7 October 13 | Monica Carter

BTBA blog post – Michael Orthofer

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

This Thursday or next the Swedish Academy will likely announce who will receive the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature – still considered the ultimate seal of approval for an author. The Best Translated Book Award has had occasion to consider Nobel laureates’ work over the years, but surprisingly few have fared very well – as best I can tell, The Hunger Angel, by Herta Müller, was (last year) the first to even make it to the ten-title strong shortlist.

Of course, the Nobel Prize and the Best Translated Book Award are very different sorts of prizes. The Nobel is given to an author, for his or her entire life’s-work. The BTBA goes to a single title – itself not just the work of the author, but also that of a translator (or several translators, as is the case with some of this year’s titles). Still, it’s interesting to see what overlap there is between the two very different awards.

There usually are a few titles by Nobelists out every year, and the name-recognition alone usually assures them of at least a closer look by the BTBA judges. This year’s small batch – just two titles, as far as I can tell: Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death and Elfriede Jelinek’s Her Not All Her – looks to be a particularly strong one.

The authors of these two works are among the more controversial laureates in recent memory, but one of the nice things about the works we’re considering is that they don’t really play into the popular/media narrative about the authors. Sandalwood Death, set over a hundred years ago, deals with older Chinese history and makes it easy to avoid the issue of whether or not Mo kowtows to the present-day regime too much. Similarly, Her Not All Her avoids the politics, ostensibly harsh feminism, and coarse language that many have found objectionable in much of Jelinek’s work – while, as a work that is as much a performance-piece as it is a work of fiction, it also exposes English-speaking audiences to a neglected part of her output, her unusual (by American and British standards) stage-work.

Sandalwood Death was one of the first of the eligible-for-this-year’s-BTBA books that I read (almost a year ago), and I immediately pegged it as a favorite for the prize (and it confirmed to me what the Swedish Academy saw in Mo Yan). This is historic fiction of a high order, Mo slowly building his story to the (prolonged) torture that gives the book its title and capturing the China of those transitional times exceptionally well. It is a drawn-out story, and the torture is brutal, making it in some ways a difficult read, but if you can get past that it is certainly a very impressive work. Howard Goldblatt’s excellent translation also suggests some of the advantages of a single translator being responsible for more than just individual works by an author: responsible for almost all of the English translations of Mo’s fiction, Goldblatt obviously has an excellent feel for Mo’s writing and what the author is trying to do.

As to Her Not All Her – well, I was already on a jury that awarded Damion Searls’ translation of that work a prize: before it was published, the manuscript won the 2011 Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize. A fascinating personal exploration of the writer Robert Walser, it is a compact tour de force in both the original and English – and a beautiful volume in the Cahiers series (explorations of writing and translating that should be of interest to all who are interested in the BTBA …).

But what of the possible future laureates who have books eligible for this year’s Best Translated Book Award? Perhaps even this year’s laureate ….. In the absence of any better guide (the Swedish Academy is secretive about the whole process, and doesn’t reveal who is being considered, much less who the five finalists they choose the winner from are – well, not until 50 years from now), the names on the betting sheet offered by British bookmaker Ladbrokes at least suggest some or most of the likely contenders (along with many who certainly aren’t in the running). At well over a hundred names this year, they take something of a kitchen-sink approach – toss in every name they’ve heard of – but among all these names those of most of the serious contenders for the 2013 prize are also to be found. (For now you should be able to find the list here, but they’ll take it down when prize-day comes.)

Surprisingly many of the authors on the Ladbrokes list have books eligible for this year’s BTBA. Among the books we’re considering – and I think we’ll be considering these pretty seriously – by (in my view) possible Nobel-contenders (in parentheses: their Ladbrokes odds, last I checked) are:

Melancholy II – Jon Fosse (9/1)
Between Friends – Amos Oz (16/1)
The Infatuations – Javier Marías (33/1)
The Fall of the Stone City- Ismail Kadare (50/1)
The Retrospective – A.B.Yehoshua (100/1)

Among the books by authors who I don’t think stand a particularly good Nobel chance – at least for this year’s prize – but might (or, in some cases, should) be in the BTBA-running are:

Blinding: The Left Wing Mircea Cărtărescu (100/1)
Days in the History of Silence – Merethe Lindstrøm (100/1)
Fata Morgana Books Jonathan Littell (100/1)
My Struggle: Book Two (A Man in Love) – Karl Ove Knausgaard (100/1)
Shantytown César Aira (100/1)
The Tuner of Silences – Mia Couto (100/1)

And then there are the authors who I don’t think even belong anywhere in the Nobel discussion (and whose books I suspect won’t quite make it the BTBA longlist cut-off, either …):

The Dance of the Seagull Andrea Camilleri (100/1)
The Dinner – Herman Koch (100/1)
Treasure Hunt Andrea Camilleri (100/1)

Extensive though the Ladbrokes list is, it’s not comprehensive – and some of the likely contenders for the BTBA are by authors who don’t figure on it – but maybe should.

Arnon Grunberg is still a bit young for Nobel Prize-consideration (despite an enormous body of work), but I think he will be in the mix eventually – and his Tirza should, I think, easily make it at least onto the BTBA longlist.

The author of last year’s BTBA winner, László Krasznahorkai, has another title in the running this year, Seiobo There Below, and early word is that it is again a contender. (This book has a different translator – Ottilie Mulzet – and it will be interesting to compare the approaches to Krasznahorkai’s challenging prose she takes with those of last year’s winning translator, George Szirtes.) As to the Nobel: while there has been a relatively recent Hungarian Nobel winner – the great Imre Kertész – Krasznahorkai’s work is entirely different, so that shouldn’t be held against him. Still, the Hungarian connection can’t help his chances, as there are several other strong Hungarian candidates this (and every recent) year, led by Péter Nádas …..

Finally, there’s Mikhail Shishkin – a BTBA finalist last year with Maidenhair – with The Light and the Dark. I haven’t seen this one yet, but the Shishkin-word is finally spreading in translation (after he’s already racked up most of the big Russian literary prizes) and he has to be a hot tip for the Nobel in the coming years; I suspect this title will also at the very least figure in the BTBA longlist discussion.

We’ll see very soon who this year’s Nobel laureate is. As to the BTBA, that’s an enjoyably more extended countdown – and one done with considerably more transparency than the Nobel. You know which books are being considered (all of them ! – all the ones listed in the Translation Database, which is pretty much (we hope) all the possibly eligible books (first-time translations of works of fiction, distributed in the US in 2013)), and you can learn about what the judges are excited about in these weekly blog-postings. The longlist announcement is still a ways away – March 11, 2014 – but I think you’ll have more information to rely on suggesting in what directions we’re leaning than the Ladbrokes odds sheets might offer …..


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