4 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

Monica Carter is a freelance critic whose nonfiction has appeared in publications including Black Clock, World Literature Today, and Foreword Reviews. She curates Salonica World Lit, which is a virtual journal dedicated to international literature and culture.

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Chris Clarke (France, New York Review Books)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 32%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 4%

“She was taking refuge here, at the Condé, as if she were running from something, trying to escape some danger. “

Danger hovers in the background of this noir novel, filled with malaise and post-Vichy fatigue, and exemplifies Patrick Modiano’s atmospheric, understated style. Plain and simple prose subverts the hazy nostalgia that infuses the narrative. In the Café of Lost Youth is vintage Modiano, capturing the elusive qualities of memory where time and place are secondary to the feelings they evoke.

Once the longlist is announced, it’s evident that the aspects of a novel are extremely well executed and translated in all the titles. One must recognize the goals of the author and the impact of the work—what lingers in the mind long after it is read. What makes In the Café of Lost Youth and most Modiano titles a cut above is his ability to capture the intangible, to convey the effect memory has on how a life is lived, and to make the reader reflect on what memories prevail in her own mind. As nebulous and ephemeral as this work is, Chris Clarke’s translation is a simpatico translation. Modiano addresses memory and his story without a tremendous number of specifics and also raises more questions about the “story” as it progresses. It’s as if he presents the hallucinatory remembrance without the typical trappings of narrative structure and objectives of a novel. Yet, in all its slim glory, it is complete.

Told in the voices of four different narrators, the novel’s focus is a young woman who suddenly appears at the Condé. Its regular inhabitants are a mix of hard-drinking young and old bohemians with a dash of small-time criminals. Jacqueline Delanque enters the Condé one evening, a book in hand, sits in the back “where no one would notice her.” Soon she joins the group of boisterous regulars, who name her Louki, while “she remained quiet and reserved, and seemed happy just to listen.” The first part is narrated by a young student who is smitten with her.

The second part is narrated by a private detective, Caisley, who was hired by Louki’s older husband whom she has abandoned. Louki narrates the third part and Roland, a fellow student of Guy de Vere (a mystical philosopher), who becomes intimate with Louki but knows no more than anyone else of her, narrates the fourth.

Through the different narrators, details of Louki’s young life unfold to reveal contrasting lifestyles that she seems merely to exist in without any one of these lifestyles being totally possessing her. Her childhood was poor and lonely as she struggled to survive with her single mother. She escapes into the security of marriage only to have a “feeling of emptiness would come over me in the street.” Her adventures with a drug loving girlfriend circle back in and out of the story until Louki ultimately rests among the crowd at the Condé. It’s there that she is bewitching and unknowable, yet a compatriot in existential despair and loneliness.

This book should win because of the melancholy of memory, what once was so present and undeniable becomes sorrowful nostalgia for youth, a yearning to be where we once were. Wistful and haunting, In the Café of Lost Youth a testament to Modiano’s skill at confronting how memory truly imbues our perception of who we are.

4 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Tom Roberge, formerly of New Directions, co-owner of Riffraff bookstore and bar, and co-host of the Three Percent podcast.

Last Wolf and Herman by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and John Batki (Hungary, New Directions)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 49%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 7%

Now that my conflict of interest stemming from my working relationship with New Directions has officially come to an end, I can finally exploit this platform to advocate for one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors; indeed, he is perhaps the world’s greatest living author. Yes, I feel that strongly about his work. And I’m not alone: two consecutive BTBA jury panels agreed with me, awarding him the 2013 prize for Satantango and the 2014 prize for Seiobo There Below. Which is not to say that I’m here to campaign on behalf this book based on the flimsy argument that since he’s won before, he should win again. For one thing, this isn’t sports, and previous performance is not much of an indication of future success; in fact, his previous wins might work against him, the idea being that maybe it’s time to let someone else get a few moments in the spotlight. Secondly, and piggybacking on the latter part of my first point a bit, I absolutely believe that this book should stand on its own merit, but concurrently believe that it deserves fair adjudication despite its author having won twice before; perhaps I’ve jury-rigged a straw man here for the sake of creating this tabla rasa, but I do feel it’s important, from both sides, to consider this book as seriously as if he’d never won before.

Okay, enough with process and procedure. Let’s move on to the book itself. Or rather, books. This slim volume is actually two novellas, published together because they definitely relate to each other, prey on each other, feed on each other. And yet the styles are distinct. The Last Wolf centers on an ill-cast writer who’s whisked away to a remote part of Spain to document, in a way, the impending extinction of a local breed of wolf. This is classic Krasznahorkai material in the best possible way. And as such, he employs the style he’s perhaps best known for: long, long sentences. In this case the entire 70-page novella is one sentence, the writer’s tale narrated to a bartender, back home, some time after the events he describes. Much has been written about this style, all of it far more intelligent than I could muster here, so I will offer a simple assessment, from the point of view of an entranced reader. The point, if you will, of the style is that the tale itself, the truth at the center of it, the meaning, if there is any, is elusive, and contextual, and impossible to isolate. It must be constantly appended and amended, made clearer, more expansive, more encompassing. The effect, to me at least, is that the story becomes both universal in its impact and nebulous in its essence. I couldn’t ask for anything more from a book.

Here’s just a taste, in which you’ll see that the repeated variations of the details, of the descriptors, seems like he’s grasping for just the right way to explain something, but still coming up short, and finally feeling the need to trudge on with the tale, but feeling trapped by the demands of truth, of specificity. It’s so real and so breathtaking to behold:

. . . it’s just an enormous, mercilessly barren, flat place, with a few small hills generally near the border, horrible dry, the hills bare, the earth dried out, with hardly any people since life was as hard as it could be there, serious poverty, an utterly parched place, why the hell go to Extremadura, when you could come visit us in Barcelona, his two warm-hearted philosophy-loving friends exhorted him, Barcelona being a proper place, but no, her told the barman who was looking cross because, despite having turned down the volume on the cassette-player, he still couldn’t understand what his customer wanted, no, he was going to Extremadura and if there wasn’t much there then it would suit him down to the ground, he wouldn’t look out of place himself, that’s if the invitation was for real, for he was constantly in doubt about everything to the extent that he started worrying about it all over again, looking out at the drug dealers, staring at the floor, at the bar, repeating to himself the word, Extrenadura, then sending another e-mail to which the answer was even plainer than before, and so it must all be true, he told the Hungarian barman, who asked: what is true? at which point he shrugged, saying, never mind, then gestured for another bottle . . .

* * *

In contrast to this, Herman, the second novella, its binary star, is told in a more straightforward style. The titular Herman is a trapper-hunter, hired to rid a town’s forest of its dangerous and “noxious” beasts. In this case it’s best not to give too much more plot away, even if New Directions has no qualms about it; what’s important is that the first half of Herman allows the reader to see Herman’s actions through his own eyes, while the second presents a stranger’s point of view on the same set of actions. There are full stops. Even a few paragraph breaks! So instead Krasznahorkai adopts a style that keeps the real action, the intended goals, the motivations—all of it—lingering just beneath the surface, obscured and opaque. But he also presents the details, the minor progressions, degradations, in minutely composed vignette-sentences that each tell their own small story, one capable of drawing on a range of emotions before ending with a gut punch. For example:

The huge male fox with a thick coat of fur had frozen stiff in a most peculiar pose: his tail, butt, and rear legs had come to rest heavily on the sodden ground, and the two upright curved irons that slammed together to catch him by the neck, crushing it (in a single horrendous instant, as Herman was well aware) also lifted the beast’s upper body and held it in the air; only the head frozen in a snarl and forelegs resting one on the other in a deathly-tame gesture were pointing at the muddy ground, downward, surrendering, conquered.

* * *

Taken together, the novellas represent a powerful overview of the author’s virtuosity, acuity, and mastery over language, along with the translators’ astonishing abilities in terms of transforming what I imagine is very difficult, dense Hungarian into such fluid and striking English. If that’s not what the Best Translated Book Award is meant to honor, than I have been grossly misled.

3 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by writer and translator Tess Lewis, who actually has one of her translations on the BTBA fiction longlist! (Angel of Oblivion, which recently won the PEN Translation Prize.)

Of Things by Michael Donhauser, translated from the German by Nick Hoff and Andrew Joron (Austria, Burning Deck Press)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 67%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 11%

To write the tomato, its flesh: the fruit’s flesh.
To write until it reddens to warm it with words.
So that, thus courted, warmth transforms into juice.
          “The Tomato,” Of Things

What is our place in the world? We are, after all, one thing among many.

The Austrian poet Michael Donhauser’s collection of poems Of Things is an extended meditation on the relation of language to the world and by extension, our place, as linguistic beings, in it. Mundane things like a thicket, a manure pile, a marigold, gravel, or a tomato gain an almost talismanic power as the poet tries to understand them by describing their appearances, the associations they evoke, their historical contexts.

For Donhauser, the web of observation, perception, and thought along with the attempt to put that tangle into words determine our relationship to the objects around us. Metaphors become epistemological tools. A thicket glimpsed on a walk one Sunday afternoon is an “extraordinary, that is, unkempt form of thought,” a “feast compressed into a simultaneity of dishes,” the “bas-relief of a confusion.” A manure pile is the meadow’s “concentration / Atomization, disintegration, accumulation” and a reflection of his poetic language: “When I write, I collect words into a heap of language that resembles the pile of manure; perhaps by way of the manure pile I’ll gain some clarity concerning the sky of Sunday, coming from the thicket.”

This all sounds rather heady but there is a sensuality to Donhauser’s poetry that grounds it firmly in the physical. A peach is an orgiastic fruit, “plump and soft . . . in a circle upon itself. / Divided by the seam into the buttocks.” Liquid manure is “a heavy wine. / It has a rich bouquet: a thick scent. / So thick that it appears to be solid.”

There is a lightness and agility, too, to Donhauser’s writing. The tentative, exploratory, movemented nature of his descriptions holds the attention. His sentences start, stop, begin again, double-back, and jump forward.

The gravel makes us:
With a little time it makes us aristocratic.
(No reason to hurry now: we’re walking among words.)
It makes us into aristocratic auditors of our steps.
Of our conversation, as we walk.
As we imitate the act of speaking.
(For we listen only to the words, the crunching, the gravel.)

Reading these things—Donhauser’s poems themselves and, through his eyes and mind, the things he describes—is like slipping into a tropical sea, warm and enveloping, and drifting along with the currents. You emerge with senses heightened, refreshed, perhaps even a bit bewildered, eager to examine the objects around you.

I’ll end where I began, with the tomato.

The tomato appears in the shadow of language.
As moon (once again): as monad.
Darkened: a silken coal ember.

3 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is the first about the poetry longlist, and is written by Emma Ramadan, translator from the French and co-owner of Riffraff bookstore and bar in Providence, RI.

Instructions Within by Ashraf Fayadh, translated from the Arabic by Mona Kareem, Mona Zaki, and Jonathan Wright (Palestine, The Operating System)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 86%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 14%

In times like these, we hear a lot of people talk about how writing and literature are more necessary now than ever. It’s easy to scoff at the idea that literature can solve society’s problems, that a really good book of poetry might have the power to topple totalitarian leaders. But we have to admit that there must be something to the idea when there is such a long, disturbing history of writers and poets who have been imprisoned for criticizing their countries in their work. From China to Iran to France to Israel to the Philippines, governments and leaders have felt so threatened by the words of their country’s poets that they have felt the need to imprison them, disappear them, punish them, make an example of them. What is it about poetry that is so powerful its writers risk death? Perhaps it’s as Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, the woman behind The Operating System, says: “It will, indeed, be the poets (musicians, artists, creators of all kinds) who ‘wake up the world.’”

For revenge
you take pleasure in your pain—
singing, with what is left of your voice,
on the high wires of effort.

One poet currently serving time in prison for his work is Ashraf Fayadh. Fayadh was born to Palestinian refugee parents in Saudi Arabia. Using art as a way to explore the painful memories surrounding his exile, Fayadh helped form a group called Shatta that aimed to turn art, perceived as elitist and abstract, into something accessible and grounded in reality. In 2015, in part because of the words in Instructions Within, he was sentenced to death for blasphemy in Saudi Arabia, a sentence that has since been lessened to eight years and 800 lashes. The book is about Fayadh’s experience as a Palestinian refugee. It is about fundamentalist religion in Saudi Arabia. It is also about the hypocrisies of a world in which Western governments, supposed protectors of freedom and democracy, maintain financial ties with Saudi Arabia, turning a blind eye to the country’s human rights offenses at the expense of people like Ashraf Fayadh in order to keep a steady supply of oil.

Being a refugee means standing at the end of the line
to get a fraction of a country.
Standing is something your grandfather did, without knowing the reason.
And the fraction is you.
Country: a card you put in your wallet with your money.
Money: pieces of paper with pictures of leaders.
Pictures: they stand in for you until you return.
Return: a mythical creature that appears in your grandfather’s stories.
Here endeth the first lesson.
The lesson is conveyed to you so that you can learn the second lesson, which is
“what do you signify”?

I was a nightmare
my steps carrying me towards the unknown
towards lonely roads
away from the societies of eternal honor.
I was betrayed even by my steps
they took me far into exile . . .
away from a homeland
that had no ports.
The smell of home is stuck in my nose
and in my memory there remain fragments never to be forgotten.

Suddenly people everywhere were reading Ashraf Fayadh’s poems, at the Berlin International Literature Festival, at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, at the NUS Middle East Institute in Singapore, at the Ledbury Poetry Fesival in the UK, in Austria and Nigeria and Bolivia and all over the world. How many people would have read his book had he not been sentenced to death? What should have been a poet, a book, silenced and forgotten about instead became an explosion. In the words of Tahar Ben Jalloun, “This sentence teaches us all we need to know about his poetry—about his strength, about his violence.”

Surrender to sleep.
The time has come for you to melt, and dissolve,
to take the agreed shape of alienation
into which you’ve been poured.
Evaporate, condense,
and go back to your void,
to occupy your usual space
of the You.

Your soul was forged and used for illegal purposes,
voted on—
then eaten
like a loaf.

Instructions Within was published by The Operating System as the first title in their series Glossarium: Unsilenced Texts and Modern Translation, “established in early 2016 in an effort to recover silenced voices outside and beyond the familiar poetic canon . . . in particular those under siege by restrictive regimes and silencing practices in their home (or adoptive) countries.” All proceeds of this book go to support the ongoing fight against Ashraf Fayadh’s prison sentence. One additional particular the book worth noting is its format. The book was designed so that English readers would be reading the same way as Arabic readers: starting the book at what we normally perceive as “the end” and flipping the pages left to right, or “backwards,” taking to a whole new level the idea of translation as providing an experience for the reader of the target language that is as close as possible to the experience of the reader of the source language.

God sits on the throne
as you stain the stillness of night with your voice
looking for a light to exhibit your darkness

So what is it about Ashraf Fayadh’s poetry that threatened the power of Saudi Arabia’s leaders so much that they felt the best way to keep themselves safe was to lock him away forever, to kill him?

I am Hell’s experiment on planet Earth.

3 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Jennifer Croft, who is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation. She has been a MacDowell Colony Fellow and holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a Founding Editor of the Buenos Aires Review.

Umami by Laia Jufresa, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Mexico, Oneworld)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 53%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 8%

Umami is that rare novel that becomes the world it depicts, inviting us to inhabit it in the gentlest, kindest possible terms through Sophie Hughes’s delightful translation of Laia Jufresa’s perfectly crafted structural wonder in prose. With the alternating metaphors of creating and tending the garden at the center of Belldrop Mews—the building where all the book’s characters reside, in the heart of Mexico City—and remaining afloat or drowning in streams of consciousness, pressures and mourning, Umami calls our attention to attention, binding us to protagonists who instantly become beloved and whose crimes of inattention we both understand and feel deeply devastated by.

Ana, the twelve-year-old gardener who opens Umami and recurs as its soothingly emphatic refrain, describes the atmosphere of her family’s home following the death of her sister Luz at the age of five (though Luz always told everyone she was “almost six”):

. . . it’s not quite a river, our sadness: it’s stagnant water. Since Luz drowned, there’s always something drowning at home. Not everyday. Some days you think we’re all alive again, the five remaining members of the family: I get a zit; some girl calls Theo; Olmo plays his first concert; Dad comes back from tour; Mom decides to bake a pie. But later you go into the kitchen, and there’s the pie, still raw on the wooden countertop, half of it pricked and the other half untouched, with Mom hovering over it, clutching the fork in midair. And then you know that we too, as a family, will always be ”almost six.”

Her directness is disarming, and here—and throughout the book—the tone is a magic trick, the perfect mix of light and dark that enables us to understand that both life and death are in little details, like selfhood itself, the primary pursuit of Ana’s neighbor Marina: “Marina distrusts her own malleability and is attracted by the possibility of the opposite: the fascinating and at the same time terrifying prospect of being someone.” Marina is an artist with a severe eating disorder who spends her days inventing colors, or rather, words for colors, learning English from Ana’s American mother Linda because “English takes the edge off things, makes them feel less serious, a bit like scribbling mustaches on photos.”

Language and even translation are consistently integrated into the plot—a potential translation hurdle cleared with apparent effortlessness, and even pleasure, by Hughes—as another neighbor’s parallel project of cultivation begins alongside Ana’s garden. Alfonso is an academic taking time off after his wife Noelia dies of cancer; when he gets a new laptop, he decides to use it to create a chronicle of the couple’s time together, a kind of textual monument to commemorate their love. The details he remembers and loves about Noelia are so touching they are worth a novel on their own, while Alfonso’s growing understanding of his own process simultaneously takes the reader through the basic framework of the novel, its reason for existing as well as why we might read it and what reading it might help us to find:

What I like about writing is seeing the letters fill up the screen. It’s something so seemingly simple, so perfectly alchemic; black on white. To plant worlds, and tend them as they grow. If you’re missing a comma, you add it, and now there’s nothing missing. Everything this text needs is here.

And white on black, too. The pauses, the spaces, or as my friend Juan the philosopher would say: the ineffable. Everything missing from this text, its absences and silences, is here too.

Umami’s balance—of light and dark, of cultivation and deluge, of presence and absence—is what makes it such a welcoming home for the reader, one that feels profoundly lived-in (one can almost sense the neighbors’ heartbeats) as well as haunted (one can also sense the hovering shadows of Luz, Noelia, the children Alfonso and Noelia did not have, the parents Marina never quite had, the mother Ana’s mother might have been—but never was—and the abandoning, abruptly returning mother of Ana’s best friend Pina). When, in order to begin her garden, Ana stays home for the summer for the first time ever (instead of spending it with her grandmother in the States), she gets to go to the cemetery with her parents to mark the anniversary of her sister’s death:

I’d fantasized about this moment, about what I’d say to Luz. But in my fantasies it was raining and Luz was somehow able to listen to me. Now the sun is beating down and there’s not a patch of shade in the whole cemetery. She’s dead, and I have nothing to say to her. Was she beloved? She was my sister.

A little later, she goes home:

One by one, Pina and I pull off the little flowers. It occurs to me that if I’d known, I could have taken them to the cemetery. It’s a silly idea: they’re tiny. But Luz was too. Tiny, I mean. She used to sit on my lap, hug her legs, then curl into a little ball so that I’d hold her.

“Squeeze!” she’d say.

Sometimes I was scared I’d hurt her or break something, and I always let go sooner than she wanted me to. We all did. My brothers held on a bit longer, but not much. Luz always wanted to be squeezed more.

“Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze!” she begged Dad, and he would squeeze her with a single arm.

I don’t want to, but I can’t help imagining her in her box, in the cemetery. But that’s another silly idea because there’s not even anything in that box. It was too expensive and complicated to bring her body back to Mexico.

“What?” I ask Pina, who’s staring at me.

“Are you crying?” she says.

“Are you stupid?” I say, and she goes off in a sulk.

Jufresa’s warmth and restraint, along with the poise and inventiveness of Hughes’ translation, make Umami a novel I deeply hope people will contemplate and savor.

31 March 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

Since I (Chad) used this book in my class this spring, I thought I’d write it up for the series. Hi.

Moonstone by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland, FSG)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 62%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 9%

Given Iceland’s population, it’s almost shocking that forty-six Icelandic works of fiction and poetry have been published in English translation since 2008. Over that time period, more books have been translated from Icelandic than from Czech. Or from Greek, Hungarian, or Flemish. In fact, there have been as many books translated from the Icelandic as there have from Hindi, Latvian, Persian, and Yiddish combined.

Sure, 10% of all Icelanders will publish a book over the course of their lifetime, providing a pretty solid pool of titles for publishers to choose from, but still—why Iceland?

Last summer, the Icelandic men’s soccer team took the world by storm, becoming the beloved Cinderella side of the Euro Cup. They rolled into the semifinals behind a slightly disconcerting nationalistic celebration, a feisty style of play fed by a “what do we have to lose?” underdog mentality, and some incredibly fun Twitter taunts from The Grapevine, Reykjavik’s English language paper.

Iceland was having its moment.

But then again, Iceland’s been having its moment for decades.

Björk. Sigur Rós. Múm. Of Monsters and Men. The Blue Lagoon. Skyr. Northern Lights. Renewable energy. Women’s Rights. Jón Gnarr’s mayorship. Damon Albarn’s bar. The fifth gait of an Icelandic horse. Fermented shark and Brennivén. Cheap flights to Europe if you stay overnight in Iceland. There are dozens of things about Iceland that make it really cool, that have made it an incredibly hip place to visit, or culture to import. (Except maybe the shark and Brennivén. Iceland can keep those.)

Although all of this interest in Iceland and Icelandic culture seems like a boon, there is an underlying tension at play. This is an island nation after all, one that, for most of its early history, was more or less cut off from the rest of the world, floating in the middle of nowhere. Its culture is uniquely Icelandic because it was able to develop on its own, somewhat removed from globalizing trends. Reykjavik is the only capital in western Europe without a McDonald’s or a Starbucks—almost all the restaurants and shops originated in Iceland.

This tension between being separate from the rest of the world while also wanting to participate in global culture plays itself out in Sjón’s most recent novel, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was.

The novel centers on Máni Steinn (a.k.a. Moonstone), a young, gay boy who was born in the island’s leper colony, and who is obsessed with the movies. Moonstone has more of a plot than some of Sjón’s earlier books, but it’s still somewhat secondary to the poetic writing and atmosphere of the novel. A Danish ship arrives bringing the Spanish flu, and lots of people die, especially those who congregated at the movie theater. Máni Steinn also falls ill, giving Sjón the opportunity to show off his musical abilities in a three-chapter fever dream awash in symbolism, gray ooze, and body parts.

The toe of the shoe is thrust out from beneath the skirt and stamped down with such force that the floor creaks. Gray slime wells up between the boards. The air grows thick with the stench of rotting fish.

—A little closer, dear, a little closer . . .

The hands reappear. The figure flings a pair of eyebrows onto the lid. Pain lacerates the boy. He raises a hand to his forehead, but it is shaking too much for him to feel whether his own brows are still there.

—A little closer, dear, a little closer . . .

The figure withdraws its hands inside its clothes.

—A little closer, dear, a little closer . . .

The gramophone voice buzzes inside the wooden box.

The sense of danger from the outside pervades the novel, not just in relation to the actual, literal infection that the Danes bring with them on their ship, but also in the corrupting power of foreign films. Dr. Garibaldi Árnason details this in a mini-manifesto:

_In the same fashion, the cinema audience scrutinizes the light-puppets on the silver screen, and whether it is the curve of Asta Nielsen’s back, Theda Bara’s naked shoulders, Pina Menichelli’s sensual eyelids [. . .] the body part in question and its position will become the focus of the viewer’s existence and etch itself into his psyche, while the size of the image and the repeated close-ups of lips, teeth, and even tongues will exacerbate the effects until few have the strength to resist them.

Film is thus immoral by its very nature, transforming the actor into a fetish and fostering perversion in the viewer, who allows himself to be seduced like a moth to the flame.

The doctor’s viewpoint is brought into even sharper view after Máni is caught with another man:

—It’s clear that the lad is not like other people . . . a homosexual [. . .] Hardly any cases known in this country . . . hasn’t become established . . . will proliferate if . . . My theory . . . a word of warning . . . men are rendered more susceptible to homosexuality by overindulgence in films . . .

I’m definitely oversimplifying this book, but reading Moonstone shortly after Gudbergur Bergsson’s Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, I’ve become fixed on the ways in which these books address the complexities of Iceland in the world, and, more specifically, of the idea of the “Icelandic Man.” Although using vastly different approaches, both novels open up a space through which to examine these tensions.

That’s why I think Moonstone deserves the Best Translated Book Award for fiction.

31 March 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

Since I (Chad) used this book in my class this spring, I thought I’d write it up for the series. Hi.

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Egypt, Melville House)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 78%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 13%

A couple months ago, shortly after the inauguration, 1984 by George Orwell returned to the bestseller lists for the first time in ages. That was followed by a handful of articles claiming that instead of reading 1984, the book about dictatorships people should be reading is The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz.

The novel is set in an unnamed city in an unnamed country (Egypt) where an uprising has taken place that the government is loath to acknowledge. During the Disgraceful Events (Tahrir Square?), a young man named Yehya was shot. At the start of the novel Yehya is still trying to get the bullet removed from his pelvis. He’s in great pain, slowly dying, but because the government doesn’t want to admit that they had shot anyone, they have to prevent him from getting treatment because an actual bullet would be proof of their lies. So he is forced to wait in a never-ending queue (reminiscent of the queue in Sorokin’s The Queue) to get the proper paperwork to get treatment to get the bullet removed. In Kafkaesque fashion (I too hate that term and apologize), the goalposts keep moving and various statements keep complicating and delaying the process, forcing queue-waiters to get a special document to get the next special document to be able to get what they need from the government, so on and on.

That sort of bureaucratic runaround is a hallmark of many movies, books, and nightmares, and yet somehow still retains a sort of terrifying power. Everyone can relate to the frustrating helplessness governmental institutions can enact (remember your last trip to the DMV); it’s incredibly easy to imagine how an administration can turn on the faucet of needless bureaucracy to demoralize dissidents.

Control through paperwork is only one of the ways depicted in the novel of how citizens are held in check. There’s the pressure to obey religious dictums, awareness that all conversations are being recorded, nationalism, male aggression, torture and, the one that both echoes 1984 and speaks to the post-fact world we live in now, the ability to rewrite history by denouncing things as “fake news.”

The woman with the short hair redoubled her efforts, and the next day she printed oppositional leaflets responding to the allegations made by the man in the galabeya, and declared that she would continue the campaign. Ehab had helped her draft the text, and alongside her statement they’d included another passage from the Greater Book, which urged people to respect and defend personal privacy. He wrote a hard-hitting and well-researched article about the campaign—its grounds and implications, and how many people joined each week—but the newspaper didn’t print it. Instead, they gave him a stern warning about “fabricating the news.” The editor in chief lectured him on how necessary it was to strive for accuracy and honesty in everything he wrote. Then he warned Ehab against giving in to ambition and trying to achieve professional or financial gains at the expense of journalistic ethics and principles.

There’s wealth of bits like this that the reader can map onto our present-day situation in America—something that’s kind of fun and also terrifying. What’s even more interesting, or disturbing, are the various narratives characters end up adopting to make sense of the world around them. The stories they use to rewrite their broken selves so that they can continue living.

For example, the schoolteacher Ines, fired for giving a good grade to a paper about poor living conditions, is initially rather rebellious, outspoken, willing to challenge viewpoints she doesn’t believe in. By the end of the novel, she’s quite religious and obeying all the various restrictions that go along with that:

Ines hadn’t missed a single weekly lesson since committing herself to her new attire. She felt a deep sense of relief and was gradually accepted by a new crowd, which was somewhat different from the groups of women she’d known at her school. She joined them for social and spiritual activities, visited proselytizers, and attended religious gatherings and prayer groups. [. . .] She became immersed in it all and her fears began to fade, though she was still occasionally troubled by worrisome thoughts.

Or there’s Yehya’s close friend Amani, who is physically tortured because of her attempt to help him, and then ends up accepting the official newspaper’s version of events claiming that Yehya was never actually shot, that the Disgraceful Events were all fake, all just part of a film.

Which brings me to one last reason why this book should win: the ambiguity of its ending. I don’t want to spoil too much, but every section of the book begins with the inner monologue of Tarek, the doctor who didn’t initially help Yehya. As he keeps going back to Yehya’s files—at the urging of Amani and Nagy and Yehya—new information keeps appearing that shifts and expands his view of the government, the Disgraceful Events, and the world he lives in. Almost serving as a stand in for the common citizen, he wakes up to the horrors of this dictatorship by the end—but will it be in time to save Yehya?

31 March 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by George Henson, a translator of contemporary Latin American and Spanish prose, contributing editor for World Literature Today and Latin American Literature Today, and a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma.

Super Extra Grande by Yoss, translated from the Spanish by David Frye (Cuba, Restless Books)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 42%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 9%


In a review of SUPER EXTRA GRANDE, forthcoming in Latin American Literature Today, Mexican author Alberto Chimal writes:

[SUPER EXTRA GRANDE] is space opera in the purest sense of the term: it not only offers exciting episodes, humor and even romance, in a rich extraterrestrial environment, but it also proposes, without cynicism, a future that English science fiction finds harder and harder to conceive: one in which human beings have effectively overcome their self-destructive tendencies and are able to enjoy a greater and fuller life in the cosmos, coexisting, although not always without problems, with countless other intelligent species.

I quote Alberto, not only because he’s a talented writer, critic, and devotee of genre fiction, but also because I couldn’t have summarized the novel as succinctly and persuasively myself. As a translator, I am much more comfortable trading in other writers’ words than my own. If after reading my article, you’re not convinced that Super Extra Grande deserves to win this year’s BTBA, the fault lies in my inadequacy as a writer rather than in the author or translator.

I’ve put SUPER EXTRA GRANDE in all caps because in all my correspondence with YOss, he has done the same; I write YOss, with a capital YO, because this is how he signs his name, followed by his signature closing “cambio y fuera” (over and out).

Everything about YOss seems to be a signature, from his name (his birth name is José Miguel Sánchez Gómez) to his heavy-metal appearance. But after spending time with him in his native Havana, I realized that nothing about this Cuban author is superficial or cliché. More importantly, he is not a dilettante. He can speak as intelligently and passionately about Proust as he can Philip K. Dick. One day, during the Havana Book Fair, as he chatted with a Cuban rapper, whose Spanish I struggled to understand, he interrupted his compatriot’s animated harangue on the politics of Cuban rap, to gesture to me that Margaret Atwood was walking by, after which the conversation switched to The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s novel of speculative fiction, which led to a thoughtful discussion about the obsolescence of generic boundaries.

All of this to say that YOss is more than his rocker façade, and that SUPER EXTRA GRANDE, which many categorize as “genre literature,” should not be dismissed so quickly or out of hand. Fortunately, there are readers who have long fought to tear down the wall erected by the academy and publishing between “literary” and “genre” fiction.

Still, that SUPER EXTRA GRANDE has made it this far surprises even me, its primary cheerleader. In a January blog post, I wrote about the “obstacle-laden path” that SUPER EXTRA GRANDE traveled to be considered for the BTBA, “as much for [its] genre, science fiction, as for [its] publishing provenance.” In fact, the deck seems to have been stacked against it from the start.

According to YOss, the first version of SUPER EXTRA GRANDE was lost in 2004 when his hard drive was stolen. Undaunted, he rewrote the novel from scratch. It was this second version that he submitted to, and subsequently won, the UPC (Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya) Science Fiction Award in 2011. Unfortunately, the win coincided with the UPC’s decision to cease print publication of the winning book, which relegated SUPER EXTRA GRANDE to digital publishing. Following the contest win, the novel was eventually published in Cuba by Editorial Gente Nueva with a print run of a mere 2,000 copies, a sizeable number, however, by Cuban publishing standards. However, due to the nature of Cuban publishing, this meant that no matter how well the book sold—it sold out almost immediately—subsequent printings were unlikely, all but guaranteeing that it would never fall into the hands of an American translator.

Enter Cuban-American anthropologist Ruth Behar and her husband, anthropologist-cum-translator-cum-scifi fan David Frye. After translating and finding a home at Restless Books for YOss’s first novel, Planet for Rent, Frye went to work on SUPER EXTRA GRANDE. YOss’s luck was beginning to change. Next came a book tour in the United States, followed by a glowing review by Juan Vidal at NPR, “YOss’s latest novel Super Extra Grande is a work of welcome imagination, steeped in science and imbued with satire and philosophy,” which was followed by equally favorable reviews, among others, in the Washington Post and National Review. In January, YOss learned that, against all odds, his novel had been nominated for the 2017 Philip K. Dick Award. And, now, here we are: the long list for the 2017 BTBA. The writer with the rock-star look had become a rock-star writer, thanks in no small part to his translator.

In preparation to write this article, I emailed David to ask a couple of questions about his experience translating the book. His response was at once refreshing and familiar:

SUPER EXTRA GRANDE (the caps are mine) is such an exuberantly fun book, it would be hard to describe anything about the translation as a challenge (the word sounds so grueling!). But there were plenty of interesting puzzles to solve. One, of course, was the Spanglish; another was how to render the names of extraterrestrial worlds and creatures in English. But I felt that the scifi format gave me lots of leeway with both those sets of decisions, in that scifi readers expect to be plunged into radically different worlds where they will not immediately recognize every object, every name, every word.

As evidence of Frye’s linguistic athleticism, consider:

“Perdón,” I say, because I can’t say anything else. I say it with all my heart, though, I swear. “She was una asistente magnífica and an even better secretaria. Pero you have to entender, given our anatomical differences . . .”

“I do entiendo.” Gardf-Mhaly gives me another one of those stone-cold looks. “Though in el pasado that hasn’t stopped otros hombres from at least trying to consumar their amor imposible . . .”

Although Frye’s Spanglish, or code-switching, reads effortlessly, Frye, in fact, only makes it look easy. Spanglish, as Ilan Stavans has written, follows its own rules of grammar and syntax, which Frye appears to have mastered.

In the same email, Frye touched on what is one of the hurdles that “any decent translator,” to borrow a phrase from New Yorker critic James Woods, must surmount:

Now that I think of it, the closest thing to a challenge for me was having to mentally inhabit the persona of the narrator, whose expansive, self-confident, out-going personality is pretty much the opposite in every way of my own. (And as you will know, as a translator, you have to think through the mind of the narrator if you want to get the words right.) But I think it worked out.

It did indeed.

As I read the novel, comparing the translation to the original, I was marveled by Frye’s choices—after all, translation is about making choices. Effortless, agile, nimble, natural . . . This is not to say, as many might suggest, that Frye was invisible. On the contrary, when Frye writes, “Shit and double shit . . . How could I be so stupid?” where YOss writes, “Mierda y más mierda . . . ¿Cómo pude ser tan idiota? [Shit and more shit . . . How could I be such an idiot?],” he leaves behind his fingerprints, which implicate him in a masterful translation of a masterful novel that deserves to win . . . even if it’s an underdog.

But who doesn’t love an underdog?

30 March 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Mark Haber from Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas. He is also the author of Melville’s Beard, which is available in a bilingual edition from Editorial Argonáutica.

Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Brazil, Open Letter Books)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 88%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 20%

Have you ever read a book and felt, without anyone telling you, that you were reading a classic, something indipsensable to a language and a culture? Chronicle of the Murdered House is such an example. This book has hints of Dostoyevsky, Garcia Marquez and Antonio Lobo Antunes. Already a classic in Brazil—this book is not only beautifully written and profound, but a joy to read. The dysfunction of a prestigious family in a provincial Brazilian jungle, complete with gossip, backstabbing, cross-dressing and suicide. There’s a fully-formed universe taking place in a run-down mansion rotting away in the jungle. Despite having the weight and breadth of a classic, its 600 pages fly by. I dare anyone to read it and not appreciate its artistry and breadth. The translation, by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, is deft, peerless and worthy of the Best Translated Book Award.

30 March 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

Up next is a post by Rachel S. Cordasco who a Ph.D. in Literary Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and has taught courses in American and British literature, and Composition. She runs the Speculative Fiction in Translation. website.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Japan, New Directions)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 68%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 13%

It’s the talented and uniquely empathetic writer who can successfully tell a story from a non-human perspective. Yoko Tawada is one of those writers.

In Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Tawada doesn’t just inhabit the mind of a polar bear to explore such issues as Cold War politics, ancestry, inheritance, entertainment, and consciousness; rather, she gives us the thoughts and aspirations of three different polar bears: the grandmother matriarch, her daughter Tosca, and Tosca’s son Knut. And then there is Tosca’s human friend/teacher Barbara’s perspective, as well, through which we learn about the world of the circus in a divided Germany.

Each bear has a different relationship to the human community, even as they all perform, at different points in their lives, for human entertainment. While the grandmother polar bear writes a bestselling autobiography and mingles freely with humans, Tosca has somewhat less freedom as a circus performer, and Knut never knows the world outside of the zoo in which he is raised. Nonetheless, each bear has a close and mutually-beneficial relationship with one or more humans, and it’s in these exchanges that Memoirs is at its post poignant. Tosca and Barbara, in particular, are able to communicate through a shared dream and eye-contact—a relationship completely opposite from that of the polar bear and her audiences.

Memoirs, while an exquisite speculative study of the relationship between humans and polar bears and of polar bear consciousness, is ultimately a story about human relationships, exile, and cultural ignorance. At various points, each polar bear cringes when some human assumes that the bear is from the North Pole—in fact, the bears are born in the Soviet Union, Canada, and East Germany, respectively. And yet, just because they are polar bears, human audiences and journalists assume that they’re from the ancestral homeland. This lack of careful inquiry and the prevalence of dismissive assumptions leads the polar bears to feel like outcasts in their own countries, misunderstood and viewed as curiosities rather than creatures with thoughts and emotions. I think it’s fair to say that humans do this to each other with alarming regularity.

Tawada’s use of polar bear narrators invites us to see that kind of lazy thinking from a different perspective, perhaps opening some readers’ eyes to the multiplicity of human experiences and the insult that comes with dismissive judgments. The careful, studied, patient ways in which author Yoko Tawada and translator Susan Bernofsky convey these issues to the reader make Memoirs of a Polar Bear stand out as a truly original and powerful novel.

A Greater Music
A Greater Music by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .

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Melancholy by László Földényi
Reviewed by Jason Newport

In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship. . .

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The Hatred of Music
The Hatred of Music by Pascal Quignard
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Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .

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Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović
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In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .

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Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .

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Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages by Kyn Taniya
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

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. . .

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The Subsidiary
The Subsidiary by Matías Celedón
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

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. . .

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Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías
Reviewed by Kristel Thornell

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. . .

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Death by Water
Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe
Reviewed by Will Eells

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. . .

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