The wait is over. Listed below are the twenty-five titles on this year’s Best Translated Book Award Fiction Longlist.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting each and every one of these as part of the annual “Why This Book Should Win the BTBA” series. It’s a fun way of learning about all of these diverse titles, and hopefully finding a handful that you personally want to read.
Speaking of diverse, I want to use this post to point out a couple of interesting facts about this year’s list:
That’s a pretty solid spread. Not to mention the vast differences between these books: On the one hand there’s Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek’s Her Not All Her, a slim, exquisitely crafted Cahier; on the other, there’s Antonio Muñoz Molina’s gigantic In the Night of Time. There’s the two-volume slipcased A True Novel by Minae Mizumura and Stig Dagerman’s short story collection, Sleet. There’s a very unconventional Arabic work from the nineteenth century just now being translated for the first time, and there’s a novel about an execution from Mo Yan, the other Nobel Prize winner on the list.
Overall, it’s an excellent list, one that will be really tough to pare down . . . But that’s the job for this year’s brilliant judges: George Carroll, West Coast sales rep; Monica Carter, Salonica; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Sarah Gerard, Bomb Magazine; Elizabeth Harris, translator; Daniel Medin, American University of Paris, Cahiers Series, Quarterly Conversation, and the White Review; Michael Orthofer, Complete Review; Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books; and, Jenn Witte, Skylight Books. I want to personally thank them all for their hard work.
But this is just the beginning—on April 15th we’ll announce the finalists for both fiction and poetry, and in the meantime, stay tuned to read about each and every one of the following “best translated books” of 2013.
Also, a special thanks has to go out to Amazon’s giving program, for once again making $20,000 of prize money available for the winning authors and translators.
I’ll post information about any and all celebrations for the BTBA 2014 here as soon as things are arranged. In the meantime, here we go . . .
Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, translated from the French by Lulu Norman (Morocco; Tin House)
Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Romania; Archipelago Books)
Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu (Israel; Feminist Press)
Sleet by Stig Dagerman, translated from the Swedish by Steven Hartman (Sweden; David R. Godine)
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy; Europa Editions)
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)
Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Austria; Sylph Editions)
My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway; Archipelago Books)
Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary; New Directions)
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull (Ukraine; NYRB)
The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (Argentina; New Vessel Press)
The Infatuations by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain; Random House)
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters (Japan; Other Press)
In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Spain; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Guatemala; Yale University Press)
Through the Night by Stig Sæterbakken, translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella (Norway; Dalkey Archive)
Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated from the French by Christine Schwartz Hartley & Anna Moschovakis (France; Ugly Duckling Presse)
Leg Over Leg Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Lebanon; New York University Press)
The Whispering Muse by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland; FSG)
The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Netherlands; Pushkin Press)
The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker (Czech Republic; Portobello Books)
The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Spain; McSweeney’s)
Red Grass by Boris Vian, translated from the French by Paul Knobloch (France; Tam Tam Books)
City of Angels, or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Germany; FSG)
Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (China; University of Oklahoma Press)
Earlier this afternoon I received the longlist for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award for Fiction, and just had a chance to break it all down and come up with some interesting tidbits to fuel the speculation as to what made it and what got left off.
Just a quick reminder: The full list will go live at exactly 10 am East Coast time on Tuesday morning. Until then, feel free to list all your predictions in the comments below. (Or at the BTBA 2014 Speculation forum at The Mookse and the Gripes.)
1) I’ll start with the most amazing thing about this year’s longlist: Twenty-three different presses have a title in the running. That’s an incredible amount of diversity—way more than in years past.
2) Four of the books are from the Big Five. (It’s pretty normal for the indies and university presses to dominant. Although, without checking any records, I think this is the best the big presses have done in a while.)
3) Last week I posted my own personal predictions: Fourteen of the books I listed there made the longlist.
4) I was pretty wrong in my Independent Foreign Fiction Prize prediction . . . there are only half as many books on both lists.
5) Speaking of the diversity and spread of the list, there are books from twenty different countries (sixteen different languages) represented this year. Only four countries have more than one book on the list, and no country has more than four titles included.
6) There’s aren’t all that many women on this year’s longlist. (Although the ones that are included have a fantastic shot at making the shortlist.) There are three times more men than women.
7) Lot of really long books. I count six that are at least 500 pages long.
8) There are twenty-five translators on the list, but one of them is listed twice.
9) Unlike the male-female count with authors, there are the exact same number of female translators and male translators on the list.
I think that’s it for now. If I think of any other fun clues, I’ll post them.
Also, we’ll give a year’s subscription to Open Letter books to correctly name ALL twenty-five longlisted titles. Feel free to post your entry in the comments below, or email me at (chad.post [at] rochester.edu).
At this moment in time, I have no idea what books are on the Best Translated Book Award longlist. The judges are still conferring—in fact, I’m not even certain that the list of 25 has been finalized . . . Which means that it’s a great time to start spreading rumors about what books are in and which are out.
Remember, everything below is pure speculation on my part. (That said, reading everyone’s BTBA posts has provided me with a few ideas.) In other words, it’s pure bullshit, and you should feel free to tell me so (or to add your own guesses) in the comments below.
The Three Locks
Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krashnahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (New Directions)
This could be the first time in BTBA history that the same author wins two years in a row. I’m not entirely sure this was ever even possible before (I don’t think any of the past winners had a new book come out the ensuing year), but with the amount of attention this book got, and the overwhelming amount of love out there for Krashnahorkai, it seems quite possible.
Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Archipelago Books)
The first volume of Cartarescu’s trilogy (by god do I hope the other two books come out in the next couple years) is right down the middle of the plate for BTBA juries of years past: dark, complicated, stunningly well-written, ambitious, mesmerizing. I’ll be stunned if this isn’t on the longlist.
My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books)
How many times is Archipelago going to win this award? With all the buzz surrounding Knausgaard—which happens every time a new book of his is released, and will continue to happen until the sixth and final volume of this project is available in paperback—this seems like a definite for at least the longlist. It’s maybe the most Flavorwire-friendly of these three though, which may prevent it from taking the award . . .
These Have to Make It, Right?
Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, translated from the French by Mike Mitchell (Other Press)
It’ll be a shame if this book gets left off the list. It’s long, yes, and about a relatively obscure historical figure (Athanasius Kircher), but it’s also one of the most playful books that came out last year, what with the faux-biography of Kircher and his bizarre inventions (the scene with bloated corpses is fantastics), and all the sex-related word games. None of Blas de Robles’s publishers did the book justice though, leaving out the index and self-referential footnotes which, although they would’ve expanded the book by 200 pages, add layers and layers to the postmodern joy of it all.
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Open Letter)
Of all the great Open Letter books from last year, this is the one I think has the best chance of winning the BTBA. It’s very readable, yet incredibly skilled, and gets darker and darker as the story progresses. I’m proud of the very short copy I came up with for Consortium’s next catalog: “Jörgen Hofmeester once had it all, but recently has been abandoned by his wife, watched his oldest daughter move away, lost his publishing job, and had his savings evaporate. At least he still has Tirza, his youngest daughter. But now she’s going away to Africa, from which she’ll never return.”
Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (NYU Library of Arabic Literature)
Pages upon pages of slang for penises, vaginas, and sex? SOLD! It would be both strange and fitting if this book, written in the mid-1800s and being published in four volumes by NYU, made the list. I have a good feeling about this one. And hopefully a BTBA appearance will prompt NYU (or someone) to publish a more affordable paperback edition.
Sleet by Stig Dagerman, translated from the Swedish by Steven Hartman (David Godine)
Dagerman was my personal favorite find of 2013, so I really really really want this to make the list. Amazing writer with a heartbreaking life story whose work has been rediscovered the past few years thanks to Godine and University of Minnesota Press. It’s always great for a collection of short stories to make the list, and based on this year’s entries, I think this might be the one . . .
High Tide by Inga Ābele, translated from the Latvian by Kaija Straumanis (Open Leter)
Dark Road by Ma Jian, translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew (Penguin)
The Infatuations by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Random House)
Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu (Feminist Press)
Under this Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Frisch & Co.)
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull (NYRB)
Errors of Young Tjaz by Florjan Lipus, translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins (Dalkey Archive)
The Whispering Muse by Sjon, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (FSG)
True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter (Other Press)
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Yale University Press)
Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (University of Oklahoma Press)
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Picador)
Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon, translated from the Arabic by the author (Yale University Press)
Shantytown by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions)
Red Grass by Boris Vian, translated from the French by Paul Knobloch (Tam Tam Books)
The Maya Pill by German Sadulaev, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio (Dalkey Archive Press)
That only adds up to 23 books . . . And I’m sure more than half of these are wrong. Feel free to leave your own guesses in the comments section, and as soon as I can start dropping hints, I will, all building up to Tuesday morning’s announcement . . .
Poorly detailed Google map
With the longlist set to be announced in a matter of days—just this morning the judges received the (top secret!) results of our initial vote to narrow down all eligible books to a longlist—I thought it might be interesting to share some statistics about the list we were culling from.
Below is a list of books by country, as included on the BTBA spreadsheet. As usual, Western Europe is heavily represented, Africa and the Middle East are under-represented, and, largely owing to Dalkey’s Library of Korean Literature, I suspect (without comparing this list to previous years) that Asian literature, outside of China and Japan, which are generally well served, is better represented.
Of the surprises in these numbers, the one that stands out most to me—though I’m sure Michael Orthofer could help contextualize this—is the paucity of Indian books on the list. That we have just one book translated from Hindi seems to me curious. Are there any numbers here that surprise you?
COUNTRY NO. OF BOOKS
Czech Republic 3
Dominican Republic 1
Puerto Rico 2
Saudi Arabia 2
South Africa 1
South Korea 12
Syrian Arab Republic 2
In all, the BTBA committee has looked at books written in 39 languages—from Afrikaans to Yiddish, as you can see below.
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.
When a fiction translator really knows her job, the resulting book in English—if the original author is good enough—shines. You might have a spectacular work of fiction in the original, but if the translator isn’t up to it, that book will be lackluster in English. The translation, people will say, is clumsy, because it’s noticeably bad. The translator who has truly done her job shouldn’t be noticed. Gustave Flaubert (as translated by Francis Steegmuller) insisted that authors should be “like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” Such is the fate of good translators as well.
As we approach our selection process for the longlist of the Best Translated Book Award, I’m finding that there are some books in the mix that truly shine. They were no doubt glorious in the original, and—due to their translators’ abilities as writers—they are glorious in the English as well. And in these wonderful books, paradoxically, the translators’ skills as writers have made them disappear as writers. The books now seem to be original works in English, as if an author has magically moved from her own language to English, without missing a beat. Many of these fantastic books have already been mentioned by other judges, but I thought I might emphasize a few here and applaud their ever-present, invisible translators.
The first is Steven Hartman’s translation from the Swedish of Sleet, by Stig Dagerman, a beautiful collection of short stories (David R. Godine, Publisher). Alice McDermott, in her preface to the collection, speaks of Dagerman as rivaling Joyce “in his ability to depict the intractable loneliness of childhood, but time and again…he tempers this loneliness with brief gestures of hope, connectedness.” Hartman has captured Dagerman’s sensitivity to the child’s and others’ points of view so beautifully in his translations—the narrative distances involved, the narrative voice—as to be rendered unnoticeable. What we are left with are quiet, humane, and often heart-wrenching stories, Hartman’s interpretation of Dagerman’s art.
Another book that I found to be astoundingly beautiful in English is Jeffrey Gray’s translation from Spanish of The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (Yale University Press). Many of the BTBA judges have praised this surprising, imagistic novel that takes place in Tangier and wanders between two characters, a shepherd dreaming of Spain and “of riches to come” and a Columbian tourist stranded in Morocco; it is a book mysteriously (and wonderfully) held together by an owl passing from hand to hand until it finally escapes, leaving us with a final startling image of the bird hiding in a dark attic. Rey Rosa was a protégé of Paul Bowles and we can see this in his startling imagery and spare prose (Bowles even translated some of his earlier books); Rey Rosa’s style is widely praised: it is “precise, mythic” (Raphaëlle Rérolle) and this book in particular is “inhabited both by poetry and by silence” (Luis Alonso Girgado). This is the kind of book that could easily collapse under the weight of a plodding translation, but that is not the case here: Gray is keenly sensitive to the effects of the original as he interprets Rey Rosa’s pure style—including his silences—and his imagery. I am sure Gray’s work must have been endless to obtain that purity in the English. The sparest of prose shows the effects of translation even more: one misstep is glaring.
There are a number of other books under consideration for this year’s award that I’ve found to have spectacular translations, but I’ll only mention them here: Juliet Winter Carpenter’s incredibly clean, beautiful translation from Japanese of A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura (Other Press); Don Bartlett’s creation of narrative voice in Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Two (Archipelago Books). The extremely complicated, gorgeous sentences of Ottilie Mulzet’s translation from Hungarian of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below from New Directions (see a great interview with Mulzet at The Quarterly Conversation with BTBA judge Scott Esposito that shows just how complicated and challenging this book was to translate).
I’ll end here on another one of my favorites so far from this year’s selections, Sean Cotter’s translation from Romanian of Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding: The Left Wing (Archipelago Books). I remember when Cotter was first offered this book; we were at the American Literary Translators Association’s annual conference, and he told me he’d just been approached by Jill Schoolman of Archipelago about translating Cărtărescu. The look on his face said it all: excitement—such a great opportunity for a translator, this incredible novel-memoir that’s considered one of the most important of contemporary Romanian literature—and mixed with that excitement: fear of taking on such a daunting task. But from the original, Cotter has created a great a book in English, a journey through childhood and hospitalization, a “kaleidoscope world” as described on the book jacket, of “hallucinatory Bucharest” as told by a deeply sympathetic, vital narrator, a character that Cotter interpreted, created in English. Carla Bariez, a poet and translator from Romanian, had this to say about Cotter’s translation in her review of the book for Words Without Borders: “Sean Cotter has done a masterful, inspired job with the translation. The meditative, Baroque rhythms of Cărtărescu’s Romanian flow into graceful, vigorous English thanks to Cotter.” She goes on to talk about “the linguistic pyrotechnics” of the book that might become “overwhelming” in a work that is “deeply philosophical,” but to her, “nothing seems gratuitous: language itself, in its long lists and flights of fancy, proves Cărtărescu’s ultimate point about birth. Every human life is a Gospel, every birth an Annunciation…” Cotter’s sensitivity to language and to what he has interpreted as Cărtărescu’s intentions in his book are what have given us these “linguistic pyrotechnics” in English.
I thought it would be illuminating to delve a bit more into Cotter’s technique, so I asked him for a sample of the original novel plus a “trot,” a “literal” translation of this sample. Here’s just a taste of his approach, with the opening lines of the novel:
Before they built the apartment blocks across the street, before everything was screened off and suffocating, I used to watch Bucharest through the night from the triple window in my room above Ştefan cel Mare. The window usually reflected the room’s cheap furniture—a bedroom set of yellowed wood, a dresser and mirror, a table with some aloe and asparagus in clay pots, a chandelier with globes of green glass, one of which had been chipped long ago. The reflected yellow space turned even yellower as it deepened into the enormous window, and I, a thin, sickly adolescent in torn pajamas and a stretched-out vest, would spend the long afternoon perched on the small cabinet in the bedstead, staring, hypnotized, into the eyes of my reflection in the transparent glass.
The paragraph goes on, but these opening sentences work together incredibly well, one leading rhythmically to the next, and Cotter’s seemingly slight touches have intensified the imagery and sentences’ effect.
Here is the original in Romanian:
Înainte să se construiască blocul de vizavi şi totul să devină ecranat şi irespirabil, priveam nopţi întregi Bucureştiul de la tripla fereastră panoramică a camerei mele din Ştefan cel Mare. Fereastra reflecta de obicei mobilierul sărac al încăperii, un dormitor de lemn gălbui, o toaletă cu oglindă, câteva plante, aloe şi asparagus, în ghivece de argilă, aşezate pe masă. Lustra cu abajururi de sticlă verzuie, unul dintre ele ciobit de mult timp. Spaţiul galben al camerei devenea şi mai galben adâncindu-se în uriaşa fereastră, iar eu, un adolescent ascuţit şi bolnăvicios, în pijama rufoasă şi cu un fel de vestă lăbărţată deasupra, stăteam toată după-amiaza aşezat cu fundul pe lada de la studio, privind în ochi, ca hipnotizat, reflectul meu din oglinda străvezie a ferestrei.
And here is a very rough, literal “trot”:
Before was built the block vis-avis and all became screened and unbreathable, I would look nights whole at Bucharest from the triple window panoramic of room my on Ştefan cel Mare. The window reflected usually the furnishings poor of the room, a bedroom set of yellowy wood, a toilet with mirror, some plants, aloe and asparagus, in pots of clay, sat on the table. The light fixture with shades of glass greenish, one of them chipped of much time. The space yellow of the room became and more yellow getting deep in the giant window, and I an adolescent sharpened and sickly, in pajama ragged and a kind of vest misshapen on top, stayed all afternoon sat with bottom on the chest of the bedstead, looking in eyes, like a hypnotized person, the reflection my in the mirror see-through of the window.
Already, with the very first phrase of the opening, we see Cotter facing a dilemma: a lot of information in the Romanian is introduced with a dependent clause—but the opening line of a novel has to be perfect, can’t be overly cluttered with details, which are so hard to sustain in English. Cotter’s decision to break that clause down into two dependent clauses, both introduced with a repetition of “before,” is very wise, I think, very musical, very inviting, almost hypnotic, reinforcing a dream-like atmosphere so appropriate to this book. Each sentence here shows this same level of attention. I’m especially taken with the third sentence that pulls us closer to the narrator, where we see him for the first time, how beautifully we’re led to him with an abstraction, the lovely, active phrasing here, the “yellow space turned even yellower as it deepened into the enormous window,” which is a long way from the what we find in the “trot,” the much flatter “yellow getting deep.” Cotter has interpreted the author’s intention with that abstraction, heightened the imagery and lyricism for his English rendition and prepared us for this important turn, the introduction of the narrator, the “I,” the “thin, sickly adolescent” staring at himself, hypnotized by his own eyes, his own frailty, reinforced by his thin, ghostly reflection not in a mirror but in a glass window. Even Cotter’s choice at the end to replace the abstract “window” with the concrete word, “glass,” creates a strong effect: the image is much more tangible as a result.
If you took any of these wonderful translations I’ve mentioned and placed them alongside the original language versions, you’d find similar choices to those that Cotter made in Blinding. These choices are everywhere in a translation; they involve every word, every punctuation mark. They’re the endless choices and techniques that the best fiction translators use to make their English versions shine as brightly as possible, as brightly as the originals, while they, the translators, turn to shadows.
The deadlines approach – well, that one first, big deadline: with the Best Translated Book Award longlist due to be announced March 11 we judges have to decide what makes the 25-book cut. Twenty-five titles seems like a lot, but the procedure is that each of us submits our top-ten list (on March 1), from which the top sixteen vote-getters make the longlist, and then each judge gets to add one personal choice to round off the list, for a total of twenty-five titles. So each of us only gets to select ten+one titles. (Last year, only six of my top-ten choices for the longlist made it (with a seventh then slipping on as the plus-one).)
Since my top-ten/must-have list currently stands at roughly fourteen titles (fluctuating daily, as two or three titles different fall in and out of favor, depending on my mood …) this is proving a more arduous exercise than I had hoped. Twenty-five slots would be easy (well, easier … maybe) to fill), but ten feels really, really tight.
There are half a dozen or so titles that I simply can’t not put in my top-ten (which, in cruel-tease-form I won’t name here – though I’m probably sufficiently on the record regarding my feelings about them elsewhere …) – because I think they are really the most deserving (and, in some cases, because I worry that they might otherwise be overlooked) – but after that it gets complicated. There are a couple of titles that so many judges already seem to feel enthusiastic about that I’m not sure I need to put my full weight behind them yet – books by recent BTBA winners like Wiesław Myśliwski’s A Treatise on Shelling Beans or Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, for example, or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle II, among others. But it’s hard to leave off any title that I truly want in the running: one favorite not making the initial cut is okay, since we each get to add that one personal selection, but likely there will be several that don’t get enough votes, making for quite a quandary with that lone personal selection…..
There are a lot of titles at the upper margins, the ones that I think I could make a case for – clear top-25 titles, to me, but maybe not top-ten (though some days I’m convinced title X is, other days title Y …).
There are the big novels my name-authors: Javier Marías’ The Infatuations (translated by Margaret Jull Costa), Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time (translated by Edith Grossman, The Economist just recently reminding us that: “Its author, one of Spain’s leading writers, has been unjustly ignored in the English-speaking world. With this book, he should get the acclaim he deserves” (though Entertainment Weekly (yes, well …) suggests the novel moves at: “the pace of a narcotized elephant” …)), Christa Wolf’s City of Angels.
There are translations that have already won translation prizes: Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker, which won (under a different title) the British counterpart to the BTBA, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013 and Dimitri Verhulst’s Vondel Translation Prize-winning The Misfortunates. And I was already on a translation-prize-jury that found Elfriede Jelinek’s Her Not All Her to be a worthy winner – the 2011 Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize – so how can I not longlist it this time around? (Sure, the competition might be tougher here – certainly there are a lot more titles in the running – but this remarkable piece of work (and the excellent translation) continues to stand out – helped also by the fact that it’s different from almost everything else we’re looking at.)
There are the smaller works that linger nicely (and often don’t seem to have gotten enough attention). Sure, Amélie Nothomb’s Life Form is kind of simple much of the way – but in its conclusion totally won me over. Jang Eun-jin’s No One Writes Back – among the least-Dalkeyesque of the (many) Dalkey Archive Press titles to consider – has been among this year’s most pleasant reading surprises. The same goes for Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol, a rare (okay, the only …) translation from the Hindi we get to consider. And while Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge is the rare smaller (paperback original, too) title in translation to get pretty widespread coverage I still think it’s widely misread as a story-collection: I find it comes together beautifully and very effectively as a unified novel-whole. And then there’s a book like Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom, which held me rapt and whose strangeness still haunts me.
Finally, there’s than annual search for a worthy ‘genre’ title – a top-notch thriller, solid sci-fi, or the like. There were certainly mysteries and thrillers galore to consider this year (like every year), but it was not a great year – with the highly touted ones feeling particularly derivative. I suppose Ogawa’s Revenge might be considered genre, of sorts (horror). Otherwise, there’s only one of these titles in my mix: Ofir Touché Gafla’s The World of the End (and not just because of the author’s awesome/ridiculous name – touché!), which certainly hasn’t gotten the (‘mainstream’) attention it deserves.
Of course, time is not yet up, the decision doesn’t have to be made yet. I still have a few
weeks days of reading ahead of me, a few more books to discover and consider. Part of me hopes to find another gem – but part of me also worries: what then? which book gets knocked off the already too-long list?
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), and recently edited a translation issue for The White Review.
Minae Mizamura’s A True Novel was my great discovery this winter. Alongside Faris al-Shidyaq’s eccentric classic, it ranks among the most memorable books I encountered as a judge for this year’s BTBA.
The book’s length is misleading: once caught up in the narrative (which gets traction almost immediately), I found it impossible to read in draughts of less than 150-200 pages. The characters fascinate, as do Mizamura’s manner of relating their histories. But the pleasures of A True Novel exceed those of the conventional storytelling kind. Mizamura is an author profoundly concerned with literary tradition and she pulls off several feats here, merging a shishosetsu work (first-person Japanese autobiographical narrative) into a honkaku shosetsu (panoramic Western novel), while successfully recasting Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in a postwar Japanese setting. Its effect recalls the greatest of Yasujiro Ozu’s films or Chekhov’s shorter fiction: a deep humanism is palpable beneath the dispassionate narrative. I’m still astonished by how much Mizumura has managed to include about Japan’s transformation from defeated imperial power to economic powerhouse—all without sacrificing the intimacy of a chamber play. I first became aware of this novel thanks to Caroline Bleecke’s review at Music & Literature, which provides helpful context about A True Novel’s formal ambitions and Mizumura’s previous efforts.
Writers from Transylvania have a special place in Hungarian literature. Their use of the language is particular and, in many cases, peculiar—they evince a sensitivity to words not uncommon among speakers of a minority language. Ádám Bodor is one of the region’s giants, andThe Sinistra Zone his masterpiece. Entertaining, odd and strikingly true to the spirit of that twilight zone where Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary meet, Sinistra is a classic example of what Michael Hofmann has called “celestial provincialism”: a “blend of allegory, surrealism, fantasy and exuberant narrative … derived from Hašek and Kafka.” The world of Bodor’s novel will be immediately familiar to his contemporaries from the once-Soviet Other Europe. Here is a passage by one of its most prominent representatives, Polish novelist Andrezej Stasiuk, about a visit to the region that inspired Sinistra:
We drove to the Sinistra district. Everything here belonged to the mountain refilemen, to Colonel Puiu Borcan, and, when he died, to Izolda Mavrodin-Mahmudia, also holding rank of Colonel and called Coco for short. From the Baba Rotunda pass, we had a view of Pop Ivan; in the valley crawled narrow-gauge, wood-burning locomotives. The inhabitants of Sinistra wore military dogtags on their chests. Everyone who came here and stayed was given a new name … Diluted denatured alcohol was used here to dry mushrooms, and it was drunk with the fermented juice of forest fruits. The frosted glass for the Sinistra prison was made by Gabriel Dunka in his workshop: he frosted a pane by putting it in a sandbox and walking on it with his bare feet for hours. He was thirty-seven and a dwarf. One rainy day he picked up a naked Elvira Spiridon in his delivery van and for the first time in his life smelled a woman’s body, but loyalty triumphed over desire and he turned her in… All this supposedly took place near Sighetu Marmației, but I learned about it only two years later, in Adam Bodor’s Sinistra District, and the story has pursued me since. Pursued me and replaced the flat spot on the map. Once again, the visible pales before the narrated. Pales but does not disappear. It only loses its force, its intolerable obviousness. This is a special quality of auxiliary countries, of second-order, second-tier peoples: the ephemeral tale in different versions, the distorted mirror, magic lantern, mirage, phantom that mercifully sneaks in between what is and what ought to be. The self-irony that allows you to play with your personal fate, to mock it, parrot it, turning defeat into heroic-comic legend and a lie into something that has the shape of salvation. —from On the Road to Babadag (Harcourt, 2011)
Other highlights of winter readings include A Most Ambiguous Sunday by June Young Moon (Dalkey Archive), whose stories “Mrs. Brown,” “Drifting,” and “Animals Songs of Boredom of Fury” share the deadpan humor that makes reading Beckett or George Saunders such fun;
Bullfight, the flawless debut of Japanese master Yasushi Inoui;
The Errors of Young Tjaž by Florjan Lipuš (Dalkey Archive), a strange and discomfiting account of childhood in postwar rural Austria;
and Life Form by Amélie Nothomb (Europa), a refreshing, funny, and clever counterpoint to some of this season’s sterner submissions—despite its own dark subject matter.
Finally, I’d like to draw attention to three titles that were published in 2013, but proved ineligible because of a previous translation. Stig Dagarman’s A Burnt Child, trans. Benjamin Mier-Cruz (Minnesota); Ahmet Hamdi Tanipar’s The Time Regulation Institute, trans. Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe (Penguin); and Natsume Sōseki’s Light and Dark, trans. John Nathan (Columbia) are all remarkable novels, and would have appeared on my longlist were it not for having been published previously. Here’s hoping they receive the attention they—along with their latest translators, and the publishers who commissioned them—deserve.
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.
There’s so much praise out there for fat books, but what about little books that pack a big punch?
Nobody has talked about Commentary, yet, and I just don’t know why. This autobiographical epistolary novel was written in the weeks before Sauvageot died of tuberculosis in a sanatorium on the coast of France, and is addressed to her lover who left her for another woman just days after she admitted herself. On its premise alone, it’s almost too easy to love.
Granted, I’m a sucker for strong first-person voices, but Commentary sucked me in immediately. Sauvageot is fierce and incisive, and seconds away from inevitable death. She has nothing to lose, and says everything with that in mind. She simultaneously pities and despises the other patients in the sanatorium because she can’t escape their coughing. She hates their passive acceptance and scorns the person who betrayed her and left her alone in this place. Her sentences scream with vulnerability and suffering.
Included in the book are a foreword and note by Charles du Bos and an essay by Jean Mouton, from previous French editions, as well as a new introduction by Jennifer Moxley that contains these lines, which I had to copy into my notebook: “We recall here that in Latin, vulgare, meaning ‘of the people’ but also ‘to publish,’ was used as a slur against women who were thought to have made their bodies ‘public.’ Thus a vulgar woman is a woman who ‘publishes’ that which men believe should stay private.”
A note about the book’s design: Ugly Duckling Presse has done a beautiful job. A flesh-tone letterpress cover, clean, geometric cover design, vintage aesthetic. This book feels good in your hand.
In many ways, this book is a typical small-town procedural, complete with a cast of colorful local characters, unexpected diversions, and a protagonist who discovers more about his past than he bargained for. Except, in this story, Miguel Salvatierra isn’t looking for a killer; he’s looking for a painting. And in looking for a painting, he’s looking for a missing piece of history. And in looking for a missing piece of history, he’s looking for his father.The story is constructed elegantly around the metaphor of the scrolls Miguel Salvatierra’s father painted one-per-year throughout his lifetime: their movement from left to right is synchronized with the movement of the story – then reversed, right to left, like the movement of the turning pages of the book you’re holding, or Miguel’s journey into his family’s past. In the end, the story and the scrolls make a circle; we end up where we started. Except now (you know this already), everything is different.
To say that Marial’s setting is vivid is to blanche it. It is warm and earthy, humid and pungent, colorful, and slightly sour. It is old and familiar but not entirely unchanged. It is remote, but civic, with suggestions of encroaching commercialism. I loved inhabiting this place and felt at home among its community.
New Vessel Press was founded in 2012, and The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is one of only six titles they’ve published thus far, and the only one I’ve read. A second New Vessel title, Some Day by Shemi Zarhin, is translated from Hebrew and is also eligible for the award this year.
Several of this year’s BTBA judges have said that they’d love to see Sjón on the longlist, and I agree. The Whispering Muse follows a fish enthusiast, Valdimar Heraldsson, on board a Danish merchant ship occupied by the Greek god, and the ship’s second mate, Caeneus. Each night, Caeneus regales the crew with tales of his travels with Jason and the Argonauts, making this a sort of frame story along the lines of a humorous, Nordic Heart of Darkness.
While Heraldsson is quirky and entertaining, Caeneus is by far the best part of this book, as he brings with him wonder and metaphor, and a cast of characters both mythical and familiar. His story opens up varicolored and metaphysical dimensions out of reach for Heraldsson, whose focus is perpetually on the small, limited to the goings-on of the ship’s crew, in particular their diet. Caeneus: the hero; Heraldsson: the anti-hero. These disparate agents come together in the end, in a delightful recapitulation of the origin of the namesake Muse.
We are just about done reading for the longlist of the Best Translated Book Award. Here are a few last books that I haven’t read yet but will be considering very closely as we come on home.
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. He’s also helping to organize our forthcoming World Cup of Literature.
The protagonist of Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy, is a police hitman named Filiberto Garcia. His job is to eliminate people as directed by his superiors. He says “Pinche!” a lot, mostly in exasperation. Katherine Silver translates “Pinche!” as “Fucking!”
So, here’s a synopsis of the book seen through Garcia’s interior monologue:
Fucking tame tiger! Fucking goddamn captain! Fucking furniture! Fucking jokes! Fucking Chinamen! Fucking experience! Fucking laws! Fucking Revolution! Fucking Chinamen and old people! Fucking conscience! Fucking loyalty! Fucking sovereignty! Fucking colonel! Fucking mysteries! Fucking gringos! Fucking Outer Mongolia! Fucking souls! Fucking bitch! Fucking tears! Fucking Marta! Fucking Poles! Fucking Chinese gal! Fucking stiffs! Fucking investigation! Fucking gringo! Fucking broad! Fucking Russian! Fucking mission! Fucking washed-up gringa! Fucking little brat! Fucking father! Fucking del Valle! Fucking Charanda! Fucking host! Fucking bills! Fucking Chink! Fucking meat! Fucking hands! Fucking team! Fucking life! Fucking faggot! Fucking Doris! Fucking Liu! Fucking solitude! Fucking wake!
My favorite line from the book actually doesn’t have “fucking” in it. Garcia is dressing to go out, straightening his tie, arranging his handkerchief, examining his nails, “The only thing he couldn’t fix was the scar on his cheek, but the gringo who’d made it couldn’t fix being dead, either.”
The first short story in Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, The Apprentice & The Football Fan is Da Ma’s “Way of Talking.” Da Ma is a pretty annoying character. He and his class are sent to northeast China for a month’s training in the People’s Liberation Army. When they’re on the shooting range, he points a rifle at the students on his left and yells “Freeze! Or you’re fucking dead.” One of the students says “Fucking hell! . . . That gun’s loaded! Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck.” Four occurrences in one sentence, devoid of other words, is hard to beat.
I recommend both Rafael Bernal and Zhu Wen’s books highly. They’re very fun reading that I’ve been able to sandwich between The Literary Submissions of High Art.
Finally, there’s a book I haven’t received yet—Jens Lapidus’s Never Fück Up. It’s part of The Stockholm Noir Trilogy, published in Sweden as Aldrig Fucka Upp. Nice to know some things just translate easily.
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.