Daniel Medin on The White Review and BTBAs Past, Present and Future
The January 2015 Translation Issue that I edited for The White Review recently went live. Nearly a year in the making, it gathers various kinds of texts: recent poems, excerpts from forthcoming titles, new and newly translated interviews, and works rendered into English expressly for this number. I’m not just mentioning The White Review because its dedication to literature in translation aligns it with projects like Three Percent; I’ve made it the focus of this post because judging The Best Translated Book Award has proven invaluable for my other editorial activities. To state the obvious: there’s no discovery without a search.
Two contributions to this issue resulted directly from past readings for BTBA. Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, was one of last year’s most delightful surprises. She is represented here with the opening to a novel whose original title reads 私小説 from left to right. As you can see in the snapshots below, the book does interesting things with language and form—especially for the Japanese reader.
But Mizumura is a gifted storyteller, as anyone familiar with A True Novel knows. That is evident in even an extract this short. Rumor has it that a different novel of hers is on its way into English. In the meantime, I’m priming for it with Mizumura’s recently published polemic, The Fall of English in the Age of English, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter (Columbia University Press).
The other work inspired by the 2014 BTBA is a 6000+ word interview with Guatemalan master Rodrigo Rey Rosa, conducted and translated by my fellow judge Scott Esposito. Like A True Novel, Rey Rosa’s The African Shore, translated by Jeffrey Gray, posed the most serious challenges to last year’s winner. Rey Rosa covers fascinating territory here, from the two novels recently published by Yale University Press (one of which, Severina is eligible for the 2015 prize in Chris Andrews’s excellent translation) to the influence of Borges and Kafka and Wittgenstein. Here is Rey Rosa’s wonderful response to a question concerning the virtues of the baggy novel with cosmic ambitions—in this case Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (trans. by Natasha Wimmer).
I believe that all kinds of novels are important. The ‘totalising novel’, that can claim to cover the world or contain an entire epoch (although, or course, it can’t actually do that), seems to me as important as the short novel or the fragmentary one. A novel’s particular importance doesn’t depend on its size or theme or intention, only its execution. What matters is the literary experience, what happens to us as we are reading it. Reading 2666 is a unique experience, and because of this it is important. It presents us with a point of view, a ‘segment’ of reality that did not exist before we read it.
I am indebted to the BTBA for Indian novelist Uday Prakash as well. We read The Girl with the Golden Parasol for the 2014 competition. It failed to make the longlist, but the novel was compelling enough for me to seek out Walls of Delhi when Seven Stories published it this year. Prakash’s story for The White Review, “Judge Sa’b,” is set just outside of Delhi but it’s consistent in theme and tone to the three novellas in Walls. All three of these works by Prakash are rendered brilliantly into English by Jason Grunebaum.
It is perhaps too soon to tell, but other contributions to the Translation Issue strike me as potential contenders for the 2016 BTBA. The Vegetarian by South Korean novelist Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith for Portobello Books, already has a US contract. Had it been published before December 31st, Daniel Sada’s One Out of Two would have undoubtedly made my own shortlist; it is an extraordinary book. Graywolf will release the novel in November (in a brilliant translation by Katherine Silver); in the meantime, you can read its first pages here. Lastly, there’s Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality, which New Directions will publish next month in the late Michael Henry Heim’s masterful translation from Romanian. We’ve accompanied a self-contained episode from Adventures with an essay by Herta Müller that introduces readers to Blecher’s genius.
The crop of French titles competing for the 2015 BTBA is strong. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that two of my recent favorites were both translated by Jordan Stump. (Like Margaret Jull Costa and Daniel Hahn, Stump is making a strong showing among eligible titles.) I admired the muted strangeness of Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, which Two Lines Press published earlier this autumn.
And a thousand cheers to Stump and Dalkey Archive for Éric Chevillard’s wonderful The Author and Me. A cross between Beckett’s Molloy and Monty Python, it is the funniest novel I’ve read yet for the competition. (The villain is a cauliflower gratin.) Halfway through, the novel descends into a footnote, whose story—as it were—consists of the narrator and a growing entourage following an ant. What better way to finish this post than to share its helpful advice for the new year:
Friend, when misfortune strikes, when hard times befall you, entrust your fate to an ant. An ant always knows where to go, and the well chosen path will serve you far better than any endless wandering. May I tatoo this axiom on your forehead? HE WHO WALKS BEHIND AN ANT WILL NEVER AGAIN BE CALLED A VAGABOND. At long last you have a goal, even if you don’t know what it is. What matters is that you will draw strength from the ant’s tenacity. You’ll be galvanized by her glorious ardor. And in your loins, in your once faltering legs, there will be her drive. No more doubt, no more procrastination. Forward! From here on you will cleave the waves.