30 September 14

Katrine Øgaard Jensen is an editor-at-large for Asymptote and the editor-in-chief for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art.

Since I am the youngest, the least knowledgeable, and by far the most superficial judge in the BTBA, it’s only appropriate that I make my first blog post about something sexy. As a judge in the much-fun World Cup of Literature this summer, also hosted by Three Percent, my write up for Croatia vs. Mexico accidentally ended up referencing my sexual mischief in June. So yeah, I’m not going to bore anyone with that again. Instead, I believe it would be appropriately disgraceful of me to dedicate this post to: not the authors, not the translators, but the book designers.

That’s right. I’m judging books by their covers.

In appreciation of the NY Art Book Fair, presented by the nonprofit Printed Matter (provider of artists’ book awesomeness since 1976), I would like to acknowledge some of my favorite covers in the BTBA so far. I feel particularly compelled to do so after witnessing an inspiring talk last week about cover design and the visual enactment of literature, as a part of the Book History Colloquium at Columbia University. The talk was given by one of my favorite contemporary book designers, Peter Mendelsund, whose new Kafka covers you might have noticed (the series with the eyes). Mendelsund studied philosophy and literature, went on to become a classical pianist, and then suddenly decided to learn book design on his own. His appreciation for immediacy inspired me to go ahead and blog about something I have absolutely no knowledge of. Also, he claimed that developing a taste in design was super easy. Basically, you just ask yourself what looks good. So there.

First up is Quesadillas : a novel, cover illustration by Joel Holland (written by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

I immediately noticed this light paperback when it came in the mail, despite the fact that it chose to arrive with books from five different publishers. The black-on-lime green cover claimed my attention, along with the cow-on-UFO illustration. What’s not to like? I started reading Quesadillas the following day, solely due to its cover.

Another well-designed delicacy I devoured because of its cover was The Guest Cat (written by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland, published by New Directions). Erik Rieselbach is behind this intriguing design (more honorable mention for him later), although the cover art is actually an oil painting by Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita from 1927.

According to Christies.com, this piece of oil on canvas, entitled “Chat Couturier”, is worth $60,000-$80,000. I’m not sure if I would ever want that thing on my wall – a cat in any kind of artwork makes me uncomfortable – but as a book cover it definitely works. That stare would make anyone open anything, be it a book, a safe, or an anchovy sandwich.

Next up is Baboon (written by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman, published by Two Lines Press). Although broken flowers make me think of Bill Murray by default, Gabriele Wilson’s cover art mercifully exceeds my previous notions. There’s something haunting about the shadows on the petals, something stunning about this terrible flower on a pale background. I’m a fan.

Lastly, I have to dedicate a final paragraph to some books that have already been mentioned by my fellow judge, Madeleine LaRue. I will not waste your time with even more praise to these publications, but simply point out that their covers are among my favorites as well:

Our Lady of the Nile, cover art by Amedeo Modigliani (written by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner, published by Archipelago Books).
A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, cover design by N. J. Furl (an anthology of Spanish-language fiction curated by Valerie Miles, published by Open Letter Books).

The End of Days, cover design – yet again – by Erik Rieselbach (written by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, published by New Directions).

That will be all.

26 September 14

Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.

I live in Berlin, in a neighborhood with a chronically understaffed post office, so books on their way to me from the United States are usually in for an adventure.

A package from Archipelago Books, example, arrived dripping wet, even though it hadn’t rained in Berlin for a week. Luckily, the texts themselves were all intact, and a little water damage has only lent a pleasant air of world-weariness to the appearances.

Another package I received, this time from Vintage, had been opened, its contents shoved into my mailbox, and the envelope stuffed crookedly in after them. Is that even legal?, I wondered, are they even allowed to open my stuff? Turns out, yes, but only is the stuff is books. Since most of them were about hard-boiled detectives, I figured they were used to some rough handling and didn’t feel too sorry for them.

But the best (by which I mean most unusual) delivery arrived this week: an absolutely enormous blue bag bearing the seal of the Belgian post, one gaping end knotted shut with plastic cords. It was the sort of bag I imagine Santa Claus would use if he were a Belgian mailman. For a moment I hoped that there would just be one giant book inside, but instead there was another, slightly smaller blue bag, tidily wrapped and stamped by Sweden Post.

The treasure inside this strange blue matryoshka was more than worth the trouble it took to wrestle it out. Inside the blue Swedish bag, surrounded by what I assume used to be an envelope but which now resembled something closer to the insides of a sofa after they’ve been torn up by a very eager puppy, were eight books from Open Letter, dusty but otherwise unharmed. Among them were several titles I’d been looking forward to for some time: Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth, Amanda Michalopoulou’s Why I Killed My Best Friend, and of course the splendid anthology that’s been getting so much attention on this blog recently, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn.

Of course, no matter how bizarre the story of a book’s arrival at my front door might have been, its importance fades as soon as the experience of the text itself takes over. One of those half-drowned Archipelago titles, Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, has proved a moving and memorable read. One of the few novels from sub-Saharan Africa to be eligible for this year’s BTBA, Our Lady of the Nile centers on an elite girls’ boarding school in 1970s Rwanda, shortly before a wave of ethnic violence breaks out. I recently reviewed the novel for Music & Literature, where I wrote of it as both a collective coming-of-age story and a prelude to genocide.

The book I’m reading currently, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, was unusual in that it arrived at my apartment completely unscathed. It’s the first novel by Erpenbeck that I’ve had a chance to read. It begins with the death of an eight-month old baby and traces the ramifications this death later has on the child’s family. But then, in the first of the book’s many “Intermezzo”s, the baby is resurrected: time rewinds itself, the baby is saved in the nick of time. She’s given a second chance at life, allowed to grow up for a few more years. When she finds another death, she is resurrected again, and so on; the main character, whose name we learn only at the end of the novel, keeps dying and keeps not being permitted to die, until she has lived through nearly the entire twentieth century.

A serious (in my opinion, unfortunately humorless) meditation on death, The End of Days was striking to me not only for its compelling premise, but also for the quality of its translation. Susan Bernofsky has produced an exceptionally powerful English version of this very German text; the book’s prose, just like its cover when it arrived in my Berlin mailbox, showed no sign of having made a transatlantic journey.

22 September 14

Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.

My strategy for BTBA reading is very simple and very biased: I read the books by women first, and if there are no books by women, then I read the shortest ones first. I start with the women because there are fewer of them, and with the short books because they make me feel accomplished.

One of the first books I read was Can Xue’s The Last Lover (translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen), a novel by one of China’s best and strangest contemporary writers. I had been enchanted a few years ago by her short story collection Vertical Motion, which is populated by all sorts of Kafkaesque sons and animals.

Can Xue’s work is dreamlike, but not in the hazy, poetic way that that word usually implies. Rather, her stories follow the logic of dreams, particularly in The Last Lover: locations shift abruptly, characters’ reactions are unexpected or irrational, elements from previous scenes are suddenly re-assembled in new configurations. The Last Lover, a story of three couples, is perhaps best understood as taking place in a largely or entirely imaginary space. The lovers are wandering not through the world, but through each other’s dreams, which nevertheless resemble some version of the world. The book is baffling at times, and after reading it I often stood up slightly dizzy. But something about it is tenacious. Like Kafka (whom she greatly admires), Can Xue is able to create metaphors that are understood deeply and intuitively even while they elude intellectual comprehension.

The Last Lover surfaced in my thoughts again recently when I found another book by a modern-day sister of Kafka’s.

Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water (translated from Estonian by Ilmar Lehtpere) is a slim book (only eighty pages) of surreal fairy tales. In one, a woman bites the arms off three successive husbands, all named Jaan. In another, a skeleton called Lena tells of her life on an island that has “torn itself free from the ocean floor.” A third woman has written a grammar of bird language and collects apricots from her “six former husbands” (her enumeration of their respective qualities recalls Kafka’s story “Eleven Sons”).

Some of the stories are noticeably weaker than others, but in the best of them there is a certain freedom found in all good fables, including Kafka’s: the freedom to be read both literally and figuratively. Kristiina Ehin’s stories are metaphors for emotional events, usually ordinary ones like falling in or out of love, but they are sometimes very original metaphors, interesting as fiction in their own right. Like Can Xue, Kristiina Ehin encourages us to interpret her work while simultaneously hinting that interpretation is not important.

Whether or not either of these titles ends up on this year’s longlist, they deserve to be read, not only on their own merits, but as representatives of marginalized literatures. We know that only 3% of the English-language book market is devoted to works in translation; how much smaller is that percentage when we count only books by women, let alone books by women from China or Estonia? Indeed, it has taken me depressingly little time to get through all the BTBA submissions by women that I’ve received up to now. I hope that more are on the way, and that more (especially from under-represented countries) are slated by publishers for the coming years.

In the meantime, as I continue to read wonderful things by writers of all genders, I can’t help but noticing that these two, The Last Lover and Walker on Water, have a curious capacity to linger in my mind, even as technically “better” books fade from memory.

17 September 14

Monica Carter is a freelance critic.

As I continue on keyboard jacking the BTBA blog this week, I continue also to give praise to some of the publishers who started roughly around the time the award began and have grown right along side us. After A for Archipelago comes E for Europa Editions – the sleek and suave playboy of international literature. Europa puts out the kind of books The Most Interesting Man in the World would read. On one hand, they are gritty with their notorious list of European Noir titles; on the other hand, they are the penultimate cultivated dinner guests with authors like Jane Gardam, Steve Erickson and Elena Ferrante. Granted, they are not solely a publisher of literature in translation, but international literature is their aim as state in their mission statement below:

With offices in New York and London, Europa Editions is an independent publisher of quality fiction. The company was founded in 2005 by Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, who are also the owners and publishers of the Italian press, Edizioni E/O. The idea behind the creation of Europa Editions was to capitalize on Edizioni E/O’s deep roots in European publishing to bring fresh international voices to the American and British markets and to provide quality editions that had a distinct look and consistently high level of editorial standards. The Europa catalog is eclectic, reflecting the founders’ belief that dialogue between nations and cultures is of vital importance and that this exchange is facilitated by literature chosen not only for its ability to entertain and fascinate, but also to inform and enlighten.

What book got me first? The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. Then it was Ferrante’s Lost Daughter. I couldn’t be happier to see that Ferrante is gathering the respect and praise she is receiving currently, but as with many readers who discovered a great writer early on in their career we can’t help but wonder what took everybody so long. I have recently been emailing with one of my fellow judges and he had just finished Ferrante’s newest, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and he said that he thought it was better than the last one and that she was “the real deal.” “Of course!” I wanted to scream. Not because everybody should know of her greatness by now, but because her novels are so brutally candid about womanhood, motherhood, friendship between women, and she writes about women have that society at large considers taboo. Even though her first few novels are slim, each one infused by a different singular, suffocating voice, the Neapolitan novels are thick and cast with a Shakespearean set of characters. The pairing of Ferrante and her translator, Ann Goldstein, has given Europa a literary powerhouse that pleases both critics and readers.


Besides Ferrante, they stole my wanna-be-a- drunken-sailor heart with dedication to European Noir. Originally, Europa called it “Mediterranean Noir” but they are expanding which is wise because if there is one thing that is not getting enough attention in the publishing world, it is global noir. I am serious about this. Although there are the City noir titles by Akashic which are good, they are akin to a sample platter of authors of noir. With Europa, you get the feast. My first noir writer I encountered through Europa was Jean-Claude Izzo. He fulfilled my drunken sailor dream and then some. I read his Marseilles Trilogy in a weekend and quickly tore through The Lost Sailors and A Sun for the Dying. Again, the same translator throughout Izzo’s work, the talented Howard Curtis is that invisible presence that makes it all work as a good translator should.

Besides Ferrante and their growing list of European Noir, I can’t help but mention their artwork. They have great covers. Having worked in bookstores, there’s no better way to attract attention to a book than a really stunning cover facing out. Europa covers are easy to spot and quite diverse. I am a huge enthusiast of cover art and Europa has accomplished a difficult task by developing it’s own identity but also making each cover original and individual.

Well, Europa Editions, you’re on my dance card. I love you for your jet setting style. I love you because you would be equally comfortable drinking a forty out of paper bag or a bottle of Dom at the Ritz. You always look good even though I am never sure what to expect when I turn the page. But that’s what makes me love you, you brilliant fool.

15 September 14

Monica Carter is a freelance critic.

This week as I takeover the BTBA blog and I finally get the opportunity to do something I have been longing to do – highlight some of the incredible publishers the are committed to producing quality literature in translation. Each day, I will tip my hat to a small press that has grown with the Best Translated Book Award, which began in 2007. There are no specific requirements except that these publishers continued to refine their identities, remain loyal to their mission statements and produce great works each year for Americans to discover, read and discuss.

Since the alphabet begins with “A” and I have never been shy about my love for them, I will begin with Archipelago Books. Run by the elegant Jill Schoolman and a small staff, Archipelago is celebrating its tenth year in publishing this October. I could explain exactly what they are about, but they say it best in this excerpt:

Archipelago Books is a not-for-profit press devoted to publishing excellent translations of classic and contemporary world literature. In our first decade, we have brought out over ninety books from more than twenty-five languages.

Artistic exchange between cultures is a crucial aspect of global understanding. It has never been more important for voices from around the world to be heard in this country—our place in the world depends upon it. Sadly, less than three percent of new literature published in the United States originates outside the Anglosphere. By publishing diverse and innovative literary translations we are doing what we can to change this lamentable circumstance and to broaden the American literary landscape.

We are always striving to find literary voices that simply would never be heard in the U.S. without Archipelago. While our efforts, especially those of our translators and authors, have been recognized by numerous literary awards, the sort of recognition we seek is for those largely unknown and forgotten locales—the Spanish Basque Country, the Chukchi lands of Siberia, the scrublands of South Africa, war-torn Lebanon—and the writing that allows our readers to see these places through the eyes of the people who live there.

Not that I don’t think the above sentiment is lovely, but the reason I fell in love with Archipelago was a little reddish-orange covered number entitled, The Waitress Was New, by Dominique Fabre, translated by Jordan Stump. A slim, whisper of a book that speaks to aging, solitude and the need for human contact, it feels like a philosophy primer for the meaning of life. A short read with a long tail impact.

Any book after that I spied with the tiny cluster of islands on the spine went immediately into my hands. I was obsessed.

Then came Georg Letham:Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated by Joel Rotenberg. A compelling, creepy read about a murderer who still wants to use his talents to contribute to humanity (check my review here. My site is under construction, by the way) in this original tale of a man’s own struggle between good and evil.

Seeming able to choose classics and contemporary fiction and poetry with equal expertise, Archipelago steadily built a long list of premiere literature in translation from well-chosen locations that represented lands and peoples with deep traditions not known outside of that area. Along the way, Achipelago picked up numerous prizes and garnered more attention from the media. Then they virtually hit gold. This gold, otherwise known as the “Norwegian Marcel Proust”, is Karl Ove Knausgaard. I don’t know whether or not Archipelago had the foresight of Knausgaard’s success because the fact is they would have picked up Knausgaard for the quality anyway. What sets Archipelago apart from most publishers is not only their impeccable taste, their faith in their writers and their translators, but it is this magical element – they have faith in readers out there, in you and me. I don’t know about you but I feel underestimated by most American media, including publishers, and I appreciate that someone doesn’t assume I will run screaming from the bookstore because a book is over 300 pages.

Archipelago Books, this love letter is to you. You have made my life better through reading, through your sophistication and through your loyalty. You’ve even made my bookshelves prettier. Don’t go changing, I love you just they way you are.

8 September 14

Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.

Getting started

There’s no real official start date for the judging of the Best Translated Book Award – though maybe the announcement finalizing who the judges actually are is a good starting point. While some of us have been here before – and have probably been reading with an eye towards the 2015 prize all year already – others have only been roped into the process more recently. But in fact, while we are already two-thirds into the year (the 2015 prize is for a work of fiction, never previously translated, published/distributed in the US in 2014), it really is still early days for all of us judges. Publishers have until the very last day of the year, December 31st, to submit titles to us, and while quite a few have already gotten some nice batches of books out to us (many thanks!), experience suggests that the submission piles will only really start piling up in the coming months. (Publishers don’t have to submit titles – we’ll try to consider anything that is eligible, regardless – but it certainly helps (a lot) if they do; and while the December 31 deadline isn’t actually an absolute one (yes, we’ll (try very hard to …) look at books even after then if for some reason they’ve escaped us until then) the more time we do have to consider books, the better.)

I get a lot of these titles anyway, all year long, as submissions for possible review at the Complete Review, so I don’t quite feel I’ve suddenly been thrown into a bottomless ocean of fiction-in-translation – I’ve been wading in it all year already – , but opening the spreadsheet where we track the books and share our comments on our on-going reading can feel a bit overwhelming. The spreadsheet is based on the Translation Database Chad Post keeps at Three Percent, with the ineligible works (such as anthologies) weeded out, and kept perhaps slightly more up-to-date. So while the 2014 database currently lists 384 fiction- titles, the spreadsheet – as I write this – already lists 408. (A few more of these will probably be weeded out, while a few dozen more will likely eventually be added – such as that just-announced new Murakami work.) Still, 408 409 works…..

A few books always escape us – we just can’t get our hands on even one copy – but we do try our hardest to at least consider them all. Some admittedly more than others: it only takes a quick dip into some of the books to realize there’s not much there – surprisingly few, however: translation does tend to act as a filter: all the extra work involved in getting a book published in English translation does seem to weed out most of the truly terrible stuff.

I build my BTBA piles as the books come in (fortunately not all 400+ books at once …) and try to work my way through, setting aside the ones which I think might possibly be in the running – and flinging away the ones which I think don’t deserve or have a chance (flinging carefully, since my fellow-judges might have different views and might make the case for these later in the process). For now, everything still seems reasonably manageable – the piles aren’t too high (we’re only two-thirds of the way into the year, so a lot of books haven’t been published yet and aren’t available for us to consider – I don’t think I’ve seen even close to half of the eligible titles yet), the spreadsheet isn’t yet a blur of titles – but I know from experience that it’s important to plow ahead at a steady clip, so as not to really be overwhelmed when the serious decision-making process starts early next year.

Already four months ago, just after this year’s winners were announced, I looked ahead, suggesting some of the titles I figured would be contenders for the 2015 longlist. I’ve seen and read a lot more of the eligible titles by now, but the picture is still a pretty hazy one to me – which I think is probably for the best: there are far too many more works to get through, and too many other opinions to hear and consider for anything to be set anywhere near in stone yet …..

There are, as always, some big names and some obvious contenders, but so far I haven’t been convinced there’s an obvious break-out title (we’re not going to have a Krasznahorkai three-peat – no eligible title, this time around), and there are fairly few ‘big’ books from the most prominent authors. Yes there’s a new Murakami, which I enjoyed, but it’s safe to say it’s not one of his major works; it’ll be in the longlist discussions, I assume, but I don’t think anyone will be surprised or shocked if it doesn’t make the short- or even longlist.

Two other authors who probably do qualify as literary powerhouses by now – Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante – are certainly in the thick of things with their new books, both of which are very strong. But they’re also (both) the third installment in multi-volume series, and so it’s possible that some reader-fatigue has or is setting in. I’m tipping Knausgaard’s final installment – number six, probably a couple of years off – as a likely future BTBA winner, but I don’t know if these middle-books can generate that top-level of excitement to consistently push them through to the shortlist. Ferrante, on the other hand, seems to have more momentum (and, this year, arguably the stronger book) – though the fact that it turns out this one isn’t the last in the series either might prove a bit deflating as well.


I’m fairly confident two Russian works will be in the final running, by two of the finest living Russian writers: The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin and The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov. Here also is where the BTBA really serves its purpose, I think: these are great works and significant translations, but neither book has gotten much attention stateside (yet); if they do make the longlist cut (and beyond …) for the BTBA, at least a bit more deserved attention – and more readers – should come their way.

If there’s one trend this year, it seems to be the proliferation of small-scale work. Not that there aren’t a lot of longer-than-average works – Knausgaard and Ferrante included – but a quick glance at my piles finds almost nothing longer than 500 pages, certainly fewer than in recent years. Even this year’s Bolaño – A Little Lumpen Novelita – is, indeed, just a “novelita”, weighing in at just 109 pages, while other likely contenders, such as Jean Echenoz’s 1914 aren’t much longer. And those are the novels: I can’t recall ever seeing this many 100-page-or-less story collections. I’ve been impressed by several of these so far, but I don’t know if they can stand up to some of the meatier fare – it’ll be interesting to see how our judging discussions go on that point. (Story collections have generally seemed to have a harder time in the BTBA process, but maybe a smaller collection of consistently strong stories will fare better than bigger but more uneven collections did ……)


Like every year, I wonder whether there will be a ‘genre’ title that can hold its own. The Nordic thrillers haven’t looked all that promising – Leif GW Persson’s Free Falling, as if in a Dream seems the best of the lot I’ve seen so far, but has the drawback of being the concluding volume of a trilogy and very much part of a bigger whole –, but the new Fuminori Nakamura (Last Winter we Parted) looks like it has potential and Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad is another one of his wild offerings (even if the English title can’t quite match the grand original French Ô dingos, ô chateaux !). Most interesting of all: new discovery Pascal Garnier, flooding the field with five (!) eligible titles this year. I’ve seen four and could make a case for each of them; The Front Seat Passenger might be my current favorite of the lot, but that’s likely just because it’s the one I most recently read….. The science fiction offerings seem more sparse this year, with the best (and pretty much only ?) hopes apparently translations from the Chinese: Wu Ming-Yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes (which I don’t think has quite what it takes), and Cixin Liu’s promising-sounding The Three-Body Problem.

Interesting for me too, is seeing books I’ve already read – usually in the original: this year that includes two Wolf Haas titles, Daniel Kehlmann’s F, and Victor Erofeyev’s Good Stalin (which I enjoyed a lot nearly a decade ago, and am curious to read in English now). It’ll be interesting to revisit these in translation – and see the extent to which familiarity with the texts influences how I feel about them.

For now, it’s simply about reading – digesting as much as possible and getting those initial impressions. A bit of cream rises easily to the top, but it’ll be a few months – until we start discussing in earnest – before I really start thinking seriously about what books I’d like to see on the longlist and what books I might not have given a fair shot yet (as other judges make the case for books X,Y, and Z). Fun times – for now.

8 August 14

English PEN’s “World Bookshelf” blog has a fantastic piece by Ottilie Mulzet on the complexities of translating László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo there Below, which won the both of them last year’s Best Translated Book Award.

The whole article is worth reading, but here are a few really interesting key points:

As you may have gathered, the amount of ground that Seiobo covers and the level of erudition displayed by the author are both formidable. This collage in my head of all the fragments of material acquired while translating it is, by necessity, enticingly eclectic and incomplete. Some of my discoveries were like poignant codas, scattered hints embedded in the real world, perhaps only to be found by a more assiduous reader. But, of course, it’s the translator who should always be the most assiduous reader of all.

The question of the writer’s voice when translating is crucial, and when translating a writer such as Krasznahorkai, it is even more so. The narrative voice in Seiobo first overwhelms the reader, then proceeds to harangue, mystify, and baffle. This voice carries the weight of so much fateful knowledge that the reader is not so informed by it as infected by the weight of all the human episteme. For all its encyclopaedic awareness, however, the voice is elusive, endlessly shifting between an anonymous narrator, anonymous protagonists, and objects themselves. I wondered at times if this torrent of words, seemingly drawing us nearer to these objects, was actually functioning as a kind of protective screen for the Divine – the principle of the Sacred – which is represented by the goddess Seiobo and by visitations of Andrei Rublev’s angels in the book, to cite just two examples. A torrent of words as a shield from the irrevocable crassness and damage of our secular world.

*

Both in interviews and in the book, the author uses a Hungarian verb that is hard to translate, elles, which consists of the main verb les with the addition of the verbal prefix el-. Les means to lie in wait for something (usually not with the best of intentions) but with the prefix el-, the verb is glossed as ‘to observe secretly and closely.’ The Magyar Értelmező Kis Szótár dictionary gives these definitions: ‘1. to learn something from somebody by observing, whilst remaining unobserved. 2. to happen upon something: He ~ my secret.’

This is not the time or place to embark upon a rapturous appreciation of Hungarian dictionaries, but the very existence of such a verb in Hungarian, expressing such a complex notion in a mere two syllables, is striking. Perhaps an even greater sphere of complexity resides in this one word than in the phenomena of the medieval workshop or the Asian master-apprenticeship, both of which are brought to light in the book. No, this is not just any sort of observation, but a ‘secret’ observation: the kind that does not encumber its object with the knowledge of being observed. Observation and perception are perhaps the most crucial elements in Seiobo. The wealth of material absorbed to make writing this book possible, and Krasznahorkai’s observations on the process of observation itself, suggest that it is the most fundamental aspect of acquiring skill. That, coupled with the grinding reality of the immense distances the author must have had to travel to witness all the experiences and facts that are communicated in this book, is perhaps a powerful rebuttal of the global ‘cyber-brain’ that is the Internet, which has otherwise become a universal mental prosthesis.

Read this, then read Seiobo.

6 August 14

Although it wasn’t all that long ago that László Krasznahorkai and Elisa Biagini won the Best Translated Book Award, but it’s already time to look ahead to the 2015 iteration—the first step of which is announcing the new group of judges.

Similar to years past, the fiction panel will consist of nine members, and five for poetry.

The fiction group consists of: George Carroll (Northwest Publishers’ Representative, Shelf Awareness), Monica Carter (Salonica), James Crossley (Island Books), Scott Esposito (Center for the Art of Translation, Conversational Reading), Jeremy Garber (Powells), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Asymptote), Madeleine LaRue (Music & Literature), Daniel Medin (American University of Paris, Cahiers Series), and Michael Orthofer (Complete Review).

Poetry is made up of: Biswamit Dwibedy (poet), Bill Martin (translator, co-founder of The Bridge), Dawn Lundy Martin (poet), Erica Mena-Landry (poet, translator, managing director of ALTA) and Stefan Tobler (And Other Stories and translator).

For all publishers/authors/translators out there who want their book(s) to be entered into the BTBA, all you have to do is send a copy to each one of the judges (and one to me so that we can log it). You can send either a physical copy OR a PDF/ebook. Just make sure you send it before December 31, 2014.

Any work that’s available in the United States for the first time ever (no retranslations, new editions, etc.) that’s published between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2014 is eligible. (Even if you don’t send in a copy, but your chances of winning increase exponentially by letting more judges read your work.)

Click here for mailing labels for the fiction judges, here for labels that include email addresses.

Click here for mailing labels for the poetry judges, here for labels that include email addresses.

In terms of dates, the longlists—25 fiction works, 10 poetry—will be announced on March 2nd, with the finalists—10 fiction, 5 poetry—on April 13th. The winners will be announced on April 27th and we’ll have a celebration in New York City on May 1st.

More info soon!

1 May 14

In line with the brief video of László Krasznahorkai that we published a couple days ago, here’s a brief acceptance speech from the 2014 BTBA winner for poetry, Elisa Biagini:

29 April 14

After winning the Best Translated Book Award for the second year in a row, László Krasznahorkai stopped by the New Directions offices and made a short acceptance speech.