They haunted the streets of 1970s Berlin, seeking excitement, music, connection – and heroin. They gathered at the Bahnhof Zoo station, a colossal transportation hub and a mecca for addicts and prostitutes. Some of the individuals who orbited “Zoo Station” were shockingly young, and one was Christiane Vera F., a heroin addict by the age of 14. Though she may not have known it while pursuing her next fix in the station’s grim corridors, she had a story to tell. A new translation of that story, which has been a sensation in Germany for 35 years, will be released in January from Zest Books.
The path to the publication of Christiane F.’s autobiography contributes significantly to the book’s mystique; in fact, it’s an integral part of what made the book a phenomenon. In 1978, while researching the Berlin drug scene for Stern magazine, journalist Horst Rieck met Christiane Vera F., by then 15, as she was testifying in a court case. Riveted by Christiane’s firsthand account of addiction and prostitution, Rieck and another journalist, Kai Hermann, began interviewing her. Rieck later described his first impressions of the young addict in a Spiegel TV documentary. “[Christiane was] a fascinating storyteller,” he said. “The stuff was ready for print as it came out of her mouth and the images came to life right there in the room.”
The journalists painstakingly transcribed Christiane’s story over the course of two months, transforming her words into autobiography, with several additional sections written by Christiane’s mother and one section written by a managing pastor of a Berlin youth center. Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo was first published in Stern as a serial; the writers later decided to collect the stories into book form. But when they initially searched for a publisher, they met with some resistance: “Known publishers declined to print the book because they did not believe it could be a commercial success. Therefore Stern magazine decided to publish the whole story as a book,” Hermann said in a recent statement.
The book had a significant cultural impact, quickly becoming a bestseller in Germany. Christiane F. became an unlikely media darling, appearing on talk shows and magazine covers; girls emulated her fashion sense. She later retreated from the spotlight, but her story stayed in the public consciousness. Though exact sales figures from the original 1978 edition are unknown, Stern had sold 1.3 million copies by 1981. The book was translated into English and published by Bantam in 1980, where it achieved a modest readership and a quiet cult classic status; that edition is no longer in print.
Drawing on the book’s enormous popularity, a condensed but largely loyal film adaptation was also released in Germany in 1981. The film, directed by Uli Edel, features a cast of young, mostly inexperienced actors; David Bowie, who appears in concert in the movie, provided the soundtrack. While the movie’s U.S. release sparked additional interest in the book, the film met with mixed critical reception, as expressed in a 1982 New York Times review. But the film attracted an intense following in its native country, further cementing Christiane F.’s iconic status and drawing new readers to the book.
While the memoir maintained its popularity in Europe, the book had always been somewhat of a departure for Stern, which largely published books aimed at adult audiences. In 2009, Stern contacted Carlsen in the hope that the major German house might be able to reach a new generation of YA readers. Carlsen placed the book on its paperback list, also publishing accompanying teaching materials. According to Anne Bender, editor-in-chief for paperback books at Carlsen, “It was the first book that informed the public about the daily routines in the drug scene and the vicious circle of being addicted to drugs.... The public was quite shocked.” Since Carlsen received the rights to the book, nearly 200,000 German editions have sold. To date, publishing rights have been sold in 18 countries.
U.S. rights had reverted back from Bantam to Carlsen when Zest publisher and creative director Hallie Warshaw and then-managing editor Pamela McElroy noticed the book at the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair. Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo caught their attention because they were looking for nonfiction titles to add to Zest’s True Stories line. Upon discovering it at the fair, Warshaw began to notice references to the book everywhere in Germany: “Everybody had heard about this book,” she says.
The autobiography begins with Christiane’s family’s move from a contented life in the country to housing projects in Gropiusstadt, Berlin. Christiane’s pets become her only refuge from her father’s physical abuse and the bleak environment of the Gropiusstadt high-rises, which housed 45,000 people at the time. Eventually, the girl is drawn toward a clique of older teenagers who, like her, are disenchanted with society and similarly seek escape from oppressive circumstances.
Although Christiane is initially repelled by heroin and those who use it, she explains with almost journalistic clarity how other drugs – pot, alcohol, pills, acid – eventually ceased to provide her the release that she desired. Zest editorial director Daniel Harmon notes that while German students still read the book in the context of a lesson about life choices, Christiane’s story is not simply a cautionary or moral tale – rather, “it turns into a really open-ended book.” And though the material in Zoo Station is graphic, he says, with descriptions of prostitution, shooting up, and the anguish of withdrawal, it is never exploitative.
Zest acquired the rights to Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo from Carlsen following last year’s Frankfurt fair. Warshaw and Harmon did consider how an American audience would respond to either the historical nature of the book or its explicit content. “It was very unclear,” says Warshaw. “Would people be interested in a book from the 1980s? Was it too heavy?” Yet their enthusiasm for a book that deals so directly and honestly with drug addiction led the Zest team to tackle the challenges head-on. “I feel that we should publish stuff like this,” Warshaw says. “It’s our obligation.” To help supplement the book’s intense material, Zest also elected to add an appended list of U.S. resources for youth in crisis.
Lost – and Found – in Translation
Translating Christiane F.’s story came with its own set of challenges. First, there was the small matter that no one on the Zest team spoke German. For the translation, Zest contacted German literature and language programs at colleges and universities and placed the request for a translator on the schools’ job boards. Applicants were asked to translate a 10-page sample section of the German text.
Among the applicants was German-born Christina Cartwright. As the German School coordinator at Vermont’s Middlebury College, she received the e-mail detailing Zest’s needs and posted the information for students in the program – but not before tossing her own hat into the ring. Cartwright says she was intrigued by the project: she’d been a teenager in Berlin around the same time as Christiane F. and remembered reading the book as a teen. Warshaw selected Cartwright for the job, based on the quality of her sample translation as well as her intimate knowledge of 1970’s Berlin.
Cartwright set to work translating the text, with particular determination to honor the “very raw, honest, unflinching openness” of Christiane’s voice; her “biting, cynical wit”; and the slang and colorful language used by Christiane and her friends. In addition to her familiarity with the book, Cartwright had worked in a juvenile public defender’s office and says she channeled some of her experiences there: “I have a lot of compassion for... kids who have veered off the straight path.”
She resisted any toning down of the material, citing her “tenacious Northern German personality” when conversing with Harmon about particular passages. However, she learned very early in the process that a literal translation was not possible. Besides the generally dated 1970s vernacular, the book contained a great deal of slang that was specific to Berlin at that time. Cartwright remained in close contact with Harmon as she worked to translate the slang into something more timeless and recognizable today.
Memories of Berlin in the 1970s came flooding back to Cartwright as she translated the text. She recalled riding the subways that traversed Berlin’s underground, and transferring between trains at Zoo Station. “It was dark and creepy,” she remembers. Cartwright returned to Berlin while working on the translation, and visited many of the locations featured in the story. Zoo Station has changed substantially, she says, no longer the magnet for drug use and prostitution that it once was. But the memory of Christiane F. still lingers. In fact, police officers patrolling the station remembered the locations in the book and eagerly pointed them out to her.
What’s in a Name?
The title for the 1982 American edition was Christiane F.: Autobiography of a Girl of the Streets and Heroin Addict, while the literal translation of the German would have been We Children from Bahnhof Zoo. Zest went with Zoo Station for its edition, because that title felt more encompassing: the story is not only about Christiane F., Warshaw says. It’s also about “the culture of drug use and loneliness,” and it’s about Zoo Station, which becomes “a character itself.”
Now for the first time, American readers will get to see images of Zoo Station and the people Christiane met in the streets, clubs, and subway stations of Berlin. Nineteen black-and-white photographs that were left out of the previous U.S. publication are tucked into the middle of the new edition. The impact is almost ghostly: by the time readers reach the images, several of Christiane’s friends have already overdosed. Among the people who appear in the photographs is Christiane’s boyfriend Detlef. Their relationship is tender and almost childlike, which makes the sacrifices that they make for each other (Detlef prostitutes himself at Zoo Station in order to buy heroin for them both) all the more tragic.
The desire to more fully represent the community to which Christiane belonged also resulted in an iconic cover image instead of a photographic one (although a thumbnail image of Christiane does appear on the back cover). Because it’s a book that is “very bold and in your face,” Warshaw said, they selected what she termed a “very, very bold” cover. The image, which was created by graphic designer Tanya Napier, leaves little question as to the content of the book: a blue spoon and heroin needle are positioned in an “X” formation against a red backdrop.
Zest has planned an aggressive promotional campaign for Zoo Station, including book giveaways via Goodreads, LibraryThing, and other sites. The Zest team is also participating in IndieBound marketing programs and reaching out to libraries and bloggers, according to publicity and marketing manager Jo Beaton. Readers will also have the opportunity to win copies of the book during a consumer contest in January on Zest’s Web site.
Despite the challenge of not having an author available to help promote the book (Christiane F. still lives in Berlin, but despite requests, she does not communicate with the media), Warshaw believes that Christiane’s “gripping personality” and the book’s unusual history will draw American readers. Admitting that she became “obsessed” with the book herself, Warshaw reiterates how the team’s enthusiasm carried them through the numerous challenges inherent in translating a weighty story from another era, and helping to make it relevant again: “Let’s do this,” she said to her team. “Let’s bring it back. This book should live on.”