This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Heather Cleary, translator of Sergio Chejfec, Oliverio Girondo, professor at Sarah Lawrence, and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
I was lucky enough, during the last Brooklyn Book Festival, to catch celebrated Congolese writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila and translator Roland Glasser at the front end of a whirlwind tour marking the release of Tram 83. I remember being struck not only by the force and freshness of the passages they read, but also by the physicality of their recitals. Both kept time with measured flicks of finger and heel, driving home the importance of music to the novel—not only as a theme, but also as an organizing principle of the narrative. (Glasser, in fact, remarked that his process involved re-reading passages in French until he could mark their rhythm without looking at the page; only then would he set about noting down the English.)
At the same time the Kalashnikov swing of its prose challenges the conventional opposition of style and substance, Tram 83 also dips into tradition with a tale of misadventures that recalls picaresque narratives of yore, complete with chapter headings that lay out the events to come, and a friendship (of sorts) suffused with jealousy and betrayal.
Our first stop inside the world of the novel is Northern Station, the ruins of the rail system that is the legacy of colonialism and mineral extraction in the region. Beside us on the platform is Requiem, a former Marxist who has thrown himself headlong into the frenzied capitalism of the newly independent City-State where he lives. He’s involved in a number of illicit operations, and collects compromising photos of powerful local figures as a form of personal insurance. He is waiting for Lucien, with whom he shares a complicated past and little else: Lucien, a former history student and aspiring writer in a place that needs “doctors, mechanics, carpenters, and garbage collectors, but certainly not dreamers,” does his best to remain above the fray in the struggle for survival of the “students, the diggers, the baby-chicks, the for-profit tourists . . . the single-mamas, the human organ dealers, the child-soldiers” around him.
Tram 83 plays out, in many ways, as a call and response between these two incompatible ideologies: the cynical pragmatism of Requiem and the other denizens of the City-State, and Lucien’s naïve—and, ultimately, rather elitist—allegiance to the world of letters. A call and response, that is, with a healthy dose of “background noise,” most notably the refrain of the single-mamas and underage baby-chicks on the hunt for their next clients: “Do you have the time?”
Though he distances himself enough from the local population to warrant a beating that feels like two outside the bar from which the novel gets its name, Lucien eventually, predictably, gets dragged into the tumult. As he drafts and rewrites his magnum opus (“a stage tale that considers this country from a historical perspective. The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the Fall of an Angel, or the Pestle-Mortar Years . . . Characters include Che Guevara, Sékou Touré, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Ceaușescu, not forgetting the dissident General”) for a Swiss expat publisher named Malingeau, he stumbles into robbery and romance—with notebook in hand all the while. But first, he has to arrive:
Northern Station. Friday. Around seven or nine in the evening.
“Patience, friend, you know full well our trains have lost all sense of time.”
The Northern Station was going to the dogs. It was essentially an unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by men of all generations and nationalities combined . . . According to the fickle but ever-recurring legend, the seeds of all resistance movements, all wars of liberation, sprouted at the station, between two locomotives. And as if that weren’t enough, the same legend claims that the building of the railroad resulted in numerous deaths attributed to tropical diseases, technical blunders, the poor working conditions imposed by the colonial authorities—in short, all the usual clichés.
Northern Station. Friday. Around seven or nine.
These opening lines introduce many of the motifs that give the narrative form. The dilapidated train station, a recurring backdrop in the novel, stands in for the broken promise of economic “progress” (as exploitative and destabilizing as that progress proved to be) and provides an ironic foil to the real motor of local society, Tram 83, where deals are made, treaties broken, and livelihoods eked out through seemingly infinite variations on the theme of extortion.
Time is also, always, of the essence: most notably, in the circular quality it takes on through the novel’s many riffs (“Do you have the time?”) and the permanent twilight of its central locale, populated as it is by sleepwalkers and night owls. It’s here, I would argue, between tempo and temporality that Tram 83 does its most interesting work, presenting the harshness of life in the City-State, complete with the claustrophobia generated by the novel’s ubiquitous refrains, with an unmistakable sense of play. Rejecting conservative formal and conceptual models—the African literature of “squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence” bemoaned by Malingeau—Tram 83 is at once a celebration and a lament, a Bildungsroman sans Bildung, a masterful exercise in style, and a valuable contribution to the conversation about what literature in translation is and can be.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Stacey Knecht and is basically a follow-up to her earlier posts. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
I was four, not five, as I’d always assumed until this morning, when I suddenly realized that it was 1961 when the Berlin Wall went up, so I was four, definitely not five, when I saw the cover of a magazine lying in a dentist’s office with an image I didn’t understand but which shocked and fascinated me: a color drawing of a figure clawing its way over a barbed wire-topped wall, mouth stretched in a Munch-like howl, blood dripping from its fingers. I’ve often searched for that cover, in vain, on the Internet, as if to prove to myself that this memory from the depths of my past has some basis in reality. It came to mind again this morning, after a very worthwhile re-reading of Wolfgang Hilbig’s darkly humorous “I” (1993, trans. Isabel Fargo Cole), about an aspiring writer, W. (or Cambert, or I, or “I”), who works as an informant to the East German secret police and, in the process, loses track of his own identity.
The memory of the magazine cover reminded me, once again—because I’ve been to Berlin many times since the Wall came down—just how much has changed in that city. The very fact that I can hop, literally, back and forth across the former border between East and West—it’s a city like any other, yet unlike any other, because the past can never be entirely erased. In the 1980s Berlin of Hilbig’s identity-fluid protagonist, whose mission, “Operation: Reader,” is to infiltrate East Berlin’s literary scene, the Wall is still standing and the “System” is working overtime to keep it that way. But there are doubts (fissures in the Wall?), even among those within the System, as to how long it will last.
(She stopped typing to glance out the window, where Prague, not Berlin, was thawing to reveal the red rooftops she’d forgotten were lying beneath a week-long blanket of snow. Hilbig’s novel, which she had first read on the train to Berlin, and now, for the second time, in Prague—the city where she always felt closest to what one might call her true persona, and, as fate would have it, her flat was situated in the same street where the Czech Secret Police once had their headquarters—was open to one of her favorite passages, in which W. (Cambert, I, “I”) describes the only place where he feels even remotely at ease:
The basement passages beneath Berlin’s houses are generally clean, and most of them are well lit. And this winter they were warm; the frost barely penetrated to their foundations. There were places down there—I thought of one place in particular I often resorted to—where I’d sat for hours on a wooden crate, smoking cigarettes and listening to Berlin’s vast mass asleep above my head. Of course it was quiet down here, you couldn’t hear a thing; down here probably nothing but explosions could be heard. There was but a quiet hum in the stillness, perhaps only my imagination, or perhaps it was the air in the windings of my ear, compressed by the colossal weight above me. The city above my head was like an enormous generator, its ceaseless vibration barely perceptible in everything stone, echoing that faint faraway hum, inexplicably present in all the cement foundations surrounding me, and in the mind-boggling quantities of red and brown bricks assembled and reaching down and anchoring the city’s sea of houses to the earth. A thousand years long – how long, I didn’t know – the stones had been sunk into the bowels of the earth, and it was unclear how many more thousands of years the city could hold out, could endure, with the inconceivable weight of its foundations driven into Europe’s heart.)
I’ve often wondered, and I’m certainly not the only one, how it must’ve been to live under the Communist Regime in Eastern Europe. How far would I have gone to preserve some semblance of personal freedom? How many would I have betrayed, or would I have kept silent, at the risk of imprisonment, or worse? Would I have left it all behind and fled to another life? As Hilbig writes, “To stay, or not to stay?” It’s easy enough to ponder these things in the comfort of my own surroundings, but I can’t honestly say I have an answer.
(The doorbell rang, twice. A postman she had never seen before stood in the dimly lit hallway, holding out a small package addressed to Ms. Susan Branch. Her name wasn’t Susan Branch, or at least it hadn’t been when she’d arrived in Prague. Thank you, she said, taking the package without clarifying the matter, then quickly closed the door, telling herself that if her deception were discovered, she’d blame it on the confusion brought about by her reading—twice—the novel “I”. Though perhaps she deserved some sort of chastisement for attempting to emulate Hilbig’s style in a blog post. Such hubris! Shaking her head to dispel these thoughts, she tore off the brown paper and held up its contents in the greyish light: Isabel Fargo Cole’s second Hilbig translation, The Sleep of the Righteous! Obviously, someone had been monitoring her recent reading activities. Or Susan Branch’s. But this time, she was grateful. And Ms. Branch, whoever she was, would have to wait. She had it first.)
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Kate Garber, bookseller at 192 Books. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
I have yet to find a review of Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes (translated by Siân Reynolds) that even mentions what I think is the most important formal element of the novel—without which a whole series of both criticisms and praise that it receives are entirely moot. Of course it deserves both criticism and praise, but I’m pretty sure that those who ignore this key for interpretation are simply reviewing a novel that doesn’t exist.
Fair warning: what follows will include (or will, in fact, focus on) spoilers; also will probably be totally uninteresting if you haven’t read the book, so go read it first.
I’m going to quote the very last page of the novel, which should almost be enough, just saying, hey, why are you guys ignoring this? You’ll recall that this final portion is Lucie’s voice, after everything has happened and she is out in the middle of nowhere, psychologically recovering.
Valentine did what she judged she had to do. Like everyone. I often think of all the things I should have said to her, and I listen to what she might have replied. I have told myself the story so often that in the end I’ve put together what I really know, inventing scenes that I didn’t see, to make the story stand up, the way I imagine it happened. It was when the narrative started to get going that I began to feel better. Gradually, I’ve come back to life. One day, I realized that I’d been awake for several hours and hadn’t yet thought about Valentine. I felt like Noah at the moment the dove comes back with a little olive branch in its beak. The truth I’ll never know. What remains is the story I’m telling myself, in a way that suits me, a story I can be satisfied with.
In these final sentences, we discover that Apocalypse Baby is not just a novel written by Virginie Despentes; it is a novel by the protagonist, Lucie. It is the story she tells herself to help her recover and survive.
Although this really changes everything, so many elements that I could write a whole series of posts, it is mostly important for negating the most common criticism I hear. There’s this frequent gripe that the big twist—where Valentine blows up a building shortly after Lucie and the Hyena bring her back to Paris—comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t appear well-founded enough. Or, . . . the motivation for her extreme actions seemed deeply unconvincing. Or, . . . the enormity of the twist is unsupported and unprepared for — after which statement, this review contrasts Despentes’ “twist” to a comment made by Gillian Flynn that “thriller-writers must be ‘fair’ to their readers, passing on enough information to allow them to solve the puzzle (while also making damn sure that they’re thrown completely off course).” Or, Apocalypse Baby’s bombastic climax is poorly developed and so carries little emotional weight.
I’d be happy to criticize certain elements of the novel, but in no way should it be criticized for this particular success. Remember what this is: It is a post-traumatic personal narrative, a very intentional retelling of events to appease Lucie’s psychological trauma. So, obviously, the explosion-twist had to “come out of nowhere.” Lucie was specifically given the responsibility of finding and returning Valentine; if she didn’t find a way for her story to remind her that there is no way she could have known what Valentine would do, then it would be a different novel. A third-person detective novel would give hints—but this is a first-person work of narrative therapy, in which even the ostensibly third-person sections are just scenes which Lucie has imagined.
Seeing this as essential is not just the sort of theoretical nitpicking that would make for an easy and fun college essay. Ignoring this twist in perspective is basically like ignoring the fact that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. There’s really no point to the book without it.
Once this is acknowledged, a whole slew of things become much more interesting. The various genres that pop up to shade different scenes. The question of why the protagonist is the most boring character. The nagging feeling that the section about Valentine’s Arab cousins is uncomfortably degrading, possibly racist. Every page takes on a different meaning. It is not a snapshot of various socio-economic groups in contemporary France, as presented from Virginie Despentes’ supposed fictional realism; it is an expression of the way that the post-traumatized brain can view everything differently. This is also supported by Despentes’ preoccupations in her films and writings. If Valentine’s destructive action were the author’s primary focus, we would have seen much more of her psychological build up. But in this novel, her focus is the undeserved but unavoidable feelings of guilt which women can feel, but which they can also survive by the telling of stories. What could be a more reasonable interpretation in light of her other work?
The primary critique I’d make is that I wish Despentes had found some way to make us feel unease about narrative perspective throughout the book. For example, if we were questioning the narrator’s identity in the third-person sections (brilliantly done in Jan Kjærstad’s trilogy, The Seducer, The Conqueror, and The Discoverer), or if there were multiple levels of perspective going on (brilliantly done in Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, which is a diary by the protagonist “edited” by an unknown character whose edits usually contradict the general reader’s opinions about the diary).
Regardless, I recommend printing out the text on the last page of Apocalypse Baby, taping it onto the cover so you don’t forget, and re-reading the novel. It will be a much more satisfying experience.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from judge Kevin Elliott, bookseller at 57th Street Books in Chicago. As a reminder, you can stay up to date with all BTBA goings on by liking our Facebook page and by following us on Twitter. And by checking in regularly here at Three Percent.
The Story Of My Teeth is an experimental novel, but not one that any coffee-house denizen twisting his mustache and wearing a beret will be able to keep and lord over you as a privileged work of literature written for the few. If anything, Valeria Luiselli brings literary know-how and attachment to the masses with the simultaneously entertaining and insightful story of Gustavo Highway Sanchez Sanchez.
Sanchez is a one man traveling circus and auctioneer who makes an art of selling his teeth in black-market auctions. The teeth in question each belong to a different historical figure, and behind each dental attachment, is a story that Gustavo spins in order to sweeten the cavity in what is otherwise a useless commodity. The stories he tells in order to make a sale seem far fetched and somewhat unbelievable, but there is always a customer. Perhaps it is Gustavo’s past as a simple security guard at a Juice Factory that keeps the auction-goers from questioning his sincerity. Even in his final auction lot, where he sells the very teeth he had implanted into his mouth—none other than the original teeth of Marilyn Monroe—the reader’s suspension of disbelief is held. Even beyond the realization that it is Gustavo’s own son who buys his teeth . . . with Gustavo attached.
While the structure of Luiselli’s second novel (her third book to be translated into English) is fragmented and as digressive as Gustavo’s auctioneering, what lies at the core is the power of stories and the interpretation of such to make individual meaning for the people consuming them. After a tragedy in Gustavo’s life that once again centers on his teeth and the theme-park wonderland where he lives in seclusion, we are brought into his biography through the re-interpretation of an auction catalog where a contemporary cast of literary characters, including Latin American novelists such as Yuri Herrera, Cesar Aira, and even Luiselli herself show up in simultaneously hilarious and insightful ways.
If the dizzying array of style and structure isn’t enough for readers, there is the integrated translation of sorts that took place during Luiselli’s first drafts of the novel. The Jumex Juice factory isn’t just a location that the central character of the novel once worked, but a real factory outside of Mexico City where a group of workers met regularly to discuss and help form the fragments of the novel. Furthermore, Christina MacSweeney, who translated the text into English is more present in the story as the author of the book’s Seventh section, “The Chronologic,” which is a timeline of the events surrounding and contained in Teeth’s story, which not only serves as a brief history of Latin American literature, but aids in creating an entirely new book when compared to the original Spanish publication of the novel.
In the end, The Story Of My Teeth is more than just a novel . . . as all novels that impact our lives are. It is a testament to not only the work that goes into translation, but also to the value of storytelling in a world that sometimes seems to commodify authenticity through our all-access lifestyle. A lifestyle that can seem bland once the curtain of mystery is pulled away only to reveal another character waiting behind it.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge P. T. Smith. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
There have been books throughout the year that stand out because they astound on a general level, accomplish a number of things well. Others are memorable because they do one or two things incredibly well. In some cases, it’s as if the books are devoted to that one ambition, to that one possibility of literature. This seeking out of one specific bit of a book, whether it’s something in the structure, tone, style, or subject matter, etc. has a couple motivations. The most common one, unfortunately, is when a book isn’t very good, and I still want to engage with it. I have faith there must still be something interesting there, and I seek it out. When it’s found, not only does the reading experience turn more pleasurable, but help forms another way to think about writing. Less common, more worth spending time writing about, are the books that have the one fascinating aspect and do it so well that the reading becomes about that singular pleasure, even if others play in the background. And in the end, I just find this way of identifying a single stand out aspect of a book a way of entertaining myself and beginning conversations. So, here are some BTBA books from the latter category, of books memorable from one pleasure, rather than mundane books scarcely saved.
The first such experience in BTBA reading was Violette Leduc’s Thérèse and Isabelle (trans. Sophie Lewis). The story of a love affair, kept secret, between two girls at a boarding school, Thérèse and Isabelle is so hyper focused it is nearly overwhelming, which is exactly what Leduc portrays. It is unrelentingly physical: “My recollection of the two fingers grew sweeter, my swollen flesh began to recover, bubbles of love rose up. But Isabelle was there again, the fingers turned faster and faster. Where had this mounting wave come from? Smooth wrappings inside my knees. My heels were drugged, my visionary flesh was dreaming.” There is little to no time spent describing how or why these two are attracted to each other, because it is irrelevant. All that matters is the overpowering attraction, the desperate emotional desire that courses in their bodies.
With absolutely nothing in common with Thérèse and Isabelle, Christian Kracht’s Imperium (trans. Daniel Bowles) may have at its heart something to say about the blind following of ideals that led to the world wars, as the cover copy wants to emphasize, but that was not the compelling reason to read. Instead, the humor, the parody of historical adventure novels, is the source of pleasure. The hero is the joke, August Engelhardt, idealist, blind to his flaws and to the fact that other people aren’t the naïve waif he is. His faith is in coconuts, the purest food devised by God, and in nudity. Telling the story of Engelhardt’s travel to New Guinea, his life on an island there, and the failure of his attempt to found a society, the narrator celebrates and mocks sailing and adventure tales, all the while cynically undermining, knowing his utter failure is coming, the man it puts forth as a hero.
It’s through prose that makes the most minute details and observations into something affecting that Jean Echenoz’ story collection The Queen’s Caprice (trans. Linda Coverdale) finds its identity. The opening story, “Nelson,” is of that oftentimes epically depicted historical figure, Admiral Nelson, but this is not of battles and history being made. Instead, it is him visiting friends, their care for him, his adjustment to age and his loss of arm and eye. It is a simple, pleasing tale of him planting acorns so for them to grow into “trees whose trunks will serve to build the future royal fleet.” Only then can the grand scheme of history return through his death in battle. The title story is a roving description of a country landscape, leaving a writer’s hand to travel across the surrounding land, in details of hills and trees, all building to make a tiny moment with ants full of depth and insight. These stories are above all quiet. That quietness is the success of The Queen’s Caprice, parsing down even and abundance to the quietness scenes that can communicate the most.
Regina Ullmann’s The Country Road (trans. Kurt Beals) is a story collection that is completely of a time and space, yet a step outside of that, a skewed mirror image not quite real, but unsettled. The Dream of My Return (trans. Katherine Silver) is Horacio Castellanos’ distillation of paranoia, anxiety, and haunting guilt of a culture, of a time, into the daily life of a man who may in fact be utterly safe. This could go on, this way of reading and talking about books, the aspect that makes one memorable, makes it stand off from others, but these are the best of the bunch so far, though if I wrote this a week from now, Léon Bloy’s Disagreeable Tales (trans. Erik Butler) would probably make the cut for its triumph of the sinister.
Today’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Before encountering the massive, indispensable Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector, I was already a fan. I enjoyed The Hour of the Star and was jolted by the existential brilliance of The Passion of G.H. However, enjoying something and writing about it can often be mutually exclusive. You see, I’m in over my head. Lispector looms large in my mind, a giant, and to attempt writing about her work in any critical way will only expose my shortcomings. More than anything, I’m an enthusiast. I love books and authors not because I always understand them but often because I don’t. The beauty and strangeness of the language, the veil of mystery that hovers above the text—this is what I love most about literature. Did I fully understand Bolaño’s 2666? Or Adler’s Speedboat? Or Paul Metcalf’s Genoa? Of course not. Yet my love for them is powerful and authentic. My favorite books are the ones that demand to be revisited, that contain the ineffable, that bring a sense of wonder, even a blissful confusion. And so, being in waters too deep, I’ll simply list the reasons why you should (and you really should) read the Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector
1. She’s utterly, and without exception, a singular writer.
2. She doesn’t indulge the reader or suffer fools.
3. She writes sentences like: “The sun caught in the blinds quivered on the wall like a Portuguese guitar.”
4. The mythology which surrounds her is deserved.
5. Read as a whole, the Complete Stories is the entire breadth of a literary genius’ artistic life expressed in stories.
6. Like many New Directions books, it’s also an object of art. As such it’s something for guests to envy and/or covet. In this spirit, three copies should be acquired: one for the coffee table, one for the shelf with the other Latin American greats and one, of course, to read.
7. She mixes the domestic and the mythical seamlessly.
8. In her stories there exists no “known,” only the act of grasping and searching for the known.
9. She’s perhaps more enigmatic than even Franz Kafka or Fernando Pessoa.
10. There’s often a humdrum, domestic setting softly rearranged by a kind of ecstatic madness (of language, of character, or both).
11. The translation by Katrina Dodson is lucid and a feat of translated literature.
12. Her stories are dense with the mystery of being alive.
13. The story “One Hundred Years of Forgiveness” opens with: “If you’ve never stolen anything you won’t understand me. And if you’ve never stolen roses, then you can never understand me. I, when I was little, used to steal roses.”
14. Epiphanies aren’t cheap and her stories are replete with them.
15. She’s silly, obtuse, complex, irreverent, satirical and mournful often inside a single paragraph.
16. She will undoubtedly lead you to other Latin American greats like Machado de Assis or Silvina Ocampo or Liliana Heker. Trust me, there’s tons.
17. When she smacks against the confines of language, the reader witnesses her frustration and is all the richer for it.
18. She has more registers in a single story than many 500 page novels.
19. The interior world and the exterior world are given equal attention, often at the same time.
20. The story “Brasilia” is worth the price of admission.
21. Her writing is religious or mystical without trying to be; it simply is.
22. Lispector had no regard for the “rules” of writing and this disregard grants a freedom and vigor evident throughout the book.
23. She’s indulgent and pragmatic: she will digress on a whim and then smack the reader with the point that she’s making.
24. A morning of solitude, a cup of coffee or tea and her stories will bring unequivocal bliss.
25. She contains multitudes.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Jason Grunebaum, senior lecturer at the University of Chicago, and translator from the Hindi. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
When November turns to December, and foreboding over sinking temperatures and greying Midwestern skies is followed by a fear of even colder, starker days to come, suddenly and possibly forever, and when this fear leads one’s thoughts to turn further inward, toward self-absorption, toward the soul, to questions of pride and guilt, joy and innocence, and choices that make life worth living, or not, one could do far worse in raveling and unraveling these questions than taking a night walk through snowy, moody Paris with the impulsive, talkative Changarnier, his co-walker Violette, encountering with them along the way a little man, a police captain, a witness to a murder, and confessed confessions, both real and imaginary, for crimes, equally fuzzy whether true, against self and others, all courtesy of Emmanuel Bove’s 1932 novella A Raskolnikoff, translated by Mitchell Abidor, with an introduction by Brian Evenson, and published by Red Dust.
Changarnier is a lonely man with worn shoes living in a squalid room who’s visited one evening by Violette, frail and dressed in a ragged, dyed rabbit coat. He berates her for her wretchedness one moment, and idealizes her the very next, proclaims his love, asks for her faith in him. She takes both pronouncements in stride, and accedes to his suggestion for fresh air out in the open. The oxygen activates his brain:
[That] boundlessness above the city’s limits, above human order and constructions, seemed to him to be a spectacle, a spectacle that contrasted with the world in which he found himself. He understood that there was an immensity which he was not part of, that no one was part of, and since no one was part of it, he understood that beneath the magnificent sky, on this overpopulated earth, it belonged to whoever knew how to get by. For a brief moment he saw himself to be a brother of the happy, of the unhappy, of the rich, of the ill. He resembled all these men, and this feeling gave him a shiver of joy. But it seemed to him that all these people had reasoned the same way before he did, and that was why they had been able to seize a portion of the happiness of this world while he hadn’t been able to.
“Walk faster,” he said to Violette, who was struggling behind him.
“But where are we going?” she asked, for she was getting tired of being outside.
“I don’t know. We’re walking straight ahead with the hope that something will happen to us.
These micro-reversals of the mind in quick succession are the sparks that keep the novella’s pace lively, and are emblematic of the “some things” that soon do indeed happen to the two. A stop in a café leads to discussion of possibly joining the Foreign Legion, possibly becoming an usherette in a theatre, maybe saving payday money for splurges on restaurants and hotel beds and cigarettes.
A carelessly broken glass prompts an altercation with the café owner, a tense exit from the café, and the expansion of the duo to a triad with the entrance of the Little Man, witness of everything, who offers classified information about the true identity of the café owner. (Changarnier is nonplussed; Violette is upset). The Little Man decides to tag along.
Soon Changarnier is upset, and imagines killing the Little Man, who refuses to get lost. His upset quickly transforms into a fantasy of homicide. At the dream trial for the dream killing, Changarnier recounts in horror as the court sides with the dead Little Man. “In this dream, death didn’t prevent him from being real. On the contrary, it made him look like a victim, a martyr, and consequently he attracted everyone’s sympathy and protection.”
The Little Man soon confesses to the crime of uxoricide, which he got away with but has forever trapped him. “I’m aware that I will remain miserable for the rest of my life. No joy will ever warm my heart. No happiness is accessible to me. I’m not capable of attaining the only one that’s reserved to me, that of expiation. What’s left for me? Repentance.”
The two shake the Little Man, but Changarnier must repent, too, for a heinous crime he insists he committed. Violetta is baffled. Now possessed with the goal of turning himself over the authorities, Changarnier happily walks into a crowd of cops on the lookout at that moment for someone guilty of something.
He is hauled in, but not without a fight. The final section of the novella describes a cat-and-mouse interrogation down at the station, with Changarnier claiming his struggle was because he wanted to give himself up. “I tried to flee in order to run to you, to turn myself in,” he insists. The police captain is not amused.
What makes this novella so delightful is the feeling that Notes from the Underground and Crime and Punishment have been distilled to a 104-page novella: the character unpredictability and looking-glass morality, detail-driven mood and quickly shifting intrigue.
Perhaps this was the very challenge Emmanuel Bove gave himself. Doubtless he wrote the book in winter, the very season you ought to pick it up, too.
[Note from Chad: If you’re interested in Bove, you should also check out _Henri Duchemin and His Shadows, which came out in July from NYRB.]
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Tom Roberge from New Directions, Albertine Books, and the Three Percent Podcast. He’s not actually a BTBA judge, but since he’s helping run the whole process, he thought he’d weigh in and post as well. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
I’m just back from seeing Houellebecq’s new cover, Submission, and am writing you to try to make sense of it. My first impression is that it’s asking the viewer to do a lot of work. And I’m not entirely sure it’s successful, commercially, to have taken this approach, but it has been taken and here we are.
The canvas is bleached white, the material left untreated. No gloss. No coating at all. The visual elements consist mostly—with one enigmatic exception—of black text, all in the same elegantly simplistic serif font employed with a few variations on style and formatting. SUBMISSION itself appears in all capital letters, centered horizontally (as is all of the text). It’s also the largest of the words on the canvas, sitting atop the others in an obvious position of primacy. Below this are the words A NOVEL, also in all caps, but so much smaller that it seems almost inessential, a presumed fact, perhaps, or, on the other hand, something no one particularly cares if the viewer incorporates into the overall message. On either side of these two words, stretching to the width of the word SUBMISSION, are thin black lines that serve to separate SUBMISSION from the text below. Bracketing A NOVEL in between these division lines only further enhances the impression that the proviso was included reluctantly. That said, I admit the possibility that rather than it being a bit player in the visual drama unfolding, it might be the most subtly important clue to understanding the assemblage, a nuanced sort of knowing nod, the artist saying, basically, “I know you know it’s a novel; no need to shout.” I’m unsure. Beneath the line is Michel Houellebecq’s name, centered, with his first and last names occupying their own lines. Michel is formatted slightly smaller than Houellebecq, the latter of which is in all caps while the former is not. It seems obvious that the artist wanted HOUELLEBECQ to be as large as possible within the decided-upon design, by which I mean that it couldn’t be wider than the word SUBMISSION above. The length of the name prevents an equivalent size, and so the result is that it’s smaller. Alas. My eyes, for what’s it worth, are consistently drawn to the tail on the capital Q at the end of HOUELLEBECQ. It seems, to me, to be somewhat ostentatious, as though the font was largely designed with great restraint, apart for a few flourishes, this Q included. Lacking any other tailed letters, this Q stands out and hints at a certain disassociative quality to the work. Below HOUELLEBECQ is another line, and beneath that, in nearly the same size font as A NOVEL above, is a line that reads AUTHOR OF, and below that, in a slightly larger although still quite small all-caps letters (the three words don’t span the width of the words SUBMISSION or HOUELLEBECQ) is a previous work’s title, THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES. All of these elements, I should add, are debossed, which definitely made me smile to myself when I realized this fact. Submission, recession, blending in… there’s something playful happening here, and I appreciate it.
There is one remaining design element to mention, one that, even as I write, I’m still trying to make sense of. Stretching from the top of the frame to the bottom, edge to edge, is a thin red line. Writing that phrase (thin red line), made me, just now, think of the Terrance Malick film, which led me to the Internet for a few minutes of research on the possible origins and meaning of the term and, perhaps, I’d hoped, an indication to its visual manifestation here. (You see what I mean about asking the viewer to do a lot of work?) Wikipedia’s page on “Red Line (Phrase)” includes the following in its “Thin Red Line” subsection:
From British English, an entirely different figure of speech for an act of great courage against impossible order or thinly spread military unit holding firm against attack, a or the “thin red line”, originates from reports of a red-coated Scottish regiment at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. A journalist described a “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel” with the appearance of the 93rd (Highland) Regiment and parts of the Turkish army as they stood before (and repelled) a vastly superior force of Russian cavalry. The reference soon became apocopated into the thin red line, and famously described by Rudyard Kipling in the poem “Tommy” as “the thin red line of ‘eroes [heroes].”
Is it safe to assume the artist’s intention was an allusion to this sort of militaristic framework? I mean, it’s never safe to assume such things, but we do it all the time. We’re incapable of refraining.
Having gotten these thoughts down in writing, I am still of the opinion that the cover shirks some of its responsibilities in terms of providing context or access points. But to be fair to the artist, a lot of that work has been done by the media, which has repeated Houellebecq’s name and the title and a brief (if perhaps inaccurate) summary of the work ad nauseam over the last year or so. Its fame precedes itself, as they say. And so the artist needs only to convey the bare essentials, to remind viewers of certain recent events, of discussions and articles and pictorial cues that may have already left a deep impression on the viewer. It’s communication via nudging. Everything else—the debossed text, the thin red line—is fun and games, a friendly wink to the cognoscenti.
I think I like it.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Amanda Nelson, managing editor of Book Riot. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
I once heard a theory that the American South (where I live) has such a higher crime rate than the rest of the country because of the weather. That because it’s so hot and muggy and disgusting here for so much of the year, people are extra on-edge, extra cranky, extra mean and prone to lashing out. There’s so much that’s nonsensical and completely not based in fact about the idea, of course, but it stuck with me. Maybe that’s why I’m so obsessed with cold weather whodunits. What would make someone commit a violent crime in a place with such soothing, cool, dark weather? Where you could, instead of hurting someone, sit in a cozy sweater and drink a beer?
When the books started rolling in for the BTBA judging, I snatched up the Northern European murder mysteries first. It’s hard to write a noteworthy one after the success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but that isn’t stopping anyone from trying. And while cold weather murder mysteries have a reputation for being very Which Pretty Young Girl Is Going To Be Murdered Next (hello, Dragon Tattoo influence), that hasn’t really been the case with this year’s crop:
Ice Queen by Nele Neuhaus, translated by Steven T. Murray
The body of a 92 year old Holocaust survivor is found in his home after he’s been shot, execution style. When his autopsy is performed, a blood marker tattoo for Hitler’s SS is found on his arm. Soon after, two similar murders of elderly people occur, and investigators realize all the victims are friends of one wealthy baroness who fled the second World War. Now she’s an elderly philanthropist and matriarch of her old family. The investigators follow the murderer’s trail back to the end of WWII and into Poland. The sleight-of-hand here is pretty heavy: you’re so focused on the obvious choice for the murderer that you don’t see the real one coming at all . . . to the point that you might feel a little cheated. But still an interesting read, especially for history buffs.
Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Victoria Cribb
The Inspector Erlendur series is famous already, and this prequel takes us back to a look at Erlendur as a newbie detective. This one also has a victim who isn’t a pretty dead girl (yay, let’s stop doing that altogether!) and is instead a homeless, alcoholic middle-aged man. Erlendur comes to recognize the man after he runs into him a few times while patrolling the city at night, and when he’s found dead, Erlendur is the only person who cares enough to find out if it was foul play. He chases his leads into the underbelly of Reykjavik to find out the truth. This one is a slow build: there’s no big car chases to speak of, no real glamour or ultra-violence. But that’s what I appreciated about it—it’s a good lazy Sunday book.
The Swimmer by Joakim Zander, translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel
A political aide raised in the middle of nowhere in the Swedish archipelago by her grandparents (she’s an orphan) discovers a secret via an old lover. An aging, worn out spy who abandoned his newborn baby after watching her mother die in order to keep his cover wrestles with his past by doing laps all day in the swimming pool. When the political aide has to go on the run and the old spy finds out who she is (you can guess, surely), the two of them run for their lives across Europe. It’s a Bourne-style adventure without the amnesia, but with the thrills and political intrigue. This one is a dash of WHOdunit, with a sprinkling of whichCOUNTRYdunit, or whichCORPORATIONdunit. Thrillers are so often about what a spy’s life is like in the thick of it, it was refreshing to encounter one nearing the end of his tenure.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Heather Cleary, translator of Sergio Chejfec, Oliverio Girondo, professor at Sarah Lawrence, and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
I’ve been planning for weeks to write about Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, which got under my skin in a way few books do. It’s not just that it’s impossible to put down—in both Herrera’s Spanish and Lisa Dillman’s English, its language is a fever dream of mixed registers and literary allusions pulled perfectly taut across the story. This would probably be reason enough to add my voice to the chorus of praise for the novel, but it seems even more timely to talk about Signs now, less than a week after Donald Trump, the poster child for backward thinking about borders and the people who cross them, had another moment in the spotlight on Saturday Night Live. Less so because the novel tells the story of an fierce, unflappable young woman who makes the journey from what is recognizably (though not explicitly) Mexico into what is recognizably (though not explicitly) the USA in search of her missing brother—though it is indeed a compelling story—than because the novel offers a powerful, nuanced take on the negotiation of those contact zones in which not only nations, but also languages, traditions, and identities meet, complicate, and enrich one another.
We meet Makina—the protagonist of Signs Preceding the End of the World and, in the words of Francisco Goldman, the “heroine who redeems us all“—as she stands on a different, but even more intractable border: the one separating life from death. In fact, the very first words of the novel are the beautifully impossible “I’m dead,” exclaimed as the ground at her feet, weakened by centuries of rapacious silver extraction, caves in—swallowing a man as he crosses the street “and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around, and even the screams of passers-by.”
Makina, however, refuses to be among those “sent packing to the underworld” that day—she has a mission to carry out. Her mother has asked her to deliver a note to her brother, who went missing after getting conned into crossing the border in search of land supposedly left to their family. To accomplish this, she first needs to visit another underworld: the lairs of three local gangsters who will help her make it to the other side. From there she travels to the border, crosses the stygian river that separates the two lands with the aid of a taciturn gentleman named Chucho (hired by said gangsters to act as her guide), is shot by vigilantes but somehow manages to escape, and is nearly arrested as she homes in on her brother’s whereabouts.
If all this sounds fairly epic, that’s because it is: one of the things that make this work so much bigger than the breadth of its spine is the way Herrera weaves allusions to pre-Columbian and Western narrative traditions throughout. Given the nine chapters that lead to our heroine’s descent into “The Obsidian Place with no Windows or Holes for Smoke,” we can pick Dante out as one of Makina’s travel companions, and the ordeals she faces as she crosses the border—not to mention her almost inhuman physical and psychological resilience—clearly bear the mark of myth.
In addition to this contact and flow between cultures past and present, zones of linguistic contact are central to the novel. As the switchboard operator and de facto interpreter of the small town where she lives, Makina, is herself a model of these modes of exchange. Though she is able to speak “native tongue,” “latin tongue,” and the “new tongue” of those who have gone up North, she knows “how to keep quiet in all three, too.”
Among the few possessions she takes on her journey is a “latin-anglo dictionary,” despite the fact that “those things were by old men and for old men.” The world, however, is not revealed to her through the neat equivalences of the dictionary, but rather through moments of non-transference between languages, when one shines through the other like a beacon. Standing firmly astride another border, a frontier almost as carefully policed as the one separating Makina from the land that swallowed her brother, Herrera deftly takes on the social politics of a language that is recognizably (though not explicitly) Spanglish:
More than a midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born . . . Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one.
It is not just that this third tongue stands alongside the other two, its fluid definitions perpetually subject to change. What is so striking about Herrera’s description is that it is precisely from this unstable position at the border between two languages that this third one creates meaning more rich than either side alone could produce:
Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light, and the act of giving? It is not another way of saying things: these are new things.
Makina’s gaze makes things new in just this way, especially for the North American reader of Dillman’s vibrant, limber translation. Supermarkets are “cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand,” in which the “anglogaggle at the self-checkouts” purchases their goods and then seeks to “make amends for their momentary one-up by becoming wooden again so as not to offend anyone.” (“Anglogaggle“—a felicitous play on Herrera’s “gabacherío“—may well be one of the best words I’ve ever seen in print.) Baseball is a game the anglos play every week “to celebrate who they are” on “an immense green diamond rippling in its own reflection” set among “tens of thousands of folded black chairs, an obsidian mound barbed with flint, sharp and glimmering.”
Seeing the elements of a familiar world through the lens of an unfamiliar one makes the attributes of both resound, and what is not to be learned from this?
Though the exceedingly timely and nonetheless timeless Signs Preceding the End of the World does not hold back in evoking the violence and exploitation that haunts the passage across the US-Mexico border, Herrera was both sage and skilled enough to write a book that occupies this space in a way that, in its dizzying array of registers and allusions, refuses to be confined by the socio-political reality it depicts. In this virtuosic feat, he seems to have accomplished the impossible: he has offered a new and vital way of looking at a subject too often passed through the pulverizing mill of political rhetoric.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Kate Garber, bookseller at 192 Books. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
While many people assume that booksellers base their recommendations on “theme” or “setting” or other similarities of content, I think that the real trick is understanding which need or compulsion has been sated with a certain book, and then handing that book to others who have a similar desire they’d like to fulfill (be it hope, confusion, a desire to be disturbed or to be challenged, to feel set in a place—any place, not just the same country they just read about and loved—or to be drawn along by a story where they just can’t stop turning the page).
Sometimes I realize I’ve been playing a bookseller game with popular literary novels, in which (a) I don’t read a single line of the novel, and (b) I immediately forget both the jacket copy and any review I’ve ever read of it. Then I proceed to recommend the book to surprisingly correct people, knowing exactly why they’ll love it. This is possible thanks to the generosity of people who shop in bookstores, because they LOVE to talk about books.
Recently, or I guess for the past three years, I’ve been playing this game with Elena Ferrante. After finding so many satisfied readers of the Neapolitan Quartet,1 listening to which needs these books have fulfilled, and passing along the recommendation to others, I wanted to go deeper into this phenomenon and figure out not only why readers found them so gripping, but also what allowed so many readers to discover them in the first place (as my recommendations have been merely a drop in the bestselling bucket).
During the past two months, I’ve started asking everyone who buys one of the latter novels: How did you happen to pick up My Brilliant Friend in the first place?
Almost everyone I have talked to either received it from a friend, or bought it because (a) that one friend they really trust recommended it, or (b) multiple friends recommended it in a short period of time. So my new question was, Who are these friends? Who are our patient zeros and why did they buy it?
I remember that when the first of my coworkers picked it up, it was just after the James Wood review in the New Yorker a few years ago. From there, another coworker read it, and we’ve been recommending ever since. So we can conclude: Mr. Wood started one strain.
Another strain that led to our door came from a different bookseller. Buying the fourth novel at my shop, a customer said that she got My Brilliant Friend because she was at Terrace Books in Brooklyn looking for a copy of The Goldfinch, which wouldn’t be out in paperback for a couple more weeks. They told her to read the Ferrante in the meantime, she did, and is now a huge fan. Such perfect bookselling. Good work, Terrace.
Not to ignore Ferrante’s other novels (the short ones), a different introduction happened when I apparently recommended The Days of Abandonment (I don’t even remember!) and after reading that, a guy has read everything else of hers.
One regular customer at 192 Books bought a copy recently and blew through all four in a matter of weeks. I couldn’t remember whether we’d specifically recommended it, but apparently she was just in browsing and couldn’t figure out what she wanted, but had seen My Brilliant Friend on display at the shop for years on end, so she figured she would finally pick it up. This brings us to another issue: The reason she had avoided it for so long was . . . the cover. She has extremely good taste in fiction and couldn’t believe that this would be a great novel. (Decided afterwards that it certainly was.)
Rather than complain about the covers, I’ll just present a few responses. A huge number of people complain as they come up to the register, saying that it’s such a shame—and these are mostly the people who love the books. It’s only the wild force of critical and personal acclaim that caused them to read My Brilliant Friend despite the way it looked, and they would have picked it up sooner with a different jacket.
This does make it a bit difficult when recommending, as there’s often a level of disbelief. Someone was at the register, just about to purchase it, with a hesitation we didn’t understand, and she finally asked: “Is it like a really good cheesy Lifetime movie?” Noooo, ignore the covers! And she looked relieved.
A customer was buying the fourth book and said that her best friend’s husband gave My Brilliant Friend to his wife, and several of her friends. She loves them, and when I said I haven’t read them yet but am looking forward to it, she said, “Ignore the covers! It’s really not all melodrama like it looks!”
(Disclaimer: there was one customer who told me that she picked it up at Spoonbill & Sugartown because she liked the look of them, the packaging. And a few people did mention that it was the quotation, “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry . . .” on The Story of a New Name that first interested them.)
Another funny hesitation (among those who keep up with the book world) is the following: “I don’t know, I mean I tried to read the Knausgaard books and couldn’t get into them . . .” “. . . ????”, I say. Such a weird but understandable conflation. Besides the game of Are you a Ferrante or a Knausgaard?, some people think of them as similar, just because four books in a series came out during the same years, and the same people were talking about them.
But back to the idea of melodrama: my non-scientific survey concludes that this is precisely how many Italian readers view The Neapolitan Quartet. Comments include:
“It’s like chick lit.”
“She’s not a real writer.” (Not like Alberto Moravia, for example, whom this customer doesn’t particularly like, but thinks is a Real Writer.) She believes that the reason Americans like her so much is that there’s all this stuff in the New Yorker and New York Times saying she’s so great, so everyone believes them.
Regardless of the question of Objective Quality, there’s certainly something to be said for these American responses I often hear:
So, in conclusion, the main point I’d make is that The Neapolitan Quartet is thriving because they are loved, they are forced upon friends based on that love, and the critics may have started something but they certainly didn’t create it. A love that makes books featuring covers that most people don’t understand turn into bestsellers at many independent bookstores is a beautiful affront to tenets of publicity and marketing, as all the tricks of the trade will make for great initial sales, but won’t turn into a long-lasting flood like this.
Of course I don’t know which side I’ll take, now that I’m finally going to read them. Either way, I love people who love Elena Ferrante. And I will continue to recommend the Quartet to many people who “just want a really good book.”
1 Quickly wanted to mention that all of the books in the Neapolitan Quartet are translated by Ann Goldstein.
Today’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
The front cover of Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous boasts an enormous column of black smoke rising into the sky. This cover is not only fitting, it’s ideal. Ash, smoke, dust, fog, everything a reader might expect to find from an author plumbing the depths of life in communist East Germany abounds in these mesmerizing tales.
For readers of Thomas Bernhard or Laszlo Kraznhorkai, or even Kafka, the settings are familiar; dark, ashen, bleak landscapes. Blocks of dimly-lit apartment houses line the streets; unemployment, illness and futility flourish. It’s a world where the only occupations which exist are seemingly set in boiler rooms and factories, day-long shifts carting ash to large simmering pits on the outskirts of town.
Describing the neighborhood of his childhood, a character writes:
Between the sidewalks was but a straight track of sand, perhaps once light, now since times unknown black-gray, as though in proof that a mix of many colors ultimately yields darkness. Coal dust and ash had blackened it to the pith, and then had come the reddish mass of crushed brick, the rubble from bombed-out houses that was used to even the surface. After each rain you gazed into a bed of murky, vicious mud; in the dry spells of summer the street was an endless reservoir of dust that advanced all the way into stairwells and seemed to glow in the midday sun; it covered barefoot boy’s skin up to the thighs with the black bloom of inviolability.
Happiness and peace are not options for these characters; paranoia and sickness are guaranteed and little else. Yet for all the gloom and despair the glow of Hilbig’s writing illuminates the hidden shadows and obscured corners of this bleak existence. A stunning translation by Isabel Fargo Cole only confirms the immense talent and depth of Hilbig, one of the most awarded German writers of his time.
Born in 1941, Hilbig’s generation lived divided lives: growing up in the world of communism for the first half and the liberated freedom of the West for the second. Hilbig was always a thorn in the sides of the authorities however, writing exactly what he saw with his own eyes and consequently he was able to move (exiled perhaps) to West Germany years before the wall came down. English-language readers now have the good fortune to read this brilliant author whose stories range from seeing an East-German village through childhood recollections to the day-to-day drudgery of a boiler room. Darkness thrives in these stories no doubt, however there is an affectionate, almost mythic quality to these locations; one sees it’s not so much a place Hilbig is describing as a time—ineffable, inscrutable childhood. Like East Germany, it is the place one can never return to.
The final story, “The Dark Man,” swells with paranoia and dark humor. It begins with a disembodied voice seemingly prank-calling the narrator, who insists that they meet, Only as the story progresses—criss-crossing between Mannheim, Leipzig, Frankfurt, amidst insomnia, sickness and sleeping pills—does the narrator realize the caller is an ex-Stasi official who years earlier had spied on him. A dark comedy, a snapshot of an unhappy marriage and an indictment of the German secret service follows. In other hands this may have been messy or imprecise, but the story is rigorous and focused, thanks in large part to the strength of the translation. Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation is so compelling in fact that the title story reads almost like a prose-poem:
The dark divests us of our qualities. Though we breath more greedily, struggling for life, for some fleeting web of substance from the darkness . . . it is the darkness that forms a mute block above us: intangible matter our breathes cannot lighten . . .
One reads these stories and realizes they’re in the hands of an immense talent. There’s a reason Laszlo Kraznhorkai wrote the introduction to this incredible collection, a reason Hilbig is considered the greatest prose writer to emerge from the former East Germany. I’ve mentioned other authors to give a sense of context and aesthetics, however the reader uninitiated to the likes of Thomas Bernhard or Bohumil Hrabal will enjoy the power of these stories on the strength of the writing alone.
It might be generational or simply coincidence, but three of the books I’ve read on this year’s BTBA list have been story collections authored by writer’s whose lives were ostensibly split in half by history. Brief Loves that Live Forever by Andreï Makine and Calligraphy Lesson by Mikhail Shishkin were writers that both grew up with Soviet communism and witnessed its collapse. Like Hilbig, all three saw the systems they were indoctrinated into fall apart. Similarly, all three collections are tinged by nostalgia and regret, awash with meditations on worlds gone by. Having read these books in a short period of time has only reminded me that our fates and destinies are tied inexorably to forces larger than ourselves. Read as autobiography or fiction, The Sleep of the Righteous will linger in the reader’s mind for a long time to come. It is literature of the first order.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge P. T. Smith. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
For my first BTBA post, I wrote about sci-fi in translation, using reading habits as a pathway into the topic. For my second post, I’m going to repeat the pattern, except this time the topic is Quebecois literature in translation. Six or seven years ago, I obsessively read from one country at a time. For a year, it was only Japanese literature, and then after that it was German literature. If I still read that way, then around two years ago, I would have begun reading only Quebecois literature. There may be less ground to cover, a province instead of a country, and simply less translated, but it is still a vast and varied arena, and one that at this moment, is vibrant, healthy, and growing.
