I like the fact that the BTBA has a strong track record for picking not only the massive, monumental doorstoppers that tend to garner the lion’s share of award attention but also the slim, sleek books that are often much richer and better-constructed. The best possible example is our first award, in which we gave the svelte Tranquility by Attila Bartis the nod over the imposing 2666 from, of course, Roberto Bolaño. 2011 saw us pick the slender The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (beating out sizable finalists Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary, Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, and Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss). But we’ve also gone for the bulky books: in 2013 we gave it to the sizable Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and in 2012 is was Wiesław Myśliwski’s epic Stone Upon Stone.
So, in that spirit, here’s my discussion of some of the more sizable books that I both think are strong contenders for the award, and that I think should be left out.
Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu.
This is, quite simply, one of the most amazing books I’ve read this year. Cartarescu is one of the few authors I’ve read that could legitimately claim the legacy of Thomas Pynchon (now that Pynchon is writing parodies of himself). I’ll have lots more to say about it in an upcoming review at The Kenyon Review, but for now, here are links to a review and interview at The Quarterly Conversation. Read it.
My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard
I have a feeling that when it’s all said and done, this will be many people’s favorite volume of the My Struggle sextet. It’s subtitled “A Man In Love,” and that’s just what it is: the story of Knausgaard falling in love with the woman who is now his wife. There are so many passionate, ecstatic moments in here that anyone who has ever been in love will recognize, wrought extraordinarily well by Knausgaard. Plus, the book also has: his on and off feud with his crazy neighbor, who might be a prostitute; why he hates interviews; and the story of the incident in which he turned his face into a bloody mess with a razor blade.
Leg over Leg, Volume 1 and 2 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq
This is billed as the Arabic world’s answer to Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. Apparently it begins with a lengthy list of synonyms for various parts of the male and female genitalia.
Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
If the Nobel committee would ever give their award to a writer like Krasznahorkai, this would be the book they would give it to him for. An inquiry into what humanity needs spirituality that is unlike anything I have ever read. Grand in scope, accomplishment, virtuosity. Grand, grand, grand. Read my review in Wednesday’s Washington Post.
Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles
Reviews have made this book sound extremely diverse and remarkably achieved. Could either be incredible or too big for its own good.
A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski
Okay, the title of this book is not awesome. But it is by the author of Stone Upon Stone, a book that seemingly everybody loves (I did enjoy it). And it is reputed to be even more of a masterpiece than that one.
City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf
An autobiographical look at ‘90s Los Angeles interspersed with memories of the Eastern Bloc where she re-discovers that she was actually a Stasi agent? Might just be crazy enough to work.
In the Night of Time by Antonio Munoz Molina
Billed as the War and Peace of the Spanish Civil War. Muñoz Molina is certainly one of Spain’s pre-eminent authors, but I’ve already read War and Peace.
Altai by Wu Ming
I’m tossing this on because “Wu Ming” is an awesome name and it’s a pseudonym for a collective of Italian writers. How cool is that? Apparently not cool enough to make something more than middlebrow Dan Brown. The collective’s previous book, Q, was a massive hit: I hope this book makes Verso boatloads of money so they can keep publishing Badiou and Ranciere.
Sarah Gerard is a writer who used to work at McNally Jackson Books, but recently took a job at BOMB Magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, and other publications. Her new book, “Things I Told My Mother,” can be purchased here. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
A few of the BTBA judges have talked about how honored they are to be part of this process. I am also, but I want to be clear about one thing: it’s a lot of work.
The above is my tiny home office. It’s located in a small alcove in the hallway between my kitchen and my bathroom, in the studio apartment I share with my husband. The picture is in no way representative of the way my office looks every day. What I mean is this: recently, I left McNally Jackson Books, where I’d been a bookseller for three years, in order to join the team at BOMB Magazine, a publication that consistently pays homage to the art of translation. Because it would be difficult to inform every publisher of my address change, I still receive BTBA submissions at McNally Jackson, and have to return there every few days to pick up my mail. Each time, I find anywhere between two and ten new titles on the hold shelf for me, and add them to these stacks.
Meanwhile, new emails are coming in all the time from publishers; PDFs of books, eBooks, .mobi books. The judges are racing to keep up. And the list is always growing. Here are some of my recent favorites.
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (trans. Jeffrey Gray)
I mentioned BOMB Magazine. The current issue, #125, features a truly excellent conversation between Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Francisco Goldman. Rey Rosa was a protégé of Paul Bowles, who translated many of his books. It was under Bowles’s tutelage that Rey Rosa discovered his passion for writing, and it was Bowles who initially recognized Rey Rosa’s talent. Rey Rosa later returned to his home of Guatemala, where most of his books are set, and where he currently lives. But The African Shore is set in Tangier, a textured, mystical place full of almost noir-like intrigue. The possibility of violence hums on the outside of two stories held together by colonialism and the life of a snowy owl. Of the book, Francisco Goldman asks
FG: A propos of The African Shore, were there any special challenges for you in setting a novel in Tangier instead of Guatemala? Did you still consider yourself to be an outsider or a foreigner in relation to Tangier, or did you consider it home?
RRR: I wrote it in 1998. I dared to write the book when I realized that the Tangier that Bowles had written about—or better yet, created—had changed so much that it was no longer the same city. Only the wind remained… I lived there, and partially in New York, from ’82 to ’92, and spent summers in Tangier until 2001. When I started writing the novella, I could sense that I would never live in Morocco again. The book became a sort of farewell. But I never thought of Tangier as a home. I’ve never been at peace at home—but in Tangier I often was.
Regarding Jeffrey Gray’s translation, all I can say is that the book reads like a vivid dream seen through an opium haze, and sentence-by-sentence, is beautiful. I admit that I haven’t read Bowles’s translations, but am inspired now to seek them out and compare styles.
