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.”
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .