Before jumping into the day-by-day look at each of the 25 titles on the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist I thought I’d post about a few of the books that didn’t make the list. It’s cliched to even say, but it really is difficult coming up with this list. Down to the final moment of voting, I was personally wavering on 3-4 titles, arguing with myself about which was more worthy, which might make more sense on a list of this sort, etc., etc. At first glance, 25 seems like a huge number of books. Especially when there were only 280-some-odd works in translation eligible for the award. But Daniel Hahn once pointed out the bottleneck effect that comes into play with literature in translation: because so little is published, what tends to make its way through is rather excellent.
As if 25 books weren’t enough, listed below are 10 books that easily could’ve made the list with a slightly different set of panelist, or a different year of competition. This is all personal conjecture and in no way are my comments below meant to represent the viewpoints of the other panelists. Links from the titles go to the Idlewild catalog, links from the publisher name to the book on the publisher’s website.
Of the books left off the fiction longlist, this is one of the ones that most surprised me. Oulipian Jacques Roubaud’s “Great Fire of London” project—of which this is the second volume—is incredibly ambitious, and the opening book in the sequence, The Great Fire of London is considered by many Dalkey-ites to be one of the best books the press ever published. This is a dense book, a reflection on memory complete with “Bifurcations” and “Interpolations” (think Hopscotch but more branch-like), and quite possibly Roubaud’s best work to date. I suspect Dalkey will be doing more books from this series over the next few years (hopefully it won’t take another 17 to get to volume three . . .), so Roubaud will have a few more chances . . .
Toussaint made the list last year with Camera, so it wouldn’t have been surprising if this had made it as well. Christopher Byrd wrote a nice review of this for the New York Times the other week, but I personally think that Toussaint’s novels are sort of like popcorn—good while you’re eating it, but each handful tastes pretty much the same. (That doesn’t even make sense . . . ) Anyway, Toussaint has another shot next year, since Dalkey is bringing out Self-Portrait Abroad in May. Oh, and everyone should read The Bathroom.
Probably the biggest surprise for me was the fact that neither Moya book made this year’s list. Both of these are interesting books that are very different from one another. I reviewed She-Devil in the Mirror a couple weeks ago, and Brandon Kennedy is working on a piece on Dance with Snakes, and I’m sure this will be a positive review as well. So why didn’t Moya—whose Senselessness was one of the top three books for last year’s award—make this year’s longlist? I think it’s a problem of relativity. Senselessness was so fucking good that these two books, though great in their own right, paled in comparison. But there are more Moya titles on the way . . . And just as important—hopefully this will help bring more attention to the excellent Biblioasis Press. (Go Canada!)
Maybe the most controversial omission from our list. The only (?) translation published in 2009 that received a million dollar advance. The most reviewed (??) translation of 2009. One of the only translations published by HarperCollins. And spectacularly translated by Charlotte Mandell. Yet, it didn’t make our list. Some panelists just didn’t care for it. (This was one of those divisive books. Even reviews tended to be adamantly against it, or very much in favor.) One interesting issue: there may well be a reverse bias on the part of the panelists against commercial presses and over-exposed books. People who read a shit-ton of international literature tend to spend a shit-ton of time reading books from smaller, indie presses. Start to develop an affinity. And feel like these presses—and their more obscure books—deserve some recognition. And they’re definitely right. But if this list were made by more conventional reviewers, I’ll bet it would be very different. In part because the system helps big books from big publisher get more attention from big reviewers/reviewing outlets. In part because our panelists have read much more broadly in the realm of translated literature and therefore have a wider base of comparison for what constitutes “the best” works of the past year. I stand by our list 100%, I’m just saying.
Your Face Tomorrow, Vol. 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell by Javier Marias
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain)
Marias’s three volume Your Face Tomorrow project may well constitute one of the past decade’s absolute high points. In many ways, this should be on the longlist, and I’m personally planning a little Marias bender for the last seven months of the year so that I can read this trlogy from start to finish. And therein lay the problem for the jury. (I think.) This is the third volume of trilogy. And yes, sure, so is Jan Kjaerstad’s The Discoverer, but that’s a trilogy of three interrelated books that can be read completely independent of one another without feeling like you’re missing the entire everything. Open this Marias book and you’re greeted with a title page for “Part V: Poison.” This trilogy deserves a special award.
It would’ve been great to include this book on the list if for no other reason than to highlight Yale’s “Margellos World Republic of Letters” series. But so it goes . . . One of the strangest books I read over the past year, I wrote a long review of this last spring. It also would’ve been cool to include this to highlight the role a good editor makes in making a translation work. But again, so it goes . . . Too many books. Way too many books.
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers (Russia)
This collection got a ton of attention late in the year (such as this glowing New York Times review), and if the BTBA was more Oscar-like . . . Petrushevskaya is a very interesting writer, and this collection of strange, dark stories is pretty compelling. Hopefully this gets enough attention to convince someone to publish a translation of her novel Time Night, which Gessen refers to in his introduction as her “central masterpiece.”
Tawada has had a number of books published in English, including The Bridegroom Was a Dog and Where Europe Begins, which have received a decent amount of attention. Susan Bernofsky told me she thought this novel was Tawada’s best, and it is very interesting and beautifully written (and translated) book. I actually used a quote from here as a Facebook update a while back—mainly because I have a little thing for Canada: “Canada sounds like an ordinary noun that might mean, for example, something like ‘happiness.’ The entire world should become Canada . . .”
I think all the judges wish we could’ve gotten a Green Integer book on the list. Douglas Messerli (founder/publisher of Green Integer, which sounds a bit like a super-hero publishing press, no?) does a fantastic job bringing unique classics to an American audience in very cool, pocket-sized books. (Another title of GI’s from last year that’s worth checking out is Duke, the Dog Priest by Domicio Coutinho, which was translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Clifford Landers.) Metropolis Vienna got a lot of panel support, but fell just, just short. Compared to von Doderer’s The Demons, it “represents an interlinking series of individuals living in Vienna” in post-WWII times who “pick up existence as if the War had not occurred, attempting to ignore or outrun their terrible past in a rush for money and success.”
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. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .