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.
As you already know, the winner of this year’s BTBA for poetry is The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagnini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, and published by Chelsea Editions. Below is a statement from the judges about the collection, along with some notes about the two runners up.
From the poetry jury:
In Elisa Biagini’s eerie interiors, nothing is quite what it seems. “Peeled hands” become tapestries, teeth are “white and dry like kneecaps,” a woman irons as a way of “stopping decomposition / by joining collar points.” What at first glance might seem like straight-forward lyrics of domesticity or celebrations of the ordinary, turn quickly violent and grotesque. Female selves are not dissolved, martyr-style, for their loved ones, but cut-up into pieces, a butchery that is sensuously and surreally chronicled: “My body is a bag of fluids,” “I see myself in pieces in the supermarket.” Reading Biagini we realize how frequently we do, in actuality, leave traces of our bodies with, in, and upon the ones we love: “you smile at your seed in me / (you’ve just eaten your lipstick) / and if I draw my face near / I see a wisp of my hair / in your gloves.” “The guest” of Biagini’s title shifts viscerally, now a growing embryo, now the familiar fairytale innocents in the forbidding wood, now language itself, whose “words [are] glowworms in / this my / dark.” Reading this collection, our own worlds, our own homes, our own narratives, our own words are illuminated in their already existing strangeness. That Biagini’s haunting, disturbing, brilliant, and beautiful poems retain this power and immediacy—above all this passion—in their English translations is a testament to the work of her translators: Diana Thow, Sarah Strickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky.
The first runner-up, Four Elemental Bodies by Claude Royet-Journoud is translated from the French by Keith Waldrop, and published by Burning Deck, a press that almost always has at least one title on the list of BTBA poetry finalists. This is the second volume of Royet-Journoud’s to come out from Burning Deck, and contains four volumes: Reversal, The Notion of Obstacle, Objects Contain the Infinite, and Natures Indivisible.
Here’s a bit more about his from the Burning Deck website:
Claude Royet-Journoud is one of the most important contemporary French poets whose one-line manifesto: “Shall we escape analogy” marked a revolutionary turn away from Surrealism and its lush imagery. His spare, “neutral” language, stripped of devices like metaphor, assonance, alliteration has had a great influence on recent French poetry.
Poetry judge Bill Martin wrote The Oasis of Now up earlier today, and since his piece is so comprehensive and interesting, I’ll just let him speak for this runner-up:
Something that Dabashi hints at and another scholar, Massud Farzan, addressed forty years ago as crucial to Sepehri’s work is, in addition to the influence on it of Buddhism, its connection to Sufi apophatic theology, the “via negativa . . . the cleansing of the heart’s and mind’s mirror of its dust and grime.” This mystical affiliation informs the frame that Ali and Mahallati give his work in the introduction to the book, and also affirms the fantasy I had in reading him of an affinity with Tomaž Šalamun, another poetic descendent of Rumi. (I imagined a genealogy involving other poets on the American scene, too: Whitman, Dickinson, Rilke, Trakl, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Lax, Gary Snyder, Fanny Howe; but none seemed so closely related.) Like Šalamun’s poetry, Sepehri’s cleaves and coheres at odd angles to the Anglophone avant-garde. But while Šalamun refracts sense paratactically and with scintillating speed, Sepehri is much slower, tellurian, more liable to syntax, haunting, his epiphanies so figurative and deliberate they often come across as platitudes. Yet the experience of reading him is more robust, ample, and structured than it may appear at first sight:
Beyond the poplars
sweet innocence beckons.
I paused by the stand of bamboo to listen as the wind susurrated through.
Who was speaking to me?
A lizard slid into the water. I walked on.
Hayfield, cucumber patch, rose bush, oblivion . . .
At the stream I doffed my sandals to dangle my feet in the water.
How alive I am,
how green like the garden.
So what if sadness creeps down the mountain slope?
Who is that hiding behind the trees?
Only a water buffalo grazing.
Like most of the poems in The Oasis of Now, this one, “Golestaneh,” reads like a rehearsal of reverse apperception, with the “human position” of the subject reconceived in relation to nature through repeated gestures—questions, reappraisals, simple descriptions, epiphanies—a repertoire of moderated ecstasy. This poetic redirection of the subject toward nature, or as Jonathan Skinner has put it, this “turning of the poem out of doors” and the “extending and developing” in these poems of the “perception of the natural world,” that signals the potential inspiration of Sepehri’s work for ecopoetics. This is not a book that immediately announces itself as avant-garde or new, it does not brandish its modernism, and does not in fact seem so easily commodifiable, but the more time one spends with it, the more it astonishes and yields.
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.
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