logo

BTBA Blog Returns with Judge Michael Orthofer

Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.

Getting started

There’s no real official start date for the judging of the Best Translated Book Award – though maybe the announcement finalizing who the judges actually are is a good starting point. While some of us have been here before – and have probably been reading with an eye towards the 2015 prize all year already – others have only been roped into the process more recently. But in fact, while we are already two-thirds into the year (the 2015 prize is for a work of fiction, never previously translated, published/distributed in the US in 2014), it really is still early days for all of us judges. Publishers have until the very last day of the year, December 31st, to submit titles to us, and while quite a few have already gotten some nice batches of books out to us (many thanks!), experience suggests that the submission piles will only really start piling up in the coming months. (Publishers don’t have to submit titles – we’ll try to consider anything that is eligible, regardless – but it certainly helps (a lot) if they do; and while the December 31 deadline isn’t actually an absolute one (yes, we’ll (try very hard to …) look at books even after then if for some reason they’ve escaped us until then) the more time we do have to consider books, the better.)

I get a lot of these titles anyway, all year long, as submissions for possible review at the Complete Review, so I don’t quite feel I’ve suddenly been thrown into a bottomless ocean of fiction-in-translation – I’ve been wading in it all year already – , but opening the spreadsheet where we track the books and share our comments on our on-going reading can feel a bit overwhelming. The spreadsheet is based on the Translation Database Chad Post keeps at Three Percent, with the ineligible works (such as anthologies) weeded out, and kept perhaps slightly more up-to-date. So while the 2014 database currently lists 384 fiction- titles, the spreadsheet – as I write this – already lists 408. (A few more of these will probably be weeded out, while a few dozen more will likely eventually be added – such as that just-announced new Murakami work.) Still, 408 409 works…..

A few books always escape us – we just can’t get our hands on even one copy – but we do try our hardest to at least consider them all. Some admittedly more than others: it only takes a quick dip into some of the books to realize there’s not much there – surprisingly few, however: translation does tend to act as a filter: all the extra work involved in getting a book published in English translation does seem to weed out most of the truly terrible stuff.

I build my BTBA piles as the books come in (fortunately not all 400+ books at once …) and try to work my way through, setting aside the ones which I think might possibly be in the running – and flinging away the ones which I think don’t deserve or have a chance (flinging carefully, since my fellow-judges might have different views and might make the case for these later in the process). For now, everything still seems reasonably manageable – the piles aren’t too high (we’re only two-thirds of the way into the year, so a lot of books haven’t been published yet and aren’t available for us to consider – I don’t think I’ve seen even close to half of the eligible titles yet), the spreadsheet isn’t yet a blur of titles – but I know from experience that it’s important to plow ahead at a steady clip, so as not to really be overwhelmed when the serious decision-making process starts early next year.

Already four months ago, just after this year’s winners were announced, I looked ahead, suggesting some of the titles I figured would be contenders for the 2015 longlist. I’ve seen and read a lot more of the eligible titles by now, but the picture is still a pretty hazy one to me – which I think is probably for the best: there are far too many more works to get through, and too many other opinions to hear and consider for anything to be set anywhere near in stone yet …..

There are, as always, some big names and some obvious contenders, but so far I haven’t been convinced there’s an obvious break-out title (we’re not going to have a Krasznahorkai three-peat – no eligible title, this time around), and there are fairly few ‘big’ books from the most prominent authors. Yes there’s a new Murakami, which I enjoyed, but it’s safe to say it’s not one of his major works; it’ll be in the longlist discussions, I assume, but I don’t think anyone will be surprised or shocked if it doesn’t make the short- or even longlist.

Two other authors who probably do qualify as literary powerhouses by now – Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante – are certainly in the thick of things with their new books, both of which are very strong. But they’re also (both) the third installment in multi-volume series, and so it’s possible that some reader-fatigue has or is setting in. I’m tipping Knausgaard’s final installment – number six, probably a couple of years off – as a likely future BTBA winner, but I don’t know if these middle-books can generate that top-level of excitement to consistently push them through to the shortlist. Ferrante, on the other hand, seems to have more momentum (and, this year, arguably the stronger book) – though the fact that it turns out this one isn’t the last in the series either might prove a bit deflating as well.


I’m fairly confident two Russian works will be in the final running, by two of the finest living Russian writers: The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin and The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov. Here also is where the BTBA really serves its purpose, I think: these are great works and significant translations, but neither book has gotten much attention stateside (yet); if they do make the longlist cut (and beyond …) for the BTBA, at least a bit more deserved attention – and more readers – should come their way.

If there’s one trend this year, it seems to be the proliferation of small-scale work. Not that there aren’t a lot of longer-than-average works – Knausgaard and Ferrante included – but a quick glance at my piles finds almost nothing longer than 500 pages, certainly fewer than in recent years. Even this year’s Bolaño – A Little Lumpen Novelita – is, indeed, just a “novelita”, weighing in at just 109 pages, while other likely contenders, such as Jean Echenoz’s 1914 aren’t much longer. And those are the novels: I can’t recall ever seeing this many 100-page-or-less story collections. I’ve been impressed by several of these so far, but I don’t know if they can stand up to some of the meatier fare – it’ll be interesting to see how our judging discussions go on that point. (Story collections have generally seemed to have a harder time in the BTBA process, but maybe a smaller collection of consistently strong stories will fare better than bigger but more uneven collections did ……)


Like every year, I wonder whether there will be a ‘genre’ title that can hold its own. The Nordic thrillers haven’t looked all that promising – Leif GW Persson’s Free Falling, as if in a Dream seems the best of the lot I’ve seen so far, but has the drawback of being the concluding volume of a trilogy and very much part of a bigger whole –, but the new Fuminori Nakamura (Last Winter we Parted) looks like it has potential and Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad is another one of his wild offerings (even if the English title can’t quite match the grand original French Ô dingos, ô chateaux !). Most interesting of all: new discovery Pascal Garnier, flooding the field with five (!) eligible titles this year. I’ve seen four and could make a case for each of them; The Front Seat Passenger might be my current favorite of the lot, but that’s likely just because it’s the one I most recently read….. The science fiction offerings seem more sparse this year, with the best (and pretty much only ?) hopes apparently translations from the Chinese: Wu Ming-Yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes (which I don’t think has quite what it takes), and Cixin Liu’s promising-sounding The Three-Body Problem.

Interesting for me too, is seeing books I’ve already read – usually in the original: this year that includes two Wolf Haas titles, Daniel Kehlmann’s F, and Victor Erofeyev’s Good Stalin (which I enjoyed a lot nearly a decade ago, and am curious to read in English now). It’ll be interesting to revisit these in translation – and see the extent to which familiarity with the texts influences how I feel about them.

For now, it’s simply about reading – digesting as much as possible and getting those initial impressions. A bit of cream rises easily to the top, but it’ll be a few months – until we start discussing in earnest – before I really start thinking seriously about what books I’d like to see on the longlist and what books I might not have given a fair shot yet (as other judges make the case for books X,Y, and Z). Fun times – for now.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.