Spanish Literature Is Our Favorite Scene
Last week, the 2018 longlists for the Best Translated Book Award were released and were loaded with books translated from the Spanish. Eight works of fiction and one poetry collection. Nine titles total out of the thirty-seven on the combined longlists. That’s just a smidge under 25%. Twenty-five percent! One-quarter of the best books published in 2017 were originally written in Spanish.
As much as I love Spanish language literature—and always have, probably since reading Cortázar in college—this seems kind of incredible. Outsized. Statistically significant. I’m tentatively planning on writing about the regions that tend to be overlooked by the BTBA (Africa, Asia, India), and some of the reasons why (lack of eligible books being the biggest), but given the fact that I was already going to write about two Spanish books this week, we might as well take the time to dig into this situation and see if the prevalence of Spanish books on the BTBA lists is in line with current publishing trends, or if something else is going on.
Before moving on to other forms of analysis, let’s see if the dominance of Spanish books in the 2018 Best Translated Book Awards is unusual or just run of the mill. It’s probably going to turn out to be recency bias, but I have the sense that Spanish always represents on the BTBA. And wins. Like with Yuri Herrera and Diorama and other books. Like, hmm. Maybe I’m wrong.
As you may have noticed—and if not, take this post as a sort of public announcment—you can now search the Translation Database for all previous BTBA titles. You can get the longlist or shortlist for any given year, find out which books from which presses have made it, or, as befits this post, see how often various languages have been represented.
Of the 249 longlisted fiction titles in the database,1 56 are translated from the Spanish. That would be an incredible 22.5%. Or 5.6 a year. Not that far removed from this year in fact. To put those numbers into perspective, here’s a chart detailing the ten languages with the most titles to have made the longlists.
Unsurprisingly (?), French doesn’t lag that far behind Spanish in BTBA representation. But that’s for the longlists. Let’s see what happens when we narrow this down to the finalists.
The gap widens! I guess. But really, there’s not that much of a difference between Spanish and French on here, and when you think about the overall number of speakers—220 million French vs. 500 million Spanish—French seems like a bit of an underdog, despite their long history at the top of the European publishing scene.
I think we need to dig a bit deeper before making any sort of conclusion. Up to now we’ve only been looking at raw numbers devoid of context. Is it really that surprising that no Hindi titles have made the longlists? What if I told you that there have only been five eligible Hindi titles over the eleven years of the award? Compare that with the fact that only three Japanese books have made it—out of 221. I’m no where near smart enough figure out those probabilities, but I can totally crank out some charts looking at how likely it is for one of the three most-translated languages—Spanish, German, French—to make it to the BTBA fiction longlist.
Let’s start with the three-year averages for the number of titles published from these languages:
1) I don’t think I can explain the dominance of French fiction. I don’t feel like I can name very many French authors, and yet, it’s almost always the most translated language. I don’t think that I’ve included a French book as the impetus for one of these weekly rambles for all of 2018.2
2) What the fuck, German literature? If this chart was a year-by-year thing, I would write off that decline as a small sample, but theoretically, by looking at three-year averages, we should be filtering out most of the noise. Given the cultural investments, the raw number of German books written every year, the promotional publications, the Frankfurt Book Fair, the je ne sais quoi of German lit (sorry), this is surprising. Disconcerting. A trend to watch.
Now, given that baseline, here are the three-year rolling averages for the percentage of books from those same languages to make the BTBA longlist:
LOOK AT THOSE SPANISH BOOKS! I CALLED IT!
There’s probably a hot take to be written about 2013—the moment when Spanish surpassed French as the “most literary language.” It probably involves statements about “Bolaño’s lasting influence” and the Granta special issue and some U.S. demographics. I’ll bet you could unpack that shit into a PhD thesis with the right advisor.
OR, you could write a thesis about the ways in which the increase in the number of languages with at least one translation has impacted the Big Three and their stranglehold on the marketplace.
OR, you could check publication against proliferation (sales) and try and figure out if the Spanish trend was predictive—there were more books, then more sales—or responsive—way more sales for Spanish titles around 2007-2009, so let’s double-down on the trend—or random—there is no correlation and this situation just developed.
