As you already know, the winner of this year’s BTBA for fiction is Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Below is a short piece by the BTBA fiction jury explaining the reasons behind their selection and pointing out two runners-up.
We are very pleased to award the 2013 Best Translated Book Award for fiction to Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. Fans of the award will no doubt note that this is the second year in a row that it has been given to Krazsnahorkai, with last year’s honors going to his first novel, Satantango, translated by George Szirtes. This fact was taken into account by the judges, as was our desire to honor writing from a wide range of geographies, cultures, and languages, and these are all things that we hope will be continued to be accounted for going forward. But in the end one thing was clear: 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 book also takes bold steps forward in terms of how we think of the form of the novel, and our expectation of how a novel works and what it can attempt to do. In its scope, its depth, and its amazing precision, we found Seiobo There Below to be a work of rare genius. We were likewise very enthusiastic about Mulzet’s translation, which is astonishing for its beauty and its technical skill. In this book of nearly 500 pages, filled with sentences that range on for pages at a time, as well as all sorts of specialized jargon and obscure details, Mulzet doesn’t hit a false note, a truly amazing accomplishment. We must give due congratulations to her great work, as well as register our appreciation to her editors at New Directions, who surely must share in the credit.
As much as we admire Seiobo There Below, it was not an easy decision to elevate this book above our two runners-up, and there was much in-depth discussion and passionate arguments in favor of all three finalists. Although there can only be one winner, it is important to us to honor the range of styles, geographies, languages, and cultures that made it so challenging to select the 2013 honoree. Thus we offer these words of praise for our two runners-up:
We found Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s short novel The African Shore, masterfully translated by Jeffrey Gray, to be almost the perfect counterpoint to Seiobo There Below. In its sonnet-like perfection, even a single out-of-place word would have marred this novel’s hypnotizing effect, so due praise must be given to Rey Rosa and Gray for presenting us with this seamless, engrossing story. We also admired the strange logic by which Rey Rosa’s book functions, telling two parallel narratives that are connected by that strange symbolic creature, the owl. The African Shore felt very much to us like a story that only Rey Rosa could have told, a small, perfectly cut jewel that we can stare into endlessly. It is emblematic of the very rich exchange between Rey Rosa’s native Guatemala and the Morocco in which he lived for a decade, and its minimalist aesthetic points us toward an interesting new direction for Latin American literature to follow in the new century.
We were equally enamored of Minae Mizumura’s work in adapting Emily Brontë’s Gothic classic Wuthering Heights to contemporary Japan, translated most spectacularly by Juliet Winters Carpenter. As the novel continues to evolve as an art form, it is essential that it take stock of its legacy and find ways to rejuvenate its classics. Mizumura does not only this but also interrogates the idea of the “true novel“—the Western novel in the tradition of Flaubert, Dickens, et al.—against the traditional Japanese novel. As have many great Japanese writers before her, she reaches into the rich intersection between East and West to create something distinctly Japanese yet global in scope, a satisfying investigation of individual characters, the landscape of her nation, and various novelistic traditions. This wonderful novel marks the entry of a major talent into the English language, and we are proud to honor Mizumura’s long overdue arrival.
All 25 titles on the 2014 Fiction Longlist are spectacular, so I’m sure this was a pretty brutal decision making process. Anyway, here are your final ten books:
Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, translated from the French by Lulu Norman (Morocco; Tin House)
Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Romania; Archipelago Books)
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy; Europa Editions)
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)
My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway; Archipelago Books)
Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary; New Directions)
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters (Japan; Other Press)
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Guatemala; Yale University Press)
Leg Over Leg Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Lebanon; New York University Press)
The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Netherlands; Pushkin Press)
The other night I finally got around to watching Room 237, which, if you haven’t heard of it already, is a documentary about people obsessed with Kubrick’s The Shining and their various, often wacky, theories about what’s really going on in the movie. It’s absolutely fascinating, and not necessarily because of the interpretations. Sure, the one about how The Shining is Kubrick’s attempt to admit to having filmed the Apollo space landing is incredible—“he changed the room number from 217 to 237 because the moon is 237,000 miles from Earth!”—and the ones analyzing the “magic window” and Danny’s three trips on his Big Wheel around the hotel are compelling and provocative, but the real joy of this movie is simply listening to how people make sense of things.
Talking about “high art” as “high art” is always a dicey prospect, so I’ll dive right in: to me, real “art” fucks with your mind and expectations and forces you to see new patterns, to try and analyze what it is that’s happening, since what’s happening isn’t at all what you’re used to. This goes beyond content and plot and character, and is more about the form and style of a particular book/movie/piece of music. Great art feels “new” and leaves the impression that there’s some pattern just beneath the surface . . . (Which is maybe why I love Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49 so much?)
