Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
As the calendar draws to a close, annual lists of the year’s best books begin to proliferate. However subjective these literary lineups may be, it should come as no surprise to readers of translated fiction that titles originating from outside the English-speaking world are seldom included in these year-end roundups. The lack of astonishment that comes with seeing a dearth of translated books included on such lists is outweighed perhaps only by the frustration that a bevy of such remarkable books will never enjoy the attention they truly deserve.
Reviewers, critics, and editors are, of course, entitled to their own opinions, but charged as they are with shaping the readerly landscape and exposing their audiences to books they elseways would not likely discover on their own, it can be rather dispiriting, year in and year out, to see some of the world’s best fiction go neglected, ignored, and otherwise uncelebrated (hence the need for the Best Translated Book Award).
What is it about literature in translation that fails to attract its deserved share of both popular and critical acclaim? Theories abound – and have for some time. Are American readers simply not properly exposed to the breadth of titles available in English translation? Are they provincial and xenophobic? Are they sated by the wealth of domestic talent? Do they mistakenly presume books rendered from another language will be needlessly arduous and unrewarding?
Are publishers, bookshops, media, and reviewers equally culpable for the disproportionately low interest in international fiction? Does lack of review coverage keep the average reader from discovering an exceptional work from without our borders? Are the big houses unwilling to publish more works in translation – having seen disappointing or diminishing returns previously? Are booksellers, despite their often-tireless advocacy for the books they admire, unable to engender and maintain enough of a groundswell? Is lit in translation to be forever relegated to a niche market, comprising but a sliver of the publishing and bookselling world?
With over 500 works of fiction published in English translation in each of the past two years (about a 50% increase from 2010), it appears interest in such books is, in fact, growing. As ever more translation-centric publishers join the scene (whether for profit or not), the abundance of titles available to English readers from all over the world will surely increase – a veritable windfall for those with broad, open-minded tastes (and monolingual backgrounds). But how to make those books appeal to the larger American readership? For the success of every Larsson, Murakami, or Bolaño are scores of writers equally worthy of as ardent an audience. Perhaps an industry with creative output as its product will forever remain a fickle and unpredictable one. Perhaps the arbiters of taste and merit are slow to evolve.
Knowing that great books written in languages other than English often have a laborious road to the American bookshelf, an award that aims to recognize the best translated book in a given year has more to consider than what a first glance may reveal. Ought the award, all things considered, bestow the prize upon the most altogether worthy entrant (excellence in writing, translation, presentation, et al.)? What if the book in question is unlikely, given even the most robust accolades and promotion, to ever find appeal beyond academic circles or a very narrow general readership? Should the notion of how a book has done critically (or might do commercially) bear weight upon the decision? Do we trust that readers will, if given a hearty enough recommendation from a reliable source, take a chance on something that they would otherwise pass by?
Undeservedly or not, a single work in translation (at least for a reader not normally inclined to pick up such a book) may well be seen as a reflection of all works in translation. For a reading public that relies on reviews and best-of lists as much as bookseller recommendations and word-of-mouth encouragement from fellow readers, it is incumbent upon publishers, reviewers, and bookshops (and award juries, as well) that we champion deserved works and their authors – if international fiction is ever to gain a wider appeal.
While end-of-the year lists often feature the more obvious selections, there is an (increasing?) opportunity for the so-called also-rans to get their due. Blogs, social media, and other non-traditional outlets are constantly reshaping the literary landscape. Books which, even a decade ago, may not have had a chance to wend their way into the hands of readers now have an easier time doing so (although it remains prohibitively difficult for most). A good many of the books translated into English in any given year are very likely amongst the best in their native languages (as it is difficult to imagine mid-list international authors finding either a translator or publisher stateside), so a list of the year’s translated titles is already a quasi-best-of selection by default.
It’ll be a welcome (and exciting!) day for all those interested in great literature when the ever-popular “best books of the year” lists count even a quarter of their entries as those rendered from a foreign language. Readers, culture, and society alike will benefit greatly, confirming and reiterating the fact that exceptional works of art need not be confined by arbitrary borders or the limitations of tongue. No “best of” list could ever presume to have the definitive word on the extraordinary, but declining to include more works in translation does a disservice to all readers. Much as ecosystems thrive best with greater diversity (and suffer, conversely, wherever monoculture is present), we, too, will be all the richer for indulging the abundance of authorial voices which currently flourish.
It’s December. I still have a shit-ton of books left to read for the BTBA, and the very thought of writing a blogpost about my favorite contenders is giving me mild anxiety. But, as a Chuang Tzu once wrote (in David Hinton’s excellent translation), “small fear is fever and worry; great fear is vast and calm.”
The great fear, in this case, consists in creating a longlist from so many well-designed, well-written, and well-translated books. It’s so frightening that I’m actually okay with it. But here comes the small fear: my two cents about what’s good in the pile of submissions.
I can certainly reveal some of my favorite titles to you, such as Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (trans. by Christina MacSweeney), Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita (trans. by Natasha Wimmer), Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile (trans. by Melanie Mauthner), and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Three (trans. by Don Bartlett), but since all of these titles have already been mentioned several times, I figured my blogging energy would be better spent on two Danish titles that have not yet come up as anybody’s favorites. I will allow my fellow judges the benefit of the doubt, and assume they have yet to read the books I’m about to highlight.
As a Dane, Naja Marie Aidt’s writing has been an inevitable part of my life. I grew up reading and analyzing her short stories in middle and high school classes, and I’ve remained fascinated by her fiction ever since. One of Aidt’s literary fortes is her depiction of distorted human relationships; sometimes conveyed explicitly through master-slave abuse, pedophilia, or snuff (Vandmærket, 1993), sometimes portrayed through subtle powerplay and deceit as a matter of routine (Tilgang, 1995). Aidt’s latest short story collection and first book in English, Baboon (Two Lines Press), is no exception:
“I slowly peeled the clothes off her, and she looked beautiful on the red Persian rug, in the warm light from the fire. She spread her legs. She looked at me with dark, sorrowful eyes. Your sister has a tighter cunt than you. I wonder whether you’re born that way, or if it’s just because she’s so young.” (From Bulbjerg)
These disturbing tales will potentially stay with you for years; they have certainly haunted me since 2006, when I first read the collection in Danish. Rereading Baboon in English was an immense pleasure, thanks to an incredible translation by Denise Newman who managed to capture the beauty of Aidt’s descriptive prose while maintaining a sense of urgency within the lines:
“Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of an astonishing landscape: luminous, white sand dunes on all sides, wind swept, small trees twisting under the vast open sky. We gasped joyfully as though coming up for air after being under water too long. We stood there looking around, our eyes blinking after staring at the gravel road in the dark forest for so long. Even the smell was different here, salty and fresh, the sea had to be close by. But we lost our bearings long ago.”
Aidt’s talent for combining brutality and beauty is, in my opinion, nothing less than extraordinary.
Another Dane who deserves honorable mention in the BTBA is Dorthe Nors. Her short story collection Karate Chop (Graywolf Press/A Public Space) is a delightfully fast and punchy read, expertly rendered by translator Martin Aitken. Nors’ combination of light language and dark humor is captivating -not only within each individual story, but also in the way the stories complement each other. From the tragicomic self-proclaimed Buddhist, to the man who googles female killers when his wife is asleep, to the heron in Frederiksberg Gardens with mites living in its underfeathers:
“Last winter I saw one slouching on the back of a bench with its long, scrawny neck. Its feet were completely white and it barely even reacted when I walked past. The way the wind ruffled its neck feathers made me want to go back and sit down next to it. It was the way the suffering had to be drawn out like that, the way herons never really muster the enthusiasm. But I won’t touch birds, alive or dead.” (from “The Heron”)
Nors’ short story “The Heron” was the first Danish piece to be published in The New Yorker, and it truly does work well as the literary centerpiece of the perfectly unpredictable Karate Chop.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
The news has been worse than usual this year, so I’ve been particularly thankful for books that make me laugh. Here are some of the funniest contenders – in what I’m sure is just a coincidence, they all take place in the 1980s and involve either children or Soviets or both.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is narrated by a little boy named Orestes who lives in a very small, very poor town in Mexico. His father’s favorite activity is cursing the police, while his mother spends most of her time making quesadillas to feed Orestes and his numerous siblings (all similarly named after figures of Greek tragedy). When the family’s two youngest children, the twins Castor and Pollux, disappear, it sets off a chain of wild events that culminates with the appearance of some extraterrestrial visitors.
But before the aliens get involved, Orestes runs away to make his fortune, and so the book becomes a kind of sad, but hilarious, parody of a poor boy’s rags-to-riches story. Villalobos’ novel, originally titled Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (“If we lived somewhere normal”), criticizes a system of poverty and corruption that is, of course, not limited to Mexico, all while delivering lines so colorful and surprising that you can’t help but laugh.
Another tale narrated by a clever, resourceful, and chronically poor child, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki (translated by Stephen Henighan) moves the scene to Angola. The novel is populated by a cast of odd, lovable characters, including the eponymous Soviet, called Comrade Gudafterov by the children for his habit of greeting everyone with a solemn “Gudafter-noon,” no matter the time of day. Though there are moment in the plot when things seem to be getting dangerous, nothing really terrible actually happens, and we are left with an unusually vivid sense not only of the Angola of Ondjaki’s own childhood, but of the general texture of childhood itself. Stephen Henighan has done a particularly fine job conveying the range of Ondjaki’s style – the Soviet’s comically broken Portuguese and the narrator’s fleeting moments of poetry, for example, seem to arrive in English with equal ease.
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov (translated by Katherine Dovlatov) is not narrated by a child. Rather, our hero is Soviet version of the superfluous man – poor, highly sensitive to literature, perpetually drunk, and somehow badly equipped for life. After a divorce and at the end of his rope, he arrives one summer at Pushkin’s country estate, looking for work as a tour guide. His ensuing adventures are punctuated by witty-one liners worthy of a vodka-soaked Oscar Wilde (“Are you good friends [with Mitrofanov]?” someone asks the narrator, who replies, “I’m good friends with his bad side.”), but overall, the novel owes more to Bulgakov, whose humor builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, until suddenly the entire situation is absurd. The book, like all my favorite Russian tales, is a tragicomedy, one of the saddest and funniest to appear this year.
The size of a book shouldn’t really matter, not when judging whether or not it’s Best Translated Book Award-worthy, but one of the things that has struck me about this year’s batch of eligible titles is that page- if not quality-wise many of the pickings are slimmer than usual.
Mind you, I’m still reeling from 2011 and the memories of (lugging, not to mention reading) Péter Nádas’s 1133-pager Parallel Stories …. (I don’t even want to think about 2009 and Jonathan Littell’s … let’s say unfortunate near-1000 page The Kindly Ones.) So, yes, there’s something to be said for shorter books – beginning with the logistical advantages, of getting through them, as well as the quicker variety moving from one to the next allows for (getting bogged down in a 500-pager is very different (and more drawn-out-painful) than getting bogged down in a book of 100 pages …).
Last year’s shortlist had quite a few substantial books: if not quite the norm, there were a decent number of 400+ page books, including the winning title. Hell, 400 pages seemed almost unremarkable. Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time topped 600, and along the way there had been longer books too: Goliarda Sapienza’s The Art Of Joy was just short of 700 pages, France Daigle’s For Sure easily topped that.
Quite a few 2014 books make it into the 400 page range – including obvious contenders for at least the final award-stages (longlist, shortlist): this year’s Knausgaard (My Struggle: Book Three), just like last year’s; this year’s Ferrante (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay), just like last year’s …. But there just don’t seem to be that many other bulky books. And there seem to be a lot of very slim ones.
True, we’re unlikely ever to have an entry as short as last year’s Her Not All Her — Elfriede Jelinek’s longlisted … well, it was barely a forty-page pamphlet. But the pile of top titles that come in at under a hundred pages is surprising.
Among my favorites this year has been Julio Cortázar’s (comic book-)inspired Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires (87 generously illustrated pages), which is about the most fun I’ve had reading any of these books this year. With cameos by Susan Sontag and Alberto Moravia this is … well, wild barely begins to describe it. But the writing (and translation, by David Kurnick) is sharp, and, despite being almost forty years old, it feels surprisingly topical and current.
Arno Camenisch’s The Alp (82 pages) is just one of what seems like dozens of Dalkey Archive Press entries in the 100-page-range (it’s not dozens, but there are quite a few). Here is an author who works in both German and Romansh (the fourth official language of Switzerland) – a challenge Donal McLaughlin seems quite up to here.
There’s a second Haruki Murakami book due out this year, too — The Strange Library, another book that counts as “heavily illustrated” and still doesn’t make it to a hundred pages. There’s a fairly new Murakami translator at work here too – one we haven’t read in the previous translations, Ted Goosen — and while it is a very small piece (and competes against the other Murakami in the running this year, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, translated by older Murakami-hand Philip Gabriel) can’t be discounted at this early stage.
Some good-looking short story collections come in under the century-mark — Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water and Kjell Askildsen’s Selected Stories among them – but I’m particularly surprised by the number of novels of this size. And by how many of them punch considerably above their weight: Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog Eyes is probably only sustainable over this length, while Jean Echenoz’s just over 100-page 1914 is a master-class in economical storytelling.
Others under 100 pages include the almost obligatory annual diminutive César Aira – Conversations this year (88 pages) – and Antonio Skármeta’s A Distant Father. Special mention has to go to Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences, a volume we weren’t expecting until next year until he was named this year’s Nobel laureate, leading Yale University Press to push up the publication date: it consists of ‘Three Novellas’, filling just over 200 pages – but in France (and elsewhere) the slim volumes have also been published individually. Almost unfair for the Nobel laureate to get three chances to wow the judges in one go (and, helped along by translator Mark Polizzotti, who seems to have a really good feel for Modiano’s style, he certainly wowed this one).
So are there any fat chance-counterweights to these slim pickings? As I said, a couple of contenders make it into the 400 page range, but beyond that the choices are few and far between. Some thrillers and the like but from what I’ve seen so far, nothing that could make a serious dent (sorry, Zoran Drvenkar’s You may have an intriguing range of voices, but … yeah, sorry, no). The best 500+ pagers I’ve checked out so far are Leonardo Padura’s Trotsky novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, which has the qualities that could put it on the longlist, and Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Victus, which also turns out to be a nice surprise. But they both do sag a bit under their weight – always the danger with the long ones.
The one I’m most curious about is one I haven’t seen yet: H.G. Adler’s The Wall (a reported 656 pages), the last in a trilogy that has impressed so far. This comes with some very good buzz, so I definitely see some potential here. Of course, I do have to see it before I can properly judge …..
We’re used to meaty books when it comes to fiction in translation, as if length were more proof of a book’s weighty worthiness. From the biggest Bolaños and recent BTBA winners Myśliwski and (2x) Krasznahorkai they never entirely shoved smaller works aside, but maybe had an easier time making more of a big impression. I wonder whether we’ll now see a shift towards some of this smaller work – looking even stronger this year than usual.
By now you may be asking which BTBA-eligible books I’m most looking forward to reading. Probably not, but let’s pretend. Without further ado:
Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt (translated from Danish by Denise Newman) is a short story collection that’s the first of this author’s work to reach English, and it’s touted as “audacious writing that careens toward bizarre, yet utterly truthful, realizations.” What’s not to like about that? Aidt is originally from Greenland, which is another bonus, as reading her book would get me one step closer to my secret goal of reading something from every country on the globe. Yes, I know Greenland is technically not a country, but it looks so big on Mercator maps that I count it anyway.
Mario Bellatin, who I’ve read before and very much enjoyed, has a new book out from Siete Vientos that contains two separate works, Flowers and Mishima’s Illustrated Biography. The latter portion sounds like non-fiction that wouldn’t qualify for the BTBA, but Bellatin says that it describes “what happened to the writer after his head was cut off.” So yeah, made up. It’s a bilingual edition with the English side having been translated by Kolin Jordan, and it’s a gorgeous little product. Not that I’m judging it solely by its cover, but it does tend to jump out of the stack at me.
Another Spanish language book that carries high expectations is Adam Buenosayres by Argentinian Leopoldo Marechal, a novel so massive that it took two translators, Norman Cheadle and Sheila Ethier, to tackle it. It was first published in 1948 and was Marechal’s attempt to create an epic that would do for his native city what Dickens did for London and Joyce did for Dublin. Among other Latin American writers who were influenced by it was Julio Cortázar, which is more than enough for me to take an interest in it.
From Germany comes The Giraffe’s Neck, about a tightly-wound, aging biology teacher in a failing public school. It’s written by Judith Schalansky (and translated by Shaun Whiteside) who previously brought the fabulous Atlas of Remote Islands into the world.
Javier Cercas is yet another writer whose fiction is always on my to-read list, and the next book of his on my plate is Outlaws, a novel in which an adult lawyer reconnects with the rebellious political gangster who transfixed him during his youth in 1970s Spain. That it’s by Cercas is one thing, but it’s translated by Anne McLean, so I know it must be good.
We Are the Birds of the Coming Storm is by Lola Lafon, a French writer who’s new to me. Translated by David and Nicole Ball, it was the subject of an intriguing review in the web magazine Full Stop that was very positive while admitting the difficulty of describing or responding to it. Which is like catnip as far as I’m concerned.
Lastly, there are two books, both from Dalkey Archive Press and also by French writers, that engage in the kind of metafictional play that drives some people up a wall but makes them must-reads for me. The first is The Author and Me (translated by Jordan Stump), in which writer Eric Chevillard attempts an ultimate refutation of the notion that narrators, even ones who share the author’s name, are mouthpieces for his opinions. A quote: “If all cauliflower and even all memory of cauliflower were abruptly to vanish from the face of this earth—O miracle!—then, I swear, I would don mourning clothes of red and gold, with a pointy hat and a party whistle unrolling from my lips with every breath.” I’m right there with you, Eric. Sorry, “Eric.”
On the slightly more serious side there’s Antoine Volodine, who I think may be undertaking the most important fictional project of our time. Using various pseudonyms (including the Volodine name), he’s producing a body of work that comments on and indicts contemporary society from the vantage of an imagined, not-too-distant future. His fiction has been spottily available in English from various publishers, and it’s been hard for American readers to grasp its scope, but Writers, translated by Katina Rodgers, looks to provide a useful summary. The different stories in the book purport to come from several Volodine heteronyms, finally together between covers.
It’ll take me a while to finish all these, and by then I’m sure I’ll have a new list of favorites to supplant or supplement them. Stay tuned.
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
With so much reading left to do (as submissions continue to fill our mailboxes daily), a handful of books already stand out as some of the year’s finest original translations. Although it remains to be seen whether any of the below titles will make the longlist cut – let alone one of the ten coveted spots on the shortlist – each is an exceptional book in its own way, deserving of an audience larger than is likely and offering considerable recompense to anyone who affords it their readerly faculties.
Gonçalo Tavares ~ A Man: Klaus Klump
The first volume of Gonçalo Tavares’s remarkable Kingdom series, A Man: Klaus Klump (translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil) is the last of the four to be translated into English (after Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine). Like the others, however, this one explores themes of alienation, brutality, impotency, and power. The slimmest of the four works, Klaus Klump shares an essence with the others while being perhaps the most staccato in story and prose.
Spanning several decades in the lives of a handful of characters, Klaus Klump is set in an unnamed city – beginning amidst an ongoing war and later in the years following the cessation of (armed) conflict. With juxtaposing imagery, stark metaphors, and tight, yet evocative language, Tavares entwines the disorienting horrors of senseless ultra-violence with the psychological detachment of conflict-survival. The intensity of Klaus Klump seems all the more pronounced given how much is omitted from the story – allowing a menace or foreboding to loom throughout.
Neither Klaus Klump nor the rest of the books in the series seek to seemingly do more than show the inconsequentiality, indifference, disposability, and vapidity that so characterize 21st century culture. Klaus Klump (like Ernst Spengler, Lenz Buchmann, and Joseph Walser in the earlier books before him) populates a world where war and commerce function in codependency. Obedience is nearly superfluous, as long as appetites remain insatiable. To serve within such a system, one needn’t resort to nihilism – simply passive resignation will do.
Gonçalo Tavares is an exceptional talent and his writing seems almost limitless in scope (garnering the attention and acclaim of luminaries like the great José Saramago and Enrique Vila-Matas). The Kingdom series (cycle? quartet? tetralogy?) offers a world that could not be more dissimilar to the one found in Tavares’s The Neighborhood. One not familiar with the provenance of these respective books would swear they were written by authors possessed of disparate literary tastes and temperaments. That Tavares can move so freely between works exuding terror and dread to those offering humor and charm is quite breathtaking to behold. With poems, short stories, plays, and other fiction as-yet untranslated, hopefully more (much more!) of Tavares’s work will soon be forthcoming in English.
Andrés Neuman ~ Talking to Ourselves
Talking to Ourselves (translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia), the second of Andrés Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation – be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging German towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.
Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. Staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can – longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution. Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort.
Talking to Ourselves considers a host of subjects, not the least of which being death, sickness, caretaking, parenthood and filial responsibility, devotion and infidelity, sex, passion, the duality of pleasure and pain, mourning, dishonesty, individual experience, and the inherent differences between men and women. If Neuman’s novel seems rich with life, it’s not only because his characters and their situations are so well-conceived, but also on account of his story being the stuff that life is so often composed of. To be sure, there are moments of tenderness, joy, and humor to be found throughout the book (especially when narrated by young Lito) – but Neuman’s capacity for unyielding compassion in the face of unflinching circumstance speaks volumes about the depths of his empathy and ability to synthesize through fiction the often unsettling realities and conflicting motivations of mortal existence.
With but a pair of works currently in translation, it is still rather evident that Andrés Neuman possesses a formidable talent. Talking to Ourselves, despite its solemnity (tempered though it may be by beauty and bittersweetness), is an exceptional work of considerable emotional breadth. While the story itself may well be dolorous, it radiates with an authenticity that can often be elusive in fiction. There’s a vibrancy and liveliness to Neuman’s writing (as well-evidenced, too, in Traveler of the Century) that is irresistible. Even if one were not captivated by his arresting tale, persuasive characters, or sonorous prose, the impassioned effects of his storytelling are inescapable.
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
It is quite an honor (to say nothing of a responsibility) to be invited to adjudicate the creative output of others. In merely thinking of the myriad ways one might go about arbitrating the many facets that comprise a finished work of art – especially literature in translation – it is admittedly difficult to know how best to weigh its constituent parts. With many hundreds of novels and short story collections published in original English translations each year, most, of course, will never receive the due attention or readership they so rightly deserve. Thus it is, then, that the goal of the (eighth!) annual Best Translated Book Award (should be to highlight the titles, authors, translators, and publishers most worthy of acclaim.
A cursory glance at the list of the year’s translations reveals a wealth of notable authors from every continent. This embarrassment of literary riches is enough to make any devotee of international fiction swoon (and feel, perhaps, not a little overwhelmed). But do the household names of literature in translation (your Bolaños, Saramagos, Hrabals, Murakamis, Knausgårds, et al.) have an unfair advantage against those foreign authors for whom English-speaking audiences have yet to discover? Or might an author newly translated into English (the language with the third most native speakers worldwide) garner some disproportionate attention in hopes of not overlooking a dazzling new talent?
Do we, as discerning readers, gravitate towards the works rendered from their mother language by translators we already admire (such as Natasha Wimmer, Margaret Jull Costa, Richard Pevear, Chris Andrews, Philip Gabriel, Anne McLean, Susan Bernofsky, et al.)? In an ideal word (where translators enjoy more recognition for their accomplished efforts), our criteria would be completely objective, letting a book present itself on its own merits alone, but, alas, a subjective reality is the one we must inhabit.
And publishers? For every New Directions, Other Press, Melville House, NYRB, Dalkey, Graywolf, and Open Letter there are countless others acquiring, editing, translating, publishing, and promoting in relative obscurity. Young publishing house upstarts focusing on translation (New Vessel and Deep Vellum amongst the most promising) often have the liberty of taking greater chances on more esoteric or little-known works. With the field of publishers releasing fiction in translation growing ever more diverse (per market forces, no doubt), there is likely no greater time for a worldly reader to be alive than at this very moment.
While at first glance the prospect of working through hundreds of works to anoint a single one as the best translated book of the year may appear daunting, it needn’t be as such. As any lifelong reader or peruser of bookstore stacks knows well; somehow, as inexplicable as it always seems until the next time, the right book will (must!) inevitably find its way into our hands. Nine of us (each with disparate backgrounds, expectations, interests, strategies, and tastes), charged as we are with bringing our relative expertise and acumen to the task at hand, will certainly make our way through the year’s offerings and end up with what is (perhaps unanimously) the best translated book of the year.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
My strategy for BTBA reading is very simple and very biased: I read the books by women first, and if there are no books by women, then I read the shortest ones first. I start with the women because there are fewer of them, and with the short books because they make me feel accomplished.
One of the first books I read was Can Xue’s The Last Lover (translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen), a novel by one of China’s best and strangest contemporary writers. I had been enchanted a few years ago by her short story collection Vertical Motion, which is populated by all sorts of Kafkaesque sons and animals.
Can Xue’s work is dreamlike, but not in the hazy, poetic way that that word usually implies. Rather, her stories follow the logic of dreams, particularly in The Last Lover: locations shift abruptly, characters’ reactions are unexpected or irrational, elements from previous scenes are suddenly re-assembled in new configurations. The Last Lover, a story of three couples, is perhaps best understood as taking place in a largely or entirely imaginary space. The lovers are wandering not through the world, but through each other’s dreams, which nevertheless resemble some version of the world. The book is baffling at times, and after reading it I often stood up slightly dizzy. But something about it is tenacious. Like Kafka (whom she greatly admires), Can Xue is able to create metaphors that are understood deeply and intuitively even while they elude intellectual comprehension.
The Last Lover surfaced in my thoughts again recently when I found another book by a modern-day sister of Kafka’s.
Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water (translated from Estonian by Ilmar Lehtpere) is a slim book (only eighty pages) of surreal fairy tales. In one, a woman bites the arms off three successive husbands, all named Jaan. In another, a skeleton called Lena tells of her life on an island that has “torn itself free from the ocean floor.” A third woman has written a grammar of bird language and collects apricots from her “six former husbands” (her enumeration of their respective qualities recalls Kafka’s story “Eleven Sons”).
Some of the stories are noticeably weaker than others, but in the best of them there is a certain freedom found in all good fables, including Kafka’s: the freedom to be read both literally and figuratively. Kristiina Ehin’s stories are metaphors for emotional events, usually ordinary ones like falling in or out of love, but they are sometimes very original metaphors, interesting as fiction in their own right. Like Can Xue, Kristiina Ehin encourages us to interpret her work while simultaneously hinting that interpretation is not important.
Whether or not either of these titles ends up on this year’s longlist, they deserve to be read, not only on their own merits, but as representatives of marginalized literatures. We know that only 3% of the English-language book market is devoted to works in translation; how much smaller is that percentage when we count only books by women, let alone books by women from China or Estonia? Indeed, it has taken me depressingly little time to get through all the BTBA submissions by women that I’ve received up to now. I hope that more are on the way, and that more (especially from under-represented countries) are slated by publishers for the coming years.
In the meantime, as I continue to read wonderful things by writers of all genders, I can’t help but noticing that these two, The Last Lover and Walker on Water, have a curious capacity to linger in my mind, even as technically “better” books fade from memory.
There’s no real official start date for the judging of the Best Translated Book Award – though maybe the announcement finalizing who the judges actually are is a good starting point. While some of us have been here before – and have probably been reading with an eye towards the 2015 prize all year already – others have only been roped into the process more recently. But in fact, while we are already two-thirds into the year (the 2015 prize is for a work of fiction, never previously translated, published/distributed in the US in 2014), it really is still early days for all of us judges. Publishers have until the very last day of the year, December 31st, to submit titles to us, and while quite a few have already gotten some nice batches of books out to us (many thanks!), experience suggests that the submission piles will only really start piling up in the coming months. (Publishers don’t have to submit titles – we’ll try to consider anything that is eligible, regardless – but it certainly helps (a lot) if they do; and while the December 31 deadline isn’t actually an absolute one (yes, we’ll (try very hard to …) look at books even after then if for some reason they’ve escaped us until then) the more time we do have to consider books, the better.)
I get a lot of these titles anyway, all year long, as submissions for possible review at the Complete Review, so I don’t quite feel I’ve suddenly been thrown into a bottomless ocean of fiction-in-translation – I’ve been wading in it all year already – , but opening the spreadsheet where we track the books and share our comments on our on-going reading can feel a bit overwhelming. The spreadsheet is based on the Translation Database Chad Post keeps at Three Percent, with the ineligible works (such as anthologies) weeded out, and kept perhaps slightly more up-to-date. So while the 2014 database currently lists 384 fiction- titles, the spreadsheet – as I write this – already lists 408. (A few more of these will probably be weeded out, while a few dozen more will likely eventually be added – such as that just-announced new Murakami work.) Still,
408 409 works…..
A few books always escape us – we just can’t get our hands on even one copy – but we do try our hardest to at least consider them all. Some admittedly more than others: it only takes a quick dip into some of the books to realize there’s not much there – surprisingly few, however: translation does tend to act as a filter: all the extra work involved in getting a book published in English translation does seem to weed out most of the truly terrible stuff.
I build my BTBA piles as the books come in (fortunately not all 400+ books at once …) and try to work my way through, setting aside the ones which I think might possibly be in the running – and flinging away the ones which I think don’t deserve or have a chance (flinging carefully, since my fellow-judges might have different views and might make the case for these later in the process). For now, everything still seems reasonably manageable – the piles aren’t too high (we’re only two-thirds of the way into the year, so a lot of books haven’t been published yet and aren’t available for us to consider – I don’t think I’ve seen even close to half of the eligible titles yet), the spreadsheet isn’t yet a blur of titles – but I know from experience that it’s important to plow ahead at a steady clip, so as not to really be overwhelmed when the serious decision-making process starts early next year.
Already four months ago, just after this year’s winners were announced, I looked ahead, suggesting some of the titles I figured would be contenders for the 2015 longlist. I’ve seen and read a lot more of the eligible titles by now, but the picture is still a pretty hazy one to me – which I think is probably for the best: there are far too many more works to get through, and too many other opinions to hear and consider for anything to be set anywhere near in stone yet …..
There are, as always, some big names and some obvious contenders, but so far I haven’t been convinced there’s an obvious break-out title (we’re not going to have a Krasznahorkai three-peat – no eligible title, this time around), and there are fairly few ‘big’ books from the most prominent authors. Yes there’s a new Murakami, which I enjoyed, but it’s safe to say it’s not one of his major works; it’ll be in the longlist discussions, I assume, but I don’t think anyone will be surprised or shocked if it doesn’t make the short- or even longlist.
Two other authors who probably do qualify as literary powerhouses by now – Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante – are certainly in the thick of things with their new books, both of which are very strong. But they’re also (both) the third installment in multi-volume series, and so it’s possible that some reader-fatigue has or is setting in. I’m tipping Knausgaard’s final installment – number six, probably a couple of years off – as a likely future BTBA winner, but I don’t know if these middle-books can generate that top-level of excitement to consistently push them through to the shortlist. Ferrante, on the other hand, seems to have more momentum (and, this year, arguably the stronger book) – though the fact that it turns out this one isn’t the last in the series either might prove a bit deflating as well.
For now, it’s simply about reading – digesting as much as possible and getting those initial impressions. A bit of cream rises easily to the top, but it’ll be a few months – until we start discussing in earnest – before I really start thinking seriously about what books I’d like to see on the longlist and what books I might not have given a fair shot yet (as other judges make the case for books X,Y, and Z). Fun times – for now.
Although it wasn’t all that long ago that László Krasznahorkai and Elisa Biagini won the Best Translated Book Award, but it’s already time to look ahead to the 2015 iteration—the first step of which is announcing the new group of judges.
Similar to years past, the fiction panel will consist of nine members, and five for poetry.
The fiction group consists of: George Carroll (Northwest Publishers’ Representative, Shelf Awareness), Monica Carter (Salonica), James Crossley (Island Books), Scott Esposito (Center for the Art of Translation, Conversational Reading), Jeremy Garber (Powells), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Asymptote), Madeleine LaRue (Music & Literature), Daniel Medin (American University of Paris, Cahiers Series), and Michael Orthofer (Complete Review).
Poetry is made up of: Biswamit Dwibedy (poet), Bill Martin (translator, co-founder of The Bridge), Dawn Lundy Martin (poet), Erica Mena-Landry (poet, translator, managing director of ALTA) and Stefan Tobler (And Other Stories and translator).
For all publishers/authors/translators out there who want their book(s) to be entered into the BTBA, all you have to do is send a copy to each one of the judges (and one to me so that we can log it). You can send either a physical copy OR a PDF/ebook. Just make sure you send it before December 31, 2014.
Any work that’s available in the United States for the first time ever (no retranslations, new editions, etc.) that’s published between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2014 is eligible. (Even if you don’t send in a copy, but your chances of winning increase exponentially by letting more judges read your work.)
In terms of dates, the longlists—25 fiction works, 10 poetry—will be announced on March 2nd, with the finalists—10 fiction, 5 poetry—on April 13th. The winners will be announced on April 27th and we’ll have a celebration in New York City on May 1st.
More info soon!
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