In Vermont, I’m only an hour from the border with Quebec, only an hour from the language of another culture, and yet oftentimes, Vermont’s greatest exposure to Quebec is either Quebecois coming here to vacation, shop, or Vermonters going to Montreal, and only Montreal, to do the same. The exchange is economic, and based on one small aspect of the province. It makes for a disheartening cultural connection, and one person reading translations from the province may not do a single thing to change that, but in my own life, and what it’s done for friendships with the Quebecois I’ve been fortunate to connect with, translation has been heartening, human connection. So often, we think of reading translation as reaching to the other side of the globe, instead of to a culture so close, yet with the language barrier in the way. That’s not to put some edifying factor as the motivation. Though these tangible, liberal arts, reasons are admittedly satisfying, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with Quebecois literature were the falling not a deeply pleasurable reading experience.
There is some strange form of sentimentality at play. Outside of genre reading, for years now I’ve mostly only read translations. There’s been little choice in the matter: it’s simply where I’ve found the most compelling books. The absence of American literature has been replaced by the dark, funhouse-skewed mirror of Quebec. The landscape, the cultural habits, the experiences, especially as a New Englander, are in so many ways familiar, but foreign, not just across border, but across language, with parallel traditions, and ever aware that it’s looking back across the mirrored plane. Reading the novels and stories on the other side of the mirror, it’s obvious how self-conscious Quebecois are in their relationship to the rest of Canada, and to the US, aware of the dominance on the other side, and as the accept the influence, remain resentful and determined to prove that they, the reflection, is a living, powerful creature.
It also happens that this is a good time for love of Quebecois literature to spring. As I mentioned, literature in Quebec is on an upward swing right now, with young publishers establishing strong reputations, and older standbys finding new authors. Step-in-step with that, English-language publishers, like House of Anansi, Biblioasis, Coach House, and Talonbooks, are publishing these authors at a growing rate. Beyond that, websites like Quebec Reads and Ambos, both run by translators, keep English-language readers in touch with reviews, translated excerpts, and interviews. So it’s easy to write and think only about such contemporary work, but there is a history that takes it to the current state.
If you’re a fan of lists, CBC Books offers “15 Translated Books That Are Essential to Canada.”: http://www.cbc.ca/books/Translationlist_CBCBooks.pdf Before going into what is absent from that list, I’d rather acknowledge two of its best choices: Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska, translated by Norman Shapiro, and Hubert Aquin’s Next Episode, translated by Sheila Fischman. The latter was published in 1965 and the former in 1970. Both are modern classics. They come with a reason to be on that list, to be considered Important and taught in classrooms. Kamouraska is a historically inspired novel, telling a version of the true nineteenth century story of the murder of a seigneur by his wife and her lover. It’s a feminist work; it’s a book about power and economy, and the way those under it squirm to find life. None of that prepares you for the prose. From the start, the reader is on unsettled ground, with a third person narrator that alternates, from moment to moment, with first, until the latter takes hold. It moves in time and perspective till Elisabeth D’Aulnières is able speak her story.
Aquin’s Next Episode is a political novel about the Quebecois separatist movement, of which Aquin was a part. Yet here too, the narrative layers are complex and intertwined, the structure and the prose more compelling than any message, while being completely conjoined. His narrator is a separatist, held in a psychiatric ward: his acts of protest against power, his desire for a free Quebec, what he sees as salvation and personal freedom, condemn him to be a madman. It is mad to want to be free. There, he tries to write, to write a spy novel and a confession, and to make that writing a protest too. It’s a thriller that fights with the rules of a thriller, because those rules too this separatist cannot stand. Aquin packs madness, intrigue, violence, desire into this tiny little novel.
The most significant absence from the list is likely Réjean Ducharme. He too established himself in the 60s, then continued writing through the 70s. Ducharme then went quiet, going fourteen years without publishing a novel. Like Aquin and Hébert, his prose is abstract, strange, unsettled, springing away from normal sense. Yet they are earthy in their subjects, whether it is love and passion, rebellion against those with power, in political or personal relationships. And they are ever-Quebecois, writing tied to place and to land. In ways, this is the legacy of Quebecois writing in the 60s, the formative authors for many writing today, which brings us to the BTBA.
For the 2016 BTBA, there are six eligible books from Quebecois writers: Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated by Donald Winkler (Biblioasis); Atavisms by Raymond Bock, translated Pablo Strauss (Dalkey); Guano by Louis Carmain and Twenty-One Cardinals by Jocelyne Saucier, both translated by Rhonda Mullins (Coach House); Keeper’s Daughter by Jean-François Caron and translated by W. Donald Wilson (Talon); and Ravenscrag by Alain Farah, translated by Lazer Lederhendler (House of Anansi). This little list of course leaves out those translations that unfortunately go without US distribution. Without that barrier, even more Quebecois books would be eligible for the award, and I’d be willing to bet that next year more will be.
In that list, only one Quebecois publisher has more than one entry: Le Quartanier, with Arvida, Atavisms, and Ravenscrag. The two story collections, Arvida and Atavisms (a selfish moment, my review is here) are excellent, and distance themselves from many American collections in that they are not stories written in an MFA program, work-shopped and work-shopped, not scattered stories written over some length of time between novels in order to maintain a magazine or lit journal presence. Instead, they are careful collections, stories that reach far beyond Montreal, expressing the strange land of rural Quebec, stories that are dependant on oral storytelling, of people and their strange pasts, of the visceral reality of the supernatural, and the ineffable mundane. They are meant to be read in order, each story weighed against the other, discomforts and suspicions carrying though, leaving you uncertain whether a new character deserves them or not.
These three are markedly different from the classics mentioned above in that their prose does not have the excess, the experiments and the fractures of Aquin, Hébert, and Ducharme. The beauty in the prose is simply a different one, pushing the strange beneath the surface instead of in your face. They carry forward other traditions, though. They are about Quebec, and look at their province with both pride and anguish. Many of these Quebecois novels hide what they’re about. Their realism is deceptive: a thriller is not just a thriller, a woman murdering her land-owner husband in the nineteenth century may be about something much more contemporary, a monster story may be about a man, and a story of a man may be about a monster, when a story introduces itself, look for the other one.
It’s taken longer than it should to announce this—blame my disorganization, all the other events that have been going on, etc.—but we’re finally ready to unveil this year’s jury for the Best Translated Book Award prize for poetry.
Before listing the judges, I just want to remind you to check this page for weekly updates related to the Best Translated Book Award, and to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Thank you very much.
Now, here are your five judges:
Jarrod Annis is a writer and bookseller living in Brooklyn, NY. He works as manger and small press buyer at Greenlight Bookstore, and previously served as an associate editor at Ugly Duckling Presse. His work has appeared in Coldfront, Greetings, and Poems By Sunday.
Katrine Øgaard Jensen is a journalist, writer, and translator from the Danish. A former editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, she is now blog editor at the international literary journal Asymptote. Her translation of Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s award-winning poetry collection Third-Millennium Heart is forthcoming from Broken Dimanche Press in 2016.
Tess Lewis is a writer and translator from French and German. Her translations include works by Peter Handke, Alois Hotschnig, Melinda Nadj Abonji, Pascal Bruckner, Anselm Kiefer, and Jean-Luc Benoziglio. She has been awarded translation grants from PEN USA and PEN UK, an NEA Translation Fellowship, a Max Geilinger Translation Grant for her translation of the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet, the ACFNY Translation Prize for her translation of the Austrian poet and writer Maja Haderlap, and most recently a Guggenheim Fellowship to translate the Swiss writer, Ludwig Hohl. Her essays and reviews have appeared a number of journals and newspapers including The New Criterion, The Hudson Review, World Literature Today, The Wall Street Journal, The American Scholar, and Bookforum.
Becka Mara McKay earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington and an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa, where she also received a PhD in comparative literature. Her first book of poems, A Meteorologist in the Promised Land, was published by Shearsman Books in 2010. She has published three translations of fiction from the Hebrew: Laundry (Autumn Hill Books, 2008), Blue Has No South (Clockroot, 2010), and Lunar Savings Time (Clockroot, 2011). Her poems and translations have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, ACM, Third Coast, The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Rhino, Natural Bridge, Rattapallax, and elsewhere.
Deborah Smith is publisher and editor at TILTED AXIS, a not-for-profit UK press focusing on diverse, contemporary world literature. She translates from Korean, including Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts (both Portobello UK, Crown US), is perilously close to finishing a PhD at SOAS, and tweets as @londonkoreanist.
So, if you’re a publisher of poetry in translation and want to submit your work for consideration for this years award, all you have to do is mail a copy to everyone on this handy address label. (Or, if you want to submit them electronically, use this one which has everyone’s email address.) Please submit these books ASAP, or before December 31st. Any work of poetry published in translation for the first time ever between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015 is eligible. If you have any questions, contact me at chad.post[at]rochester [dot] edu.
The longlist for the poetry (and fiction) awards will be announced on March 29, 2016, with the longlist coming on April 26, 2016, and the winners at BEA on May 11, 2016.
For the past few years, Amazon Literary Partnerships has been sponsoring the award, providing $20,000 in cash prizes for both fiction and poetry, $5,000 of which goes to the winning poet and $5,000 to the winning poetry translator. (And the same goes for the winning fiction author and translator.)
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Stacey Knecht and is basically a follow-up to her first post. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
I translate Hrabal. We work as a team. We talk, laugh, argue, yell, sing, curse, philosophize, guzzle beer, discuss life and cats and the occasional dog. I’ve shamelessly professed my love for him, which fortunately hasn’t interfered with our working relationship. Sometimes he reminds me that he’s been dead for nearly two decades, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to plumb the depths of his writing, to figure out what it is that makes me follow him to Prague, year after year. I went back again this past August armed with his collection of short stories, Mr. Kafka and Other Tales From the Time of the Cult (1965), one of four Czech contenders for the BTBA 2016, in an astonishing, two-fisted translation by Paul Wilson.
Reading Hrabal on location is intoxicating. There is “Magic Prague,” with its Baroque angels and misty alleyways, and the raunchy, sweat-stained, beer-bellied, smoke-and-burnt-sugar Prague, where tourists rarely venture. It’s the combination of the two that give the city her poignance, and to see only her obvious beauty is to miss out on the rest. Hrabal saw it all. Wilson, in his Afterword—which I’m tempted to include here in its entirety, it’s so good—sheds light:
The stories in this collection represent the early results of Hrabal’s discovery of what he came to call “total realism,” the realization that the ordinary events of everyday life can be as magical as surrealism, and that straightforward accounts of people at work and in conversation can reveal more about who they are and the world they live in than attempts to portray their inner lives.
A number of the stories in Mr. Kafka and Other Tales From the Time of the Cult are set in the Kladno steel mills, about sixteen miles from Prague, where Hrabal himself worked as a “volunteer” laborer from 1949 to 1954, along with “judges and lawyers, poets and philosophy professors, policemen, army officers, tradesmen and small businessmen, [all] uprooted from their former lives by the Communist regime as part of a program called ‘Putting 77,000 to Work,’ during which tens of thousands were plucked from their jobs and sent to mines, factories, and collective farms to perform unfamiliar work in harsh and dangerous conditions, alongside regular workers, party hacks, criminals, and political prisoners.” (Wilson)
Much has changed in the Czech Republic since Hrabal wrote this book, yet there are still those who remember. I met an elderly woman one afternoon, sitting on a bench in Stromovka Park, fanning herself with a piece of cardboard in the 90-degree heat. She noticed what I was reading and said, “Ah, Hrabal. He was not a happy man, it was not a happy time. You cannot imagine what it was like to live back then, unless you lived it.” Hrabal lived it, and turned it to gold:
At the Poldi steelworks, hopeless people hold their muddied hopes aloft. Life, strangely enough, is constantly being reinvented and loved, even though the fruits of a tinfoil brain will be crumpled images and a trampled torso will ooze misery. And yet, it is still a beautiful thing when a man abandons dinner menus and calculating machines and his family and goes off to follow a beautiful star. Life is still magnificent as long as one maintains the illusion that a whole world can be conjured from a tiny patch of earth. With a hundred days left in my stint as a volunteer laborer, I buy a yellow folding ruler and snip off a centimeter a day. When the final piece slips from my fingers, I will pass through the neck of a bottle on my way to another adventure in another place.
But beautiful Poldi is also a volunteer worker’s scream that makes mincemeat of all signs and slogans, three and a half crowns per hundred grams, because you return to the depths of your brain where you study the bill to see what it is you’ve bought and why you’ve paid so much, since the man who turns his hand to fruitful labor is saved forever, because life is fidelity to the beauty exploding all around us, even, at times, at the cost of our own lives.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Tom Roberge from New Directions, Albertine Books, and the Three Percent Podcast. He’s not actually a BTBA judge, but since he’s helping run the whole process, he thought he’d weigh in and post as well. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
“Comparisons are odorous”
—Dogberry, Much Ado about Nothing
So it’s my turn. I’m not judging this year’s BTBA (my role at New Directions disqualifies me), but I’m helping with the process, doing my best to herd the cats and keep the trains running on time. (And mix metaphors, apparently.) But this doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on certain books, so I’m taking the opportunity to express one such opinion on one of this year’s eligible titles: Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan and published earlier this year by Deep Vellum. Other opinions about this mesmerizing book, should you care to read them, can be found, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Among many other places. And an excerpt can be found on the Believer’s blog.
Booksellers are constantly being asked, by customers, for recommendations, and the default follow-up, if a customer offers no starting point of their own, is to ask what else they liked recently. This encourages, of course, comparisons, even if they aren’t made overtly. On our podcast I’ve repeated a quote one of the former publishers of New Directions (Griselda Ohannessian) was fond of repeating, presumably in response to our distributor’s request for “comp titles” to help them sell the books into stores: “Comparisons are odious.” I do, in theory at least, agree with this sentiment, if only because I subscribe to the belief that each work of art should stand on its own, should succeed or fail of its own accord, not on its “similarities” to anything else. But it’s impossible not to do it. It’s humans’ way of making sense of new experiences. Which brings me to Sphinx, and the book I’ve shelved it next to in my mind (not in reality; I believe I speak for the vast majority of booksellers when I say that books belong in alphabetical order, in clearly identified sections).
When discussing a book like Sphinx, for booksellers and others in the literary world, there’s a sort of compare-by-numbers process that invariably sets in. It’s inevitable (and often encouraged, by sales reps and customers alike), and I don’t exclude myself from this tendency. Garréta is French; she’s a Feminist; and she’s a member of Oulipo, so we all feel compelled to put her in the company of Monique Wittig, Simone de Beauvoir, Georges Perec, maybe even Virginie Despentes or Violette Leduc. And chances are that if you like books by those writers, you will enjoy Sphinx. But after reading the book in a crazed frenzy (pick it up—you’ll see what I mean), the first book that came to my mind was not by a French author, feminist, or member of Oulipo.
It was Queer, by William S. Burroughs. Written sometime in the early ’50s but put aside by the author himself (because he was bored with it) and his publisher (because of its content and the stricter obscenity laws of the times) until finally being published in 1985, it’s a story of pursuit. Whereas its companion novel—Junky—was about the pursuit of heroin and that kind of high, Queer is about the pursuit of carnal bliss, a very different but equally addictive kind of high. In Queer, we follow Lee, a stand-in for Burroughs, whose thoughts we see via third-person narration, to Mexico, where he meets and becomes increasingly obsessed with Allerton. The majority of the book revolves around Lee’s largely unrequited fixation on Allerton. Lee is often disparaging and morose, but his dogged pursuit grants him a few precious, if fleeting, moments of joy, even hope. Evocative of the argot of drug addiction, the style draws the reader into an enveloping cloud of apprehension and despair, offsetting it with instances of striking, haunting clarity.
Garréta’s unnamed narrator, a seminary student turned DJ, also becomes infatuated with someone, a dancer known as A***, early on in the course of the story. And yet to compare what then unfolds (and how, in terms of story-telling) in Sphinx to that in Queer is indeed an odious comparison. Like all of Burroughs’s writing, Queer is gritty and disheveled, the beauty found in the mess itself, in the enjambment of disparate and unflinching insights into the human condition. Sphinx, on the other hand, is more poetically beautiful, a breathtaking portrait of obsession and pursuit described with such pervasive lucidity, such self-awareness, such lyrical resonance, that the story often feels like a spectral presence.
Take, for example, these passages, in a short chapter devoted to the narrator’s description of A*** on stage in a night club, the Apocryphe:
Never until then had I longed to see A*** dance on stage. When A*** danced in the Apocryphe, I didn’t have to share the pleasure I took in watching: I was allowed to imagine that the dance was dedicated entirely to me, without the crowd being there to prove me wrong. Watching this body moving uninhibited, this body that wasn’t mine in any way, I reveled in the uniqueness and the exclusivity of my gaze.
[. . .]
When I entered the dressing room, I found A*** immobile as if in prayer or confession, legs bent, forearms fixed on a high barstool supporting A***’s entire body weight. Hands dangling, wrists slack, gaze abandoned and lost in the emptiness, then focusing on me as I entered and following me to where I sat down opposite. It was like the disdainful pose of the sphinx (or the image I had of it then), the same sharp aesthetic. I thought this to myself and, laughing, affectionately let slip, “my sphinx”—as if I had said “my love.” We remained face-to-face, our bodies as if petrified. A terror silted up in my throat; the desire I had felt welling up in me at the sight of those distant movements on the stage had been suspended. I could do nothing but adore. Those eyes, so black, fixed on me, subjected me to an unbearable torture.
This is raw, unfiltered adoration and lust, expressed in a style that is both poetic and quotidian, and as a result this is as affecting an account of a basic human experience as you’re going to find. The narrator’s interpretations and impressions of the world are both personal and universal, timeless and ephemeral. The composite insights, and their relationship to the affair and its presentaion, threaten to upend the reader’s entire concept of desire and love. This is why we read, right? Right.
Both are novels of pure, unadulterated, all-consuming obsession. A form of psychological addiction that infects the mind like a drug. A desire—a need—so unbounded and palpable that life before the object of desire is rendered meaningless, or at least preliminary, a trial run for the real thing. Inhabiting these narrators’ mind space is intoxicating, pure and simple. And I can’t think of a better reason to read, which is perhaps why, now, when recommending Sphinx to customers, I say, merely: “Trust me; it’s amazing.”
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Amanda Nelson, managing editor of Book Riot. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Jose Alberto Gutierrez is a garbage truck driver in Bogota. His route takes him through wealthy neighborhoods in the middle of the night, and if he spots a book in the trash as he’s doing his job, he saves it. His home is now full of over 20,000 volumes, all of which he lends out to the low income kids in his neighborhood. He’s known in Colombia as the “Lord of the Books” (if you’re going to be lord of something, that’s quite a nice thing, I’d say). Mr. Gutierrez is my people.
In fact, millions of people are my people: readers, whether casual or constant, lovers of the literary or genre (separations which are increasingly useless), English-speaking or not. Readers love to encounter one another out in the world, which easily explains the rise of bookish social networking like Goodreads and LibraryThing, BookTube, and the communities around book blogs. If we can’t find our kind in our families or circle of friends, we’ll find them online. But there’s a special pleasure in encountering another bibliophile in the place most fitting for them to dwell: a book.
When you read a book about books, it’s like luxuriating in the most comforting of comfort foods: these are feelings I know, these are smells I know, these are situations in which I’ve found myself. The book is knowable, the hero becomes obvious (it’s the character who loves books), characterization becomes almost unnecessary. The protagonist is a reader! I know her already.
Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude most is probably the closest thing to Jose Alberto Gutierrez’s story that you’ll find in fiction: a wastepaper processor saves books from being destroyed and fills his home with them, spending page after page meditating on the fleeting nature of ideas, the beauty of the book as a physical thing, and the limits of how many of those physical things we can take into our lives before the pressure becomes unbearable (in a literal sense if you, like Hanta, sleep with an actual ton of books hanging over your bed). Hanta is mostly a loner and a book hoarder who shares his saves with no one, while Mr. Gutierrez is evangelizing for his finds in his community. I recognize myself in the compulsions of both men, and I suspect most of us do.
Perhaps the most fun I’ve had reading a book about books is with the famous The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, a globe-trotting adventure following the shenanigans of a shady antiquarian book dealer on a quest to authenticate an Inquisition-era book about the devil. There’s an Alexandre Dumas subplot, a woman who may or may not be a demon/Lucifer/fallen angel/whatever, book forgery, symbol analysis—if you’re looking for a Dan Brown novel with a literary bent, your search is over. Corso, our shady book dealer and protagonist, is odd in the genre of books-about-books because he doesn’t actually care about books. He’s a mercenary, in it for the coin, good at his job but not interested in fetishizing Books, capital B. I actually find him quite refreshing—I sometimes feel like even my own adoration for ink on dead, mashed-up tree fibers glued between pieces of cardboard can be a little tiresome.1
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s The Rabbit Back Literature Society (which I read for BTBA 2016 consideration) also has elements of the supernatural, but without the Christian overtones. Think fairy tales, odd games, viruses that change the contents of library books, gnomes. The Devil doesn’t live in Rabbit Back, but that doesn’t take away from the ominous and slightly creepy undertones flowing through an otherwise charming and quirky book about a small town and its society of writers, headed up by a famous children’s author. As the society is inaugurating its tenth member, a local school teacher, the famous children’s author disappears during the middle of a party, eaten up (sort of) by a swirl of snow. Ella, the school teacher and newest member of the society, tries to piece together where their leader has gone, and she gets caught up in playing an odd and dangerous game with the other society members—a game that tries to explain where writers get their ideas. Are writers born imaginative and fanciful, or are they practicing a sort of vampirism, sucking ideas and stories out of the marrow of their family and friends’ real lives? Or maybe it’s both?
If you’re in the mood for a literary fanfare but aren’t in the mood to pick up a novel, give Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Lecture “In Praise of Reading and Fiction” a once-over and find you’re not the only person who thinks “. . . living is worth the effort if only because without life we could not read or imagine stories.” Arm yourself against cynics who think you’re wasting your time reading fiction with lines like “But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, to the desires and longings it inspires, and to our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables.” A Nobel laureate believes fiction makes us more humane. Who are we to argue?
1 If you’ve made it to 2015 without seeing this book’s adaptation, The Ninth Gate starring Johnny Depp, consider yourself blessed beyond measure. You’d think Johnny Depp playing a book dealer would equal instant success, but the movie is painfully bad.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is Kate Garber, bookseller at 192 Books. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
We know there are many connections to be made in themes and characters across countries and decades. I’d like to provide a fresh example by sharing three passages I ran across while reading for this year’s fiction award. While the children in the following novels face different emotional struggles, each responds with a similar defense mechanism.
Alexandrian Summer by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, translated by Yardenne Greenspan (New Vessel Press), first published in Hebrew in 1978.
This scene takes place in Alexandria, Egypt in 1951, in a hotel run by ten-year-old Robby’s family, and frequented by eleven-year-old Victor’s family. The relevant thing to know here is that Victor is much more worldly than Robby, and has already introduced him to “a very nice game.” You guessed it, “‘Each of us will lie down in turn, and the others will stick it to him,’ Victor set the rules of the game.”
But what struck me was a passage when the two boys are watching Victor’s father and brother walk away from the hotel, and Victor tells Robby that his father is taking his brother to a prostitute.
“Robby had never heard that word, but his heart told him that its meaning lay in those moldy, mysterious corners, in the appealing, frightening world of sex. Plug your ears, hear no more. But every cell in his body thirsted for more knowledge.” Once Victor tells Robby what a prostitute is, and how “there are houses like that, there are,” Robby falls into confusion.
A father taking his son to a prostitute. Would his father also come to him one day and say, “Robby, let’s go,” then take him by the hand to a big, dark house? What do those houses look like? Maybe they’re more like palaces? Rooms upon rooms, like cells in a beehive. In each cell, a naked woman. . . . He wouldn’t know what to do. His eyes would cling to his father for help . . . [His father would] say, “That’s it, from here on out, you’re on your own.” On his own in a small, seedy room with cobwebs and . . . a woman.
My brief analysis: Of course the first thing Robby latches onto is The House. How better to displace his deep emotional confusion than to spend his energy wondering about the room layout and moving through space. It’s the sort of displacement that a child can latch onto, and which we also often recognize in dreams. (Robby will clearly be dreaming of labyrinthine palaces and cobwebs in attics for a long time, right?)
Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett (Graywolf Press), first published in Norwegian in 1987.
This tiny collection of stories centers on young Arvid. Right at the beginning, Arvid’s Dad has been unable to hold a job since “the shoe industry capsized and sank,” and he’s just returned from another six month stint that didn’t work out. The family gathers. “They were all so bewildered they never got round to asking about anything except what was in the suitcase.” [Spoiler: It was lots of duty-free treats.] They’ve settled and gathered in the kitchen. “And of course Uncle Rolf had to have his say. It was a mystery to Arvid why he came round so often, didn’t he have his own place to live?”
This is kind of a throw-away line but I love it. Obviously Arvid knows where his uncle lives. A mere two pages later: “Uncle Rolf . . . drank up and went home to his flat in Vålerenga. The flat was full of clutter and dust balls everywhere . . . and whenever Arvid came to visit him he had to help with the dishes.” But the backdrop is Uncle Rolf’s condescension to Arvid’s father. In this conversation following his father’s perceived failure, Uncle Rolf says “‘The thing is, Frank, you don’t have any social aspirations, and you know it!’ . . . Arvid could see the irritation crawling around his dad’s face, and it was contagious for he could feel himself getting upset.”
At least for a moment, he can grapple with the mystery of where Uncle Rolf lives, to postpone the mystery of who his father is, and whether his Uncle is correct.
One night, a few pages later: “He dreams that his dad’s blue T-shirt with all the muscles inside it is suddenly empty and flabby and hanging there on a nail in a large empty attic room.” Arvid’s dreams won’t let him avoid the confusion, displacing mysteries onto further representative objects.
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson (New Directions), originally printed in Portugese in the collection The Foreign Legion, 1964.
In a short story called “Monkeys,” a woman buys a little monkey “whose name would be Lisette. She nearly fit in my hand. She was wearing the skirt, earrings, necklace and bracelet of a Bahian woman.” Very soon, after “admiring Lisette and the way she was ours,” the narrator and her two boys are off in taxis rushing the little monkey to emergency rooms, fearing that she is about to die.
“The next day they called, and I told the boys that Lisette had died. My youngest asked me: ‘Do you think she died wearing her earrings?’ I said yes.” Including the question about her earrings, I think that Lispector has made this moment of grief even more poignant than, say, a question about how she died or whether they can get a new monkey. Read the whole story and it might make you cry.
Just to supplement literature with memory, I conclude with another small example of this displacement (also focusing on architecture, in fact). As a child, I didn’t watch many movies, but was curiously obsessed with the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I was entirely creeped out by the Child Catcher, but still needed to watch it over and over. The only clear memory I have of the film is the scene where he searches the doll-maker’s house for children and tells his minions: “You have to know where to look . . . under the floors, in the cracks in the walls, in the woodwork.” Every time I watched the film, I waited anxiously for that scene, hoping to one day figure out how it would be possible for a child to hide in the cracks in the wall. It’s absurd, but was a huge part of my inability to process the coexistence of curiosity and fear, and might be the reason these small elements strike me so.
I don’t mean to say that all children think in the same way—perhaps not everyone reading this associates the deepest experience of childhood to be utter confusion and perpetual displacement—but mostly I hope to remind us of one benefit of reading a wide variety of literature in translation:
Maybe your experiences don’t apply to everyone, but there are few things more unifying than recognizing that your experiences pop up here and there in literature, throughout all of space and time. On one level, we hope to increase our cultural exposure and diversify our empathy; on another, we can take a moment to realize that we’re nothing new. It sometimes doubles as good therapy.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by translator and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review, Heather Cleary. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Earlier this week, I returned home from a month abroad to find my hall closet overflowing with submissions to this year’s BTBA. I’m glad there were no witnesses to my cartoonish glee as I tore into the bright yellow envelopes; not nearly as glad, though, as I am that over the next few months I’ll have the chance to explore so many new translations I might otherwise not have read. To borrow a phrase from a canonical work especially dear to my heart: bring it on.
Anyway. Mixed in among the bounty of this first shipment was Yoel Hoffmann’s beautifully composed Moods, luminously translated by Peter Cole. The text is a series of numbered vignettes narrated in the first person plural by a voice that is by turns mischievous, nostalgic, cynical, reflective, and often quite funny. (At one point, for example, Hoffmann recommends using the book as a prop to pick up a lover, or as a pillow to soothe an aching back.) A few readers I know have wondered aloud whether the book should be considered a novel, a memoir, prose poetry, or something else entirely; Hoffmann, who seems to have anticipated these questions—or quite likely set out to provoke them—replies, “What’s the point of classifying books as fiction or contemplative literature, when fiction is part and parcel of contemplation, and contemplation is entirely a matter of fiction?”
My interest may have been piqued by this challenge to literary norms, but it was the spare yet surprisingly rich descriptions of Hoffmann’s narrative world that drew me in, as well as the urgency with which the book seeks to bear witness to something as vast as a life in one moment, and then unwrite itself in the next. (“If it were printed on thinner paper we’d suggest the reader use it for rolling cigarettes. The smoke would write the book in the air as it really is.”)
But let’s begin at the beginning. “Ever since finishing my last book,” Hoffmann remarks, “I’ve been thinking of how to begin the next one. // Beginning is everything and needs to contain, like the seed of a tree, the work as a whole.” Following this observation, Hoffmann presents the beginning of a traditional novelistic storyline (“I know it’s a love story”) which—rather than developing toward the requisite “middle” and “end”—is quickly absorbed by a series of divergent reflections that bind the personal to the philosophical with the twine of dry humor (“It’s hard to believe that all this is taking place within a book. The people must be very small”).
Though this narrative gambit might look like a false start, the book’s first chapter does indeed contain the seed of Moods, which is in many ways a work composed of beginnings. Not only because its vignettes could be read in any order, giving rise to new interpretations with every new opening, but also because each chapter seems to double as the opening to another, untold story that intersects with the one on the page at only a single point. And so, across its many moods, this book is—as much as any I’ve read—about what it does not say. Characters we never fully meet pass through the staunchly metonymic moments of a life that seems to remain unknown even to the voice recounting it. One of the great accomplishments of Moods is the way this negative space bears as much weight as the words on the page.
The specter of stories untold is especially pronounced in Hoffmann’s lists, each element of which seems to contain an entire universe, not unlike Hemingway’s famous six-word novel. “Here are some other things that break the heart,” Hoffmann declares: “An old door. A glass left out in the yard. A woman’s foot squeezed into shoes, so her toes become twisted.” Each image, vivid and universal in its understatement, is heavy with the moments that precede it and invites us to imagine those that follow.
It has been said that one of the most difficult things to translate is the silence of a text—those gaps made intelligible by shared cultural or historical touchstones that rarely pass without a struggle into the target system. In this sense, Cole has done an admirable job of preserving as inklings the hollows that Moods offers its readers. I gather from the English that his task must have been doubly challenging: not only is this a book of many silences, in his reflections on the limits of writing, and of language itself, Hoffmann also traffics in linguistically specific reflections. Cole’s solutions to these challenges are deft, even artful, whether he is re-Englishing Hoffmann’s adaptation of Joyce or rendering a nursery rhyme in one chapter’s paean to unadorned language (“If only we could write like that”).
(Peter Cole at the University of Rochester)
It’s a good thing, too, since a skilled hand is needed to translate a work that operates with such intention, and such self-consciousness, on the level of the word. Just as the form of the book’s opening was the object of reflection, so too is the way it will draw to a close. “This might be the last book we’ll write,” Hoffmann muses,
I wonder what how it will end. What its final words will be. Joyce, for example, finished his final book with the word the.
We’ve always thought it extremely strange that movies (and books) end with the word End. Moreover, sometimes the definite article’s added.
Maybe we’ll end with a different word altogether . . . Imagine if the word turns out to be prow. Or Binyamina. Or epaulettes. Or hydraulic. Or gurgle (which is probably onomatopoetic). Or drowse. Or you.
Given the centrality of beginnings in this book, it is fitting that Hoffmann resolves this question by deciding to close with one—THE beginning, in fact, which he describes as a “beautiful tale”:
In the beginning, when God was creating the heaven and the earth, the earth was formless and waste, and darkness was over the face of the deep . . .
“Imagine the loneliness of countless years,” Hoffmann writes. “Like a giant, old, autistic man, He stared into what was and saw not even a crack.” Having evoked so many beginnings with his silence, Hoffmann locates silence within this beginning, and in so doing, finds his final word:
The only consolation was His name (or, more accurately, His names). But when He uttered them, He heard (because of the absolute emptiness) not even an echo.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
In the last few years I’ve read a lot of literature in translation, much of it in Spanish and much of it from Mexico. To try and describe the range and diversity of writers from this country would take forever and it may simply be impossible. There are magical and elemental writers (Guadalupe Nettel), master historian writers (Sergio Pitol), and clever,
philosophical writers (Valeria Luiselli). One thing I’ve also noticed is that Mexico produces some very funny writers.
Take these lines from Juan Pablo Villalobos’ English language debut Down the Rabbit Hole: “I like French people because they take off the crown before they cut off their kings’ heads. That way the crown doesn’t get dented and you can keep it in a museum in Paris or sell it to someone with lots of money.” See? Funny. Did I mention the narrator is a seven year old who collects hats and happens to be the son of an infamous drug lord?
Mexico is constantly derided for its violence and corruption; the government, the political process, the police force and drug cartels, all rife and seemingly in cahoots or, perhaps worse, in conflict. This is not something lost on its inhabitants. It faces them every day when they open their eyes. A gritty and absurd fatalism is abundant in the humor of Mexican literature. This might come from the seemingly endless contradictions their homeland contains, a complexity of contemporary life impossible to ignore and, incidentally, who would want to? The Guilty, Juan Villoro’s incredibly compelling short story collection, displays these complexities to a thrilling degree. The writing is razor sharp, the satire brilliant and biting. There is hope. There is misery. There is optimism shaded by fatalism. You see? Everything is complex.
A celebrated journalist and novelist, Villoro’s English language debut presents seven expertly crafted stories that are funny and agile but also illuminating, exploring the paradox of being a Mexican in Mexico. Can everyone relate to the world-weary humor of these stories? Just about. There is a universality to these damaged characters laughing from the abyss because, as one quickly discovers, they are all of us.
The protagonist of the first story is a mariachi who is tired of being a mariachi and gets involved in adult films in order to find himself, only to further lose himself. The title story features two screenwriting brothers, one a trafficker in border crossers. “Holding Pattern” focuses on a bottled water salesman circling endlessly over London in the hopes of making a connecting flight. Villoro’s stories are populated by the exhausted and the desperate, people at the end of their ropes, all connected seamlessly by the world-weary humor of the condemned. In fiction, just as in life, levity is often a succor for anguish. It sustains us. It tells us we’re less alone. Humor is a form of grace. Villoro understands this. As tragic and hopeless as the subjects and characters may be, there is always the humor to keep us going. What at first appears to be a collection of curious and offbeat characters—soccer players, window washers, mariachis—quickly becomes the bleak and hysterical kin of the everyday. It’s not that these people are exciting to read because of their occupations; they’re exciting to read because, like us, they’re trying to survive.
Injured, but still playing soccer, the narrator of “The Whistle” remarks:
I got used to playing through the pain. Then I got used to the injections. I played on painkillers more often than a normal body should. But my body isn’t normal. It’s a kicked-in lump. When she was feeling for my nerve with the needle, the doctor talked about my calcified flesh, as if I were turning into a wall. I like that idea: a wall the opposing team smashes into, where Argentinians crack open their heads.
But even the world of soccer is teeming with violence and corruption. Keeping one’s sense of humor might be the only way of keeping one’s sanity. Later he considers heaven:
Heaven for strikers is full of balls, I guess. But for midfielders, heaven is an empty field where there’s nothing to do and you can finally scratch your nuts, the balls you haven’t been able to touch your whole career.
The interplay of flippancy and frustration is adroitly translated by Kimi Traube, who clearly understands the tone and nuance Villoro is going for. Finding the balance for expressing the downright unpleasant from the lips of a detached but likable narrator is no easy task. And, incidentally, why are these characters likable? Because they’ve been down hard roads. Life has dealt them bad hands. They’ve seen things. You just know it. And translating this feeling can’t be easy. Sometimes the effort involved in artfully translating a book is discernable, other times the art lies in its subtlety. The translation of The Guilty is striking in the sense that the reader distinctly hears the voices of Villoro’s characters, senses their desperation and disquiet; the perception of impending violence that’s palpable.
Another subject in this collection is Americans, or gringos. Reminiscent of the stories of Álvaro Enrigue, the give-and-take between Mexicans and Americans is a topic of fascination and comedy. Mexicans often look at their northern neighbors with a sense of charmed befuddlement and genuine perplexity, sometimes both at once. Samuel Katzenberg, the gluten-free gringo reporter in the story “Amigos Mexicanos” asks the narrator to be his contact in Mexico City as he searches for an “authentic” Mexico, after having done his “bazillionth story on Frida Kahlo.” Katzenberg, of course, asks about the violence: “How violent is Mexico City, really?” And the narrator reflects: “I remembered something Burroughs wrote to Kerouac or Ginsberg or some other big-time addict who wanted to come to Mexico but was scared he’d get jumped: ‘Don’t worry: Mexicans only kill their friends.’”
The stories in The Guilty not only delve into the psyches of Mexicans but into the shallow perceptions “gringos” have toward Mexico. In fact, “Amigos Mexicanos” showcases the way we as neighbors perceive one another, chiefly through misunderstandings and shallow abstractions, seldom if ever correct, like a married couple continually misinterpreting the other, as if language were a hindrance more than a tool. At one point the narrator says: “The planet had turned into a new Babel where nobody could understand anybody else.” Yet these stories do the opposite by deciphering the myriad attitudes of its Mexican characters.
One of the most important aspects of translated literature, I think, is the glimpse we get of people in other places, how they think and feel and conduct their lives. If one doesn’t visit a country or speak its language there is simply no other way but through translation to open the door to these places. Do I think translators are magicians of a sort? I do. When I look back at the last ten years of books I’ve read, the stack would be largely diminished if translations were taken out. This wasn’t something I sought out, at least not at first, but after reading three or four Thomas Bernhard novels and just as many by Roberto Bolaño and an equal amount by Elena Ferrante and Javier Marías I was compelled to seek them out.
The service translations do isn’t easily summarized. It’s art. It’s literature and history. It’s a million unseen decisions oblivious to the reader. Sometimes, by default, it’s political. But it allows a person who’s willing to take the time a portal into the intricacies of another place, sometimes distant, other times right across a border. A collection like The Guilty displays the diverse challenges and staggering contradictions a country like Mexico embodies but without relying on gun-toting narcos or the simple cliches of good and bad. And lucky for us, this is done through the transcendent act of comedy.
I decided to write my first post about The Guilty for several reasons: it is a slight book (in size) and could easily disappear in the deluge of great books we’re getting sent and lucky enough to read. It is also a debut (in English) and like any debut, the future of that author’s works rests heavily upon its success. Although Villoro is highly regarded in Mexico (and has a large body of work in Spanish) it is often the success of that debut that determines if readers will see any more books by that writer in translation.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge P. T. Smith. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Up until college, I didn’t put much, if any, thought into my reading methods. I read what I was assigned for school, and outside of that, read what I wanted, when I wanted to. During college I started choosing an order to read books in, planning a dozen at a time. After some years, I found a new reading method: reading an author’s entire oeuvre, in linear fashion, then moving on to another. I mention all this, leaving out minor phases, and variations of the methods, because as a BTBA judge, I have to come up with a new pattern, while preserving as much of my current habits as I can.
I read multiple books at a time, different types for different reasons, and a genre novel is always one. I deeply love genre, it dominated my childhood reading, particularly science fiction, but also detective, noir, fantasy. This foundation fell apart, during some of those insufferable years of young lit snob pretension, but for years now, has reestablished and strengthened itself. Not wanting to leave this, my eyes seek out genre-in-translation when I peruse and stack books as they arrive.
For years now, since well before Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, crime fiction has been translated in relatively high numbers, and even more so in the time since that series’ success. In recent years, we’ve had the modern, unrelenting Scandinavians, hard-boiled classics like Manchette, the contemporary grim Mediterranean noir of Jean-Claude Izzo and Massimo Carlotto, the resurgence of Simenon, so I had no worries about finding translated crime novels to read this year. Science fiction, however, generally hasn’t faired as well. After all, we’re still waiting for the Bill Johnston translation of Stanislov Lem’s utter classic, Solaris to make it into a print edition.
There does seem to be a tide of change coming though. When a conversation with a translation fan rambles on long enough, more often than not, affection for science fiction comes up. Foreign, seemingly highbrow, authors are more welcoming of genre, and less determined to blend it, or make it literary, justify it as many English-language writers do. With these things, and crime fiction’s success, it’s satisfying to see translated science fiction getting healthier. University of Nebraska Press’s Bison Frontier of the Imagination series has been publishing translations years, and shows no signs of slowing down. Melville House has published both modern authors like Jean-Christophe Valtat and classic ones like the Strugatsky brothers. Lui Cixin’s Three Body Problem had mainstream success in the SF world. Andri Snær Magnason’s “Vonnegutian LoveStar”: http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=6702 is brilliantly fun satire of contemporary life, tossed a few years in the future.
Those efforts help set up the BTBA SF books this year. Leading the way, if only for their flashy covers and early arrival in my mailbox, are the first two publications in Restless Books’ Cuban Science Fiction series. A Planet for Rent and A Legend of the Future have little in common besides being Cuban and good. This is a fine move by Restless, not making a cultural statement about what Cuban SF is, instead just letting the books do what translation does best: offer the literature from other languages that most deserves to be read, and lay out alternative stories, or alternative ways to tell familiar stories.
A Legend of the Future—translated by Nick Caistor, whose name seems to be popping up on excellent translations rather frequently—is by Agustin de Rojas, who the jacket copy calls the “patron saint of Cuban science fiction.” He died in 2011 and published this book in 1985. On the other hand, Planet for Rent was published in 2001, the author goes only by Yoss, and he looks like Criss Angel with a DFW bandana. The differences are not all biographical detail. Rojas’s is a straightforward novel, and in the vein of Arthur C. Clarke in that the book is about people doing their jobs. The characters of his book and Clarkes’ are scientists as professionals. In Legend of the Future, an extended, deep-space journey with a small crew turns disastrous, half the crew dies, the captain is left nearly paralyzed, only able to speak, another is distraught, and a third has a slowly-explained conditioning triggered in her. They work desperately, yet rationally, skillfully, to figure out what exactly went wrong, what they can do about it, and how to get home.
Throughout, cohesively worked into the narrative as part of the conditioning, as memories vividly relived as like hallucinations, reveal just how tightly-knit this crew was, still is, and the philosophy and indoctrination that created that. The characters are put in situations, through changes, only possible in SF, but the psychological exploration of death, desires, thoughts, and values among deeply emotional-connected people struggling to find a way to survive catastrophe is relatable and human. It’s a fantastic book, well-plotted and paced, that plays with some traditional SF rules and gambits, while ever-exciting in the new avenues it creates.
Plot and human relationships are the main forces in Legend of the Future, while Planet for Rent, translated by David Frye, is in the allegorical SF tradition and tells multiple stories instead of just one: it made up of short stories separated by narratives about the world Yoss built, allowing for info-dumps without awkward interruptions. In the future, advanced alien races have decided that humans will destroy themselves before being able to join the larger galactic civilization. With that, the aliens take over, instituting their own rules for fuel use and population growth. They wipe out cities, as punishment, as a way of showing their dominance, and to reestablish “ecological balance.”
Under this harsh rule, the police state with its swift and severe punishments, the purposeful structural poverty, the denial of emigration, Earth becomes a parable for a third world nation, as administrated by a country like the US. It survives on tourism, on selling its culture, and its bodies, all for the entertainment of the rich xenoids, and the humans who successfully collude. The stories are about the sex trade, art, illegal emigration, and inter-species offspring. Yoss’s writing is politically and socially motivated, but by committing to the genre, the imaginative aspects, the entertainment takes precedent over any agenda—at times, one to one connections with reality are clear, other times left in the dust of creative drive.
It is hard to imagine either book written by an English-language author. Rojas’s for its basis in a scientific culture that preaches ideology of the collective, and its conflicted take on that, portraying affection for it and damage done by it. Yoss’s for the remarkably clear expression of how whole cultures and economies are hobbled by more economically and industrially dominant cultures, preaching both their superiority and beneficence, but a clarity not self-righteous, not so committed to message that craft and art are lost, as an English-language author, determined to speak for others, could easily do.
It’s early in the year, dozens more books are going to come to my mailbox, including SF, and hopefully those will live up to these two. I’m in the beginning of Martin Vopenka’s Fifth Dimension, handpicked by translator Hana Sklenkova as one of the best untranslated Czech SF novels. A man, his business and career ruined, for a large sum of money agrees to live in isolation from everyone, including his family, for a year as part of an as-yet unexplained experiment. This beginning touches on one of the pleasures of SF set in the present: the tension of waiting for the SF kernel to expand. I’m looking forward to receiving Taiyo Fujii’s Gene Mapper, translated from the Japanese by Jim Hubbert, a highly praised and awarded contemporary novel. It pushes technological advances and predictions 30 years into the future and I like that type of SF while harboring an affection for Japanese literature.
As with the rest of translated works, as much as there is, I want more translated SF. I want to read the freshest, weirdest SF that other countries are putting out. I want to read the classics that are only just making it into English. I want to see how writers from other countries are affected by English-language writers, to see old ideas in new interpretations. There are books coming out this year I’ve yet to discover, so if you work for a press publishing SF in translation this year, or a fan of any, let me know. I don’t want to miss any of it, and I may find myself writing a second SF post. If you’re a SF fan, talk to fans of translation; if you’re a translation fan, talk to SF fans. Let’s get those worlds, with all their overlap, working to get more of these books into the world.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from judge Kevin Elliott, bookseller at 57th Street Books in Chicago.
Recently, Benjamin Moser, author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector” wrote an op-ed for the New York Times discussing the state and struggle of international literature in English translation. Among the statistics and observations of what it takes to bring great writers of non-English languages to not only America, but the world at large, Moser notes that “Literature is made by a community: present and past, dead and alive,” but cautions against the homogeneity that our English-ruled world could impose upon that very same literature.
The Japanese novelist and critic, Minae Mizumura’s book, The Fall of Language In The Age of English, is half memoir of a writer finding her literary voice through U.S. education and the ultimate decision to practice her art in her native (and dying) Japanese. The other half is a much more academic screed against the very same homogeneity that Moser openly struggles with. To Mizumura, this homogeneity is a present threat that endangers the truths in literature that cannot be translated no matter how hard we work at it. In the shadow of that threat lies her steadfast loyalty to writing not only in her native tongue, but also with a conscious awareness and reverence for the literary traditions of Japan.
To Mizumura, dying languages are worth preserving through literature. To Moser, literature of all languages is worth translating. In fact, works of lost literature are waiting to be discovered.
Both Moser and Mizumura mention the invasive reality of English on the world of literature. In their own separate ways, both argue for the concurrent needs to both preserve and promote regional literatures. It is a delicate balance, to be certain. One actively pursues new translations from the Portuguese. The other consciously writes in her native tongue despite being educated in America. One brings a nearly forgotten voice into English on a wider scale than ever before. The other reinterprets an English classic to reflect the post-war conditions of Japanese tradition in the face of the American led industrial globalized society. It is, however, a society that has led to opportunities of discovering more international writing as well as the decline of the very traditions that Mizumura laments in the wake of popular writers such as Haruki Murakami.
Where, then, does this place the three percent figure that is front and center to the English reading world in relation to works in translation? How does someone like me, who is only fluent in the most dominant of languages (with some understanding of casual kitchen Spanish and a picture-book reading competence in German) become so interested in translated fiction? How do I convince others to pick up a lesser known novel that took more than a year of laborious and patient translation work and give it a chance? Why does it matter?
I spend a lot of time thinking about these questions as not only a bookseller, but as a person in an ever-increasingly connected world.
First, I think it matters exactly because we are living within such prevalent connection. Connections that can seem intimate, but so often result in quick flashes and selfies across our screens . . . gone in less time than it takes for Nicholas Cage to steal a sports car. Literature, for me, has always been about curiosity in other perspectives about the world, whether that is a personal narrative of universal human themes or a plot-driven story that pushes us to think in different ways. In a world where seemingly everyone has access to each other all the time, literature gives us a moment of pause and growth. A pause that doesn’t always present itself to us in a media saturated globalized world.
Convincing other people to take these pauses in others’ experiences of the world—especially from other cultures—often boils down to curiosity, which is a quality I find most readers possess. Though it may make Mizumura’s hair stand on end, I don’t see it as much of a stretch to point out to casual readers that learning how one Japanese individual cleans her apartment (Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up) isn’t that far removed from learning how one Afrikaner woman organizes and makes sense of her life and family history (Karel Schoeman’s This Life). A stretch for some, of course, but you’d be surprised at how many customers in my store don’t realize that one of the most popular books currently featured on daytime talk shows is translated from another language . . . and how much pointing that fact out to them has opened them to the realization that translated works of all kinds can be relevant, interesting, and perhaps even important to them.
My conscious interest in international literature started unexpectedly when the editor of this site, Chad W. Post, reached into the trunk of his car and handed me a strange and little known novel by the British experimental writer, Ann Quin. The book was Tripticks and I was told it was “British and intense and about America.” I doubt Chad remembers the exchange, but I read the book and thought it was like nothing I had read before. There was a beat sensibility to it and a Woolf-like tone, but with a completely different feel and a critical romanticism about America that I found utterly compelling. And for some unknown reason, It stuck in my head that it was British. It wasn’t British like Dickens or Austen or Hardy. It was something new to me. From that point, I remember paying more attention to where authors were from and began consciously seeking out contemporary novels from other countries and cultures.
Despite the rampant spread and saturation of the English language in culture and literature, an English novel about America led me to the wider world of international literature and, in part, to a genuine curiosity in understanding experiences around the world. From a bookselling perspective, I don’t see why a book about cleaning your clutter can’t do the same. Of course, with the popularity of authors like Knausgaard or Murakami among readers these days, leading someone to the next translated novel isn’t often that much of a stretch, but with only three percent of all books published in America being translated, I’m happy to have an entry point for readers available anywhere I can find one.
As for approaching four percent, it may not be something achievable in the near future for books in translation based on scale alone, but I’m seeing small micro publishers sprout up regularly who are dedicating their efforts toward bringing international literature to the English reader. In a way, the larger issues that Moser and Mizumura struggle with and passionately work for aren’t dissimilar from what I aim to do as a bookseller. Every day I work to preserve the importance of taking the time to read books while simultaneously aiming to open people up to discovering the myriad nuances of art and experience.
Over the next year, I’ll be reading through as many of the hundreds of eligible titles for the 2016 BTBA as I can. I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the process. But as much as I’ll be offering my opinions and reactions to the books themselves, I’m also interested in sharing what I’ve seen happening in translation at the bookselling level. From the energetic and passionate publishers I’ve been in communication with to the unique ways that different bookstores work to point out the existence and importance of international lit, there are amazing things happening to bring more readers (and more books) into the three percent realm many of us are eager to grow.
As with past years, every week one of the Best Translated Book Award judges will be posting their thoughts and observations on some of the books that they’re reading for this year’s award. Stacey Knecht agreed to kick things off today with this post.
Yes, I live in the Netherlands. No, I don’t live in Amsterdam. (Believe it or not, there’s an entire country attached to that city.) My home is Zwolle, an elegant old Hanseatic town situated in what is often referred to, especially by the more urbanized Dutch, as “the Provinces.” Our house is right around the corner from Zwolle’s central station, with trains running to nearly every major European city on the map. One hour to Amsterdam, three to Brussels, five to Paris, seven to Berlin, twelve to Prague or Vienna, sixteen to Budapest . . . you can even travel to Athens, if you’ve got a few days to spare. At night I lie in bed listening to the faint rumble of trains en route to places that, long ago, when I was growing up on the other side of the Atlantic, seemed farther away than the moon.
For the next few months, I’ll be reading through the many hundreds of contenders for the BTBA 2016. And since I live in such close proximity to so much of Europe, why not read these books, whenever possible, in the countries in which they were written? Literature on location. Every few months, I’ll report my findings on this blog, starting right here, in my own backyard, with the prizewinning Dutch novel Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda, first published in 2010 and now available to English readers.
Despite its immense popularity here in the Netherlands, and perhaps wary of the hype, I hadn’t read Bonita Avenue until now, in the English translation by Jonathan Reeder. I was pleasantly surprised at how credibly the novel has assumed its English form. The book has been compared to various works by Jonathan Franzen; I can see why, but while Franzen tugs at my heartstrings, Bonita Avenue is darker. I found myself putting it aside now and again, delaying what I dreaded was yet to come.
Bonita Avenue tells of Siem Sigerius, a brilliant professor and ambitious politician, whose interactions with his “family of prevaricators” (a son charged with murder, a pornstar stepdaughter and her psychotic boyfriend) lead to his downfall—and theirs. The story moves back and forth through time and place, from “provincial” Enschede (or as one of Buwalda’s characters describes it, “that godforsaken hick town in Twente”), to Brussels, Belgium, to the eponymous Bonita Avenue, in California, the only place where the family has ever been happy. The town of Enschede, where Sigerius lives and teaches, is the site of an actual event that plays an essential role in the book: on May 13, 2000, an explosion in a fireworks depot demolished the surrounding neighborhood of Roombeek, leaving 23 dead, nearly 1,000 wounded, and 1,250 homeless. I remember sitting in front of the television just after it happened, staring at the charred expanse where a neighborhood used to be (and thinking it was only a matter of time before someone incorporated those images into a novel).
Buwalda makes the disaster—and its repurcussions—tangible, while at the same time giving it the space to evolve into a chilling metaphor: things fall apart, but we don’t always see it coming, even if the threat has been there all along. When Siem Sigerius first hears of the catastrophe, in a news broadcast on TV in a Shanghai hotel room, he doesn’t realize what he’s seeing, nor does he make any attempt to find out: “There’s an item about an accident in some foreign country. He sees a European-looking residential neighborhood with fireworks exploding above the houses in broad daylight. The crackle and claps on the TV get louder, the picture becomes choppy—his eyes fall shut.” Siem’s stepdaughter Joni considers the possibility that the fireworks disaster might actually have been the cause of the family’s breakdown: “A physical disaster like a fireworks accident is a maternity ward where new disasters are born.” When her boyfriend Aaron, who lives in Roombeek but happened to be abroad at the time of the explosion, finally returns home, he discovers that his house, at least on the outside, is still intact:
Glass. He’d heard endless accounts of the shock wave, an invisible Hun that swept relentlessly through the streets of Roombeek without skipping a single address—and still he was awestruck. The entire ground floor, which felt small after two weeks chez Sigerius, was littered with splinters, shards, and rubble. On the table, on the armchair seat cushions, on every uncovered centimeter of his bookshelves, between the buttons on the remote control, on the windowsills of opposing windows, one of which had been blown out, in the kitchen sink, on the cabinets—there was glass everywhere.
The rest of the neighborhood, everything familiar to him, is gone, literally blown to bits. And in the end Aaron, too, along with the disturbing constellation of his family-in-law, will crumble and fall.
Recently on Internet, a reviewer wondered why the Dutch were always writing about dysfunctional families. I wouldn’t say that this is a particularly Dutch preoccupation, though I’d be curious to hear the views of other readers. I do think that the staidness of cities and towns like Enschede are the perfect setting for literary explosion, emotional or otherwise. One of my favorite contemporary Dutch novels, The Happy Hunting Grounds by Nanne Tepper (translated by Sam Garrett), is set in East Groningen and depicts a brother and sister gutwrenchingly in love against the backdrop of dusty, desolate potato fields—not the Netherlands most tourists flock to see. From the book jacket: “Swift’s Waterland soaks into McEwan’s Cement Garden in this shocking and intense debut. Incest, madness & romance in the peat.” Suspicious as I am of blurb texts, this one hits the mark. The author, described at the time as “a born writer who will be one of the most important authors of his generation,” committed suicide in 2012, aged 50, as if to underscore the futility of trying to make peace with this life.
And not only in the Netherlands.
It’s only been a a month and a half since Can Xue’s The Last Lover and Rocio Ceron’s Diorama won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, but given the number of eligible titles (over 550 last year), we’re getting the process started as early as possible this year, which is why, today, we’re ready to announce the new list of judges for the 2016 fiction prize.
(Sorry, the poetry jury isn’t finalized yet, but will be shortly. Given the disparity in number of titles eligible for the two awards, I thought it would be ok to do fiction now, poetry in a few weeks. If you’re a publisher looking to submit some poetry titles, just hold tight, that information will be forthcoming.)
It’s possible we may tweak these dates at a later date, but for right now, here’s what we’re planning on for this iteration of the award:
Longlists Announced on March 29, 2016
Finalists on April 26, 2016
Winners on May 11, 2016
And just to review, any translation published for the first time ever (no retranslations, no reprints) between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015 is eligible. The deadline for submitting fiction books to the jury is November 30, 2015 (extensions can be granted, just email me). (Poetry will have a deadline of December 31, 2015.)
Although the judges are provided with a list of all eligible titles (generated from the translation database) and will look at every title on there, the best way for a publisher/author/translator to ensure that their title has the best shot at making the longlist is to simply send a copy of the eligible title to all of the judges. (And to me for record keeping.) Most judges prefer hardcopies, but if necessary, an electronic version is fine. There is no cost for submitting titles for the award.
OK, so here’s this year’s crop of judges:
Amanda Bullock is the festival and events manager at Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon, where she is overseeing the relaunch of Wordstock: Portland’s Book Festival in fall 2015. Prior to Literary Arts, she served as director of public programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in New York City. She is also the co-founder and -organizer of Moby-Dick Marathon NYC.
Heather Cleary’s translations include two novels by Sergio Chejfec—The Planets (finalist, BTBA) and The Dark (nominee, National Translation Award)—and Poems to Read on a Streetcar, a selection of Oliverio Girondo’s poetry (PEN Translation Fund grant). She is a founding editor of the digital, bilingual Buenos Aires Review, writes for publications including Words Without Borders and Music & Literature, and holds a PhD in Latin American and Iberian Cultures from Columbia University.
Kevin Elliott is a bookseller and manager of 57th Street Books in Chicago, IL, the official bookstore of BTBA2016. (For winning last year’s bookstore display contest!) Find them on twitter @57streetbooks.
Kate Garber has worked as a bookseller, book buyer and event coordinator for over eight years. Previously at the Harvard Coop and Strand Bookstore, she is currently store manager and buyer at 192 Books in the Chelsea gallery district of Manhattan. She is also co-founder of and illustrator for Tiny Tastes, a children’s health app.
Jason Grunebaum is a senior lecture of Hindi at the University of Chicago. His English translation of Uday Prakash’s Hindi novel The Girl with the Golden Parasol was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant and was longlisted for the 2014 National Translation Award, and his translation of a trio of Prakash novellas entitled The Walls of Delhi was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was a semifinalist for the Jan Michalski Prize. He also has been awarded a NEA Literature Fellowship for the translation, in collaboration with Ulrike Stark, of Manzoor Ahtesham’s The Tale of the Missing Man.
Mark Haber was born in Washington D.C. and grew up in Clearwater, Florida. He currently lives in Houston, Texas where he is a champion for literature at Brazos Bookstore but especially literature in translation. He had a book of short stories published in 2008 by Summerfolk Press.
Stacey Knecht is a translator of Czech and Dutch literature. Her translation of Bohumil Hrabal’s novel Harlequin’s Millions was a runner-up for the Best Translated Book Award 2015. She is currently working on two new Hrabals: Who I Am and The Tender Barbarian.
Amanda Nelson is the Managing Editor of Book Riot and one of the co-hosts of the Book Riot podcast. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.
P. T. Smith is a writer and reader living in Vermont. His work has appeared in Three Percent, Quarterly Conversation, Quebec Reads, and Music and Literature, among others.
To make this process as easy as possible, we’ve already emailed all the publishers we’re aware of with eligible titles and sent along this mailing label PDF.
If you’re a publisher who hasn’t been contacted, but has an eligible book that deserves consideration, all you need to do is mail a copy to the judges on the above mailing label. That’s it! Super easy.
Best of luck to all the authors and translators with titles coming out this year, and we’ll be back later today with the first BTBA judge’s post of the new award season.
The eighth annual Best Translated Book Awards were announced at BookExpo America this afternoon, with Can Xue’s The Last Lover, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, taking home the award for fiction, and Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong, winning in poetry.
Thanks again to the support of Amazon.com’s giving programs, the winning authors and translators will each receive $5,000.
“I’m so excited,” Can Xue said when she was reached for a comment, “I think it’s the most beautiful thing that has happened in my whole life. I always think of the BTBA as a very prestigious prize rewarding writers who have the great courage to achieve their literary ambitions.”
According to the jury, Can Xue’s (“tsan shway”) The Last Lover (published by Yale University Press) was the most radical and uncompromising of this year’s finalists, pushing the novel form into bold new territory. Journeying through a dreamworld as strange yet disquietingly familiar as Kafka’s Amerika, The Last Lover proves radiantly original. If Orientalists describe an East that exists only in the Western imagination, Can Xue describes its shadow, offering a beguiling dream of a Chinese West. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen’s translation succeeds in crafting a powerful English voice for a writer of singular imagination and insight.
The judges also named three runners-up in fiction: Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht and published by Archipelago Books, for the wonderful lyricism of its winding sentences; Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney and published by Coffee House Press, for the exceptional promise it demonstrates as a debut novel; and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein and published by Europa Editions, for its vibrant characters and sweeping narrative power.
On the poetry side of things, David Shook, the co-founder and editorial director of Phoneme Media “congratulates translator Anna Rosenwong for her masterful translation of Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, our first book of poetry and one of the most fascinating and important books to have been published in Mexico this century. Phoneme Media is incredibly grateful for the support of the BTBA’s judges and organizers, to Three Percent and its indefatigable director Chad Post, to our fellow shortlisted publishing houses, translators, and authors, and to our readers around the world. Congratulations, Anna and Rocío, on receiving this much deserved award!”
Past winners of the fiction award include: Seiobo There Below and Satantango, both by László Krasznahorkai (recent recipient of the Man Booker International Prize) and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes respectively; Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston; and, The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal. (Jansson and Teal are the only author and translator on this year’s fiction shortlist who have previously won the award.)
In terms of the poetry award, past winners include: The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky; Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stănescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter; and Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura, translated from the Japanese by Kyoko Yoshida and Forrest Gander.
This year’s fiction jury is made up of: George Carroll, North-North-West and Shelf Awareness; Monica Carter, Salonica; James Crossley, Island Books; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Jeremy Garber, Powell’s Books; Katrine Øgaard Jensen, Asymptote; Madeleine LaRue, Music & Literature; Daniel Medin, American University of Paris, Cahiers Series, Quarterly Conversation, and the White Review; and Michael Orthofer, Complete Review.
The poetry jury includes: Biswamit Dwibedy, poet; Bill Martin, translator, critic, organizer of The Bridge; Dawn Lundy Martin, poet; Erica Mena, poet and translator; and Stefan Tobler, And Other Stories and translator.
This is just a reminder for any and everyone in the New York area—especially those of you who are attending BookExpo America.
The official announcement of this year’s Best Translated Book Award winners will take place tomorrow, Wednesday, May 27th, at 2:30pm at the Eastside Stage in the Jacob Javitz Center. Judges Katrine Ogaard Jensen and Jeremy Garber will be there to announce the fiction, and judge Bill Martin will do the poetry.
Following that announcement, everyone in NY with an interest in international literature will be gathering at The Folly (92 W. Houston Street, near Thompson) at 5pm for drinks and appetizers. This is open to the public, so be sure and come by!
For this week’s podcast, we invited Best Translated Book Award Fiction Chair Monica Carter on to talk about the finalists for this year’s awards. Monica graciously gave us some insight into the voting process, revealed which of the final ten was a “personal pick” of one of the judges, and managed to make us second guess who we thought would win the award. Additionally, we talked about the differences between the UK vs. U.S. book scenes, and had some rants, raves, and sports talk.Read More...
So, this has been percolating for some time, but yesterday BookExpo America sent out the official press release (copied below) about how this year’s Best Translated Book Award winners will be announced on Wednesday, May 27 at 2:30 as part of BEA’s programming:
Norwalk, CT, February 25, 2015: BookExpo America (BEA), North America’s largest and preeminent book industry convention, continues to shine a light on international publishing by sponsoring the 8th Annual Best Translated Book Award which was founded to bring attention to great works of literature in translation and honor the translators who make these available to English readers. Over the past few years, underwriting from Amazon.com has made it possible for the winning authors and translators to receive $5,000 in cash prizes, making this the largest award for literature in translation in the United States. Inaugurated in 2008, the award is conferred by Three Percent, the online literary magazine of Open Letter Books, which is the book translation press of the University of Rochester.
The award will take place on the Eastside Stage at BEA on Wednesday, May 27 at 2:30pm at the Jacob K. Javits Center. BookExpo America is widely known as an ideal place for content creators, media, booksellers, rights professionals, and movie and television executives to meet new authors, discover new books, learn about trends shaping the book industry, and network with those who have a passion for books and reading. It is the nation’s largest gathering of booksellers, book publishers and book industry professionals.
“Announcing the winners of the Best Translated Book Award at BoookExpo America makes perfect sense,” notes Chad W. Post, publisher of Open Letter and Founder of the awards. “Booksellers are some of the biggest fans of international literature I know, and one of the most important groups out there for getting translations into the hands of individual readers. It’s exciting to be able to share this announcement with them directly, at one of the key bookselling events of the year. Plus, incorporating the BTBAs into the setting of BEA—with hundreds of authors, translators, and editors in attendance—is a fantastic way to show that international literature is a central, growing part of book culture.”
Any works in translation published in 2014 for the first time ever (no retranslations or reissues) are eligible for the award. More than 580 works of fiction and poetry have already met these criteria. These books originated from 73 different countries and were written in 46 different languages, making this the largest, and most diverse, pool of entries to date. Additionally, these books were published by 194 different publishers, demonstrating the large base of interest in bringing international voices to American readers.
Obviously, we’re going to party after this . . . Details on that are TK.
Couple BTBA points worth noting though:
Because of this change of venue (we used to announce the winners during PEN World Voices, and hope that next year we can announce the finalists there), we’ve altered the schedule for the 2015 announcements. (As you can see on the official BTBA site.)
The Longlists for both Fiction and Poetry will now be announced on Tuesday, April 7th;
Finalists will be announced on Tuesday, May 5th;
Winners & Celebration Party on May 27th.
Also, be sure and check out Best Translated Book for all of the amazing write-ups the judges have been posting about this year’s works. They’re doing a phenomenal job, and their columns make up the single greatest online source for information about 2014 works in translation, bar none. All of these posts go up on Three Percent as well, but over the next month, I’m going to be highlighting a bunch of them as we build up to the announcement of the two longlists . . .
English PEN’s “World Bookshelf” blog has a fantastic piece by Ottilie Mulzet on the complexities of translating László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo there Below, which won the both of them last year’s Best Translated Book Award.
The whole article is worth reading, but here are a few really interesting key points:
As you may have gathered, the amount of ground that Seiobo covers and the level of erudition displayed by the author are both formidable. This collage in my head of all the fragments of material acquired while translating it is, by necessity, enticingly eclectic and incomplete. Some of my discoveries were like poignant codas, scattered hints embedded in the real world, perhaps only to be found by a more assiduous reader. But, of course, it’s the translator who should always be the most assiduous reader of all.
The question of the writer’s voice when translating is crucial, and when translating a writer such as Krasznahorkai, it is even more so. The narrative voice in Seiobo first overwhelms the reader, then proceeds to harangue, mystify, and baffle. This voice carries the weight of so much fateful knowledge that the reader is not so informed by it as infected by the weight of all the human episteme. For all its encyclopaedic awareness, however, the voice is elusive, endlessly shifting between an anonymous narrator, anonymous protagonists, and objects themselves. I wondered at times if this torrent of words, seemingly drawing us nearer to these objects, was actually functioning as a kind of protective screen for the Divine – the principle of the Sacred – which is represented by the goddess Seiobo and by visitations of Andrei Rublev’s angels in the book, to cite just two examples. A torrent of words as a shield from the irrevocable crassness and damage of our secular world.
Both in interviews and in the book, the author uses a Hungarian verb that is hard to translate, elles, which consists of the main verb les with the addition of the verbal prefix el-. Les means to lie in wait for something (usually not with the best of intentions) but with the prefix el-, the verb is glossed as ‘to observe secretly and closely.’ The Magyar Értelmező Kis Szótár dictionary gives these definitions: ‘1. to learn something from somebody by observing, whilst remaining unobserved. 2. to happen upon something: He ~ my secret.’
This is not the time or place to embark upon a rapturous appreciation of Hungarian dictionaries, but the very existence of such a verb in Hungarian, expressing such a complex notion in a mere two syllables, is striking. Perhaps an even greater sphere of complexity resides in this one word than in the phenomena of the medieval workshop or the Asian master-apprenticeship, both of which are brought to light in the book. No, this is not just any sort of observation, but a ‘secret’ observation: the kind that does not encumber its object with the knowledge of being observed. Observation and perception are perhaps the most crucial elements in Seiobo. The wealth of material absorbed to make writing this book possible, and Krasznahorkai’s observations on the process of observation itself, suggest that it is the most fundamental aspect of acquiring skill. That, coupled with the grinding reality of the immense distances the author must have had to travel to witness all the experiences and facts that are communicated in this book, is perhaps a powerful rebuttal of the global ‘cyber-brain’ that is the Internet, which has otherwise become a universal mental prosthesis.
Read this, then read Seiobo.
In line with the brief video of László Krasznahorkai that we published a couple days ago, here’s a brief acceptance speech from the 2014 BTBA winner for poetry, Elisa Biagini:
After winning the Best Translated Book Award for the second year in a row, László Krasznahorkai stopped by the New Directions offices and made a short acceptance speech.
László Krasznahorkai becomes the first repeat winner, and Elisa Biagini and her three translators take home the poetry award in this year’s Best Translated Book Award.
After much deliberation, Seiobo There Below, Krasznahorkai’s follow-up to last year’s BTBA winner, Satantango, won the 2014 BTBA for Fiction. Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and published by New Directions, the jury praised this novel for its breadth, stating “out of a shortlist of ten contenders that did not lack for ambition, Seiobo There Below truly overwhelmed us with its range—this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history.”
The jury also named two runners-up: The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray and published by Yale University Press; and A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter, and published by Other Press.
On the poetry side of things, this year’s winner is The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, and published by Chelsea Editions.
According to the jury, “from the first, these surreal, understated poems create an uncanny physical space that is equally domestic, disturbing, and luminous, their airy structure leaving room for the reader-guest to receive their hospitality and offer something in return (the Italian ospite meaning both ‘guest’ and ‘host’). The poet’s and translators’ forceful language presses us to ‘attend and rediscover’ the quotidian and overdetermined realities of, as Angelina Oberdan explains in her introduction, ‘the self, the other, the body, and the private rituals of our lives.’”
The two poetry runners-up are Claude Royet-Journoud’s Four Elemental Bodies, translated from the French by Keith Waldrop, published by Burning Deck, and Sohrab Sepehri’s The Oasis of Now translated from the Persian by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, and published by BOA Editions.
As in recent years, thanks to Amazon.com’s giving program, $20,000 in cash prizes will be awarded to the winning authors and translators.
Krasznahorkai is the first author—or translator—to win the prize more than once. His novel Satantango, translated by Georges Szirtes and also published by New Directions, won last spring. Seiobo There Below is the sixth of his works to appear in English, the others being Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War, Animalinside, and The Bill.
The Guest in the Wood is the first collection of Elisa Biagini’s poetry to appear in English translation, despite her reputation in her home country of Italy. In addition to writing poetry in both Italian and English, Biagini is a translator herself, having translated Alicia Ostriker, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, and others into Italian. She also edited an anthology of contemporary American poetry.
This is the seventh iteration of the Best Translated Book Awards, which launched at the University of Rochester in the winter of 2007. Over the past seven years, the prize has brought attention to hundreds of stellar works of literature in translation published by dozens of presses. Earlier this month, at the London Book Fair, the BTBA received the “International Literary Translation Initiative Prize” as part of the inaugural International Book Industry Excellence Awards.
To celebrate this year’s winners and the award itself, all supporters of international literature are invited to The Brooklyneer (220 West Houston, NYC) from 6pm-9pm on Friday, May 2nd for drinks and appetizers. This event is open to the public.
The nine judges who made up this year’s fiction committee are: George Carroll, West Coast sales rep; Monica Carter, Salonica; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Sarah Gerard, Bomb Magazine; Elizabeth Harris, translator; Daniel Medin, American University of Paris, Cahiers Series, Quarterly Conversation, and the White Review; Michael Orthofer, Complete Review; Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books; and, Jenn Witte, Skylight Books.
And the five poets and translators who made up the poetry committee are: Stefania Heim, Bill Martin, Rebecca McKay, Daniele Pantano, and Anna Rosenwong.
The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky (Italy; Chelsea Editions)
I love The Guest in the Wood. I didn’t expect to; it snuck up on me. I anticipated respecting the poems, appreciating the marvelous translations by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, and the elegant volume from Chelsea Editions, but masterful translation and thoughtful publishing have been the rule in this competition. Dozens and dozens of brilliant translations have invited themselves into my home over the past months, but this book asked me in and wouldn’t let me leave.
I say it snuck up on me because, unlike many other remarkable submissions, The Guest in the Wood did not announce itself as exotic, exhaustive, avant-garde, genre-defying, or canonical. The Guest in the Wood is humbly subtitled, “A Selection of Poems 2004-2007,” and it was with no more warning than this that I ventured into the wood and became Biagini’s guest.
From the first, these surreal, understated poems create an uncanny physical space that is equally domestic, disturbing, and luminous, their airy structure leaving room for the reader-guest to receive their hospitality and offer something in return (the Italian ospite meaning both “guest” and “host”). The poet’s and translators’ forceful language presses us to “attend and rediscover” the quotidian and overdetermined realities of, as Angelina Oberdan explains in her introduction, “the self, the other, the body, and the private rituals of our lives.”
Born in 1970, Elisa Biagini is herself a translator of contemporary North American poetry, and part of my attraction to her work surely comes from a sense of the poems in translatorly conversation with influences such as Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, and Adrienne Rich. Tellingly, The Guest in the Wood merges two of Biagini’s six collections, The Guest and Into the Wood, with the wood representing a very different kind of contained space than the home, one synonymous with fairy tale archetype and danger. With its evocation, Biagini’s homey interiors are revealed to be haunted, their spare restraint repeatedly performing domestic cleanliness and order in a perpetual struggle to manage threatening guests.
The plates are never left out
because otherwise the dead will come
and sop bread in the broth
so that a misplaced spoon won’t be noticed
the next morning.
You don’t want them counting the crumbs
reading your fortune in the leftovers
tasting your body
I’ve been thrilled to find that my fellow BTBA judges were likewise caught out and drawn in by this book’s unapologetically feminine sense of embodiment and urgency—Biagini’s sharp distortions of ironing boards and dirty dishes as compelling, political, and philosophical as any of the more obviously ambitious or grandiose works we read. The fact that this collection is Biagini’s first in English is a credit to Chelsea Editions for bucking the publishing preference for safety and known quantities, as well as testament to both the message of Three Percent and the importance of projects like the Best Translated Book Award. You should read this book. And it should win.
His Days Go By the Way Her Years by Ye Mimi, translated from the Chinese by Steve Bradbury (Taiwan; Anomalous Press)
the train sidles into the station at the stroke of noon like a tidy row of bento
you toss off your mackintosh and fly, fly away
calling to mind a practical exercise slanting rhymes:
bite off the break
skirt the precipitous brink
the ghosts in the first level basement
the coming of man from Mars
you open up your backpack then
knock back a bootle of Español
for that next tastefully unfamiliar excursion
(Ye Mimi excerpted from “I Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know: For ‘Sis’” )
In the end, only one chapbook proved muscular enough to make it onto the BTBA poetry shortlist. And at just 29 bilingual pages and 10 poems, it does feel audacious to set this slim introduction to a young poet against the likes of a door-stopping volume of Roberto Bolaño’s complete poetry and a long overdue first English collection of Sohrab Sepehri, one of Iran’s foremost poets of the 20th century. But Ye Mimi’s His Days Go By the Way Her Years is an audacious book. Its limited run was beautifully letterpress printed by Erica Mena at the envelope-pushing Anomalous Press, having been chosen as a finalist in their inaugural chapbook contest by Christian Hawkey. Most importantly, the marvel of its translation comes thanks to that passionate proponent of experimental Taiwanese poetry and beloved American Literary Translators Association stalwart, Steve Bradbury. In less virtuosic and fearless hands than his, this collection would be an impossibility. I am grateful to all of these collaborators for introducing me to Ye Mimi and her swirling, sometimes manic charm. Chapbooks are often overlooked, but they represent an unparalleled avenue for small, ambitious publishers to bring us the world.
The ten exclamatory, cuttingly modern poems of His Days Go By the Way Her Years are shot through with sonic gamesmanship, punning, the unbridled verbing of nouns, and voraciously transcultural allusion. Many also perform an oscillation between coy formal disruption and seductive dream logic, as in the typographically resistant line: “\ every one of the ◻◻ / could find themselves sluiced by the ◻◻◻ into a water melon frappe of a summer season.” The poems are well aware of their own cleverness, but resist turning precious as they revel in grotesque particulars and subversions of the ordinary stuff of life and poetic diction. In “The More Car the More Far,” Ye Mimi asserts:
Solitude is somewhat sweeter than water.
Fish are crunchier on the outside, softer in the middle than the sea.
From this day henceforth I will go forth and wilderness the wilderness.
Ye Mimi does sing, and His Days Go By the Way Her Years represents just a small sample of Bradbury’s translations of her work. May it pave the way for more joyful, defiant, aggressively wonderful poems, more wildernessing, more international literary prizes for Ye Mimi!
Less than one week from today—at 2pm East Coast time on Monday, April 28th to be exact—we’ll be announcing the winners of this year’s Best Translated Book Award.
Over the next few days, I’ll be posting write-ups on the Poetry Finalists, along with uninformed speculation and other fun and games.
The most important thing though is to talk about the award celebrations . . .
On Monday, the announcement will go up on Three Percent right at 1pm, and at basically that exact same moment, the winners will be announced at a special BTBA event taking place at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, France.
The Shakespeare & Co. event kicks off at 7pm and will feature readings by a number of writers and translators from most of the shortlisted titles. Then, Amélie Nothomb will announce the winner of the Fiction prize, and Siaân Melangell Dafydd will announce the Poetry winner. So, if you happen to within train distance of Paris, you should come on out.
Stateside, we won’t be announcing the winners at a live event this year, so instead we’ve organized a post-announcement celebration to take place later that week during PEN World Voices. Here are all the details:
BTBA Celebration Party
Friday, May 2nd, 6-9pm
220 West Houston Street
New York, NY 10014
The party is open to everyone so if you’re a fan of the BTBA, international literature, Three Percent, alcohol, appetizers, or all of the above, you should come on by.
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.
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
Like any good potboiler worth its salt, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Gun wastes no time setting up its premise: “Last night, I found a gun. Or you could say I stole it, I’m not really sure. I’ve never seen something so. . .
Heiner Resseck, the protagonist in Monika Held’s thought-provoking, first novel, This Place Holds No Fear, intentionally re-lives his past every hour of every day. His memories are his treasures, more dear than the present or future. What wonderful past eclipses. . .
If you’ve ever worked in a corporate office, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Perception is reality.” To Björn, the office worker who narrates Jonas Karlsson’s novel The Room, the reality is simple: there’s a door near the bathroom that leads. . .
I recently listened to Three Percent Podcast #99, which had guest speaker Julia Berner-Tobin from Feminist Press. In addition to the usual amusement of finally hearing both sides of the podcast (normally I just hear parts of Chad’s side. . .
Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven. . .
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .