6 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 Lori Feathers, co-founder of Interabang Books in Dallas, TX.



Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, Knopf)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 38%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 6%

In this dispiriting era of fake “news” it feels ironic to praise Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins, a novel centered around the idea that it is better to have been deceived and never know it than to learn that you are the victim of a deception.

Set in Madrid in 1980, Thus Bad Begins is narrated by Juan, twenty-three and the only child of absented diplomats who secure a job for him as personal assistant to Eduardo Muriel, a respected Spanish filmmaker. Most days Juan works at the Muriel’s home where it quickly becomes apparent that Eduardo deeply resents Beatriz, his wife. As Juan’s curiosity about the reasons for Eduardo’s animosity intensifies so too does his pity and desire for Beatriz. He begins eavesdropping on the couple’s conversations to discover what lies behind Eduardo’s inability to reciprocate his wife’s affection. At the same time, Eduardo tasks Juan to uncover a different secret—one related to a family friend’s rumored blackmail and political exploitation. In uncovering truths about the Muriel family and their circle Juan is confronted with moral ambiguities and for the first time his conviction in the infallible demarcation between wronged and wrongdoer is compromised.

A master storyteller, Marías braids Juan’s and Eduardo’s narratives into a taut loop in which Eduardo’s loves, hopes, heartbreaks, and disillusionments intersect and redouble Juan’s. Yet it is the brilliance of Marías’s writing and Margaret Jull Costa’s translation that makes this novel truly exceptional. And it is why Thus Bad Begins deserves this year’s Best Translated Book Award. Marías may be our only living author worthy to be called a successor to Henry James. His prose digs deeper than his character’s impressions, placing us inside Juan’s mind as his thoughts are formed and reformed by experience and emotion. This is writing that is nuanced and introspective yet somehow retains an ample lightness and natural feeling so that it never risks collapsing under its own weight. Marías’s sentences demand to be reread and savored.

For the title of his novel Marías took a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” It is an admonition to leave the ugly truths about the past, in the past; to not seek the truth because once known it can never be unknown. And it is the knowing that irrevocably changes everything.

6 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 Jarrod Annis of Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY.



Berlin-Hamlet by Szilárd Borbély, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary, New York Review Books)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 54%

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

This was the last collection of poetry completed by Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély before his untimely death in 2014. Part confession, part correspondence, part phantasmagorical travelogue through scenes of collective cultural trauma, Borbély’s poetry is haunting, melancholic, and tender. These poems reach outward, involving the reader both directly and indirectly in an interior journey that jostles between memory, reflection, correspondence and time.

A sense of ending recurs throughout Berlin – Hamlet—the arrival at an end of all things, the inevitability which pervades Borbély’s poems and lives with the reader long after the book has been closed. It is a space created within the reader that Borbély refers to:

Yes, I could express it simply by saying
that our conversation left in me
a vacant space. Since then, every
day contains this space.

Borbély draws readers through his poems in an unwavering trajectory, yet when we reach the other side, we realize that it was merely a phantom hand guiding us, and we miss it.

5 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 Jarrod Annis of Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY.



The Thief of Talant by Pierre Reverdy, translated from the French by Ian Seed (France, Wakefield Press)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 77%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 27%

I will read any book that was written at the behest of a dare from Max Jacob, especially a novel-in-verse by a prose poetry heavyweight like Pierre Reverdy. He seems as mysterious as his poetry. He is there, and he’s not. Reverdy’s is a poetry of absence; someone once said of (I think it was Kenneth Koch), that he wrote about small things, like the shadow of a pin on an apple. That’s true as ever in the novel-length poem that comprises The Thief of Talant, which follows the Thief from his arrival in Paris though his navigation of the avant-garde art circles he frequents, as well as the city itself.

For those accustomed to the heady, image-laden paragraphs of Reverdy’s prose poems, The Thief of Talant comes as something of a surprise. Reverdy was a master of playing with space and language, simultaneously using one to alter the other—a quality that has garnered him a reputation for being notoriously difficult to translate. That capability is on full display throughout The Thief of Talant in Ian Seed’s taut and lonely translation. Reverdy’s language is both dense and minimal, to the point to being abstruse, drifting in aphoristic clusters across the pages, pulling the reader through the space like the titular Thief wandering the endless back streets of Cubist Paris.

The Thief of Talant is a deeply intriguing work bringing to mind a time when the possibilities for merging narrative and verse were open and endless, with Pierre Reverdy pointing steadily ahead.

5 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 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.



Among Strange Victims by Daniel Saldaña París, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 72%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 16%

Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum, as does publishing. The death of Roberto Bolaño, Latin America’s enfant terrible left such a vacuum.

Every agent, publisher, reviewer, bookseller, and even reader, has been searching far and wide, high and low, in every nook and cranny of Latin America for the next Bolaño, a new literary wunderkind that will fill the void created by Bolaño’s untimely death. In fact, the search for the next Bolaño has been a boon, providing American publishers, literary translators, booksellers, and readers a new crop of fresh, talented Latin American writers: Valeria Luiselli, Yuri Herrera, Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin, and Daniel Saldaña París, to name but a few.

Among the names that emerged as possible heirs to the Bolaño phenomenon is that of Andrés Neuman, whom Bolaño himself seemed to have anointed when he wrote that “the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.” Then came the Hay Festival’s Bogotá 39 and Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, a list—in book format—whittled down from 39 to 22.

It is worth noting that none of the names that appear on these lists appears on this year’s BTBA long list. To be fair, some were nominated, while others made the long list in years past. But, still, their absence from this year’s long list is telling. To borrow a Spanish idiom, “Brillan por su ausencia” [They shine by their absence]; in English, “They’re conspicuous by their absence.”

If such a list existed today, there is little doubt that the author of En medio de extrañas víctimas would make the cut. Just as there is no doubt that Coffee House Press, publisher of Among Strange Victims, the English translation, has attempted to anoint Saldaña as Bolaño’s heir apparent. Witness the novel’s logline: “Slackers meets Savage Detectives in this polyphonic ode to the pleasures of not measuring up.”

The novel’s title is taken from the epigraph—“On park benches, among strange victims, the poet and amputees come sit together,”—written by Arthur Cravan, the Swiss poet, pugilist and avant-gardist whose bohemian life—and a series of forged passports—took him from Switzerland to France to Spain to the United States and eventually to Mexico, where he died under strange circumstances in Mexico.

The novel revolves around Rodrigo, a young functionary, a “knowledge administrator,” a title he has invented for himself, who works in a museum, a slacker to borrow from Coffee House’s tagline, who’s content to go through life without making any decisions. Or what there is of his life.

My life is a repetition of one Saturday after another. What’s in between deserves another name. Sundays don’t count: they consist—I’m exaggerating here—of twenty-four wasted hours of which I will remember nothing the following day, and that following day, Monday, marks the beginning of the reign of inertia, whose only function is to carry me along smoothly, as if floating on a cloud of certainties, to the next Saturday. What’s more, on Saturday’s I masturbate twice.

To move the plot, Saldaña employs a common novelistic trope, mistaken identity, in which Cecilia, the museum director’s secretary, slips our young slacker a note saying, “I accept.” Thereafter, we learn that someone posing as our young protagonist proposed to Cecilia. To build a twenty-first-century novel around such a clichéd trope could have easily derailed, careening into pratfalls and platitudes. Saldaña, however, is too good a writer. That is not to say that there is not a thread of humor in this novel. Writing in Factor crítico, Goio Borge describes the humor this way:

[Saldaña’s] tools are a brilliant syntax, the ability to achieve recurring images of great force, a set of relationships among plot elements that go beyond a merely forced structured, and humor, a corrosive humor that never gives way to belly laughs, but continues to show itself in every phrase in the book, charged with a sardonic irony that offers readers no respite[.]

In 2015, I had the pleasure of translating an essay written by Daniel for Literary Hub, titled “Sergio Pitol: Mexico’s Total Writer,” to coincide with the publication of my translation of Pitol’s The Art of Flight. I say pleasure because Saldaña’s admiration for Pitol is equal to my own and because his prose was truly a joy to translate. Clean. Measured. Unsuperfluous. But also, because there is something uncannily Pitolean about this novel. And that is a very good thing.

Saldaña’s translator, Christina MacSweeney, is no stranger to BTBA readers. Her translations of Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd and The Story of My Teeth were finalists in 2015 and 2016, respectively. In an interview with Words Without Borders, MacSweeney was asked about being a British translator (MacSweeney received an MA in translation from the University of East Anglia) who translates Latin American Spanish into American English. Her answer:

With Among Strange Victims, I started the process in British English and then, when Coffee House Press decided to publish it, I had to rethink certain passages. I remember that the expletive “bloody” (my translation of pinche) was considered too British when it came to editing, and there was a suggestion of replacing it with “damn.” But the problem was, I’d already used “damn” in other contexts, and wanted something more specific for that very Mexican term. Anyway, after a great deal of thought, I decided on “frigging,” which seems to fit neatly between the two cultures: Daniel liked it too.

At first read, MacSweeney’s rendering for pinche seems off. Admittedly, the thought that pinche might have been rendered as “bloody” was even more jarring. As a frequent translator of Mexican writers, I’m often called on to translate pinche. After further consideration, I decided I liked MacSweeney’s choice. There’s something refreshing about it. As all translators know, expletives and swear words present all kinds of challenges, having to do with many factors, dialect, geography, generation, context, tone, register, etc., not to mention pinche is multivalent. It can be used to express something that is negligible, defective, of poor quality, having little or no value, austere, and even unusually big. It can be used to express contempt, scorn, mockery, and even pity.

In the end, I like translators who teach me something about translation, who give me new solutions to old problems. MacSweeney is one of those translators. Her translation of Among Strange Victims is clean, measured, unsuperfluous, just as is Saldaña’s prose. Consider the following fragment:

The small office he had been designed was, indeed, full of pigeons. The birds lived in four cages piled one on top of the other, blocking the only external window. Velásquez explained that the office had belonged to an agronomist who, one fine day, had declared himself to be ill and never returned. His student had received the news with complete indifference, and no one had made any effort to discover his whereabouts. After a few months he had been dismissed, and the caretaker confessed that the agronomist had left him in charge of a number of pigeons.

MacSweeney’s translation achieves everything a translation should. And there’s something remarkable in that. Prize-worthy, in fact.

5 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 Jeremy Garber, events coordinator at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR.



Night Prayers by Santiago Gamboa, translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis (Colombia, Europa Editions)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 36%

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

Santiago Gamboa’s Night Prayers (Europa Editions) is a thrilling work of fiction. The Colombian writer’s newest novel (only the second of his works to be translated into English, after Necropolis) is layered with international tension and literary allusions. With a globetrotting plot centered upon crime and sibling loyalty, Night Prayers is told from the perspective of three distinct voices (each a main character). Sex, drugs, and politics figure prominently into Gamboa’s story, charging it with nefarious elements that won’t be unfamiliar to readers of Roberto Bolaño.

Perhaps one of the more conventional/less experimental books on this year’s longlist, Night Prayers, nevertheless, stands out boldly as an accomplished work of narrative storytelling. With an electrifying, well-paced plot, Gamboa’s novel engages and entertains like the very best of crime fiction, yet reflects and philosophizes like a more measured literary work. Drawing on themes of brotherly/sisterly fealty, violence, corruption, poverty, and the blurry lines between right and wrong, vice and virtue, Night Prayers is far more than a mere propulsive page-turner of transnational intrigue.

With considerable drama and distinctly drawn characters, Night Prayers hums at the peripheries of an illicit world. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis, Santiago Gamboa’s novel is a worthwhile entrant on this year’s Best Translated Book Award longlist.

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 Jeremy Garber, events coordinator at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR.



On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, New Directions)

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

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 12%

In the afterword to Rafael Chirbes’s On the Edge (New Directions), Valerie Miles (translator and Granta en español co-founder) said this about the late Spanish author, “[he] accepted his role as the defiant, intrepid author who bears witness, who acts as counterbalance to the forces of power, of corruption and of greed and misery, yet writes lucidly, and even at times tenderly.” Chirbes, who passed away from lung cancer during the summer of 2015, was esteemed in his native land, but has had (to date) only two of his works translated into English.

Set following last decade’s financial crisis, On the Edge is a remarkable novel of the personal fallout stemming from the ravaging and pervasive economic ruin that shook lives and nations around the globe. Chirbes’s tale, while often gritty and unsparing, is nonetheless possessed of considerable beauty and abundant feeling. With rich, evocative prose, Chirbes’s language is as gripping as the story itself—neither of which leaves much room for the reader to saunter or dally. No, On the Edge instead grasps tightly, arresting and affecting in equal measure. Like the far-reaching effects of the economic crisis itself, Chirbes’s masterpiece (awarded both Spain’s National Prize for Literature and the Critic’s Prize [and perhaps soon the Best Translated Book Award!]) is epic and unrelenting.

Rendered from the Spanish by the incomparable Margaret Jull Costa (who has four books on this year’s BTBA longlist), On the Edge is a riveting and disquieting work of fiction—one that speaks to the horrors of individual and collective calamity. On the Edge’s import cannot be overstated, nor can the lingering effects of this singular novel. Chirbes’s steady gaze helps dissect the pernicious greed that led to our global recession and, through the eyes of his characters, we’re able to glimpse the very real, inescapable consequences it has brought (and continues to bring). Speaking of steady gazes, the unforgettable cover image (by Paul Sahre Inc.) inescapably foretells the stark story within.

Miles concludes her afterword thus, “Writing was his form of observing and expiating his own inconsistencies and primal urges—sex, power, money—in their modern iterations—real estate speculation, prostitution and human trafficking, political debauchery—and challenging readers to look into his pages as into a dark mirror, to see the ghostly reflection of their own faces looking back. What redeems these scathing truths—for a writer with this experience and depth of insight—is art.” Rafael Chirbes, Margaret Jull Costa, and On the Edge are immensely deserving of this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

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.

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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Reviewed by Tim Lebeau

The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew. . .

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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 by Pascal Quignard
Reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

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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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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Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger
Reviewed by Russell Guilbault

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 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
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 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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