12 January 15 | Monica Carter

Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Reviewa book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.

Some five-hundred-odd translated titles are in contention – well, at least get considered – for a book prize, the Best Translated Book Award. Not surprisingly, a number of them have previously won literary prizes of one sort of another, and it’s interesting to see how they stack up against the still-un-prized competition.

Two of the authors with books in the running are Nobel laureates – though in the case of José Saramago, the eligible title is not one which was taken into consideration in awarding him that prize: his posthumously published but very early novel, Skylight, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. 2014 Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences(trans. by Mark Polizzotti), on the other hand, is unusual in being a three-for-one collection, collecting three novel(las) that were originally published as stand-alones. Despite all the criticism the Swedish Academy gets for some of their Nobel selections, it’s rare that a laureate’s work isn’t worth reading. The Saramago – written in the early 1950s, and, when it was not accepted for publication, leading him to abandon writing fiction for nearly a quarter of a century – stands in every way apart from the rest of his work but already suggests many of the qualities of his later writing. The Modiano-trio, on the other hand, is from a writer at the height of his powers – and benefits some from being a triple-dose: Modiano’s work is all related – arguably part of just one very big book – and this volume nicely presents three versions of it. (On the other hand, it suffers a bit by comparison with one of the few of his other works available in English, Honeymoon(trans. by Barbara Wright), written during the same period (chronologically it belongs in the middle of these three) and still my favorite of the available-in-English Modianos.)

The literary-prize-winner that BTBA watchers might have their eye on most is (sort of) the winner of last year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which is the closest British approximation to the BTBA. (The IFFP differs from the BTBA in that it does consider re-translations (the BTBA doesn’t) and doesn’t consider books by dead authors (the BTBA does).) The IFFP went to Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ ; confusingly, the US edition of his stories eligible for this year’s BTBA, The Corpse Exhibition(trans. by Jonathan Wright), is made up of a collection of stories from that volume, as well as from a previously-published-in-the-UK volume, The Madman of Freedom Square. Twice as much Blasim as in his IFFP-winning book – that presumably can’t hurt his chances! Short story collections have historically had a hard time in the BTBA-process, but Blasim’s is certainly among the more promising contenders in recent years.

Not that many national or regional book prizes – beyond those awarded to English-language books like the Man Booker – are well-known in the US but one that probably should be is the Nordic Council Literature Prize, the top Scandinavian prize. The list of winners is an impressive one, and several winning titles have been among the BTBA contenders in recent years. This year Baboon, by Naja Marie Aidt (trans. by Denise Newman), the 2008 winner, is in the running. Another short story collection – in a year with quite a few of these – it’s certainly a title to look out for.

While the Prix Goncourt is the major French literary prize, the Prix Renaudot is the clear runner-up – and Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile — translated by Melanie Mauthner and published by Archipelago, who always seem to have a couple of titles on the BTBA longlist – is in the BTBA-running this year.

And while genre novels always have a tough time asserting themselves in the BTBA, how about Bed of Nails, by Antonin Varenne (trans. by Sian Reynolds) – the 2009 Prix Polar Michel Lebrun- and Grand Prix Sang d’encre-winner? (The fact that it’s been such an impressive year for French noir – a quartet of Pascal Garnier novels, and a Jean-Patrick Manchette leading the way – is probably the biggest hurdle to this title making the cut.)

It’s also interesting to see what translations into other languages have been prize-winning. There’s Leonardo Padura’s Trotsky novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, for example, a Spanish novel whose French translation won the 2011 Prix Initiales.

And then there’s a book like Maylis de Kerangal’s Birth of a Bridge(trans. by Jessica Moore): the original French won the 2010 Prix Medicis and the Prix Franz Hessel, and the Italian translation won the 2014 Premio Gregor von Rezzori. Published in English by Canadian Talonbooks, this is yet another translation that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves but which has the stuff to go far in the BTBA, introducing a new and distinctive voice (in admirable translation) whom we’ll be hearing a lot more of.

Of course, winning a literary prize is not a guarantee of quality, and one title in the BTBA-running stands out in this regard. Winner of both the 2012 Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and the 2012 Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, a finalist for both the highest French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, and the Prix Femina, you’d figure Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair would have to be a front-runner for the BTBA. I can’t speak for my fellow judges, who may yet vote to put this thing on the longlist…no, I think I can speak with confidence in stating that this will not be among the books that will be in anywhere near the final running. Despite – or actually in part also because of – its American setting, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair manages to feel foreign in all the wrong ways, certainly to American ears.


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