So, this has been percolating for some time, but yesterday BookExpo America sent out the official press release (copied below) about how this year’s Best Translated Book Award winners will be announced on Wednesday, May 27 at 2:30 as part of BEA’s programming:
Norwalk, CT, February 25, 2015: BookExpo America (BEA), North America’s largest and preeminent book industry convention, continues to shine a light on international publishing by sponsoring the 8th Annual Best Translated Book Award which was founded to bring attention to great works of literature in translation and honor the translators who make these available to English readers. Over the past few years, underwriting from Amazon.com has made it possible for the winning authors and translators to receive $5,000 in cash prizes, making this the largest award for literature in translation in the United States. Inaugurated in 2008, the award is conferred by Three Percent, the online literary magazine of Open Letter Books, which is the book translation press of the University of Rochester.
The award will take place on the Eastside Stage at BEA on Wednesday, May 27 at 2:30pm at the Jacob K. Javits Center. BookExpo America is widely known as an ideal place for content creators, media, booksellers, rights professionals, and movie and television executives to meet new authors, discover new books, learn about trends shaping the book industry, and network with those who have a passion for books and reading. It is the nation’s largest gathering of booksellers, book publishers and book industry professionals.
“Announcing the winners of the Best Translated Book Award at BoookExpo America makes perfect sense,” notes Chad W. Post, publisher of Open Letter and Founder of the awards. “Booksellers are some of the biggest fans of international literature I know, and one of the most important groups out there for getting translations into the hands of individual readers. It’s exciting to be able to share this announcement with them directly, at one of the key bookselling events of the year. Plus, incorporating the BTBAs into the setting of BEA—with hundreds of authors, translators, and editors in attendance—is a fantastic way to show that international literature is a central, growing part of book culture.”
Any works in translation published in 2014 for the first time ever (no retranslations or reissues) are eligible for the award. More than 580 works of fiction and poetry have already met these criteria. These books originated from 73 different countries and were written in 46 different languages, making this the largest, and most diverse, pool of entries to date. Additionally, these books were published by 194 different publishers, demonstrating the large base of interest in bringing international voices to American readers.
Obviously, we’re going to party after this . . . Details on that are TK.
Couple BTBA points worth noting though:
Because of this change of venue (we used to announce the winners during PEN World Voices, and hope that next year we can announce the finalists there), we’ve altered the schedule for the 2015 announcements. (As you can see on the official BTBA site.)
The Longlists for both Fiction and Poetry will now be announced on Tuesday, April 7th;
Finalists will be announced on Tuesday, May 5th;
Winners & Celebration Party on May 27th.
Also, be sure and check out Best Translated Book for all of the amazing write-ups the judges have been posting about this year’s works. They’re doing a phenomenal job, and their columns make up the single greatest online source for information about 2014 works in translation, bar none. All of these posts go up on Three Percent as well, but over the next month, I’m going to be highlighting a bunch of them as we build up to the announcement of the two longlists . . .
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
Monastery (Bellevue Literary Press)
Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn
Like a companion volume or literary reverberation, Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery continues the itinerant wanderings begun in his beautifully-composed The Polish Boxer. Monastery’s narrator, a certain Eduardo Halfon, encounters and engages the world around him – be he beside the West Bank barrier, seeking an intimate jazz performance in Harlem, or visiting a coffee plantation in Guatemala. Reflective and reminiscent, the short stories/tales/vignettes that make up Halfon’s second work translated into English are effortlessly gratifying. Halfon needn’t employ a stylistically singular prose style (although he writes magnificently) or rely on compelling, convoluted plots to evince the wonder of the world around him. Each of the eight pieces contained within Monastery offers a melodic yet transitory glimpse of the seemingly insignificant moments that eventually merge into memories of consequence.
Halfon, honored as one of the Bogotá 39, has about a dozen works to his name. El ángel literario (“The Literary Angel”) – a 2004 semifinalist for the Premio Herralde (won previously by the likes of Javier Marías, Roberto Bolaño, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Daniel Sada) – appears to be, like both Monastery and The Polish Boxer after it, an astounding semi-autobiographical work that blends genres and transcends the merely fictional. Seeing more of the Guatemala City-born author’s works in translation would be a gift.
Maybe it was her driving. Maybe it was the combination of hash and the heat inside the Citroën and the adrenaline rush I’d gotten with the soldiers. Maybe it was something much darker and more fleeting. I rolled the window all the way down, stuck my head out and, breathing in the warm fresh air, thought of other walls. Chinese walls and German walls and American walls. Holy walls of temples and damp mossy walls of cells. The brick walls of a ghetto, the walls surrounding an entire people imprisoned in a ghetto, starving in a ghetto, dying slowly and silently. All of a sudden, I saw or imagined I saw on the wall (we were driving very fast and my eyes were almost closed and my pupils were dilated) the all-black figure of the girl in the Banksy painting: her black braid, black bangs, little black skirt, black shoes, black face looking up, her whole body facing up toward the sky as she floats up the wall with the help of a bunch of black balloons held in her tiny black hand. It occurred to me, my head halfway out the window and already experiencing a delicious lethargy from the hash, that a wall is the physical manifestation of man’s hatred of the other. A palpable concrete manifestation that attempts to separate us from the other, isolate us from the other, eliminate the other from our sight and from our world. But it’s also a clearly useless manifestation: no matter how tall and thick the construction, no matter how long and imposing the structure, a wall is never insurmountable. A wall is never bigger than the spirit of those it confines. Because the other is still there. The other doesn’t disappear, never disappears. The other’s other is me. Me, and my spirit, and my imagination, and my black balloons.
Navidad & Matanza (Open Letter)
Carlos Labbé, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden
It is a game. Not a novel. There is no story. Only rules.
A metafictional, heady tale of disappeared children, a novel-game coauthored by laboratory subjects, and a hatred/fear-inducing drug called hadón, Navidad & Matanza is the first of Chilean-born writer Carlos Labbé’s works to be published in English. Excerpted previously in Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists 2010 issue (as “The Girls Resembled Each Other in the Unfathomable”), Navidad & Matanza’s labyrinthine story within a story is both sinister and foreboding.
Labbé, a novelist and screenwriter (who penned his master’s thesis on Roberto Bolaño), deftly weaves an intricate, enigmatic story into and around itself. Navidad & Matanza could be the hallucinogenic amalgamation of a César Aira plot with setting and characters conceived by Bolaño – if written using Oulipo-style constraints. Though less than 100-pages in total, Labbé’s novel has an inebriating effect that persists well after the book’s conclusion. With ample imagination and commanding style, Navidad & Matanza certainly marks Labbé as a young author from whom we ought to anticipate great, fascinating things to come.
To that end, five friends of similar interests and I had come up with a system that, in the beginning, seemed like an original and fascinating discovery. A novel-game. In short, it involved rolling dice, moving your token to a space with prefigured plotlines and formal constraints, writing a text according to those constraints and, that night, mailing this text to the other participants. Everyone had been assigned a day of the week, except Sunday, a day of rest. It was a game of complex rules and seduction. And the result was out of control.
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
With the start of spring (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, that is) less than six weeks away, the BTBA longlist announcement draws ever closer (early April!) – and, as such, we judges continue our evaluation of the year’s fiction in translation. Reading and considering so many disparate books never loses its appeal, nor, despite the varying quality of the texts, the pleasure of being exposed to books that might have otherwise been overlooked. With nearly 500 works in contention for this year’s esteemed prize, the list of eligible titles, at first glance, may seem both daunting and overwhelming – yet, as it must, the proverbial wheat separates itself from the chaff. With less than two months to go before the longlist is revealed, a number of books seem to have found favor with many of the judges. The below titles are but a small sample of the exceptional books that more than one jurist has been especially enamored of (and, thus, may – or may not – make their way onto the much-anticipated longlist):
The Symmetry Teacher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
By Andrei Bitov, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon
The sixth of Andrei Bitov’s works to be rendered into English, The Symmetry Teacher is a masterful, postmodern metafictional novel long on flair, but short on fervor. Like the nesting dolls mentioned within, The Symmetry Teacher contains stories within a story within a story.
Subtitled “A Novel-echo,” (“Translated from a foreign tongue by Andrei Bitov, retranslated into English by Polly Gannon”), the novel begins with a note by Bitov himself, recalling a book he had read many decades ago by an obscure English author named A. Tired-Boffin (an anagram for Andrei Bitoff). The book, The Teacher of Symmetry, despite Bitov’s exhaustive searchings, was never to be located again – thus he set out to retranslate it from memory. Tired-Boffin’s The Teacher of Symmetry features as its protagonist an enigmatic author named Urbino Vanoski (whom, later in the novel, composes poetry under an anagrammatical pseudonym). Portions of Vanoski’s novels are excerpted as chapters (with names altered by Bitov – as outlined in an included chart relying on Tired-Boffin’s curious propensity to name chapters in a categorical manner based on grammatical tenses) and compose the bulk of Bitov’s singular tale.
Sound confusing? It’s not. Sound tedious? Far from it. Perhaps in the hands of a less talented writer, this construct would seem like mere affectation, but Bitov’s literary gifts are prodigious and nothing about The Symmetry Teacher comes off as contrived. If you like your fiction tidy, plot-driven, full of banal dialogue, and stuffed with artificial flavorings, however, this surely isn’t the book for you.
So many of Bitov’s (Tired-Boffin’s [Vanoski’s]) stories – or novel excerpts, rather – are wonderfully imagined; ranging from a writing society that expels members upon completing a work, to a marooned poet enamored of a woman with transformative abilities, to a king who decides to pen an additional volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica (when not altering the composition of the night sky).
The Symmetry Teacher is bewitching, but never strays into the bewildering. The Russian author’s new novel is frequently humorous and wildly imaginative. Neither a proper puzzle nor riddle to be solved, Bitov’s book instead invites readers to consider language and literary construct through the façade of playful fiction. If there’s anything to be found lacking in The Symmetry Teacher, it’s that while intellectually intoxicating, it has so little emotional effect. Nonetheless, it contains some undeniably gorgeous writing and impressive feats of artistry.
We are capable of destroying a primitive ideal, but are not capable of erecting in its stead a more capacious one that would include what we have ruined. If a person were paid money for what is characteristic of him, and not for those distortions and aberrations by which he accommodates himself to success, the prime minister and great scholar would experience the comfort of their places, and so their happiness, like Gummi out there chopping wood. If everyone, having discovered his inmost secret wish, could be allowed to engage in the simple pastime that made him happy, the world would descend into idiocy and a golden age would reign on earth. It is only due to the fear of loneliness that people are not all mad – and they are all mad because they accept the conventionality of social existence while failing to examine it in their minds. The therapy of real work is possible only in paradise.
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (Semiotext(e))
By Julio Cortázar, translated from the Spanish by David Kurnick
In the Argentinian master’s Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia, literary superfriends (Cortázar, Susan Sontag, Octavio Paz, and Alberto Moravia) battle the forces of capitalist excess and international bibliocide. Inspired by his participation in the second Russell Tribunal (1975, Brussels), as well as his inclusion in an issue of the Mexican comic book series, Fantomas, la amenaza elegante (#201, “La inteligencia en llamas”), Cortázar published this self-referential, metafictional novella to help spread the word about the tribunal’s report (on human rights violations in Latin America).
With numerous cameos by other prominent writers of the era (Norman Mailer, Eduardo Galeano, Carlos Fuentes, José Lezama Lima, et al.), Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires retains the original comic drawings from the Mexican series in which they first appeared. Crafting a fictional narrative around the graphic story and his work with the tribunal, Cortázar takes aim at the various exploits of multinational corporations and the rapacious effects they’ve had (and continue to have) on human rights, environmental well-being, creative culture, and national sovereignty. While very slim in length, Fantomas cleverly combines comedy, politics, literature, and an unsettling reality into a single remarkable work.
Although Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires does not, of course, set out to solve the centuries-old corrupting influences of American corporate interventionism, it does, however, (further) demonstrate Cortázar’s seemingly limitless creativity. Rather than composing an editorial screed, Cortázar instead allowed the brilliance of his storytelling (and the comic book illustrations) to succinctly convey the grave threats that still endure after many decades. Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires is fun, fresh, fantastical, and an absolute delight to behold.
“Yes, Julio, but reality makes itself known in other ways, too – it makes itself known in work or the lack of work, in the price of potatoes, in the boy shot down on the corner, in the way the filthy rich drive past the miserable slums (that’s a metaphor, because they take care never to get anywhere near the goddamn slums). It makes itself known even in the singing of birds, in children’s laughter, in the moment of making love. These things are known, Julio, a miner or a teacher or a bicyclist knows them, deep down everyone knows them, but we’re lazy or we shuffle along in bewilderment, or we’ve been brainwashed and we think that things aren’t so bad simply because they’re not flattening our houses or kicking us to death…”
By Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
By unanimous jury decision (which included Roberto Bolaño), Marcos Giralt Torrente’s Paris was awarded the 1999 Herralde Prize (Andrés Neuman’s as yet untranslated Bariloche was the runner-up). The Spaniard’s debut novel is a remarkable work of remembrance, reconciliation of memory, and the tenacious effects of formative moments. Giralt Torrente’s narrator, a man reflecting back on a number of unanswered questions from his youth (most notably, the time his mother spent living in the French capital city without him – and the relationship they both had to his oft-absent father), spends nearly the entirety of the novel reflecting, recalling, re-imagining, and re-processing the events of childhood. With stunning prose and impressive psychology insight, Paris is a meditation on the nature of memory and the ways it binds our present to the past. Giralt Torrente’s debut novel is a masterful feat.
When we think about the past, it’s hard to resist both dividing it up into blocks in accordance with the pattern of events that have made most impression on us and attributing powers to it that it does not have, allowing ourselves to believe that the arrival of a particular date had the ability to work some radical transformation on us. Until the death of my father, we say, I was like this or like that, when we should really say that on such and such a date, something that already existed inside us began to make itself manifest or visible. Such nonsense is merely the reflection of a still greater error of thinking, the belief that we change suddenly rather than gradually, as if we could not possibly be influenced by opposing but simultaneous impulses.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
I have an embarrassing inability to remember plots. It took me three readings of The Brothers Karamazov just to be able to remember beyond a few weeks who had actually killed Fyodor Pavlovich — and The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite books. I have no idea why this happens; but no matter how exciting they are, plots in my brain have a very short half-life. On the other hand, the emotional or ethical texture of a book — especially a book I liked — will remain with me for years, completely unattenuated. Now that the announcement of the longlist is approaching, it’s been interesting to go back to my notes, to see which titles I’ve forgotten and which are somehow still with me.
The following books don’t have much in common, other than this tenacity (which is, of course, highly subjective) and the fact that they haven’t been talked about much on this blog. None of them, I feel, would be out of place on the longlist.
There’s a type of mysticism in Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin (translated from the Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich) that recalls Clarice Lispector, but Qiu’s philosophy feels solid in a way that Lispector’s often does not. Qui’s narrator, a young, queer Taiwanese woman living in Paris, feels a pain and an ecstasy embedded in everyday objects and experiences: letters, phone calls, film screenings. Hugely important to the blossoming Taiwanese literary culture of the 1990s, Last Words from Montmartre also bears the tragic urgency of books whose authors later committed suicide. Qiu took her own life at the age of 26, but the work she left behind is astonishingly mature. Its literary merit alone would be enough to recommend Last Words from Montmartre to the longlist, but as a work of queer literature — a tradition that up to now has been disappointingly underrepresented among BTBA contenders — it deserves even more serious consideration.
Tove Jansson, the Swedish-speaking Finnish author best known for her children’s books about the Moomin family, was also one of the most brilliant short story writers of her time. Her stories have been slowly making their way into English for a few years now, but NYRB’s The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella) is the first collection likely to attract significant attention from American audiences. I am unabashedly biased when it comes to Tove Jansson; I love her, and even though technically she’s already posthumously won the BTBA once (in 2011, for her novel The True Deceiver), her short stories could give almost anyone a run for their money.
The Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach (translated from the Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and the author) is a very mysterious novel about an entomologist in a remote, desert-encircled South African town. Summer lies heavily over every sentence, sleepy, slow, and sensual, and yet throughout the novel there is a taut, nearly unbearable line of tension. As elusive as its title promises, Winterbach’s novel may not exactly be the sort to inspire rabid enthusiasm, but it is very subtly and intelligently done.
And one more word on my most recent read: Like Last Words from Montmartre, Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst (translated from the Portuguese by John Keene) is passionate and epistolary, but its tone couldn’t be more different. Letters from a Seducer is an irreverent catalogue of outrageous, theatrical sexualities. Hilst delights in breaking taboos and detailing fetishistic obsessions, making constant fun of phallocentrism and bourgeois sensibilities. But she does it with a good sense of humor and often great literary panache. (Translator John Keene deserves praise for the number of euphemisms he’s managed to generate for various body parts alone.) Behind the absurdity are also flashes of deep feeling, comical desperation in the face of writing, and these meditations lend Hilst’s short novel staying power as literature, and not only as (in the author’s own words) “brilliant pornography.”
The January 2015 Translation Issue that I edited for The White Review recently went live. Nearly a year in the making, it gathers various kinds of texts: recent poems, excerpts from forthcoming titles, new and newly translated interviews, and works rendered into English expressly for this number. I’m not just mentioning The White Review because its dedication to literature in translation aligns it with projects like Three Percent; I’ve made it the focus of this post because judging The Best Translated Book Award has proven invaluable for my other editorial activities. To state the obvious: there’s no discovery without a search.
Two contributions to this issue resulted directly from past readings for BTBA. Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, was one of last year’s most delightful surprises. She is represented here with the opening to a novel whose original title reads 私小説 from left to right. As you can see in the snapshots below, the book does interesting things with language and form—especially for the Japanese reader.
But Mizumura is a gifted storyteller, as anyone familiar with A True Novel knows. That is evident in even an extract this short. Rumor has it that a different novel of hers is on its way into English. In the meantime, I’m priming for it with Mizumura’s recently published polemic, The Fall of English in the Age of English, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter (Columbia University Press).
The other work inspired by the 2014 BTBA is a 6000+ word interview with Guatemalan master Rodrigo Rey Rosa, conducted and translated by my fellow judge Scott Esposito. Like A True Novel, Rey Rosa’s The African Shore, translated by Jeffrey Gray, posed the most serious challenges to last year’s winner. Rey Rosa covers fascinating territory here, from the two novels recently published by Yale University Press (one of which, Severina is eligible for the 2015 prize in Chris Andrews’s excellent translation) to the influence of Borges and Kafka and Wittgenstein. Here is Rey Rosa’s wonderful response to a question concerning the virtues of the baggy novel with cosmic ambitions—in this case Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (trans. by Natasha Wimmer).
I believe that all kinds of novels are important. The ‘totalising novel’, that can claim to cover the world or contain an entire epoch (although, or course, it can’t actually do that), seems to me as important as the short novel or the fragmentary one. A novel’s particular importance doesn’t depend on its size or theme or intention, only its execution. What matters is the literary experience, what happens to us as we are reading it. Reading 2666 is a unique experience, and because of this it is important. It presents us with a point of view, a ‘segment’ of reality that did not exist before we read it.
It is perhaps too soon to tell, but other contributions to the Translation Issue strike me as potential contenders for the 2016 BTBA. The Vegetarian by South Korean novelist Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith for Portobello Books, already has a US contract. Had it been published before December 31st, Daniel Sada’s One Out of Two would have undoubtedly made my own shortlist; it is an extraordinary book. Graywolf will release the novel in November (in a brilliant translation by Katherine Silver); in the meantime, you can read its first pages here. Lastly, there’s Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality, which New Directions will publish next month in the late Michael Henry Heim’s masterful translation from Romanian. We’ve accompanied a self-contained episode from Adventures with an essay by Herta Müller that introduces readers to Blecher’s genius.
The crop of French titles competing for the 2015 BTBA is strong. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that two of my recent favorites were both translated by Jordan Stump. (Like Margaret Jull Costa and Daniel Hahn, Stump is making a strong showing among eligible titles.) I admired the muted strangeness of Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, which Two Lines Press published earlier this autumn.
And a thousand cheers to Stump and Dalkey Archive for Éric Chevillard’s wonderful The Author and Me. A cross between Beckett’s Molloy and Monty Python, it is the funniest novel I’ve read yet for the competition. (The villain is a cauliflower gratin.) Halfway through, the novel descends into a footnote, whose story—as it were—consists of the narrator and a growing entourage following an ant. What better way to finish this post than to share its helpful advice for the new year:
Friend, when misfortune strikes, when hard times befall you, entrust your fate to an ant. An ant always knows where to go, and the well chosen path will serve you far better than any endless wandering. May I tatoo this axiom on your forehead? HE WHO WALKS BEHIND AN ANT WILL NEVER AGAIN BE CALLED A VAGABOND. At long last you have a goal, even if you don’t know what it is. What matters is that you will draw strength from the ant’s tenacity. You’ll be galvanized by her glorious ardor. And in your loins, in your once faltering legs, there will be her drive. No more doubt, no more procrastination. Forward! From here on you will cleave the waves.
Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.
Some five-hundred-odd translated titles are in contention – well, at least get considered – for a book prize, the Best Translated Book Award. Not surprisingly, a number of them have previously won literary prizes of one sort of another, and it’s interesting to see how they stack up against the still-un-prized competition.
Two of the authors with books in the running are Nobel laureates – though in the case of José Saramago, the eligible title is not one which was taken into consideration in awarding him that prize: his posthumously published but very early novel, Skylight, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. 2014 Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences(trans. by Mark Polizzotti), on the other hand, is unusual in being a three-for-one collection, collecting three novel(las) that were originally published as stand-alones. Despite all the criticism the Swedish Academy gets for some of their Nobel selections, it’s rare that a laureate’s work isn’t worth reading. The Saramago – written in the early 1950s, and, when it was not accepted for publication, leading him to abandon writing fiction for nearly a quarter of a century – stands in every way apart from the rest of his work but already suggests many of the qualities of his later writing. The Modiano-trio, on the other hand, is from a writer at the height of his powers – and benefits some from being a triple-dose: Modiano’s work is all related – arguably part of just one very big book – and this volume nicely presents three versions of it. (On the other hand, it suffers a bit by comparison with one of the few of his other works available in English, Honeymoon(trans. by Barbara Wright), written during the same period (chronologically it belongs in the middle of these three) and still my favorite of the available-in-English Modianos.)
The literary-prize-winner that BTBA watchers might have their eye on most is (sort of) the winner of last year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which is the closest British approximation to the BTBA. (The IFFP differs from the BTBA in that it does consider re-translations (the BTBA doesn’t) and doesn’t consider books by dead authors (the BTBA does).) The IFFP went to Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ ; confusingly, the US edition of his stories eligible for this year’s BTBA, The Corpse Exhibition(trans. by Jonathan Wright), is made up of a collection of stories from that volume, as well as from a previously-published-in-the-UK volume, The Madman of Freedom Square. Twice as much Blasim as in his IFFP-winning book – that presumably can’t hurt his chances! Short story collections have historically had a hard time in the BTBA-process, but Blasim’s is certainly among the more promising contenders in recent years.
Not that many national or regional book prizes – beyond those awarded to English-language books like the Man Booker – are well-known in the US but one that probably should be is the Nordic Council Literature Prize, the top Scandinavian prize. The list of winners is an impressive one, and several winning titles have been among the BTBA contenders in recent years. This year Baboon, by Naja Marie Aidt (trans. by Denise Newman), the 2008 winner, is in the running. Another short story collection – in a year with quite a few of these – it’s certainly a title to look out for.
While the Prix Goncourt is the major French literary prize, the Prix Renaudot is the clear runner-up – and Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile — translated by Melanie Mauthner and published by Archipelago, who always seem to have a couple of titles on the BTBA longlist – is in the BTBA-running this year.
And while genre novels always have a tough time asserting themselves in the BTBA, how about Bed of Nails, by Antonin Varenne (trans. by Sian Reynolds) – the 2009 Prix Polar Michel Lebrun- and Grand Prix Sang d’encre-winner? (The fact that it’s been such an impressive year for French noir – a quartet of Pascal Garnier novels, and a Jean-Patrick Manchette leading the way – is probably the biggest hurdle to this title making the cut.)
It’s also interesting to see what translations into other languages have been prize-winning. There’s Leonardo Padura’s Trotsky novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, for example, a Spanish novel whose French translation won the 2011 Prix Initiales.
And then there’s a book like Maylis de Kerangal’s Birth of a Bridge(trans. by Jessica Moore): the original French won the 2010 Prix Medicis and the Prix Franz Hessel, and the Italian translation won the 2014 Premio Gregor von Rezzori. Published in English by Canadian Talonbooks, this is yet another translation that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves but which has the stuff to go far in the BTBA, introducing a new and distinctive voice (in admirable translation) whom we’ll be hearing a lot more of.
Of course, winning a literary prize is not a guarantee of quality, and one title in the BTBA-running stands out in this regard. Winner of both the 2012 Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and the 2012 Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, a finalist for both the highest French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, and the Prix Femina, you’d figure Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair would have to be a front-runner for the BTBA. I can’t speak for my fellow judges, who may yet vote to put this thing on the longlist…no, I think I can speak with confidence in stating that this will not be among the books that will be in anywhere near the final running. Despite – or actually in part also because of – its American setting, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair manages to feel foreign in all the wrong ways, certainly to American ears.
George Carroll is the World Literature Editor of Shelf Awareness and an independent publishers’ representative based in the Pacific Northwest.
My day job is publishers’ representative, which is a snottier way of saying “traveling book salesman.” I present thousands (low thousands) of books twice a year to book buyers who work for independent bookstores. The key in keeping things moving along in an appointment with a bookseller is to use book shorthand. No waxing on. Nothing purple. Why is much more important than What. And, definitely, most importantly, using one word rather than ten. When I start to write something that quacks like a review, I freeze, which hopefully explains the brevity of the few BTBA blogs I’ve been asked to bang in. It’s not laziness; it’s a cultural thing.
Readers who were totally pissed off/depressed by the final Kurt Wallander book The Troubled Man, will find Henning Mankell’s An Event in Autumn, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson, a reprieve, a bit of fresh air. The novella, written for a crime book promotion, immediately precedes The Troubled Man. The plot involves a skeletal hand that pokes its way out of the garden at a house Wallander considers buying.
If that sounds familiar, it’s the first episode of the third season of the BBC Wallander series. Wallander’s daughter Linda gets a nod in the book, a character that plays a much larger role in the Swedish Wallander series that came from BBC4. It reads quick, YA-sized print and includes the moment in which Wallander comes closest to joining the Choir Triumphant.
Jorn Lier Horst has won the Glass Key, Martin Beck Award, Golden Revolver, and Norwegian Booksellers Prize for his William Wisting mystery series. Two books are eligible for the 2015 BTBA award Closed for Winter and The Hunting Dogs, both translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce.
The main character, William Wisting, is the Chief Inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Larvik Police. Who could write the character better than Jorn Lier Horst who – wait for it – is Chief Inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Larvik Police.
Nice father-daughter crime-solving duo but unlike police agent Linda Wallander, Line Wisting is a journalist. I have to say the subplot in Closed for Winter is really stupid because it hits you in the head 100 pages before Wisting gets it. Both books have twists and turns in stoppage time that work well, but much more impressed with The Hunting Dogs.
There are five Pascal Garnier books eligible for this year’s award, of which I received and read but the one, How’s the Pain?, translated from the French by Emily Boyce. A pest exterminator who’s dying fast needs to hire a driver to help him finish one last job. And yes, of course, “pests” is more inclusive than rats and cockroaches. I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more Garnier.
I recently read Mathias Enard’s (translated by Charlotte Mandell)Street of Thieves (longlist, longlist?) and the main character is an avid reader of French noir, particularly Jean Patrick Manchette. New to me, but I’m late for all kinds of parties. In The Mad and the Bad, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith, hitman Thompson is hired to off a couple of innocents who go on the run. Great jacket copy, NYRB: “Thompson pursues. Bullets Fly. Bodies Accumulate.” If I were trolling for an action movie, I’d option The Mad and the Bad in a Hollywood minute.
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
As the calendar draws to a close, annual lists of the year’s best books begin to proliferate. However subjective these literary lineups may be, it should come as no surprise to readers of translated fiction that titles originating from outside the English-speaking world are seldom included in these year-end roundups. The lack of astonishment that comes with seeing a dearth of translated books included on such lists is outweighed perhaps only by the frustration that a bevy of such remarkable books will never enjoy the attention they truly deserve.
Reviewers, critics, and editors are, of course, entitled to their own opinions, but charged as they are with shaping the readerly landscape and exposing their audiences to books they elseways would not likely discover on their own, it can be rather dispiriting, year in and year out, to see some of the world’s best fiction go neglected, ignored, and otherwise uncelebrated (hence the need for the Best Translated Book Award).
What is it about literature in translation that fails to attract its deserved share of both popular and critical acclaim? Theories abound – and have for some time. Are American readers simply not properly exposed to the breadth of titles available in English translation? Are they provincial and xenophobic? Are they sated by the wealth of domestic talent? Do they mistakenly presume books rendered from another language will be needlessly arduous and unrewarding?
Are publishers, bookshops, media, and reviewers equally culpable for the disproportionately low interest in international fiction? Does lack of review coverage keep the average reader from discovering an exceptional work from without our borders? Are the big houses unwilling to publish more works in translation – having seen disappointing or diminishing returns previously? Are booksellers, despite their often-tireless advocacy for the books they admire, unable to engender and maintain enough of a groundswell? Is lit in translation to be forever relegated to a niche market, comprising but a sliver of the publishing and bookselling world?
With over 500 works of fiction published in English translation in each of the past two years (about a 50% increase from 2010), it appears interest in such books is, in fact, growing. As ever more translation-centric publishers join the scene (whether for profit or not), the abundance of titles available to English readers from all over the world will surely increase – a veritable windfall for those with broad, open-minded tastes (and monolingual backgrounds). But how to make those books appeal to the larger American readership? For the success of every Larsson, Murakami, or Bolaño are scores of writers equally worthy of as ardent an audience. Perhaps an industry with creative output as its product will forever remain a fickle and unpredictable one. Perhaps the arbiters of taste and merit are slow to evolve.
Knowing that great books written in languages other than English often have a laborious road to the American bookshelf, an award that aims to recognize the best translated book in a given year has more to consider than what a first glance may reveal. Ought the award, all things considered, bestow the prize upon the most altogether worthy entrant (excellence in writing, translation, presentation, et al.)? What if the book in question is unlikely, given even the most robust accolades and promotion, to ever find appeal beyond academic circles or a very narrow general readership? Should the notion of how a book has done critically (or might do commercially) bear weight upon the decision? Do we trust that readers will, if given a hearty enough recommendation from a reliable source, take a chance on something that they would otherwise pass by?
Undeservedly or not, a single work in translation (at least for a reader not normally inclined to pick up such a book) may well be seen as a reflection of all works in translation. For a reading public that relies on reviews and best-of lists as much as bookseller recommendations and word-of-mouth encouragement from fellow readers, it is incumbent upon publishers, reviewers, and bookshops (and award juries, as well) that we champion deserved works and their authors – if international fiction is ever to gain a wider appeal.
While end-of-the year lists often feature the more obvious selections, there is an (increasing?) opportunity for the so-called also-rans to get their due. Blogs, social media, and other non-traditional outlets are constantly reshaping the literary landscape. Books which, even a decade ago, may not have had a chance to wend their way into the hands of readers now have an easier time doing so (although it remains prohibitively difficult for most). A good many of the books translated into English in any given year are very likely amongst the best in their native languages (as it is difficult to imagine mid-list international authors finding either a translator or publisher stateside), so a list of the year’s translated titles is already a quasi-best-of selection by default.
It’ll be a welcome (and exciting!) day for all those interested in great literature when the ever-popular “best books of the year” lists count even a quarter of their entries as those rendered from a foreign language. Readers, culture, and society alike will benefit greatly, confirming and reiterating the fact that exceptional works of art need not be confined by arbitrary borders or the limitations of tongue. No “best of” list could ever presume to have the definitive word on the extraordinary, but declining to include more works in translation does a disservice to all readers. Much as ecosystems thrive best with greater diversity (and suffer, conversely, wherever monoculture is present), we, too, will be all the richer for indulging the abundance of authorial voices which currently flourish.
It’s December. I still have a shit-ton of books left to read for the BTBA, and the very thought of writing a blogpost about my favorite contenders is giving me mild anxiety. But, as a Chuang Tzu once wrote (in David Hinton’s excellent translation), “small fear is fever and worry; great fear is vast and calm.”
The great fear, in this case, consists in creating a longlist from so many well-designed, well-written, and well-translated books. It’s so frightening that I’m actually okay with it. But here comes the small fear: my two cents about what’s good in the pile of submissions.
I can certainly reveal some of my favorite titles to you, such as Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (trans. by Christina MacSweeney), Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita (trans. by Natasha Wimmer), Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile (trans. by Melanie Mauthner), and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Three (trans. by Don Bartlett), but since all of these titles have already been mentioned several times, I figured my blogging energy would be better spent on two Danish titles that have not yet come up as anybody’s favorites. I will allow my fellow judges the benefit of the doubt, and assume they have yet to read the books I’m about to highlight.
As a Dane, Naja Marie Aidt’s writing has been an inevitable part of my life. I grew up reading and analyzing her short stories in middle and high school classes, and I’ve remained fascinated by her fiction ever since. One of Aidt’s literary fortes is her depiction of distorted human relationships; sometimes conveyed explicitly through master-slave abuse, pedophilia, or snuff (Vandmærket, 1993), sometimes portrayed through subtle powerplay and deceit as a matter of routine (Tilgang, 1995). Aidt’s latest short story collection and first book in English, Baboon (Two Lines Press), is no exception:
“I slowly peeled the clothes off her, and she looked beautiful on the red Persian rug, in the warm light from the fire. She spread her legs. She looked at me with dark, sorrowful eyes. Your sister has a tighter cunt than you. I wonder whether you’re born that way, or if it’s just because she’s so young.” (From Bulbjerg)
These disturbing tales will potentially stay with you for years; they have certainly haunted me since 2006, when I first read the collection in Danish. Rereading Baboon in English was an immense pleasure, thanks to an incredible translation by Denise Newman who managed to capture the beauty of Aidt’s descriptive prose while maintaining a sense of urgency within the lines:
“Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of an astonishing landscape: luminous, white sand dunes on all sides, wind swept, small trees twisting under the vast open sky. We gasped joyfully as though coming up for air after being under water too long. We stood there looking around, our eyes blinking after staring at the gravel road in the dark forest for so long. Even the smell was different here, salty and fresh, the sea had to be close by. But we lost our bearings long ago.”
Aidt’s talent for combining brutality and beauty is, in my opinion, nothing less than extraordinary.
Another Dane who deserves honorable mention in the BTBA is Dorthe Nors. Her short story collection Karate Chop (Graywolf Press/A Public Space) is a delightfully fast and punchy read, expertly rendered by translator Martin Aitken. Nors’ combination of light language and dark humor is captivating -not only within each individual story, but also in the way the stories complement each other. From the tragicomic self-proclaimed Buddhist, to the man who googles female killers when his wife is asleep, to the heron in Frederiksberg Gardens with mites living in its underfeathers:
“Last winter I saw one slouching on the back of a bench with its long, scrawny neck. Its feet were completely white and it barely even reacted when I walked past. The way the wind ruffled its neck feathers made me want to go back and sit down next to it. It was the way the suffering had to be drawn out like that, the way herons never really muster the enthusiasm. But I won’t touch birds, alive or dead.” (from “The Heron”)
Nors’ short story “The Heron” was the first Danish piece to be published in The New Yorker, and it truly does work well as the literary centerpiece of the perfectly unpredictable Karate Chop.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
The news has been worse than usual this year, so I’ve been particularly thankful for books that make me laugh. Here are some of the funniest contenders – in what I’m sure is just a coincidence, they all take place in the 1980s and involve either children or Soviets or both.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is narrated by a little boy named Orestes who lives in a very small, very poor town in Mexico. His father’s favorite activity is cursing the police, while his mother spends most of her time making quesadillas to feed Orestes and his numerous siblings (all similarly named after figures of Greek tragedy). When the family’s two youngest children, the twins Castor and Pollux, disappear, it sets off a chain of wild events that culminates with the appearance of some extraterrestrial visitors.
But before the aliens get involved, Orestes runs away to make his fortune, and so the book becomes a kind of sad, but hilarious, parody of a poor boy’s rags-to-riches story. Villalobos’ novel, originally titled Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (“If we lived somewhere normal”), criticizes a system of poverty and corruption that is, of course, not limited to Mexico, all while delivering lines so colorful and surprising that you can’t help but laugh.
Another tale narrated by a clever, resourceful, and chronically poor child, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki (translated by Stephen Henighan) moves the scene to Angola. The novel is populated by a cast of odd, lovable characters, including the eponymous Soviet, called Comrade Gudafterov by the children for his habit of greeting everyone with a solemn “Gudafter-noon,” no matter the time of day. Though there are moment in the plot when things seem to be getting dangerous, nothing really terrible actually happens, and we are left with an unusually vivid sense not only of the Angola of Ondjaki’s own childhood, but of the general texture of childhood itself. Stephen Henighan has done a particularly fine job conveying the range of Ondjaki’s style – the Soviet’s comically broken Portuguese and the narrator’s fleeting moments of poetry, for example, seem to arrive in English with equal ease.
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov (translated by Katherine Dovlatov) is not narrated by a child. Rather, our hero is Soviet version of the superfluous man – poor, highly sensitive to literature, perpetually drunk, and somehow badly equipped for life. After a divorce and at the end of his rope, he arrives one summer at Pushkin’s country estate, looking for work as a tour guide. His ensuing adventures are punctuated by witty-one liners worthy of a vodka-soaked Oscar Wilde (“Are you good friends [with Mitrofanov]?” someone asks the narrator, who replies, “I’m good friends with his bad side.”), but overall, the novel owes more to Bulgakov, whose humor builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, until suddenly the entire situation is absurd. The book, like all my favorite Russian tales, is a tragicomedy, one of the saddest and funniest to appear this year.
Although the judges have been reading books all year, if you're a publisher, author, or translator, and want to make sure that your works are being considered, feel free to contact any and all of the panelists. Click here for a mailing list of the poetry judges (here for one with emails) and here for a mailing list of the fiction judges (here for one with emails). If you have any questions, please contact Chad Post.
There's no entry fee, all you have to do is mail one copy (or send an e-version) of your publication to each of the appropriate panelists. Please indicate that the package is a 2015 BTBA submission. . .
All original translations published between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2014 are eligible. Reprints and retranslation are ineligible. Submissions for the FICTION award will be accepted until December 31, 2014. Submissions for the POETRY award will be accepted until December 31, 2014.