And here’s the final post in the “Why This Book Should Win” series for the 2014 BTBA fiction longlist. I’ll post a handy guide to all of these posts later this afternoon, but for now just enjoy Bromance Will (aka Will Evans, the founder and director of Deep Vellum) wax enthusiastic for his favorite book from the past year.
Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Archipelago Books)
The past is everything, the future nothing, and time has no other meaning.
I won’t play games, there are no secret agendas here: Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter and published by the incomparably amazing independent publisher Archipelago Books, should win the 2014 Best Translated Book Award for two reasons, both of which fulfill whichever the criteria of what a “best translated book” should be: 1) it is the best book I read in the last year; and 2) it is the best work of translation, the work of a genius author translated by a genius translator, I read in the last year. Not only is it a damn good book, which I’ll get into below, but it’s the best damn translation by the best damn translator in the game: Dr. Sean Cotter.
What every person had intuited at some point in their lives somehow, suddenly, became clear: that reality is just a particular case of unreality, that we all are, however concrete we may feel, only the fiction of some other world, a world that creates and encompasses us . . .
I suppose I should write a disclaimer: Sean Cotter is a friend. He lives in the Dallas area, where I live. We frequently eat at Mediterranean buffets together. I’ve put together readings for him in town. I trumpet the cause of Sean Cotter. This may make you think I’m biased towards him, but that’s not entirely true. The reason I do all of these things and the reason why I am even writing this piece is not because I’m friends with Sean Cotter but rather that I’m Sean Cotter believer. I believe in this man’s talent as a translator that transcends your earthly opinions of human relationships and whatever notion of bias means in this instance. When I sit with him at lunch I basically just ask him how the hell he could actually manage to translate this beast of a novel, and even after he’s explained it to me over and over again I’m still in awe.
What every person had intuited at some point in their lives somehow, suddenly, became clear: that reality is just a particular case of unreality, that we all are, however concrete we may feel, only the fiction of some other world, a world that creates and encompasses us . . .
But back to the book itself—Blinding is a masterpiece. It was an instant bestseller when it appeared in Romania (God bless the Romanians). Blinding first book in a trilogy that takes the form of a butterfly tracing out the history of Cărtărescu’s family history: the full title of book one is Blinding: The Left Wing. The other two books, as yet untranslated, include book two, “The Body,” and book three, “The Right Wing.” The left wing of the butterfly-novel is the history, or rather, the legend, of Cărtărescu’s mother; the right wing tells the story of his father; the body is about the author himself. It’s an imaginative format, and is made apparent to the reader throughout the novel by the central figure/motif/metaphor/symbol/icon of the butterfly that links all of the stories taking place across time/space. Chapters alternate in narrative points of view and throughout the history of Cărtărescu’s mother and her ancestors, from the narrator philosophizing about the nature of our existence in this universe sitting in his room overlooking Bucharest’s skyline in the present day to magical stories of gypsies and resurrected zombies in rural 19th-century (or before?!) Romanian hinterlands, to WWII-era Bucharest and its bombed-out aftermath under the Soviet stooge government.
Space is Paradise and time is inferno. How strange it is that, like the emblem of bipolarity, in the center of a shadow is light, and that light creates shadows. After all, what else is memory, this poisoned fountain at the center of the mind, this center of paradise? Well-shaft walls of tooled marble shaking water green as bile, and its bat-winged dragon standing guard? And what is love? A limpid, cool water from the depths of sexual hell, an ashen pearl in an oyster of fire and rending screams? Memory, the time of the timeless kingdom. Love, the space of the spaceless domain. The seeds of our existence, opposed yet so alike, unite across the great symmetry, and annul it through a single great feeling: nostalgia.
The complex layout of the novel isn’t so complex when you read it, I swear, it is fun and breathtaking and will carry you away in the epic sweep of very sentence. I can’t tell you what happens in the novel, because there is no plot per se, unless you describe in the terms I attempted to above: the novel is Cărtărescu’s creation myth for his mother’s side of the family; the mythmaker, the storyteller, is the axis of the many stories that spoke out from his mind into a work of beautiful, complex genius.
I remember, that is, I invent. I transmute the ghosts of moments into weighty, oily gold.
In a year of stiff competition, including from Archipelago’s other leading candidate for the BTBA, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Two—Blinding stands apart as a work that transcends the intimate thoughts of the central male narrator and expands a vision of reality to include all dimensions of time and space. Seriously, it’s a wild read. And it’s weird to see Knausgaard compared to Proust, when Knausgaard’s My Struggle reminds me far more of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, you live fully inside the minutiae of mundane daily existence wherein the narrator making his way through the world. Cărtărescu is far more akin to Proust in that he traces out the full extents of what the human mind and its capacity for memory can contain and create at once: the brain is a dangerous tool, and the weapon of memory can destroy us even as it liberates us out of the mundanity of our existence. Memory is everything, and you have the power to create memories out of nothing. Blinding is an experiment in memory-creation. Mythmaking is memory-creation. Memory is power. Memory is existence.
You do not describe the past by writing about old things, but by writing about the haze that exists between yourself and the past. I write about the way my present brain wraps around my brains of smaller and smaller crania, of bones and cartilage and membranes . . . the tension and discord between my present mind and my mind a moment ago, my mind ten years ago . . . their interactions as they mix with each other’s images and emotions. There’s so much necrophilia in memory! So much fascination for ruin and rot! It’s like being a forensic pathologist, peering at liquefied organs!
I read a lot of translations by a lot of translators but the fact of the matter is the Blinding is a perfect reminder of the importance of world literature being translated into English as the ability to expand not only our artistic consciousness and understanding of the world but blowing apart the very limits of our own reality. I volunteered to write this piece because I read Blinding and it blew my mind into a zillion pieces, it is wholly unlike any other novel I have ever read, so unique and refreshing that I now see the world in new ways, and that’s why I read books in the first place, and the fact is that it is so miraculously wrought a novel that I cannot help but write a piece extolling the translator’s talents in rendering the weirdest turns of phrases and run-on sentences that mark the genius Cărtărescu’s work into a breathtakingly original English that extends the limits of what we imagine our own native language—our own native minds—can fathom.
Under my skin, tensioned and fresh, run tendons that activate the levers of my fingers. And my fingers move, because we do not doubt ourselves. Because what flows within the borders of our skin is not only blood, lymph, hormones, and sugar: more importantly, our belief flows.
Sean’s translation is imaginative and creative, fearless and flawless. He has captured the manic, mad majesty of Cărtărescu’s mind as they trace the fantastical branches of Cărtărescu’s family tree and the labyrinthine shadows of Bucharest so lovingly described throughout centuries of history—which is the history of Cărtărescu himself, his ancestors, his family, his city, and his active, whirlwind imagination. There has never been anything written in the English language to prepare you for the originality of vision and language that you will find within the pages of Blinding.
What else would I be but a neuron, with a brain as my cellular body, spinal marrow as my axons, and nerves as my numberless dendrites? A spiderweb that feels only what touches it. Yes, each of us have a single neuron within us, and humanity is a dissipated brain that strives desperately to come together. And I wonder, quaking inside, whether the Last Judgment and the resurrection of the dead are nothing more than this: the extraction of this neuron from every person that ever lived, their evaluation, and the rejection of the unviable into the wailing and gnashing of teeth, and construction of an amazing brain—new, universal, blinding—from the perfect neurons, and with this brain we will climb, unconscious and happy, onto a higher level of the fractal of eternal Being.
Blinding should win the 2014 Best Translated Book Award because it is the best book of the year, and Sean should win the first ever back-to-back BTBA award for a translator because he is a master of the English language and brought Cărtărescu into my mind. Into our minds. Into our collective consciousness. Into our collective memory. And for that he should be awarded eternal life. Legend.
As meta as it may be for an award to win an award, I’m incredibly excited that the Best Translated Book Awards won the inaugural “International Literary Translation Initiative Award” at today’s London Book Fair Book Industry Excellence awards ceremony.
I know it’s hokey, but I’ve been hoping for years that some part of Open Letter—one of our books, the press itself, etc.—would win something like this. I feel like everyone involved with the press does such great work, and really deserve some extra recognition. Especially all the judges that have worked on the BTBA over the past years, reading hundreds of books and helping promote so many great works of literature in translation.
Also, Amazon deserves a shout-out for helping the BTBA move to the next level. Being able to give out $20,000 in cash prizes to the winning authors and translators helped bring more prestige to this award.
If anyone reading this is in Rochester and wants to celebrate, come to the Daily Refresher at 9pm where I’ll be pretending I’m in London . . .
Thanks again to Monica Carter for accepting on my behalf and for sending this awesome picture!
Shortly after the BTBA Fiction Longlist was announced, Tara Murphy and Jesse Eckerlin from Biblioasis came up with the idea of creating a “single-sentence sampler” featuring one line from each of the 25 longlisted titles. But I’ll let Jesse explain what developed:
This week’s post is for those of you who are eager for a taste of each work but might not have the time or resources to track down all the longlisted titles. Plus it’s also just plain fun. Open Letter’s Chad Post (the man behind the magic!) and Biblioasis decided to ask the publishers and translators of each book to select a single iconic or in some way representative sentence from their respective books: once compiled, the sentences would work as a kind of mini-anthology and stylistic shorthand to the year’s longlist. We then decided to go one further: why not post the respective sentences without attribution, embedding links to the pages of the individual books, and let the writing speak for itself?
The sentences below demonstrate a true breadth of narrative strategy and aesthetic sensibility. Some are aphoristic and ornate; some are brief and colloquial. Some are harrowing; some are funny, brusque, sarcastic. Some are only a few words long, creating direct portals to their overarching thematic concerns and pivotal plot points; and others are winding, piling clause upon clause like an intoxicated bricklayer, hinting at an elaborate structure whose dimensions can only be guessed at. Whatever the sentence or its intentions, each grants access to its corresponding text in a unique way. We hope a few pique your interest and persuade you to seek out the books from which they are excerpted.
Click here to read all 25 sentences.
My hope is that everyone reading this will be attracting to a line from a book that they might not otherwise have read . . . And that thanks to this one-sentence sampler, end up reading something that didn’t initially grab them.
Today’s entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series is from Jonathan Stalling, an Associate Professor of English at Oklahoma University specializing in Modern-Contemporary American and East-West Poetics, Comparative Literature, and Translation Studies. He is also the co-founder and deputy editor-in-chief of Chinese Literature Today magazine and book series.
Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan is nothing short of astonishing. With over three dozen volumes of Chinese fiction in translation to his credit, Howard Goldblatt is widely considered one of the most prolific and influential translators of our time. Authors he has translated include a wide range of twentieth-century novelists and major figures of the post-Mao era. In 1999, his translation of Notes of a Desolate Man (with Sylvia Lin) by Chu Tien-wen was selected as Translation of the Year by the American Literary Translators Association. Three of his recent translations—Wolf Totem (Jiang Rong), The Boat to Redemption (Su Tong), and Three Sisters (Bi Feiyu, also with Sylvia Lin)—have won the Man Asian Literary Prize. He has received two translation grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and, in 2009, a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is the only English-language translator of Mo Yan, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet Sandalwood Death marks a new level of accomplishment for Goldblatt because of its complex aural formalism and this is why it deserves to win this prize. Sandalwood Death was written in the form of an opera and has long been considered one of Mo Yan’s most ambitious work—the famously speedy and prolific writer took over five years to complete the book. Set in turn-of-the-century China at the dawn of the boxer Rebellion, Sandalwood Death explores the violent intersection of unstoppable global forces on the scale of vulnerable, individual lives. The novel—part thriller, part love story—weaves together several strands of a single family: Sun Meiniang is the daughter of Sun bing, a well-known folk opera star and a leader of the boxer Rebellion in Gaomi County in Shandong, Mo Yan’s ancestral home. Sun Meiniang’s father-in-law, Zhao Jia, is the Empire’s most accomplished state executioner, a master of the killing arts (he claims to have cut off more than 1,000 heads) who is called to perform a ritualized execution of Sun bing so viscerally precise and grisly it must be read to be believed. As an allegory of the dismemberment of the Qing Dynasty body politic itself, Mo Yan’s tour-de-force exploration of the public spectacle of executions is carried out on the most intimate level, deeply affecting characters that readers can both identify with and feel a great deal for.
While reviews of Sandalwood Death have marveled at the novel’s powerful narrative, few have explored how Mo Yan’s novel skillfully assumes the form of a Shandong folk opera. Most chapters open with formal arias with metered and rhymed language which Goldblatt translates faithfully capturing both the aural and semantic sinews that anchor each chapter into the operatic whole. In the chapter “Divine Altar,” the narrator’s voice weaves in and out of the protagonist’s plaintive and wrathful singing. In this climatic chapter, we find Sun bing, a famous Cat Opera performer, in shock after having witnessed the gruesome murder of his wife and most of his children at the hands of German soldiers. Climbing down from a tree on the far side of a river, he takes up a club and plunges into a fierce opera virtuoso rendered masterfully by translator Howard Goldblatt, who follows the original Chinese operatic form with such care that the chapter could be performed out loud. Just as in the Chinese original, Mo Yan’s narration continues in the standard font while Sun bing’s fierce Sprechgesang (a form of intonation between speaking and singing) is rendered in italics: “He struck out with his club, pointing east and striking west, pointing south and hitting north, shattering bark. Willows wept. You German devils! You, you, you cruelly murdered my wife and butchered my children~~this is a blood debt that will be avenged—bong bong bong bong bong—Clang cuh-lang clang Only revenge makes me a man. 德国鬼子啊! 你你你杀妻灭子/好凶残~~这血海深仇/一定要报——咣咣咣咣咣——里格咙格/里格咙——咙要报—/非儿男.” From the meaningless vocables (indicating folk opera instrumentation) to the rhythm and rhyme, the English carries the vitality of the original. In short, this is a stunning translation of a historic novel.
Most translators of Chinese poetry shy away from the challenge of replicating such formal elements, but Goldblatt does so consistently through this 500 page novel which marks it as not only one of the great translations from the Chinese in recent times, but one of the great translations of our time.
The idea of an award winning an award is pretty meta, but I can’t begin to express how amazed, thrilled, and proud that the Best Translated Book Awards are a finalist for the inaugural International Book Industry Excellence Awards presented by the London Book Fair and the UK Publishers Association.
The Awards which celebrate international excellence in the book industry, cover all aspects of the business of international publishing, including academic publishing, the supply chain, education, children’s publishing and digital innovation. A panel of UK judges, with international or discipline-specific expertise, have judged the individual award categories.
And here’s the complete list of finalists, starting with the category I’m personally most interested in:
The International Literary Translation Initiative Award
Best Translated Book Award; Penguin India; Shanghai 99 (China)
IPA Freedom to Publish Award
Irina Balakhonova (Russia), Nguyen Vu Binh (Vietnam), Ihar Lohvinau (Belarus), Myay Hmone Lwin (Myanmar), Ilbay Kahraman (Turkey), Afghan PEN Centre
Korea Market Focus Outstanding Contribution Award
Brother Anthony of Taizé (An Sonjae); Eric Yang Agency; Barbara J. Zitwer Agency
The Bookseller International Adult Trade Publisher Award
Fixi, Malaysia; Kero, France; Silverfish, Malaysia
The Crossmedia Award for Best Use of IP
Chronicle Books US; Penguin Australia; Robert Kirkman, Skybound (US); Rovio, Angry Birds (Finland)
The International Academic and Professional Publisher Award
Sage (US); University of Chicago Press
The International Education Initiatives Award
Fatih Project Turkey; Indigenous Literacy Foundation Australia; Knowledge without Borders (UAE)
The International Educational Learning Resources Award
Penguin Australia; HarperCollins India; Oxford University Press (Brazil)
The International Literary Agent Award
Pierre Astier, Pierre Astier & Associates (France); Anneli Høier, Leonhardt & Høier Literary Agency (Denmark); Nicole Witt, Mertin Literary Agency (Germany)
The International Trade Children’s and Young Adult Publisher Award
Cosac Naify (Brazil); Kalimát Publishing (Sharjah, UAE); Tara Books (India)
The UK Publishers Association Copyright Protection Award
Bholan Boodoo, Publishers Territory Manager (Guyana); Manas Saikia, Feel Books (India); Emrah Ozpirincci, Oxford University Press (Turkey); Copyright Clearance Centre (US); Oxford University Press (Pakistan)
The Market Focus Achievement Award
Jo Lusby, Penguin China; Nermin Mollaoglu, Kalem Literary Agency (Turkey); Motilal Books of India
The Publishers Weekly International Book Industry Technology Supplier Award
Datamatics (India); Publishing Technology (China)
Unfortunately, I couldn’t obtain funding from the University of Rochester to attend the awards ceremony, so, instead, I’ll be stuck in Rochester on April 8th instead of enjoying the company of the most influential publishing people on the planet. So, if we win, I want all of you to have a special glass of wine on our behalf that evening. I’m not going to let my bitterness detract from the HUGE HONOR it is to be listed among all these other luminaries . . . And it reinforces my belief that the most important thing I’ve ever done in my career is start this award . . .
A common complaint leveled against the Man Booker Prize is that it ignores genre fiction – for a couple of years there was the obligatory Ian Rankin denunciation of how unfair it was that the jury always overlooked crime fiction, while more recently it’s also science fiction authors that have registered complaints. (For an early overview of some of this, see Peter Preston’s 2005 piece, Genre specific, in The Guardian.) The Man Booker is, of course, specifically designed to be genre-unfriendly – the strict and absurd limits on what books can be submitted (in recent years, basically just two titles per publisher) pretty much ensure that publishers won’t submit a genre title for the limited, coveted spots (unless the publisher publishes nothing but genre titles) – making these complaints rather futile tilting at windmills. (It seems near-certain that none of Ian Rankin’s books were ever even submitted for the prize by his publishers (and hence could never even be considered by the jury).)
The Best Translated Book Award doesn’t have that excuse: we consider every previously untranslated work of fiction published in the US in the relevant year. (Well, we try to – logistics do mean that the one or other title slips through the cracks because none of us manage to get our hands on a copy.) A significant number of books we consider are genre titles – not much Harlequin-type romance, and still surprisingly little science fiction, but a hell of a lot of mysteries and thrillers. Just piles and piles of them. The Nordic crime wave continues – there are three Jo Nesbøs alone to consider this year – but other countries are also churning them out (often in multiples, too – this year there are also two Andrea Camilleris, four Maurizio De Giovannis, two Pieter Aspes etc.). Yet over the years very little that even resembles genre fiction has made it past the first cut, onto the 25-title-strong longlists. The 2013 and 2012 longlists are entirely mystery/thriller-free, and you have to go back to 2011 where, arguably, Martín Solares‘ The Black Minutes qualifies as such.
I think there have been some reasonable genre (or at least genre-like) contenders for the longlist over the years. As far as mysteries/thrillers go, I was disappointed that Nakamura Fuminori’s The Thief didn’t make the cut last year, and I think there has been a case to be made for Deon Meyer’s Trackers, Leif G.W. Persson’s Another Time, Another Life, and, for sheer hard-boiled punch, J.P.Manchette’s Fatale, over the years.
As far as science fiction goes, there have been titles with fantastical elements that have gotten serious consideration – Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times was shortlisted last year and Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas made the longlist (it also won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards last year); Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age was shortlisted in 2010. But even these – or another book that stood a decent chance of getting longlisted, Kawamata Chiaki’s Death Sentences – likely aren’t found on the science fiction shelves of most bookstores (i.e. they generally aren’t considered truly genre-books).
Given that – at least as far as mysteries and thrillers go – genre titles make up such a large percentage of the titles we consider, I’m a bit disappointed that they fare so poorly. But honestly: few really stand out. As Man Booker Prize judge Stuart Kelly recently pointed out, a prize-deserving book should read well on re-reading, too – and crime novels, where much of the point is often learning whodunit (and how), generally rely so much on plot that once that has been revealed and resolved there’s just not enough left to the book for a reader to go out of his or her way to return to it. (That doesn’t have to be the case, of course: there are classic mysteries that it’s a pleasure to return to (I’ll pick up any of those Raymond Chandlers or Jim Thompsons I’ve already read any day), and there are books eligible this year that come with mystery-like surprises and twists that still impress mightily even when one is aware of them (I mention, yet again, Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza …).)
Many of the crime novels in the running for the BTBA are also part of a series, featuring the same cast of detecting characters – Nesbø’s Harry Hole, Camilleri’s Montalbano, etc. – and it’s generally hard for an individual title from a series to really stand out (and stand separately). (The fact that US/UK publishers perversely continue to publish crime fiction series in translation out of sequence – one of the Nesbøs published this year is the first in his Harry Hole series, while the third in the series was the first published in English, way back in 2006 – doesn’t help matters at all, either.)
Crime fiction tends to be more formulaic than most, too – more likely to follow a predictable path and pattern – which again makes it difficult for such books to really stand out – at least against the competition, which includes a lot of very creative work, a lot of great writing (which, it has to be said, does not always appear to be a top priority for many of the mystery authors whose work we see), and even a lot of plots that are as exciting as any well-turned thriller.
Finally, it also has to be noted that the translations of genre fiction are … let’s say less consistently of the highest quality. The translator-names generally aren’t the best-known (though many high profile translators do dabble in genre fiction, too), and there’s perhaps a bit less care and attention paid in the entire translation process when it comes to this sort of fiction. (That’s also why it’s so exciting to see Penguin’s new translations of Simenon’s Maigret-novels starting (in the US) next year (sadly ineligible for the BTBA, since they’ve all been translated before) – a great roster of translators bringing their A-game to works where the previous translations seem to have been … less than ideal (and that was Simenon !).)
So how does it look for this year’s crop? Well, I still have a lot of books to go through, but so far nothing has leapt out at me from the mystery/thriller pile. A lot of this stuff is decent beach reading, but really not much more (and I suspect some of my fellow judges are even less receptive to much of this sort of thing). Something like Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer benefits from being a product of a different era, which gives it a different feel from most of what we come across, but that’s not quite enough. And as far as the much-touted contemporary thrillers go, none that I’ve read so far has even come close to living up to its promise. (Meanwhile, I’m holding out hope for Mai Jia’s Decoded come 2014 …..).
