2013 BTBA Winners: Satantango and Wheel with a Single Spoke
If you use the Facebook or the Twitter, you probably already know this, but the 2013 Best Translated Book Awards were handed out on Friday as part of the PEN World Voices/CLMP “Literary Mews” series of events.1 And you probably know that Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter and published by Archipelago Books and Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions were the two winners for poetry and fiction, respectively.
Thanks to underwriting from Amazon.com, George Szirtes, Sean Cotter, László Krasznahorkai, and Nichita Stanescu will each receive a $5,000 cash prize.
I want to personally thank Jill McCoy of the European Society of Authors for kicking off the event by talking about Finnegan’s List and to Esther Allen for adding some thoughtful and interesting comments (as is to be expected, I mean, duh, it’s Esther Allen). Also, a large Internet round of applause should go out to Bill Martin and Michael Orthofer for making the actual announcements—thanks guys!
Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the two titles, here’s a bit more info:
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango takes a look at evil in its everyday forms. Satantango is a diabolical novel, a bleak, haunting, hypnotic, philosophical, black comedic deconstruction of apocalyptic messianism. Translated flawlessly by George Szirtes, Hungarian poet and translator of renown, the story of Satantango‘s appearance in English is so miraculous, and the end result so perfect, from the gorgeous first edition hardcover that New Directions released, to the quality of the translation inside, that it is clear: Satantango deserves to win the BTBA. [. . .]
Though the film version is nearly seven hours long, Satantango is by far the shortest and easiest Krasznahorkai novel to digest of the three published in English by New Directions thus far. Though the sentences are long and there are no paragraph breaks in each chapter, as per Krasznahorkai’s unique style, the narrative pace is brisk, with a black comedy underlying the character’s thoughts and actions, or rather, lack of actions. Set up in a cycle of twelve chapters that progress from I-VI, then backwards from VI-I, with the eponymous Satan’s tango in the middle, the story tells of a wretched collective farm fallen into a hapless state of disrepair that suddenly perks up with life when word gets to the inhabitants that the mysterious and enigmatic Irimiás was coming back.
Irimiás had left the collective farm some years before, promising great change upon his return, but when we meet him and his sidekick, Petrina, the pair are plotting to return to the farm to wreak havoc under the direction of an unnamed, evil government bureaucracy. The inhabitants had been waiting for the day when their messiah, Irimiás, would return to deliver them from their squalor to a brighter future, unaware that Irimiás is a false prophet, who despises them and will bring them only to their doom.
If you haven’t read this, buy it NOW. There is a paperback version coming out soon, but god damn is the hardback gorgeous. Buy it because quality printed books are somewhat of a rarity and should be preserved and glorified.
Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter, and published by Archipelago Books.
And from judge Russell Valentino’s write-up:
A friend of mine once did commentary for a literary death match in the language of wine labels: a fruity blend of blackberry and barnyard; hints of oaky tangerines and smoked chestnuts; and so on. This worked well because no one forgets irony in literary death matches: everyone knows the contest cannot ever really be a contest. Unfortunately not the cast with the things called contests, and O, do we need some irony here!
This is one—though just one—of the reasons that Nichita Stanescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke, in Sean Cotter’s English translations, should win this contest. It knows for irony, as when, in the love lyric, “Beauty-sick,” the lover enjoins, “Do your best not to die, my love / try to not die if you can”; or, in a nod to trans-sense, (“What is the Supreme Power that Drives the Universe and Creates Life?”), it turns out to be “A and E / and I and O / and U.” And once this tone, then everything takes on a tinge, or you at least have to wonder, when he writes words like “consciousness” and “cognition” and “being” and “ah” and most definitely “O.”
It should also win because through the irony the post-War, Cold War, otherwise all-too-depressive seriousness grows deeper, more meaningful, easier to understand and appreciate, brighter, as when he writes, “Because my father and because my mother, / because my older sister and because my younger sister, / because my father’s various brothers and because my mother’s various sisters, / because my sister’s various lovers, / imagined or real,” after which you can’t help but want to know more, read another line and another. And because Cotter has selected, pulled together, found coherent, compelling English form. And because the book itself is beautiful.
Speaking of things that are beautiful, this is the third Archipelago title to win. Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston won in 2012, and Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein won in 2009. Seeing that only 11 titles have received this honor, that’s incredibly impressive. Congrats to Jill Schoolman—the publisher of one of the greatest publishers of international literature there is!
And stay tuned. We’ll be announcing info about the 2014 BTBAs in approximately one month.
1 Which, especially for a test-run, was remarkably successful. I sold more than 15 books in the first hour and a half, and only brought back a handful of units.
2 Will Evans was an apprentice here last year, and as a result is launching Deep Vellum, an indie press based in Dallas dedicated to doing awesome literature from around the world. He has a few titles in the works that I know about, but the only think I should really mention here is that he’ll be publishing Sergio Pitol as one of his first authors. For more information, you should follow his Twitter account: @DeepVellum. And if you’re at BEA this year, you should meet with him. Will has the rare ability to make the most jaded professional excited about books and publishing once again. We need people like him in this field.