, her passionate defense of a woman's rights and dreams, and of course by the romantic elements of the story. Although I would not call Jane Eyre a romance, the love story in the book is a dominant feature and possibly the main reason why this book appealed to me in the first place. Basically, this reading experience was the beginning of my enduring fascination with romances.

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That was about four years ago, and since then my reading of English books, in particular romances has gone a long way. My favourite classics are still those with strong romantic undercurrents, for example Wuthering Heights, The Age of Innocence and the collected works of Jane Austen. I am convinced that one of the reason why these books enjoy such a lasting popularity is their capturing some of the essential ingredients of the human experience: love, friendships and family relationships. At my University in Mainz/Germany, where I study English and American Literature, no one would question their status as noteworthy classics.

Why am I telling this? Well, because one of the most prominent German literary critics once claimed in an interview on TV that women could not write novels. He quite regularly picks books to pieces that are otherwise appreciated, and apparently has strong misogynist tendencies. So you can imagine that he would never stoop to reading woman's fiction, let alone romances. What I usually hear from him and his collegues is that these books are fluff, moonshine, a twisted reflection of the real world with no bearing whatsoever on our lives. They often emphasize that popular fiction cannot be taken seriously and is written purely for entertainment's sake.

So what is wrong with that, I ask myself? In my opinion, the definition of the function of literature by critics is way too elitist and narrow-minded. Why should we read only for the purpose of intellectual stimulation and moral elevation? Why shouldn't books be enjoyable, something you can savour like a piece of chocolate, light and sweet and utterly satisfying? I do not know how literary critics in the US judge popular fiction, but with the relentless and harsh attitude of critics in Germany, you can imagine how romance fares here: it is a marginalised, publicly non-existent genre. It reminds me of the role women used to play before this century: before the law and in public decisions they were practically nonentities. In an age when we boast of the equality of the sexes, I still find woman's fiction sadly discriminated against. And the lamentable thing is that women often contribute to that dilemma.

When we discussed Jane Eyre and Rochester as a Byronic hero in class (Ellen Micheletti's Historical Cheat Sheet article on Byron was a major help!), it was my female fellow students who found the relationship between the protagonists too emotional and thus not realistic. Recently I overheard a conversation between two students who were chatting about romances, and I could have screamed in indignation when they harped on the old stereotype that romances are all the same, only with different settings. So far I have not discovered the least solidarity between readers. At university people are even reluctant to admit that they are reading anything apart from the so-called classics. You find them humming and hawing before they confess that they read Stephen King or John Grisham. Many of our professors in fact speak rather derogatorily about mainstream fiction.

In that light, I myself would not dare to admit that my favourite reading material consists of romances, even if my teachers ask me how I know all those exotic or obsolete words like trousseau, bodice, seamstress or ...ehm... maidenhead. (Don't get me wrong, this is not the usual topic of discussion in German universities!) Even acquaintances of mine have occasionally disparaged the books I read as tear-jerkers or pulp, that is if I let them lay eyes on them, which I usually try to avoid to side-step snide remarks.

Despite this flagrant denigration of romances over here, there is in fact a considerable market for them, although you usually cannot buy them in more sophisticated bookstores, only in department stores. You can find more translations of romances into German than publications of the genre in Great Britain, where I spent one semester. In England, only some books by major romance authors like LaVyrle Spencer, Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown, or Linda Howard are available, usually marketed as mainstream. The variety of romances is extremely limited, and compared to that disappointing situation, the romance market in Germany is quite diversified. The works of Catherine Coulter, Johanna Lindsey, Julie Garwood, Sandra Brown, and Jude Deveraux amongst others have almost been translated in their entirety. On the other hand, some truly excellent authors, who in my mind even surpass most of the above mentioned New York Times bestsellers, have so far been completely ignored, for instance Teresa Medeiros, Jill Barnett, Lorraine Heath, Lisa Kleypas or Pamela Morsi. Instead they churn out antiques by Shirley Busbee, Iris Johansen and Rosemary Rogers. Only recently have they begun to market Susan Elizabeth Phillips - as mainstream and at steep prices. In proportion to the huge number of books prolific authors like Nora Roberts, Linda Howard, and Elizabeth Lowell have written, the amount of translations of their works is rather scanty.

While the quantity of translations is at best mediocre, they are even worse in terms of quality. This actually put me off reading the German versions for good. In the first place, they are grossly inaccurate. Especially the love scenes are the target of some sort of translator-censorship. They are simply left out, abridged or clumsily translated. I sometimes wonder why, since Germans are by no means prudish; just watch a German movie, in which you will usually see a lot of naked sin and permissive scenes. Yet in books some people apparently want to tone down the sexuality. There is only one publishing house whose translations are acceptable, but even with them I have discovered a rather disconcerting habit: they invent new scenes to make a book steamier! I could not believe when I read the relatively tame English version of Sandra Brown's Shadows of Yesterday and discovered that the German translation was considerably padded and a lot more explicit. Frankly, I felt cheated. At University we are always told to translate as precisely and elegantly as possible, but the liberties most translators take are outrageous.

At AAR, readers often complain about clinch covers. Well, you should just have a look at our covers. Here romances are not labelled, but you will still recognize them, because they invariably have a clinch cover, usually put on in a completely arbitrary and indiscriminate fashion. You can find pirates on contemporaries, knights on regencies or ladies in crinolines on medievals. The people depicted on the cover bear no resemblance whatsoever to the protagonists of the novel.

Back cover blurbs are also annoying, but then I have noticed that they are often equally absurd in the original English version. They hardly ever provide an informative description of the novel. Sometimes I wonder whether the publishers think their readers are somewhat dense and can only be induced to buy a book when reading words like "fire of passion, touching vulnerability, hungry heart, smoldering eyes" or "whirlpool of yearning". I did not make that up, as observant readers will notice!

I suppose it has become fairly clear why I have turned my back on German translations that distort and ridicule a wonderful gernre. By now I feel more like I belong to the American readership of romances. Unfortnately, not everybody has the chance to buy books via the Internet, let alone read them in the original version without major hitches, although most people here do have a rather good command of the English language. But not everyone is aware that reading romances can be a fascinating experience and fill you with a warm feeling that no other genre manages to convey!

 

Return to Issue #75 of LN&V
Email Vivien (and make sure to search our database for her several reader-submitted DIK reviews)
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Read Vivien's segment on romance in the 1980's in this issue of At the Back Fence
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