The one genre-esque title that has stood out: Ofir Touché Gafla’s The World of the End, which is the sort of clever science fiction I’d like to see more. It’s not entirely successful – those big ideas can be hard to neatly tie together – but it’s still damn good, a title I could see on the longlist.
Still, there are a lot more books to get to – including Frank Schätzing’s massive Limit … – and I haven’t given up hope yet. …..
One of the many interesting things about judging the Best Translated Book Award is the sense it gives you of what (and how much) is actually being translated into English (and published/distributed in the US). Thanks largely to Dalkey Archive Press’ Library of Korean Literature, for example, we’re suddenly exposed to about a dozen Korean titles this year (without the Dalkey publications, it would be more like … one). The statistics can be revealing – and disappointing. Sure, we get … well, if not quite any number so at least a whole lot of French titles – but Chinese ? Isn’t Chinese literature hot right now ? Last time the database we rely on was updated (i.e. there might still be some unaccounted for) I counted all of three eligible titles.
Numbers-wise, among the literatures which seems to consistently punch above its population-weight, along with Icelandic and Hebrew, is Dutch (meaning: Dutch and Flemish), and while we have (at last count) quote-unquote only six works of fiction to consider … well, damn, it is an impressive selection (and the Vondel Prize-folks — who have to consider two years’ worth of publications — have their work cut out for them).
I haven’t seen one of these yet — The Square of Revenge, ‘An Inspector Van In novel’ by Pieter Aspe – and I suspect that its being part of a mystery series makes it a longshot to get longlisted, but I note that Aspe has apparently sold millions and that this book did get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review (only as part of Marilyn Stasio‘s ‘Crime’-round-up, but still). [As it turns out, there’s a double-bill of Inspector Van In novels eligible – a second one, The Midas Murders, having also appeared in the eligible period (but failing to make it onto the database for now – an omission Chad will rectify shortly. So that’s seven – and counting … – Dutch titles in the running.]
Even if they are great mysteries, the Aspes will be hard-pressed to compete with the other Dutch titles elbowing for spots on the longlist. First off, there’s Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake , in Ina Rilke’s translation — which fellow-judge Daniel Medin has already delighted in in a previous Three Percent/BTBA post. Haasse — who died just two years ago, at a very ripe old age – wrote this back in 1948. While quite a bit of the work by this grand old lady of Dutch literature has been published in translation, it’s great to see this important, powerful little novel about colonial Indonesia finally also available in English.
There’s another, even older work in the running, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s 1932 novel, The Forbidden Kingdom. This unusual time-bridging narrative features Portuguese traveler and poet, Luís de Camões, as well as a modern-day (well, early 20th-century) events, and is a wonderful (and wonderfully surprising) more-than-just-adventure novel.
Then there’s Gerbrand Bakker’s Ten White Geese — which you might also recognize from the title it was published in the UK under, The Detour , since it, in David Colmer’s translation, already won the biggest translation-into-English prize on the other side of the Atlantic, the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, With Bakker’s previous novel, The Twin, already making the 2010 BTBA shortlist it’s clear he’s an author – and this a book – that has to be taken pretty seriously.
Finally, there are the two Sam Garrett-translated titles – notable not just because they share a translator (Anthea Bell has him beat there, hands down, with five translations in the BTBA-running) but because they’re in many ways quite similar works – and both were incredibly successful in the Netherlands. One is Tirza, by Arnon Grunberg, the other The Dinner by Herman Koch. Amazingly, both were reviewed in the not-known-as-very-open-to-fiction-in-translation New York Times Book Review – here and here – and The Dinner even got the Janet Maslin treatment in the daily Times (she loathed it).
One seems to have done much, much better sales-wise than the other — The Dinner, which actually can boast of being a New York Times bestseller (indeed, it spent quite a few weeks on the bestseller lists). Yet Tirza is the clearly superior work; as Claire Messud concluded in her NYTBR review of The Dinner, that novel, while “absorbing and highly readable, proves in the end strangely shallow”. Tirza, on the other hand, is both entertaining and, ultimately, profound.
Both novels have a horrific twist. In the case of The Dinner it is one that’s, at least in its outlines, fairly obvious early on – but just keeps getting more twisted and horrific as the novel progresses (an admittedly very nice and disturbing touch). Tirza seems to follow a simpler arc of personal dissolution before taking its more surprising final turn into the abyss.
The Dinner uses a meal at a fancy restaurant as its foundation, taking readers through the many courses while incongruously (that’s the intent, anyway) increasingly disturbing revelations are made. With one of the characters running for high political office (prime minister, in fact), The Dinner is a cruel satire of contemporary Dutch movers and shakers (and any notion of civilized behavior in general). By turns shocking as well as occasionally funny, it does have considerable shock-value-appeal – but there’s not that much more to it. Koch does reasonably well, but not quite well enough with what is also ultimately a very ugly tale that – as Messud noted – doesn’t really have much depth to it.
Tirza also involves an almost unspeakable act, but Grunberg is the far superior craftsman in leading readers there, the shock, when it comes, all the more affecting. It’s a remarkably convincing portrait of a man falling apart. Like Koch’s novel, it’s uncomfortable to read, in part, but whereas Koch’s exaggerated satire can also be shrugged off – good for cocktail-party chatter, but hardly to be taken seriously as an in any way a profound critique of society – Grunberg’s novel sits much deeper.
I can see the easy appeal of The Dinner – part of which is surely also that it can be shrugged off fairly easily, as over-the-top satire often can. Tirza, much more personal than public (no one running for the highest office in the land here …), may not be a novel whose protagonist readers want to identify with either, but it’s a completely convincing portrait of (a) contemporary man and contemporary society.
This BTBA selection process, of narrowing down the three or four hundred eligible books, first to a longlist, is challenging. I’ve just gone over the Dutch titles here, and I think there’s a strong case to be made for four of them to at least reach the final-25 stage. Whatever the outcome – I am only of nine judges, after all, and I can’t be sure how my fellow judges feel about these (and the many other worthy) titles – I’d be surprised if Tirza didn’t make the cut, and if The Dinner did.
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators, is an editor of The Cahiers Series ,and co-hosts the podcast entitled That Other Word. He has authored a study of Franz Kafka in the work of three international writers (Northwestern University Press, 2010) and curated the second volume of Music and Literature magazine (Krasznanorkai/Tarr/Neumann). He advises several journals on literature in translation.
This seems a timely moment to announce the forthcoming appearance of a translation issue I’ve edited for The White Review. For those unfamiliar, TWR is a London-based journal of art and literature that publishes print (quarterly) and online (monthly) editions. In addition to supporting new writers, the editors make it a point to highlight literature in translation. Recent numbers have included contributions by Dubravka Ugrešić, Vladimir Sorokin, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Javiar Marías, to name but a few.
I spent this past autumn selecting material for the issue, which is slated to go live early next month. Not surprisingly, there was significant overlap with my readings for the BTBA. Here are a few examples:
One’s by the late great Hella S. Haasse, whose gem, The Black Lake, I cited in a previous post. I’ve found the lack of attention devoted to this novel baffling. It is a beautiful little book, conceived and executed with intelligence and grace. The translator, Ina Rilke, ranks among the very best working from Dutch today. You’ve probably come across her work at one point or another by now: Rilke was behind the classic Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, which Archipelago brought out back in 2010; she’s translated multiple titles by W.F. Hermans and Cees Noteboom; and she’s currently at work on Max Havelaar by Multatuli for NYRB Classics. (There’s a full overview of her activity, along with a lovely snapshot of Rilke with Haasse, here.) We’ll print the striking first pages of The Black Lake in The White Review. If your experience of them in any way resembles mine, then you’ll find yourself unable to stop.
I’m delighted that we can include an excerpt from the third volume of Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg. The publication of volumes 1 and 2 earlier this year by NYU Press’s Library of Arabic Literature was a moment of glory for literature in translation. Expect plenty of hot sauce in this excerpt—that, and no shortage of ingenious linguistic dexterity on the part of translator Humphrey Davies. For an in-depth take on volume 1, have a look at this review by Michael Orthofer. I share his excitement entirely, and am certain that others will as well once given a taste of al-Shidyaq’s writing.
Occasionally, a work of brilliance will make it possible for a virtuosic translator to outdo, line for line, a great deal of what’s recently appeared in her target language. In 2012, the English of George Szirtes for Satantango’s Hungarian struck me as superior to the sentences of most novels written that year in English. The same’s true of John Keene’s version of Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst. Scheduled to appear this month, it was perhaps my most unforgettable reading experience of 2013. I’m terribly eager to read more Hilst now—and impatient to get my hands on Keene’s Annotations too.
I was glad I could include an excerpt from Orly Castel-Bloom’s acutely funny—and correspondingly painful—Textile. Castel-Bloom writes uncanny narratives that depict, with sensitivity but very little mercy, contemporary Israeli society. First published in 2006, this unpredictable and frequently grotesque novel is unlike most other Israeli fiction that I’ve encountered; it’s as close to Gogol as Hebrew can get. Translated by the eminent recipient of 2010’s BTBA, Dalya Bilu.
I’d like to devote a bit more space to two titles that have survived months of BTBA reading on my own personal shortlist. The first is Stig Sæterbakken’s Through the Night, whose emotional resonance brought me to tears. I found it the bravest, perhaps even riskiest of the novels in competition. (I was also surprised to discover, in its weaknesses as in its strengths, unlikely affinities with The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol.) Here’s the beginning of a review by Taylor Davis-Van Atta that will appear soon at Asymptote:
In an essay completed not long before his death last year, Stig Sæterbakken wrote: “How strong would our passions be, separated from our fear of dying? We want to live, sure. But we want to die as well. We want to be torn apart. We want to drown in the wonders of ecstasy.” Both the craft of this passage—a single rhetorical question opens a rich vein of content—as well as its sentiment seem to me to epitomize something of both Sæterbakken’s personal philosophy and his artistic ambition. As with all of his writing, the question posed by the Sæterbakken is simple, but deceptively so, situated as it is at an existential crux. And, as with all of his writing, it cannot be ignored nor easily grappled with. Sæterbakken seemingly holds no fear himself when examining the heart of his own experience, swiftly identifying a terrible and unavoidable paradox, an impossibility that nonetheless must be negotiated and further explored. His prose, which so often conveys the mandatory ugliness and pain of existence, yet which is always charged with beauty and great tenderness, is itself infused with paradox. The author of endlessly interesting novels and essays, Sæterbakken is an indispensable artist, one who must be reckoned with and one whose day in the Anglophone world is, I believe, shortly at hand.
Through the Night, Sæterbakken’s last published novel, centers around Karl Meyer, a middle-aged man who, prompted by the sudden suicide of his teenage son, Ole-Jakob, is forced to confront his past disgraces and contemplate his complicity in Ole-Jakob’s death, all while enduring overwhelming feelings of grief. The novel, which almost reads as two separate works, opens in the immediate aftermath of Ole-Jakob’s suicide, with Karl’s wife, Eva, having just lodged an ax in the screen of the family television set. The act is a statement of protest (Karl has been binge-watching since their son’s funeral), but it could almost be interpreted as a telegraphed message from Sæterbakken to his reader regarding what is to come: there will be no further distraction from the situation at hand, however terrifying and all-consuming it becomes. Indeed, the novel quickly delves into Karl’s past through a series of short vignettes in which Karl sets about tracing the history of his life’s two defining love affairs—with Eva and with another woman, Mona, for whom he had recently, if temporarily, left his family.
Issue 5 of Taylor’s Music & Literature, which will publish in spring 2015, will be devoted to Sæterbakken, Chinese novelist Can Xue, and Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. You can order your subscription, and explore numerous reviews and features, here.
Stig Sæterbakken makes a brief appearance in the introduction to the below interview of Mircea Cărtărescu. As director of the Lillehammer Festival, Sæterbakken was instrumental in bringing the Romanian novelist to Norway. There, Cărtărescu spoke with Audun Lindholm, the editor-in-chief of Vagant, Norway’s most prestigious literary magazine. (Before he embarked upon My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgård directed the same journal.) The latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation includes a long conversation between Lindholm and Cărtărescu about the Blinding trilogy. Below, a few questions and answers concerning the volume that has just appeared in English—The Left Wing— thanks to Archipelago Books.
AL: You call the child a bricoleur—could the same be said of the novel’s author?
MC: Yes. Generally, I begin with something ordinary and realistic, something I know well, and then, step by step, the logic of the text takes over. I never know what I’m about to write on the next page, I have no plan, I don’t know where I’m headed. I take advantage of the fact that I write quite slowly: because I write by hand, I have plenty of time to think at the same time. The most important thing is the texture of the individual page—it takes precedence over the story or the characters or the larger structure. Writing by hand creates an intimate relationship with the white sheet of paper, almost functioning like a mirror. When the writing turns out really well, it is as if I saw the final text in front of me, I simply erased the white of the paper that hides it. I have the impression that most prose writers start with a strong impression or a clear image in mind, gradually expanding on it and constructing a whole. I, on the other hand, aim at a writing process that consists of a series of such impressions. And I must admit that when I read other novels, even the most realistic among them, my attention is drawn to these very moments, to certain pages and specific formulations.
AL: “You do not describe the past by writing about old things, but by writing about the haze that exists between yourself and the past,” we read early on in Blinding: The Left Wing. And later: “I was always afraid to go to sleep. Where would my being go to during all those hours?”
MC: Yes, I think that the best pages of Blinding are not those that are realistic but those that are phantasmal, oneiric. The earliest memories we have, from the age of two, three, or four, mainly resemble dreams. We may recall buildings, landscapes, and people, and we have the feeling that they must have been real—otherwise we could not have seen them in such vivid detail. The same is true of some of our dreams. I have strong memories of particular dreams I’ve had, outrageous and disturbing dreams. I envision dreams, memories, and reality like a Möbius strip whose sides are indistinguishable from one another. I try to avoid changing historical facts and instead fill the gaps in my memory with fantasies. When information is hard to come by, I let my pen do the work.
To read the interview in its entirety—or a review of the novel published in the same issue—visit the Winter 2014 number of The Quarterly Conversation.
Commentary and analysis will go in another post . . . for now, here’s the official press release.
January 27, 2011—The 25-title fiction longlist for the 2011 Best Translated Book Awards was announced this morning at Three Percent—a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester. According to award co-founder Chad W. Post, this year’s longlist is a “testament to the number of high-quality works in translation that are making their way to American readers, thanks to a number of talented translators and exciting publishing houses.”
Featuring authors from 19 countries writing in 12 languages, the list highlights established authors, like Javier Marías and David Grossman, alongside newcomers, such as Julia Franck and Abdelfattah Kilito. It also features titles from the past three centuries, from Eline Vere (originally published in Dutch in 1893) to I Curse the River of Time (first published in Norwegian in 2008), and there’s a wide range of length, with Cyclops checking in at 550 pages, and Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico at a much briefer 57 pages.
“Not only is this a collection of the year’s most important and compelling books in translation, it’s a list of high quality books that deserve readers’ attention,” said fiction judge Monica Carter. “These books represent a global perspective that, due to the dedication and talent of the translators, can open up the world to readers of English. The Best Translated Book Awards serve the world literature community of writers, translators, and readers in a way that no other award can.”
Founded in 2007 with the goal of bringing additional attention to international works of literature, the Best Translated Book Awards are one of the only awards in the country honoring original works in translation. Selection criteria include the quality of the work itself, along with the quality of the translation. All original translations (not retranslations or reprints) published between December 1, 2009, and November 30, 2010, were eligible.
This year’s set of judges consists of Monica Carter (Salonica), Scott Esposito (Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation), Susan Harris (Words Without Borders), Annie Janusch (Translation Review), Matthew Jakubowski (writer & critic), Brandon Kennedy (bookseller/cataloger), Bill Marx (PRI’s The World: World Books), Michael Orthofer (Complete Review), and Jeff Waxman (Seminary Co-op and The Front Table).
The award itself has grown greatly over the past few years. Beginning as an online-only event, the Best Translated Book Awards now feature an awards ceremony and a $5,000 cash prize—awarded to each winning author and translator, thanks to the support of Amazon.com.
The 10-title fiction shortlist will be announced on Thursday, March 24th, concurrent with the announcement of the finalists for the poetry award. Winners will be announced on April 29th in New York City, as part of the PEN World Voices Festival.
More details about the awards ceremony will be made available in coming weeks. In the meantime, Three Percent will highlight a book a day from the fiction longlist, with pieces written by translators, reviewers, and editors about the individual qualities of each title, and “why it should win.”
The 2011 BTBA Fiction Longlist (in alphabetical order by author):
The Literary Conference by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)
The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated from the Czech by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive)
The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories by Mario Benedetti, translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales (Host Publications)
A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer)
A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, translated from the French by Donald Wilson (Bitter Lemon)
A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Alyson Waters (New Directions)
The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (New York Review Books)
Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke (Archipelago)
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)
The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (Grove)
Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), translated from the French by David Bellos (Yale University Press)
To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)
The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (New York Review Books)
The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (New Directions)
Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (New Directions)
Cyclops by Ranko Marinković, translated from the Croatian by Vlada Stojiljković, edited by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Yale University Press)
Hygiene and the Assassin by Amélie Nothomb, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions)
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund and the author (Graywolf Press)
A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, translated from the Polish by David Frick (Open Letter)
Touch by Adania Shibli, translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar (Clockroot)
The Black Minutes by Martín Solares, translated from the Spanish by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker (Grove/Black Cat)
On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui, translated from the Spanish by Idra Novey (Dalkey Archive)
Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Tin House)
Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions/Christine Burgin)
Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (Archipelago)
As we announced last week, both here and at the American Literary Translators Association annual conference, Amazon.com is underwriting the 2011 Best Translated Book Awards to the tune of $25,000, allowing each winning translator and author receive a $5,000 cash prize. (And the leftover $5K will allow all of our 14 judges to attend the awards ceremony.)
Having started this award one morning when I was drunk on coffee and ambition, I was really proud and excited to be able to announce this. All I ever wanted to accomplish with this prize was to bring more recognition to excellent works of literature translated by excellent translators. And yes, I’ll take full credit and responsibility for getting and accepting the $25K from Amazon. Obviously I talked to all of our panelist about this before nailing everything down, but I brought the idea to Amazon, and in the end, it was my decision to do this.
Over the past few years I’ve dreamt of how to make the awards more well known, more respected, more institutionalized, and in my opinion, this prize money will do just that. More people will talk about the winners, heaping praise on the winning artists and hopefully helping get the titles into the hands of more readers. And I still think this was the ultimate best decision, even after
obsessing over reading Dennis Loy Johnson’s diatribe about how Melville House will no longer participate in the BTBAs.
I don’t want to engage with Dennis’s core issue (Amazon is evil, therefore money given by Amazon is laced with evil1), since that will get us nowhere fast and detracts from the main point: that winning translators and authors will each receive $5,000 cash this year. Now, I don’t know all the specifics of Melville House translator contracts, but I’m willing to make a guess that $5,000 is equal to, or more than, the average translator gets paid for doing a book for Melville House. (I know it is for Open Letter at least.)
There are a couple things I do want to say in response to Dennis’s post and comments. First off, it’s actually not possible for Melville House to “withdraw from any future involvement” with the prize. We run the BTBAs like the National Book Critics Circle awards—publishers are encouraged to send eligible titles to the panelists, but panelists are also out buying, reading, and evaluating books on their own. We do this for the same reason that we don’t charge a submission fee—so that small presses that may not have the resources and infrastructure of a Random House can still be considered for the prize.
For example, last year at almost the eleventh hour for the voting, Michael Orthofer told all of us about The Weather Fifteen Years Ago by Wolf Haas. None of us had heard of this because Ariadne Press wasn’t aware of the award, or didn’t bother sending us copies, or whatever. But the book was one of the best eligible translations published in 2009, and we wanted everyone to know about it.
Point being, unless Melville House stops publishing literature in translation (which I don’t think is going to happen anytime soon), their titles will still be considered for the award. We won’t expect any review copies to be arriving on the doorsteps of our panelists anytime soon (although seeing that the majority are also reviewers, we might end up receiving more books than we expect), and if a Melville House title is chosen, we will offer the money to the winning author and translator. It’s up to them if they want to reject it or not. We’ll still promote the book, try and get people to read it, etc., etc.
And yes, as in years past, we will try and promote the crap out of these titles through independent bookstores. I worked for years in indie stores before getting into publishing and will always have a soft spot in my heart for what they do. I love the people in bookselling, the feeling of being in a bookstore, of browsing, of overhearing bookish conversations, of getting a recommendation from someone who’s more well-read than I am. Simply put, indie bookstores kick ass. And as was demonstrated with the now on hiatus Reading the World program, and the number of judges on our panels, indie stores are great supporters of international literature, and we (me, Open Letter, Three Percent, the BTBAs, society) would be lost without them.
Since oversharing is a hallmark of this blog, I do want to say that reading about Dennis’s post on dozens and dozens of blogs and tweets and whatever rocked my mind a little bit. As I said above, this was my decision, and the awards my baby, so I take any and all criticisms way more personally than maybe I should. Learning how best to run and promote this awards has been a process. We’re still experimenting with how best to announce the awards, with how to promote the winning titles. And we’ll keep experimenting. Undeniably, Amazon’s contribution will help us reach these goals, and I’m sorry that Dennis has chosen to try and undermine the awards in an attempt to make a political point. We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing, and doing all we can do to champion literature in translation.
OK, back to your regularly scheduled postings.
1 As a corollary to Dennis’s post, I wonder if he’s also withdrawing support from PEN America, the 92nd St. Y, and all of these other organizations that have received funding from Amazon.
Gustavo Faverón Patriau’s The Antiquarian, translated by Joseph Mulligan, is a genre-blending novel, a complete immersion that delves into a lesser-used niche of genre: horror, gothic, the weird. There are visual horrors, psychological ones, and dark corners with threats lurking.. . .
What a wonderful, idiosyncratic book Weinberger has written. I say book, but the closest comparison I could make to other works being published right now are from Sylph Edition’s “Cahiers Series“—short pamphlet-like meditations by notable writers such as Ann Carson,. . .
Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released. . .
When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of. . .
Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no. . .
Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.
The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider. . .
This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The. . .