To me, that’s what’s going on in Room 237. I don’t give a shit about the theories themselves—some are more believable than others—but the way in which the obsessives puzzle things out is simply incredible. That’s the real joy of this movie—having the chance to see how someone else’s mind works when they’re presented with an object that doesn’t quite fit preconceived ideas. (Which is why I think Kubrick’s assistant totally missed the point when he said, “There are ideas espoused in Room 237 that I know to be total balderdash.” No shit! and/or DUH.)
This kind of experience—of analyzing, of feeling like “there was something going on that I wasn’t seeing . . . yet”—can only happen when a creator (or team of creators) creates something and then hands it over to the public.
By contrast, check this post on Mashable about self-publishing and the modern advantages of serializing your work (in contrast to writing a full novel and then giving it to readers):
Allen Lau, CEO and cofounder of Wattpad, credits [Abigail] Gibbs’ choice to serialize [The Dark Heroine, which sold for six-figures to HarperCollins after they examined her sales on the Wattpad self-publishing platform] as “one of the key factors of her success.” With the traditional publishing method, he explains, it can often take two or three years before a book lands in readers’ hands, but serialization short-circuits that. “As soon as you finish that first chapter, you can post it [online] and start to generate a fan base, start to generate excitement.” [. . .]
The opportunity for readers and writers to directly connect marks a real shift from the established relationship between the two typical publishing parties.
“The readers don’t just read the story in a read-only mode; they participate in the content creation process,” says Lau. “Some of the comments can absolutely influence the storyline. This type of collaborative content creation and crowd participation simply and structurally doesn’t exist in the traditional system.”
Thanks to the class I teach in the spring semester—and the fact I make my students give presentations on some of my favorite authors, tying them into one another, creating a network of influences and influencees—I’ve been thinking a lot about “literary movements” and how there doesn’t seem to be the same drive to articulate new forms of storytelling as there was in the twentieth century . . . except maybe in terms of digital things.
It seems that digital believers—by which I mean the people who articulate reasons why digital forms of creation and distribution will help them make bank, and those who feel like writers should take full advantage of the possibilities of digital to make a truly multimedia text—are the vanguard of new narrative forms. Which, I have to say, leaves me feeling empty.
I don’t care so much about the technocrats who look to everything digital to find “disruptions” to “legacy publishers” so that they can find a new way to make lots of money and get themselves a smidgen closer to the 1% . . . I’m just not one of those people. I wish I could afford child care and an endless supply of wine, but I can’t, and I’m happy spending all my disposable income on graphic novels and cable packages that allow me to watch soccer matches. I personally don’t feel a drive to have more than that.
It’s the aesthetic techies who frighten me. “People Powered Publishing”? Books that are crafted based on feedback? I’m all for more interactions between authors and publishers and readers, but this reeks of giving people a variation on what they want. (I just looked at the comments for a random Wattpad story and they’re way worse than I expected. My favorite is “everything repeat the samr chapter. my part favorite is whatever school, whatever class.”) Although I read my fair share of books that are simply entertaining and not “artistic,” I hope that future writers will continue to produce things—like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining and whatever—that upend my expectations and make me feel like I’m missing something . . .
The Panda Theory and A26 by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Gallic Books and Melanie Florence (Gallic Books)
I finished The Panda Theory last week, and am now ready to go on a Garnier bender. Which is fortuitous, since Gallic Books is bringing out four of his books in U.S. this year. I could explain what I liked about this novel, but really, I think this bit from Garnier about why he became a writer should do it:
That’s when the wife and baby came along. All around me, the faithful companions I’d met along the way were nestling back into their kennels, burying their dreams and delusions like bones to gnaw at in years to come when they were old and toothless. Rebelling against such mass surrender, I threw myself into rock and roll—and landed with a resounding thud. I was no better at being a pop star than I was at being a dad. Still, it was writing my pitiful ditties that gave me a taste for words. Deep down, I harboured a wild dream of writing something longer, something like a book. But my limited vocabulary, terrible spelling and hopeless grammar seemed like insurmountable obstacles. So I got divorced, remarried, dabbled in design for women’s magazines, took on odd jobs, got up to the occasional bit of mischief. In short, I was killing time, frittering my life away. The boredom of my childhood numbed me once again with the sweetness of a drug. I was thirty-five.
“But my limited vocabulary, terrible spelling and hopeless grammar seemed like insurmountable obstacles. So I got divorced . . .” It’s an indisputable fact that divorce improves two parts of your life, one of which is your creativity.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (FSG)
I really want to like Villalobos. He’s young, he’s Latin American, he includes bits about alien abductions in his books . . . But there’s just nothing there in my opinion. This novel, and Down the Rabbit Hole, are technically fine, but they don’t create new patterns . . . instead they feel a bit pandering. A bit thin.