OR, is there something about the makeup of the BTBA jury—especially among the booksellers and translators—that tilts things in favor of Spanish titles.
There are so many options . . . This narrative doesn’t feel very fulfilling at all. Numbers are frustrating that way.
One more thing: At the top of this, I made an off-handed remark about Spanish books always winning the BTBA. Not true! Only three Spanish titles have won the Best Translated Book Award—Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera was the only work of fiction, with both Diorama by Rocio Ceron and Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Pizarnik winning for poetry. Perceptions, man. Perceptions and biases. It doesn’t matter what’s factual, it matters what you remember and believe.
I just had a text exchange with the “Beer Reporter” for our local newspaper. Which has zero relevance, except in the way that proliferation and quality aren’t always in sync.
Thanks to middle-age and trends, we have like 42 new breweries here in Rochester—all fine, none spectacular. They support each other and make sure that an excessive proportion of paychecks are spent on beer instead of other forms of cultural entertainment.
That’s totally fine, I think. But when it comes to our biggest brewery—Genesee—I’m a bit of a hard ass. Everyone knows that I’m a contrarian for life, but I honestly don’t care for or against Genny or Genny Light. It’s beer in the way most books are books. It’s functional. (Sorta.) If you drink a few pitchers, you’ll definitely feel it, like how if you read all five hundred John Grisham books, you’ll know words.
Here were the Rochester-centric jokes I came up with in our texting to describe Genny:
“It’s like a Xerox of Bud Light!”
“I Kodak, and never will, see what you see in that beer.”
“Something, something, Wegmans!”
“Genny is great. My parents and uncles love it, which is heartwarming, since old people also deserve beer.”
“Letters So That Happiness”: by Arnaldo Calveyra, translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Zuba (Argentina, Ugly Duckling Presse)
This is a very different collection from Stormwarning, the poetry book I tried to write about last week. (I do a thing with my kids where I pretend that I can’t remember the name of anything and invent word combinations like a living Queneau poem. Every object and location has about fourteen different names in the Post Vernacular, which is both semi-amusing and fairly confusing. If I were writing this for them—which I wouldn’t, unless the poems were on YouTube—I would’ve called last week’s collection “Stormblaster” or “Storm Soldier” or “Snow Warning” or some other dumb ass shit like “Winter Wonder Times.” I have done this bit for so long that I have literally torn apart my own memory and feel like most of my days are just highlights from the inevitable onslaught of early-onset dementia. Never buy into your jokes too much, kids, they’ll bite you in the “Blizzard Blaster” in the end.)
I still don’t feel like I have the terminology to talk about poetry. I set about this self-challenge with the simplest of ideas—if you read enough, and try hard enough, you’ll figure out a way to say more than uhhhh, that poem is funny! I’m only to weeks in, but I feel like poetry is all barrier. And I’m not even looking at poems that are confined by form, that are playing with some Alexandrine rhyme scheme or particular pentameter. (Not the right terms, I’m sure. Alliteration. Assonance. Enjambment.)
Without someone—or some piece—to unlock the key, I feel like I’m all surface when it comes to evaluating these collections. Like week I wrote about joy, this week I want to talk about unsettled language—the aspect of Calveyra’s poetry that’s so salient that’s it’s cited in the afterword as the singular reason for why these poems appealed to Borges:
What captivated Borges and Mastronardi in 1959 was Calveyra’s singular use of syntax and language. It is often said that Calveyra invented a new grammar that could release time and place from the stasis and confinement that words inescapably mark.
Yep. That. Which I completely agree with, and which can be found throughout. Here are a couple samples:
The boy came back by the mettle of the night. The military had taught him to steal and whistle for anything. Now whistling he forgot stealing. Feathered casuarina trees quieted to his step. But because they’d never met the winds that travel from a sadness to a happiness, there was no breeze to wake the nests sleeping in their fist: for them, he was returning, one of so many from the village.
And, from a different poem:
As if it were ever almost here this forever company in the cave of a shiverer’s winter, together with the dog we found your day, I jump up on the hill that hurries to take me back to bring you happy daisies.
This is all off-kilter and not pretentious—two qualities I gravitate toward. But where to go from there?
Setting aside any deeper analysis of the style of the poems, or the technical tricks Calveyra employs as being beyond my paygrade, I instead am drawn to the ways in which these feel like poems of childhood, of a sort of pre-linguistic way of encountering the world that allows for a possibility of happiness. The twists of his language seem a bit different than the Russian formalist conception of enstrangement to me, and are more like smudges of one’s worldview—a way of seeing and saying before everything is codified and has a “correct” way of being described.
Which sort of connects with the title, Letters So That Happiness. “Letters” is ambiguous—these aren’t proper letters, but some of this “smudging” of the world involves a few slipped letters—and “so that happiness” can what? Exist? Be recaptured?
The afterword talks about how Calveyra was trying to capture the language of Entre Ríos, his hometown, but I feel like it’s capturing that language through the lens of youth, of play. Here’s an example that’s probably a bit too on the nose, but demonstrates what I mean:3
Hopscotch singing rounds with one foot on the ground and the other without anywhere.
Coming! Coming! and already in the marrow sky, grace wobbling, life long. And let’s pick a square with all our names to stand one little afternoon minute resting flamingo gentle foot.
That afternoon when we all win, we’ll be watching each other from our resting squares and not stepping on the lines.
When the soles of your feet aren’t named anymore, named pebble anymore, named all back at the beginning anymore, the only foot of the little late afternoon will go on begging entry and already all back at the beginning-ginning again.
So pleasant, so much twist in the expected words. This collection has the feel of nursery rhymes reimagined through a rural landscape. I like the voice. The simplicity of the happiness. There is warmth here and I dig it. Also, there are exclamation points!
I want to give a quick nod to The Desert and Its Seed by Jorge Barón Biza, translated from the Spanish (duh and or obviously) by Camilio Ramirez for New Directions. Cool book! It’s like Tomb Song but with more acid and alcoholism. I think? I read a third and had to stop, but for you plotsters out there, it’s an autobiographical novel (I should end with “full stop” since that’s all anyone reads these days when they’re not reading YA) about a young man who takes care of his mom after his dad throws acid over her face. It’s legit fucked up, and although it’s now a cult classic, it was originally self-published, and that’s saying something. What it’s saying about art and commerce and originality and telling one’s life, I’m not sure, but something. Something for sure.
In November (I think), I’ll try and write a gigantic post—one that involves me drinking a plethora of whiskeys—about the position of auto-fiction, fictionalized autobiographies, non-fiction tinged fiction in today’s literary scene. There’s so much of it now (see Ben Lerner, see Knausgaard, who will obviously [and or duh] be the occasion for this post) that some readers see it as some new, hipster trend. There is a long history there, there are differences, there are—and this is what interests me—ways in which the approach ends up highlighting form more than content. There’s a lot to say. And Tomb Song and The Desert and Its Seed can be captured into that conversation.
Two other quick things, left unexplored:
1) Books about damaged faces. Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another. Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. Others. The writing of skin. On skin. Skin-like. Replacement and reconstruction. The self as the image portrayed.
2) Self-published literary successes. There is the one? Sergio de la Pava? Who is literally not of this time and makes words fun by unconventionalizing the under-workings of words. Biza is different, yet the self is throwing its work into the ether. The cojones of standing by your works in relation to the gratitude, the admiration achieved in later years.
1 For the curious, there was a book that made the longlist one year, but wasn’t technically eligible. (It was a reprint.) We’re not going to repeal the BTBA designation—I mean shit, we’re not the NCAA or anything—but the title isn’t actually listed in the database. I’m sure you can sleuth it out if you’re really interested.
2 Actually, I have: The Perfect Nanny!
3 There’s not an assertion I can make about poetry that I can’t equivocate a sentence later. I know this breakdown is childish, simplistic, easy to dismiss. I don’t have this sort of public anxiety when it comes to fiction—I’m more versed, the hours with the form have been logged—although it may all come down to a famous poet telling me that my favorite poems from a particular collection were the “easy” ones. I’m gun shy. But trying!