Sleet by Stig Dagerman (trans. Steven Hartman)
Two of Stig Dagerman’s books are up for the award this year: Sleet, a short story collection, and Burnt Child, a novel that I am now, after reading Sleet, very excited to begin. I admit, I had never heard of Stig Dagerman, but was intrigued by Sleet_’s introduction by Alice McDermott, blurbs from Graham Greene and Siri Hustvedt, and my general love of David R. Godine’s Verba Mundi series. As it turns out, Dagerman was a prolific writer in Sweden, who in his time was compared to everyone from Faulkner to Kafka to Camus. While most of the stories in _Sleet are a mote less philosophical than any of these writers’ works, I would be remiss if I didn’t strongly recommend the first and last stories, “To Kill a Child” and “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?” (Laugh at the second title – it’s fine.) “To Kill a Child” had me hooked immediately and was promisingly quick and devastating, and “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?”, a nearly novella-length work, had me reduced to a tear-soaked pile of loss and bereavement, and memories of my grandfather. Dagerman’s writing is personal and unsettling, hewing closely to characters being made to undergo humiliation and loss in an environment – mid-century Sweden – that’s almost too quaint for comfort. I would happily read this collection a second and even a third time.
Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek (trans. Damion Searls)
This was one of the last books I staff picked as a bookseller at McNally Jackson:
The irony of a writer (Robert Walser) trying desperately to craft his own identity, only to succeed tragically at channeling through his words the voices of others. Jelinek captures Walser’s sad humor, his loneliness, and the eventual silence (silencing or death) of a voice that spoke through so many other voices. By way of madness? Genius? Damion Searls’s translation captures beautifully the skill of both writers: Jelinek’s performance and her ode to Walser.
I read this entire book in one mad, intensely satisfying, Homerically victorious sitting. I felt compelled despite its many (gorgeous, thrilling) challenges, to reach the end. Added to which, the book itself is lovely to look at – true objecthood achieved, Sylph Editions.
Here I should recall my last BTBA post, wherein I discussed Christa Wolf’s book City of Angels, which is also up for the award this year, and is also translated by Damion Searls. As it happens, Searls also – a trifecta of cool – translated Robert Walser’s A Schoolboy’s Diary, which is up for the award this year, too, and which author figures centrally into this Jelinek book we’re talking about currently – making a complete Searls circle, if you will.
Red Grass by Boris Vian (trans. Paul Knobloch)
I’m currently reading this book and am already completely blown away by it. While I’m not sure I can do it justice here, being that I’m still in the middle of it, I can already say that Vian’s (and Knobloch’s) sentences are some of the most lively I’ve ever read, and that the allegorical nature of the story rivals Kafka and Wells in its grace and complexity. It’s not exactly science fiction, but neither is it exactly Surreal. It’s something entirely its own – no other writer has done what Vian’s done here.
This week’s BTBA post is written by George Carroll, a publishers representative based in Seattle who blogs at North-North-West. He is also the soccer editor for Shelf Awareness and he and Chad frequently spent part of the weekend texting about EPL match-ups and Manchester Fucking United.
Paranoia by Victor Martinovich, translated by Diane Nemec Ignashev
A young writer falls in love with a woman who is also the lover of the head of state security in Belarus. The triangle falls apart when the woman says she is pregnant, disappears, is seemingly murdered, and the writer becomes the prime suspect.
The book opens with “There was light, then came darkness.” The beginning is a lot of romantic obsession, a bit cloying at times. The middle is written from transcripts of monitoring the apartment where the lovers meet. The final third of the book is the payoff—writing about it would be a minefield of spoiler alerts. Donald Rayfiled’s review in the TLS remarked that Martinovich’s achievement was showing how “a hole can open up in the ground and drop you into hell.” That pretty much sums it up. It’s dark, unsettling, and capped with a major WTF ending.
That the book takes place in Minsk during the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, and that the head of security invokes the historical figure Mikhail Muraviov, aka “the hangman” is thinly disguised. Timothy Snyder wrote a lengthy piece about the book in New York Review of Books three years ago, noting that the book was removed from bookstore shelves in Belarus two days after it was published.
The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees, translated by Max Weiss
A couple of weeks ago Publishers Weekly announced The Silence and the Roar as one of the top ten books of 2013. What does that mean? Not a whole heck of a lot. However, it’s great to see a book in translation make a general wrap-up and the fact it wasn’t written by one of the Yankees of the Translation League is a huge plus.
The book was written in 2004, pre-current-revolution Syria. The main character, a writer, gets in trouble with security forces, has his ID card taken away, tries to retrieve it at headquarters, only to be refused entrance because, well, he doesn’t have an ID card.
This book, like Paranoia, has all of those descriptive pigeon-holes—Orwellian, Kafkaesque, dystopian. There’s a real snarkiness to the protagonist and the female characters (mother, girlfriend) have a nice depth to them.
The Village Indian by Abbas Khider, translated by Donal McLaughlin
Abbas Khider recently received the Nelly-Sachs-Preis, a biennial prize awarded by the city of Dortmund, who just lost to Arsenal. Wait. That’s a different column I’m writing. Previously Khider was a runner-up for the Adelbert von Chammiso Award, given to non-German writers who make a contribution to German letters. Not bad for someone who arrived in Berlin knowing three German words: Hitler, Lufthansa, and scheisse.
Khider was arrested six times for leafleting against Saddam Hussein’s regime and spent two years in an Iraqi prison. On his release, he became an undocumented refugee traveling through North Africa and Europe.
The narrator in the book finds a manuscript on a Munich-Berlin train that tells his own story but with a different name. How much similarity the character Rasul Hamid has with Khider would be very interesting to know. My takeaway from the book—when you’re on the run, carry a knife and duct tape.
That Smell by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated by Robyn Creswell
After spending five years in prison, a political prisoner, now under house arrest, tries to adjust to life in Cairo. This book doesn’t qualify for the BTBA award. Snap. But just because it doesn’t qualify, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it.
Being a judge for the Best Translated Book Award is one of the pleasures I have had the opportunity to participate in for the past few years. Not only because I am able to read the incredibly diverse and creative works submitted and the efforts of translators to bring to justice the works of those writers, but also because of the robust, if not often contentious, discussion that they incite. What are the personal aesthetic criteria of each judge? What do we consider “lit-er-ah-ture?” Are we representing too much of one culture? Not considering enough minority viewpoints? These questions, along with the personal literary peccadilloes that each judge wants to champion, are thrown into the pot and stirred until its narrowed down to the top 25 titles.
One of my peccadilloes happens to be short story collections. It’s been said (I should cite a source, but I am protecting the guilty) that short story collections have a difficult time being considered as the top contender for the Best Translated Book Award because the collections are not strong enough overall to go up against the considerable strength of a novel. I have no definitive answer to this besides the fact that I really enjoy short stories and the thought and creativity that goes into a producing a cohesive collection. Collections are not “just a bunch of disparate stories thrown together.” They are often constructed like a puzzle and the reader can’t see the whole picture until the the last story of the collection is read.
Despite the constant incantation that “short story collections don’t sell” humming softly in the background of our literary culture, writers keep writing them, readers keep reading them and publishers keep publishing them. Also, let’s not forget the hundreds of literary journals that are dedicated to showcasing the best short fiction of our time. Even with that, and as I sit bedside in ICU to witness the alleged last gasp of the dying “short story collection,” let me present a few collections from our submissions this year that have managed to thrive despite their mortality rate.
Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Toko Ogawa, Translated by Stephen Snyder, Picador
This collection is a slow burn. After reading the first story, I didn’t think it was that dark. By the end of the collection, I was thoroughly creeped out by the lingering effect of borderline personalities that pop up suddenly to rock the calm boat of Ogawa’s deceptively plain and steady prose. In short, direct sentences, Ogawa describes the setting, perhaps some minor characters, and then delivers a macabre jab to the reader that sets the eerie tale rolling. The connections are bizarre; there is a hospital secretary who kills living in the apartment above a woman who moves into the Museum of Torture, the scamming butler that curates the collection begun by the dead twin sisters he worked for, and I can’t leave out the strawberry shortcake. I will never look at kiwi and strawberry shortcake quite the same again. Yes, this collection, by the time you finish it, will haunt with it’s detached tone and voice telling of a murdering old woman and a man who makes a bag for a heart. It’s as if this collection has Asperger’s Syndrome – no emotion, just the quotidian, lurid facts. Enjoy!
Milk and Other Stories by Simon Fruelund, Translated by K. E. Semmel, Santa Fe Writers Project
Fruelund takes the functionality of an Egg chair and the irony of Kierkegaard to weave a collection of stories that linger and make us question those small moments, seemingly small decisions, that effect us more than we think they will. Fruelund is as dark as Okawa, but in a much more emotional and existential way. His stories are brief, a few pages at most, but taut with the importance of those seminal moments that sneak up on us. Memory, mistakes, and betrayal play integral parts in this collection and it is certain to spur on a bit of self-reflection. A man having a an affair comes to terms when he takes his lover to a farmhouse he visited as a child in “Fling,” a teacher/mentor dismisses and rejects a former student and his poetry in “Unsettled,” and the brutal honesty of a cheating husband in “Hair” all portray the pain of betrayal for the victims as wells as the perpetrator. The story of betrayal I found the most poignant, “Chairs,” tells the story of a widow whose recently lost her husband that she married in 1932 and realizes after going through his book collection that he had affair with her sister.
The story also incorporates the difficulty of old age with this powerful line:
“On the dust jacket, she read how this was a story about ‘impossible love, burning desire and unavoidable destruction.’ Was there a reason she’d never felt the urge to read it? She’d outlived both of them, but their secret had almost survived her.”
“That’s the way it is, growing old, she thought: one moves from chair to chair.”
Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions by Ror Wolf, Translated by Jennifer Marquart, Open Letter Books
This collection is where we get our surrealism on. Wolf is one wacky German with a penchant for the humorous and the grim. This two part collection begins with forty-eight fictions that focus on the comical nature of death (Isn’t death a hoot?!) and the second part is the twelve-part forty-ninth digression about the narrator’s surreal sojourn around the world. I like the word digressions in a titular way because a digression is, well, vague as far as literary definitions are concerned. They have no stereotypical form. This allows Wolf to exercise his right to be abstract, abstruse and ambivalent. He gives the reader no promises nor any solid ground. It’s all in the word, as aptly illustrated in this digression (in its entirety), “Not a Word:”
Yes, these are Wolf’s imponderables that can entertain and exasperate. Details can be rare and makes us yearn for a character, a story, anything to hold onto for more than a few pages. And just when I thought I was out, he pulled me back in.
“Not a word was uttered by an unknown man as he embraced an unknown twenty-year-old from behind on Boppstrasse. She was able to get away and call for help. What the man actually wanted is unknown.”
The forty-ninth digression can be read and reread because there is so much there. At first glance, it may seem like your typical surreal fare, but in it Wolf dares to become the surrealist’s surrealist, with the twist and turns of deep REM sleep that are vivid, real and inexplicable. It felt Jonkean (hello Gert!) at moments which I loved, but then there are passages that feel like Wolf’s signature style, eccentric and commanding:
That is the moment I fell in love with Wolf. It appears in the first part of the forty-ninth digression. The story ascends and descends creating its own fluid yet extreme narrative vicissitudes. There are weighty moments limned with irony and wit so shrewd, like at the end of “The Anaconda’s Smile:”
“In ’54 I worked in several bars as an assistant waiter. Some claimed I sang from time to time. Yes, I sang from time to time, but only brieflly and very quietly, and only in the darkest corners behind the coat check. I slept in a tiny room cluttered with stacks of furniture, on a slit-open mattress reeking of decay. Otherwise, not much happened. Sometimes, I sang a little, it’s true, but all I basically cared about was that I didn’t drop the beer. One day, in March ’55, I received a letter that said I should come to B, to Berlin. Come to Berlin right away, while you’re still in this chapter.”
Simultaneously believable and unbelievable, Wolf creates his own structure of a digression with an architecture that has no walls, but many rooms.
Though I knew, naturally, that in this world you can’t be calm for a single moment. There is no entitlement to being calm.”
Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century Selected and Translated by Muireann Maguire, Overlook Press
This collection of Russian Gothic tales is ineligible because it is an anthology, but must be mentioned because of these wonderfully supernatural, haunting stories from the likes of such Russian greats as Mikhail Bulgakov, Sigizmund Kryzhizhanovksy and A.V. Chayanov. Sure, that’s a mouthful, but well worth learning how to pronounce their names so that you can tell your friends to read this fantastically strange collection. Plus, the cover is one of the best I’ve seen this year. Judge this book by its cover. Please.
Jenn Witte is a bookseller at Skylight Books in Los Angeles
I fall in love easily. Books possess me and while reading them I am completely blinded. Is this a terrible quality in a panelist? I wonder, but I’m going to declare that my engagement with these books is fair in that I give them my whole self, one at a time. When I finish a book, separate myself from it, move on, only then do I begin to develop the perspective needed to pitch them against each other.
A bit like a young me, quietly crushing on some cutie I’d never talk to in school, I doodled about two of the books that I’m obsessing over. I animated them specifically to debut on this blog, but got excited and ended up leaking them onto my own blog/portfolio ahead of time. As a bookseller, it is in my nature to promote the books that I feel strongly about. I can’t help it.
I felt that the animation I made for Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Two could be used to help promote the kickstarter campaign Archipelago was running at the time (I’m happy to report that they exceeded their goal). The turtle works in a couple of ways, for me at least, to represent the pace of the book as well as the potential that it has to win, slow but steady, somewhere down the line.
When I drew this animation of Seiobo There Below, it was a happy accident that I finished on its date of publication, so I leaked it to New Directions in case they could use it to help readers pronounce the title with confidence. (Feel free to send me requests for future pronunciation animations. This is a serious issue in translated literature.)
It is with blind confidence that I present these books as extremely strong candidates for this year’s award. I had the same blind confidence in Clarice Lispector’s A Breath of Life last year, which made it to the shortlist by a hair and quickly revealed itself to be too… of a way to win. She has a strong musk, I must admit— Karl Ove does, too. Everyone I’ve spoken to at the store has marveled at how they can coexist with his character, how they don’t mind devoting so much time to his books, despite everything (a tweet as evidence). I would love to hear from people who don’t enjoy living through this book. I didn’t expect to, at all, but it owned me. I sit at my dining room table now and I am transported to the conversation I read while sitting there before. I was knitting a scarf at the same time, and wearing it now takes me to Stockholm. On the other end of the spectrum, ,Seiobo There Below perfectly presents the world to the individual in a floating rainbow soap bubble, clean and shiny and at a safe distance. It is a bit of a trophy already. This might prove to be a more winning quality in a candidate. Time will tell. I ride my bike along the Los Angeles river every day, and the herons I see now remind me of the most beautiful first chapter I’ve ever read. Thank you, László, thank you forever.
To be fair, I’ve been equally enchanted by dozens of other eligible and ineligible books this year, and I hope to draw my way through understanding where they belong in the context of this award. I’ll be over here in Los Angeles, thinking about the whole world, thinking about nothing but the book in front of me, scribbling its name over and over, trying not to lose my identity, and trying to identify for everyone.
OK, I’ve been promising this for a long time, but I’ve finally got my stuff together and have information on the five judges for this year’s BTBA in Poetry.
Bios for all five can be found below, and for publishers looking to submit their books, here is a PDF of mailing list label that you can use, and here’s one with everyone’s email addresses if you’d rather submit electronically.
As with the BTBA in Fiction, any book published for the first time ever in translation between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2013, AND available for sale in the United States is eligible. To enter a book in the contest, all you have to do is (e)mail a copy to all of the judges. (And one to me for record-keeping.)
In terms of timeframes, all poetry books should be sent to the judges by January 31st, 2014.
The finalists for this year’s Poetry award will be announced on Tuesday, April 15th at the same time as the Fiction finalists.
OK, now onto this year’s judges:
Stefania Heim is author of the collection of poems, A Table that Goes on for Miles (forthcoming January 2014 Switchback Books). Her poems, translations, and works of criticism have appeared widely, in publications including A Public Space, Aufgabe, Harper’s, Jacket2, The Literary Review, and The Paris Review. She is a founding editor of CIRCUMFERENCE: Poetry in Translation and will soon be joining the Boston Review as a new Poetry Editor.
Bill Martin is a translator, critic, and educator, and co-organizer of The Bridge reading series for literary translation.
Rebecca McKay is a poet and translator based at Florida Atlantic University. Her poems and translations have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, ACM, Third Coast, The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Rhino, Natural Bridge, Rattapallax, and elsewhere.
Daniele Pantano is a Swiss poet, translator, editor, critic, and Reader in Poetry and Literary Translation at Edge Hill University, England. For more information, please visit his website..
Anna Rosenwong is a translator, poet, and higher educator. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of By Way of Explanation (Dancing Girl Press) and the translator of José Eugenio Sánchez’s Suite Prelude a/H1N1 (Toad Press) and Rocío Cerón’s Diorama (Phoneme Press). Her work has appeared in World Literature Today, Translation Studies, Pool, Jacket 2, Anomalous Press, The Kenyon Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The St. Petersburg Review, Eleven Eleven, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.
So start sending in your submissions . . . now!
The fine print attached to the Best Translated Book Award states that in order to be eligible, a work cannot have been previously translated. I don’t disagree with the rule, especially as we already over 350 books to consider, but worry that because of this stipulation we may miss out on notable books that we, as a jury, should in some way recognize. It’s with this concern in mind that I offer here a handful of new translations/reprints not eligible for the BTBA but nonetheless worthy of some attention.
The Woman of Porto Pim, by Antonio Tabucchi (Archipelago), trans. Tim Parks
Tabucchi is one of the great post-War Italian novelists and despite his place in the pantheon of European letters, he seems little appreciated in the U.S. The Women of Porto Pim is an ideal introduction: it’s as much a travelogue as a collection of tales about the remote volcanic outcrop of the Azores. Broken into two sections (with the evocative and impossible to resist titles, “Shipwrecks, Flotsam, Crossings, Distances” and “Of Whales and Whalemen”), this slim work, previously published along with The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico in the early 90s, is a gorgeous, sometimes oblique portrait of a fascinating culture.
The Smell, by Sonallah Ibrahim (New Directions), trans. Robyn Creswell
In flat, unaffected prose that works more through what’s left unsaid, or what, for political reasons can’t be said, Ibrahim’s 1966 novel provides insight into Egypt that’s still relevant today. Written as a diary of an ex-prisoner finding his footing after his release, That Smell is a stark and haunting chronicle of life on constant threat of lock and key.
Happily, New Directions is publishing another of Ibrahim’s novels next spring, Stealth.
The Transylvanian Trilogy (or the Writing on the Wall trilogy), by Miklos Banffy (Everyman’s Library), trans. Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen
Comprised of They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided, Banffy’s epic masterpiece is the Transylvanian (Romanian) equivalent of the great 19th century Russian novels. Set in the years leading up to WWI, the trilogy concerns itself with an enlightened landowner, Balint, who watches helplessly as his country slides into disaster. It’s an old story—that of the idle rich unconcerned with the sad and soon unavoidable state of the world—but Banffy, who like his protagonist was a politician who tried to get his countrymen to see the writing on the wall, handles the whole thing with grace and humor, though his story is bleak.
Winter Journeys, by Georges Perec and the Oulipo (Atlas Press), trans. Ian White, John Sturrock, and Harry Mathews
Georges Perec’s “The Winter Journey” is a story about a man who discovers a book, also called The Winter Journey, containing a secret that overturns everything we know about modern French literature. Unfortunately, this fictional discovery occurs in 1939 and with the outbreak of WW2, the book is lost and all attempts to track it down prove fruitless. Winter Journeys collects what turned out to be Perec’s prompt and twenty successive tales, each in some way building off another. A fine, playful time is had by all.
[A shameless plug: we’ll be hosting Oulipians Paul Fournel, Hervé Le Tellier, and Daniel Levin Becker for a reading of Winter Journeys at Green Apple Books on November 8.]
Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf (NYRB Classics), trans. Susan Bernofsky
This is an insanely creepy (and, Happy Halloween, timely) novella full of spiders, heartless and vicious landowners, desperate weak-willed farmers, bold women, satanic strangers, more spiders, cosmic horror, and even more spiders. Written in the mid-19th century by a Swiss priest, Black Spider was considered by Thomas Mann as a premonition of Nazism and is considered a classic of horror. Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of Gotthelf’s unique dialect and High German is full of life. A chilling book.
The only thing the typically spot-on NYRB Classics got wrong was not using Edward Gorey’s brilliant cover illustration from the old edition of Nineteenth Century German Tales (via 50 Watts), seen below.
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators, is an editor of The Cahiers Series ,and co-hosts the podcast entitled That Other Word. He has authored a study of Franz Kafka in the work of three international writers (Northwestern University Press, 2010) and curated the second volume of Music and Literature magazine (Krasznanorkai/Tarr/Neumann), for which he is now the European Editor. He is also Senior Editor ofThe Quarterly Conversation, and advises several journals on literature in translation.
Here are three titles I delighted in, each of which was published before October 1st: Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, The Black Lake by Hella S. Haasse, and The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol. Below you’ll find excerpts from two essays that articulate precisely what I found so exciting about these books, along with one of my own reviews. Since we, as jury, aspire to select not only an exceptional work of fiction, but an exemplary translation, I’d like to single out Ottilie Mulzet, Ina Rilke, and Alex Zucker for the excellence of their respective renderings—renderings, which through considerable resourcefulness and craft, succeed at suggesting the brilliance of their originals.
Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, trans. Ottilie Mulzet
From review by Andreas Isenschmid
With [Seiobo There Below], something has returned to art that was taken for granted and considered essential by Dostoevsky, and that has since then become more than a little diluted: the question leading toward the truthfulness of life. Krasznahorkai brings his enlightened, relativist present-day Westerners, alienated to a greater or lesser degree, face-to-face with the absolute demands that the sacred makes of existence.
Krasznahorkai does not shy away from superlatives when he aims to convey the presence of the “celestial realm.” But, despite the philosophical appurtenances and the essayistic appearance, these stories are not sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. For the concepts and superlatives are no more than buoys bobbing on the mighty current of Krasznahorkai’s prose. This musical river of language is the true event of this book, and is overpowering in itself. The current lifts up the reader, drags him down, catches him in whirlpools, is caught still, races across rapids, and with all of these qualities generates an experience that bars us from any distanced reading of the stories but forces us to live at the most intense pitch. It is impossible not to identify with these lonely, despairing, tired-of-life or just plain eccentric characters led by Krasznahorkai toward their moment of truth. We are drawn so close to them that it continually astonishes us when we realize that the stories are told not in the first but in the third person.
Of course, what we see here is yet one more balancing act by the great storyteller, László Krasznahorkai: just as he can be essayistic without slipping into didacticism, and emotional without turning bathetic, so too he remains wary of assigning the central position to his solitary and despairing characters, reserving that place to the current that tears everything with it—in one moment narrative, in the next meditative and interpretative—to the current of his prose.
The Black Lake by Hella S. Haasse, trans. Ina Rilke
From review by Madeleine LaRue
Set sometime between the two World Wars, Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake is narrated by a boy growing up on a plantation in the Dutch Indies. With parents too distracted by work and their own unhappy relationship to pay much attention to their son, the boy spends his childhood among the native servants, speaking better Soendanese than Dutch and exploring the jungle with Oeroeg, his best friend and constant companion. … At barely over a hundred pages, The Black Lake’s story moves quickly, but its power builds slowly. As the narrator describes the childhood and adolescence he shared with Oeroeg, what emerges is an unassuming but utterly convincing picture of colonial life — the jungle of the island and the mind, painted in broad and careful brushstrokes.
Within its beautifully observed coming-of-age story, then, the novel puts forth a critique of imperialism whose toughness may reveal itself only after the pages have been closed. The Black Lake was originally published in 1948, a full year before Indonesia achieved its independence, yet it displays all the intelligence of hindsight. Haasse writes with remarkable historical prescience, simultaneously exposing the injustices of colonialism and the rampant ignorance that kept it in place. The narrator frequently writes that he did not understand the events of his life as they occurred, and indeed, he can be alarmingly oblivious, misreading all the signs of fracture and turmoil that run through his life and that of the budding Indonesian nation-state. He fails to notice, on the one hand, his mother’s infidelity, and on the other, the caste system that holds the value of his life far above Oeroeg’s. The narrator’s political consciousness awakens so slowly — much more slowly than Oeroeg’s — that the violence of the independence struggle appears tragically inevitable.
Haasse herself suffers from no such blindness. On the contrary, she possesses a rare intelligence completely unhindered by arrogance. The Black Lake is refreshingly free of both commentary and melodrama, and yet the stakes are never in doubt. Haasse poses, with quiet gravity and unfaltering insight, questions about the values and possibilities of colonialism that have not diminished in urgency or importance. The place she leaves her narrator — in radical doubt between imperialism and indigeneity — is where, in some sense, we are still today.
Read the complete article at the new Asymptote blog
The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol, trans. Alex Zucker
From my own review
When the Czech novelist Jáchym Topol complains that it is impossible to set a story in his country without referring to its tormented history, he does so with a smile. “I’m fed up”, he exclaimed recently (perhaps with tongue held grimly in cheek): “I just want to write about ‘the wonders of the world’ and not all this horrible stuff all the time”. The “horrible stuff”, however—expulsion, imprisonment, the murder of civilians—is never far away from fiction set in the territory once known as Czechoslovakia. It is rich matter for a writer.
The Devil’s Workshop consists of two distinct parts. In the first, we follow the narrator’s efforts to save the town of Terezín, which has fallen into disrepair after the garrison’s closure. Lebo, a charismatic survivor of the wartime ghetto, founds a movement to preserve the crumbling fortress town. A journalist named Rolf joins forces with him, contributing words to the project that people in the West want to hear: “This place of dreadful horror must be preserved for the memory of humanity”. Soon, their roguish entrepreneurial savvy has attracted a stream of tourists and media, along with “piles of cash”.
Driven by Topol’s ingenuity and mischief, these commercial passages are easily the funniest of the novel. From cups and saucers labeled “Greetings from Terezín!” to immensely popular “ghetto pizza” (whose “secret ingredient was a light dusting of Terezín grass”), the author captures the essence of post-1989 commodification through imaginative and fearless hyperbole. Yet the intent is never cynical. As in Topol’s previous writings, the threat of physical violence always lies near. Menace counterbalances comic exaggeration, and vice versa. The effect on the reader is vertiginous.
And indeed, in the novel’s second part, the humor grows corrosive. When Czech authorities finally shut down Lebo’s commune, the narrator flees to Belarus where he has been recruited as an expert on “revitalization of burial sites”. The remainder of The Devil’s Workshop comprises a surreal descent into that country’s lethal past. Topol’s narrative here is defiantly unrealistic, and many developments are intentionally improbable. But their essence remains authentic. In fact, it is these phantasmagoric passages that allow Topol to pilot the reader through treacherous historical terrain without resorting to customary pieties.
The Devil’s Workshop is a miracle of compression, its scope greater than ought be possible for a book of its length. It should help cement Jáchym Topol’s reputation as one of the most original and compelling European voices working today.
Read the complete article at the TLS (if you have a subscription)
BTBA blog post – Michael Orthofer
This Thursday or next the Swedish Academy will likely announce who will receive the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature – still considered the ultimate seal of approval for an author. The Best Translated Book Award has had occasion to consider Nobel laureates’ work over the years, but surprisingly few have fared very well – as best I can tell, The Hunger Angel, by Herta Müller, was (last year) the first to even make it to the ten-title strong shortlist.
Of course, the Nobel Prize and the Best Translated Book Award are very different sorts of prizes. The Nobel is given to an author, for his or her entire life’s-work. The BTBA goes to a single title – itself not just the work of the author, but also that of a translator (or several translators, as is the case with some of this year’s titles). Still, it’s interesting to see what overlap there is between the two very different awards.
There usually are a few titles by Nobelists out every year, and the name-recognition alone usually assures them of at least a closer look by the BTBA judges. This year’s small batch – just two titles, as far as I can tell: Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death and Elfriede Jelinek’s Her Not All Her – looks to be a particularly strong one.
The authors of these two works are among the more controversial laureates in recent memory, but one of the nice things about the works we’re considering is that they don’t really play into the popular/media narrative about the authors. Sandalwood Death, set over a hundred years ago, deals with older Chinese history and makes it easy to avoid the issue of whether or not Mo kowtows to the present-day regime too much. Similarly, Her Not All Her avoids the politics, ostensibly harsh feminism, and coarse language that many have found objectionable in much of Jelinek’s work – while, as a work that is as much a performance-piece as it is a work of fiction, it also exposes English-speaking audiences to a neglected part of her output, her unusual (by American and British standards) stage-work.
Sandalwood Death was one of the first of the eligible-for-this-year’s-BTBA books that I read (almost a year ago), and I immediately pegged it as a favorite for the prize (and it confirmed to me what the Swedish Academy saw in Mo Yan). This is historic fiction of a high order, Mo slowly building his story to the (prolonged) torture that gives the book its title and capturing the China of those transitional times exceptionally well. It is a drawn-out story, and the torture is brutal, making it in some ways a difficult read, but if you can get past that it is certainly a very impressive work. Howard Goldblatt’s excellent translation also suggests some of the advantages of a single translator being responsible for more than just individual works by an author: responsible for almost all of the English translations of Mo’s fiction, Goldblatt obviously has an excellent feel for Mo’s writing and what the author is trying to do.
As to Her Not All Her – well, I was already on a jury that awarded Damion Searls’ translation of that work a prize: before it was published, the manuscript won the 2011 Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize. A fascinating personal exploration of the writer Robert Walser, it is a compact tour de force in both the original and English – and a beautiful volume in the Cahiers series (explorations of writing and translating that should be of interest to all who are interested in the BTBA …).
But what of the possible future laureates who have books eligible for this year’s Best Translated Book Award? Perhaps even this year’s laureate ….. In the absence of any better guide (the Swedish Academy is secretive about the whole process, and doesn’t reveal who is being considered, much less who the five finalists they choose the winner from are – well, not until 50 years from now), the names on the betting sheet offered by British bookmaker Ladbrokes at least suggest some or most of the likely contenders (along with many who certainly aren’t in the running). At well over a hundred names this year, they take something of a kitchen-sink approach – toss in every name they’ve heard of – but among all these names those of most of the serious contenders for the 2013 prize are also to be found. (For now you should be able to find the list here, but they’ll take it down when prize-day comes.)
Surprisingly many of the authors on the Ladbrokes list have books eligible for this year’s BTBA. Among the books we’re considering – and I think we’ll be considering these pretty seriously – by (in my view) possible Nobel-contenders (in parentheses: their Ladbrokes odds, last I checked) are:
• Melancholy II – Jon Fosse (9/1)
• Between Friends – Amos Oz (16/1)
• The Infatuations – Javier Marías (33/1)
• The Fall of the Stone City- Ismail Kadare (50/1)
• The Retrospective – A.B.Yehoshua (100/1)
Among the books by authors who I don’t think stand a particularly good Nobel chance – at least for this year’s prize – but might (or, in some cases, should) be in the BTBA-running are:
• Blinding: The Left Wing Mircea Cărtărescu (100/1)
• Days in the History of Silence – Merethe Lindstrøm (100/1)
• Fata Morgana Books Jonathan Littell (100/1)
• My Struggle: Book Two (A Man in Love) – Karl Ove Knausgaard (100/1)
• Shantytown César Aira (100/1)
• The Tuner of Silences – Mia Couto (100/1)
And then there are the authors who I don’t think even belong anywhere in the Nobel discussion (and whose books I suspect won’t quite make it the BTBA longlist cut-off, either …):
• The Dance of the Seagull Andrea Camilleri (100/1)
• The Dinner – Herman Koch (100/1)
• Treasure Hunt Andrea Camilleri (100/1)
Extensive though the Ladbrokes list is, it’s not comprehensive – and some of the likely contenders for the BTBA are by authors who don’t figure on it – but maybe should.
Arnon Grunberg is still a bit young for Nobel Prize-consideration (despite an enormous body of work), but I think he will be in the mix eventually – and his Tirza should, I think, easily make it at least onto the BTBA longlist.
The author of last year’s BTBA winner, László Krasznahorkai, has another title in the running this year, Seiobo There Below, and early word is that it is again a contender. (This book has a different translator – Ottilie Mulzet – and it will be interesting to compare the approaches to Krasznahorkai’s challenging prose she takes with those of last year’s winning translator, George Szirtes.) As to the Nobel: while there has been a relatively recent Hungarian Nobel winner – the great Imre Kertész – Krasznahorkai’s work is entirely different, so that shouldn’t be held against him. Still, the Hungarian connection can’t help his chances, as there are several other strong Hungarian candidates this (and every recent) year, led by Péter Nádas …..
Finally, there’s Mikhail Shishkin – a BTBA finalist last year with Maidenhair – with The Light and the Dark. I haven’t seen this one yet, but the Shishkin-word is finally spreading in translation (after he’s already racked up most of the big Russian literary prizes) and he has to be a hot tip for the Nobel in the coming years; I suspect this title will also at the very least figure in the BTBA longlist discussion.
We’ll see very soon who this year’s Nobel laureate is. As to the BTBA, that’s an enjoyably more extended countdown – and one done with considerably more transparency than the Nobel. You know which books are being considered (all of them ! – all the ones listed in the Translation Database, which is pretty much (we hope) all the possibly eligible books (first-time translations of works of fiction, distributed in the US in 2013)), and you can learn about what the judges are excited about in these weekly blog-postings. The longlist announcement is still a ways away – March 11, 2014 – but I think you’ll have more information to rely on suggesting in what directions we’re leaning than the Ladbrokes odds sheets might offer …..
Elizabeth Harris has translated fiction by Mario Rigoni Stern, Fabio Stassi, and Marco Candida, among others. Her translation of Giulio Mozzi’s story collection Questo è il giardino (This Is the Garden) will be published by Open Letter Books in 2014; the individual stories have appeared in The Literary Review, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. Her translation of Mozzi’s “Carlo Doesn’t Know How to Read” appears in Dalkey Archive’s annual anthology Best European Fiction 2010, and her translation of an excerpt of Candida’s Dream Diary appears in Best European Fiction 2011. She teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota.
First off, let me say what an honor it is to have been asked to help judge this competition, which provides one of the largest prizes in the US to my kind (to translators) and which also, by dividing this ten thousand dollar prize equally between the author and the translator, emphasizes the place of the translator as something like a “second author “of the work.
But how to discuss this second author? What I as a judge have to work with is an enormous pile of more than three-hundred books in English with two names (well, sometimes two names) on the cover. One of my initial quandaries in this judging (besides that enormous pile of books) was how I’d determine the quality of that second author’s efforts, how I’d evaluate the translator’s contribution, without looking at the original books. Honestly, I’m still working this out.
Oh, I can tell when something is badly translated, and I don’t need the original to do it—I can spot the clumsy pawing of an ineffectual translation a mile off because I’ve done so much clumsy pawing of my own. It’s the other kind of translation—the good kind—that’s hard to talk about. But I’ll give it a try with a couple of the books I’ve admired so far.
First, there’s Sondra Silverston’s translation of Between Friends, by Amos Oz. Silverston, in my view, has done a masterful job of handling voice in these interconnected stories about life on a 1950s kibbutz; we’re swept into this quiet, lonely world that’s at times funny, at times awful, from the very first, beautifully phrased line, “On our kibbutz, Kibbutz Yekhat, there lived a man, Azi Provizor, a short fifty-five-year-old bachelor who had a habit of blinking.” Of course the line is originally Oz’s, but Silverston has recognized and interpreted what was in his sentence and then created this wonderful, musical sentence of her own, with its side-stepping quality leading at last to an aging bachelor, and his charming “habit of blinking.” There isn’t a sentence in the collection that doesn’t have this sort of control, and the stories are quite varied, too, from different points of view, with different nuances of voice apparent throughout. I’m sure Oz’s original was a joy to work with and a great challenge, too—translating spare, quiet prose might be the most challenging of all, since there’s nothing to hide behind. That the prose seems effortless and clean is no doubt the result of Silverston’s sensitivity to the original and is also, no doubt, the result of a whole lot of hard work.
Finding the voice (or voices) of a piece of fiction is one of my great joys. I don’t know about other translators, but I actually feel like I can’t continue in a translation until I’ve wrestled with and gotten hold of an author’s voice in English. I very much admire Heather Cleary’s translation of The Dark by Sergio Chejfec because of this novel’s complicated, challenging voice, which I think she’s done a terrific job of capturing.
Here we have a very interior story, a distant narrative voice, as an educated, middle-class man recalls his past relationship with Delia, a young factory worker that he may have loved and whose child he fathered. What I was struck by especially in the novel was the level of abstraction I found—when I encounter abstraction as I translate, I feel like groaning; it is incredibly hard to render in English without sounding stilted and clumsy. But there is nothing clumsy about how Cleary handles abstraction here. Consider the gorgeous opening lines of the novel:
It has always unsettled me that geography does not change with time, with the changes that take place within it, within us. We retain something immaterial, similar to that something retained by geography, also immaterial. And yet, though it remains unaltered, geography is the measure of change. Just as happens with the temperature of a body, the trace it retains of its former heat allows it to continue being itself, yet this trace marks a difference. Bodies are and are not; they are at once more and less than.
I can only imagine how much work Cleary put into these lines; the opening of a novel is so important and to be faced with all of this abstract reflection besides!
In the case of the Chejfec, I did take a peek at the Spanish, and just as I thought, Cleary was true to what was there in terms of meaning and sentence structure, yet she also created something new in the English that was extremely effective. Consider the first two lines in the Spanish:
Siempre me ha inquietado que la geografia no cambie pese al tiempo, pese a nuestros cambios y los cambios que se producen en ella. Conservamos algo immaterial, equivalente a lo que conserva la geografía, también inmaterial.
My (very) rough translation of this would be:
It has always worried me that geography does not change despite time, despite our changes and the changes that are produced in it. We conserve something immaterial, equivalent to that which conserves geography, also immaterial.
I’m very impressed with that first line in Cleary’s translation, what she’s done to control a potentially flat sentence, by incorporating the repetition of “with” (“with time” and “with the changes”) instead of the repetition of a rather awkward-sounding “despite” (“despite time” and “despite our changes…”), and then echoing this “with” again, at the end of the sentence, with the rhythmically sensitive “within it, within us.” Here, Cleary got the sense of Chejfec’s words, but the sound of her ending and her use of repetition are much more effective for the English. That Cleary chose to break that first sentence down with that final brief phrase (“within us”) is perhaps also speaking to Chejfec’s second sentence that makes use of this technique, with the small additional phrase at the end, “también inmaterial.” She also very wisely reversed “nuestros cambios” and “los cambios que se producen en ella” in her first sentence so that she doesn’t both begin and end her first line with a pitiful little “it.” My own fumbling explanations don’t do the opening lines of the translation justice; they are beautiful, and they are Cleary’s.
Ultimately, I don’t know if Oz/Silverston’s Between Friends and Chejfec/Cleary’s The Dark will make my long list or not. I like both books very much, but I also have an enormous pile of books to get through. In any case, I’m very impressed with the work of the two translators, who have made the complicated, challenging voices of the original authors seem so effortless in English.
Although the judges have been reading books all year, if you're a publisher 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 and here for a mailing list of the fiction judges. 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 2014 BTBA submission. . .
All original translations published between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2013 are eligible. Reprints and retranslation are ineligible. Submissions for the FICTION award will be accepted until November 30, 2013. Submissions for the POETRY award will be accepted until January 31, 2014.