Actually, and I write this despite knowing that so many people I respect love his works, I feel like the “rage” that Neel Mukherjee writes about in the intro to this novel rings a bit false. As a reader, I find the rage of Villalobos’s characters to be of the “look, I’m raging, and I’m funny, look at me!” sort. Toothless.
Miruna, A Tale by Bogdan Suceava, translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (Twisted Spoon Press)
I just received this in the mail the other week, and I have two things to say about it: Bogdan did his Ph.D. in math at Michigan State University around the same time I was there (although I did no Ph.D., and my idea of being good at math is schooling my daughter on long division), and thus he’s automatically the greatest Romanian author of all time (Go Spartans! Just please god go further in the tournament than Syracuse, because, fuck Syracuse); and secondly, Twisted Spoon Press is the most underrated press in the world dedicated to producing high-quality works of international literature. Also, fuck Syracuse. More on that below.
Efina by Noëlle Revaz, translated from the Swiss French by David and Nicole Ball (Seagull Books)
Revaz’s With the Animals was longlisted for the BTBA the other year, which is why I personally was so excited to find out that Seagull was bringing out another of her books. With the Animals was one of the most incredibly misogynist books I’ve ever read. There is no way that sentence comes out right. If you read the link above, you’ll know what I mean, but in short, With the Animals focuses on a narrator who is pure shit. Total woman-despising asshole. Whose literary voice is incredible. Efina promises letters from two characters who write “often to express their intense dislike of each other”! I can’t wait; people who believe you should only enjoy novels if you like the characters should run and hide.
Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Yale University Press)
Willsconsin has translated a bunch of Rodrigo Rey Rosa stuff, and the fact that Will is into him has me convinced that I should read this. Plus, covers of girls in bookstores are an automatic yes for me.
Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Penguin)
Last week, Jonathan Wright settled his case with Random House regarding his translation of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Europe, which Al Aswany deemed shitty for the most insane of reasons. I have a student from Yemen in my classes this year, and he was BLOWN AWAY by Al Aswany’s bullshit (my word) reasons for claiming Jonathan Wright shouldn’t translate his books. Thing is, as a publisher, every time you’re all “authors are the worst! They make this job so fucking intolerable!” a translator will jump up and want a terrible author photo on the cover of a poetry book.
Stories by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive)
Even if I’ve written it here before, it’s worth repeating a million times: JOAQUIM MARIA MACHADO DE ASSIS is the greatest name to pronounce aloud ever. If you add a faux-Portuguese accent. Which may sound a bit sinister. But friendly sinister. I spent a week in Brazil repeating Machado de Assis’s name to everyone I met. It’s a wonderful icebreaker.
Encyclopedia of Good Reasons by Monica Cantieni, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin (Seagull Books)
This weekend, I took my kids to see the Lego Movie. (Or however you italicize that. Seriously: trademarks are confusing to me when they become commercial pieces of art.) It was pretty awesome (I’ve never seen my son smile like that, which is so happy making), but what was equally awesome was hearing a “dorky” (your words, not mine!) high school boy say this in line behind me:
I know we’re seeing the Lego Movie, but Vampire Academy? A movie with hot high school girls AND vampires? It has ALL the things I think about.
The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov, translated from the Russian by Ross Ufberg (New Vessel Press)
Moldova! The first book I’ve ever seen from Moldova!
Aaron’s Leap by Magdalena Platzova, translated from the Czech by Craig Cravens (Bellevue Literary Press)
Bellevue Literary Press reminds me of Erika Goldman which reminds me of her friend Dubrakva Ugresic, whose Europe in Sepia you should all be buying and reading. Dubrakva is awesome and witty and poignant and a genius; Erika is awesome and quick-witted and fucking brilliant. Just buy both books: If Erika chose to publish it, you know it’s amazing.
Also, she’s not a Syracuse University fan (I think?) (and is it the University of Syracuse? I get confused about second-rate programs. BASH.), which means she automatically knows more about college basketball than half of upstate New York and more than 90% of everyone in Rochester. Sorry, Otter Lodge (the “pub” where I watched the Syracuse-Duke game and was “informed” by multiple people that Duke University is in Chapel Hill. Which is it most definitely not), your bar sucks, and we will roll your indoor soccer team again.
Sarah Gerard is a writer who used to work at McNally Jackson Books, but recently took a job at BOMB Magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, and other publications. Her new book, “Things I Told My Mother,” can be purchased here. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
A few of the BTBA judges have talked about how honored they are to be part of this process. I am also, but I want to be clear about one thing: it’s a lot of work.
The above is my tiny home office. It’s located in a small alcove in the hallway between my kitchen and my bathroom, in the studio apartment I share with my husband. The picture is in no way representative of the way my office looks every day. What I mean is this: recently, I left McNally Jackson Books, where I’d been a bookseller for three years, in order to join the team at BOMB Magazine, a publication that consistently pays homage to the art of translation. Because it would be difficult to inform every publisher of my address change, I still receive BTBA submissions at McNally Jackson, and have to return there every few days to pick up my mail. Each time, I find anywhere between two and ten new titles on the hold shelf for me, and add them to these stacks.
Meanwhile, new emails are coming in all the time from publishers; PDFs of books, eBooks, .mobi books. The judges are racing to keep up. And the list is always growing. Here are some of my recent favorites.
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (trans. Jeffrey Gray)
I mentioned BOMB Magazine. The current issue, #125, features a truly excellent conversation between Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Francisco Goldman. Rey Rosa was a protégé of Paul Bowles, who translated many of his books. It was under Bowles’s tutelage that Rey Rosa discovered his passion for writing, and it was Bowles who initially recognized Rey Rosa’s talent. Rey Rosa later returned to his home of Guatemala, where most of his books are set, and where he currently lives. But The African Shore is set in Tangier, a textured, mystical place full of almost noir-like intrigue. The possibility of violence hums on the outside of two stories held together by colonialism and the life of a snowy owl. Of the book, Francisco Goldman asks
FG: A propos of The African Shore, were there any special challenges for you in setting a novel in Tangier instead of Guatemala? Did you still consider yourself to be an outsider or a foreigner in relation to Tangier, or did you consider it home?
RRR: I wrote it in 1998. I dared to write the book when I realized that the Tangier that Bowles had written about—or better yet, created—had changed so much that it was no longer the same city. Only the wind remained… I lived there, and partially in New York, from ’82 to ’92, and spent summers in Tangier until 2001. When I started writing the novella, I could sense that I would never live in Morocco again. The book became a sort of farewell. But I never thought of Tangier as a home. I’ve never been at peace at home—but in Tangier I often was.
Regarding Jeffrey Gray’s translation, all I can say is that the book reads like a vivid dream seen through an opium haze, and sentence-by-sentence, is beautiful. I admit that I haven’t read Bowles’s translations, but am inspired now to seek them out and compare styles.
Sleet by Stig Dagerman (trans. Steven Hartman)
Two of Stig Dagerman’s books are up for the award this year: Sleet, a short story collection, and Burnt Child, a novel that I am now, after reading Sleet, very excited to begin. I admit, I had never heard of Stig Dagerman, but was intrigued by Sleet_’s introduction by Alice McDermott, blurbs from Graham Greene and Siri Hustvedt, and my general love of David R. Godine’s Verba Mundi series. As it turns out, Dagerman was a prolific writer in Sweden, who in his time was compared to everyone from Faulkner to Kafka to Camus. While most of the stories in _Sleet are a mote less philosophical than any of these writers’ works, I would be remiss if I didn’t strongly recommend the first and last stories, “To Kill a Child” and “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?” (Laugh at the second title – it’s fine.) “To Kill a Child” had me hooked immediately and was promisingly quick and devastating, and “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?”, a nearly novella-length work, had me reduced to a tear-soaked pile of loss and bereavement, and memories of my grandfather. Dagerman’s writing is personal and unsettling, hewing closely to characters being made to undergo humiliation and loss in an environment – mid-century Sweden – that’s almost too quaint for comfort. I would happily read this collection a second and even a third time.
Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek (trans. Damion Searls)
This was one of the last books I staff picked as a bookseller at McNally Jackson:
The irony of a writer (Robert Walser) trying desperately to craft his own identity, only to succeed tragically at channeling through his words the voices of others. Jelinek captures Walser’s sad humor, his loneliness, and the eventual silence (silencing or death) of a voice that spoke through so many other voices. By way of madness? Genius? Damion Searls’s translation captures beautifully the skill of both writers: Jelinek’s performance and her ode to Walser.
I read this entire book in one mad, intensely satisfying, Homerically victorious sitting. I felt compelled despite its many (gorgeous, thrilling) challenges, to reach the end. Added to which, the book itself is lovely to look at – true objecthood achieved, Sylph Editions.
Here I should recall my last BTBA post, wherein I discussed Christa Wolf’s book City of Angels, which is also up for the award this year, and is also translated by Damion Searls. As it happens, Searls also – a trifecta of cool – translated Robert Walser’s A Schoolboy’s Diary, which is up for the award this year, too, and which author figures centrally into this Jelinek book we’re talking about currently – making a complete Searls circle, if you will.
Red Grass by Boris Vian (trans. Paul Knobloch)
I’m currently reading this book and am already completely blown away by it. While I’m not sure I can do it justice here, being that I’m still in the middle of it, I can already say that Vian’s (and Knobloch’s) sentences are some of the most lively I’ve ever read, and that the allegorical nature of the story rivals Kafka and Wells in its grace and complexity. It’s not exactly science fiction, but neither is it exactly Surreal. It’s something entirely its own – no other writer has done what Vian’s done here.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .