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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