28 April 17

When I started posting the “Why This Book Should Win”: entries for this year’s longlisted BTBA titles, I decided to include mostly random, totally unscientific odds for each book both to be shortlisted and to win the whole award. Taken in the aggregate, these odds made no sense. Combined, the ten fiction finalists have a 140% chance of winning the BTBA. This is stupid.

That said, I think these odds—again totally invented straight out of my ass—did end up producing a pretty OK ranking of which titles are the favorites leading into next week’s award announcements. But being a numbers nerd of sorts, I decided to rework all of these and produce a new set of odds—ones that added up to 100% and everything!

Here’s what I came up with for the poetry books:



Given Pizarnik’s previous appearance on the shortlist and the scope and appeal of this new collection, I think Extracting the Stone of Madness is the favorite to win, but Laâbi’s In Praise of Defeat is right there . . .

My personal favorite is Cheer Up, Femme Fatale, but it’s going to be hard for Yideum Kim to get past both of the favorites and Berlin-Hamlet, which would be a great story if it won, given that a novel of Borbély’s also came out this year, and that Ottilie Mulzet would be the first translator to win the BTBA for fiction and poetry.

And for the fiction:



Admittedly, War and Turpentine got a bump from appearing on the Man Booker International shortlist, but it’s also the only title on this list that was selected by the New York Times as one of the five best works of fiction from 2016.

Right below that, I see Chronicle of the Murdered House and Zama—two South American classics—in a dead heat. They’re very different books—Chronicle is expansive and polyvocal, with a Faulknerian vibe, whereas Zama is much more existential, featuring the marvelous, unique voice of its titular character—but both have received glowing reviews from the media and booksellers.

Ladivine and Among Strange Victims are good dark horses, with the latter being the trendy pick to win, at least among the participants in Trevor Berrett’s GoodReads forum dedicated to the BTBA.

One final note: it’s quite possible that all ten of the fiction finalists will show up on a BTBA list again in the future. Although deceased, Cardoso and Benedetto have other works worthy of translation. As do Diop and Devi. NDiaye’s following grows book by book. Laia Jufresa and Daniel Saldaña París are just at the start of what look to be very promising, long careers. Lebedev has another book out now that’s a contender for the 2018 award.

No matter what happens next Thursday, odds are good that we’ll be talking about all of these authors (and their translators!) for years to come. And in the meantime, we have all of these great books to enjoy and talk about.

26 April 17

Following on yesterday’s post on the fiction finalists, here are links to the “Why This Book Should Win” posts for the five poetry finalists along with short blurbs about what makes each book so good.

And once again, if you want to weigh in with your own thoughts, feel free to post to the BTBA Facebook page, or Tweet us @BTBA_, or participate in the GoodReads discussion forum run by BTBA judge Trevor Berrett.



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

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



Of Things by Michael Donhauser, translated from the German by Nick Hoff and Andrew Joron (Austria, Burning Deck Press)

“The Austrian poet Michael Donhauser’s collection of poems Of Things is an extended meditation on the relation of language to the world and by extension, our place, as linguistic beings, in it. Mundane things like a thicket, a manure pile, a marigold, gravel, or a tomato gain an almost talismanic power as the poet tries to understand them by describing their appearances, the associations they evoke, their historical contexts.”



Cheer Up, Femme Fatale by Yideum Kim, translated from the Korean by Ji Yoon Lee, Don Mee Choi, and Johannes Göransson (South Korea, Action Books)

The judge assigned this book never turned in their “Why This Book Should Win” post, so instead, here is a snippet from “A Stain in the Shape of a Star.”

A girl falls from her balcony while shaking out a blanket. A woman falls from her balcony while shaking out a comforter that stinks of beard and bones. On the evening news, an ostrich flies into clouds colored by sunset. On the train, people watch the muted news and read the truncated captions.



In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Morocco, Archipelago Books)

“These poems give us an idea of what it means to be a Moroccan poet. For Laâbi and his compatriots, politics and poetry were one and the same, every poet a combatant, spurred on by the desperate necessity of continued resistance on the page.”



Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert (Argentina, New Directions)

“Had Poe lived to read Alejandra Pizarnik, she would have given him nightmares.”

Back tomorrow with updated odds on which books will win it all!

25 April 17

We’re just over a week away from the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award winners1, so it’s a good time to start ramping up the speculation. Tomorrow I’ll post about the poetry finalists, and give updated odds on the entire shortlist on Thursday, but for today, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit the “Why This Book Should Win” post for each of the finalists and get a sense of what stood out from each of these fifteen books.

If you want to weigh in with your own thoughts, feel free to post to the BTBA Facebook page, or Tweet us @BTBA_, or participate in the GoodReads discussion forum run by BTBA judge Trevor Berrett.

2017 BTBA Fiction Finalists




Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell (Dominican Republic, Mandel Vilar Press)

“But this is no gross-zombies-lurching-around-trying-to-eat-brains kind of zombie novel. Rather, it’s a sophisticated exploration of the mind-body duality, the place of zombies in popular culture, the history of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the study of plant-human interactions.”



Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Brazil, Open Letter Books)

“There’s a fully-formed universe taking place in a run-down mansion rotting away in the jungle.”



Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman (Mauritius, Deep Vellum)

“The gorgeous, profoundly poetic writing is completely mesmerizing and viscerally affecting: it gave me goose bumps several times.”



Zama by Antonio di Benedetto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Argentina, New York Review Books)

“Di Bendetto presents a violent, tortured character so flawed and unlikeable yet utterly compelling, it’s difficult to ignore this works brilliance. Di Bendetto, a contemporary of Jorge Luis Borges, is an underserved writer whose own life is novel-worthy as well outlined by Esther Allen in her preface. Under two hundred pages, Zama feels like we have read a colonial epic.”



Doomi Golo by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the Wolof by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Senegal, Michigan State University Press)

“With touching repeated refrains like ‘Shame on the nation that doesn’t listen to its little girls’ (a similar statement is made of nations that ignore their poets) and thought-provoking scenes and observations (‘How often in the course of your lifetime do you see your own face in the mirror, Nguirane? Probably not very often, just like the rest of us. No human being, unless he is somehow deranged, will stand in front of a mirror for hours on end, looking at himself. It is in the nature of our reflection to be fleeting.’), the novel toggles beautifully between tones and characters and makes for a fantastic and unforgettable reading experience that also addresses the act of writing itself.”



War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated from the Dutch by David McKay (Belgium, Pantheon)

War & Turpentine is a sensitive and moving hymn to an ordinary man who each day faced ‘. . . the battle between the transcendent, which he yearned for, and the memory of death and destruction, which held him in its clutches.’ “



Umami by Laia Jufresa, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Mexico, Oneworld)

“Umami’s balance—of light and dark, of cultivation and deluge, of presence and absence—is what makes it such a welcoming home for the reader, one that feels profoundly lived-in (one can almost sense the neighbors’ heartbeats) as well as haunted (one can also sense the hovering shadows of Luz, Noelia, the children Alfonso and Noelia did not have, the parents Marina never quite had, the mother Ana’s mother might have been—but never was—and the abandoning, abruptly returning mother of Ana’s best friend Pina).”



Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev, translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis (Russia, New Vessel Press)

“So, Oblivion deserves to win because it’s a beautiful, creative, linguistically challenging novel interested in many things besides the history of Russia and its lasting influence.”



Ladivine by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Knopf)

“NDiaye’s books are illuminating while retaining so much mystery, or, rather, they are illuminating because they retain so much mystery. For example, the lines between characters often feel blurry to the point I sometimes don’t quite know who’s on the page anymore, and yet this confusion is the very moment I see light.”



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

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

1 This will be in another post as well, but the winners will be announced online at The Millions at 7pm on Thursday, May 4th, and will be announced simultaneously in person at an event at The Folly (92 W. Houston, NYC).

18 April 17



Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell (Dominican Republic, Mandel Vilar Press)

Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Brazil, Open Letter Books)



Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman (Mauritius, Deep Vellum)

Zama by Antonio di Benedetto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Argentina, New York Review Books)



Doomi Golo by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the Wolof by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Senegal, Michigan State University Press)

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated from the Dutch by David McKay (Belgium, Pantheon)



Umami by Laia Jufresa, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Mexico, Oneworld)

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev, translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis (Russia, New Vessel Press)



Ladivine by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Knopf)

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

18 April 17



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

Of Things by Michael Donhauser, translated from the German by Nick Hoff and Andrew Joron (Austria, Burning Deck Press)



Cheer Up, Femme Fatale by Yideum Kim, translated from the Korean by Ji Yoon Lee, Don Mee Choi, and Johannes Göransson (South Korea, Action Books)

In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Morocco, Archipelago Books)



Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert (Argentina, New Directions)

18 April 17

April 18, 2017—Ten works of fiction and five poetry collections remain in the running for this year’s Best Translated Book Awards following the announcement of the two shortlists at The Millions website this morning.

A wide range of languages and writing styles are represented on these shortlists, from the more classic works of Lúcio Cardoso (1912-1968) and Antonio di Benedetto (1922-1986), to contemporary voices like Laia Jufresa, Pedro Cabiya, and Sergei Lebedev. This diversity is also present on the poetry side of things, with South Korean author Yideum Kim, Argentine author Alejandra Pizarnik, and Hungarian author Szilárd Borbély each representing a different poetic approach.

The fifteen finalists for this year’s awards are translated from nine different languages (five titles are translated from the Spanish, three from the French) and thirteen different countries (Mexico and Argentina have two authors each). A third of the books are written by women, and fourteen different presses have a book on the list (New York Review Books is the only one with two).

Thanks to grant funds from the Amazon Literary Partnership, the winning authors and translators will each receive $5,000 cash prizes. Three Percent at the University of Rochester founded the BTBAs in 2008, and over the past six years, the Amazon Literary Partnership has contributed more than $120,000 to international authors and their translators through the BTBA.

The winners will be announced on Thursday, May 4th at 7 p.m., simultaneously on The Millions and at a live event at The Folly (92 W. Houston Street, New York City). The event is free and open to the public.

This year’s fiction jury is made up of: Trevor Berrett (The Mookse and the Gripes), Monica Carter (Salonica World Lit), Rachel Cordasco (Speculative Fiction in Translation), Jennifer Croft (translator, co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review), Lori Feathers (Interabang Books), Jeremy Garber (Powell’s Books), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), George Henson (World Literature Today, Latin American Literature Today, University of Oklahoma), and Steph Opitz (Marie Claire).

The poetry jury includes: Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (EuropeNow), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Becka McKay (writer and translator), and Emma Ramadan (translator, Riffraff Bookstore).

*

For more information, visit the official Best Translated Book Award site and the official BTBA Facebook page, and follow the award on Twitter.

17 April 17

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

Steph Opitz is the books reviewer for Marie Claire magazine. She also works with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), Kirkus Reviews, the Brooklyn Book Festival, and the Twin Cities Book Festival.



A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska, translated from the Macedonian by Christina Kramer (Macedonia, Two Lines Press)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 33%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 3%

My favorite thing about a very long book is being able to really live in its world for a while. In this case the world is 1980s Yugoslavia, and the reader follows twins born in the town of Skopje, which is now the capital of Macedonia. In the novel, the country is torn and the twins are conjoined. A clever set up to talk about a divided country—through the lens of two young girls who are literally stuck together.

This is a coming of age story for both the 12 year old twins, Zlata and Srebra, and for a new regime of Eastern European democracy. In meeting the sisters at this age, the reader sees the foundation and essential relationships (familia and other) that inform much of their actions later in the novel (read: this is what I’m talking about when I say you really get to live in the world of a long novel). Being conjoined, obviously, causes a lot of strife and ostracization, but it doesn’t feel like reading about something sensational for the sake of it. Rather, it’s an intimate account, from Zlata’s perspective, of freedom and imprisonment.

As the story progresses, the twins seek out a questionable surgery to separate, and have complicated love affairs, and face awful tragedies. There’s certainly enough action to warrant the length. And enough beautiful writing to warrant a “W” for the Best Translated Book Award. It’s worth noting, and likely obvious upon reading, Dimkovska is a poet. Her prose certainly isn’t lost in translation, Christina E. Kramer does a gorgeous job of bringing this story to English.

16 April 17

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, who is one of the founding editors of EuropeNow, a journal of political research, literature, and art at Columbia University. She previously served as editor in chief of the Columbia Journal and blog editor at Asymptote and Words Without Borders.



Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert (Argentina, New Directions)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 92%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 37%

Had Poe lived to read Alejandra Pizarnik, she would have given him nightmares. Revered by writers such as Octavio Paz, Roberto Bolaño, and César Aira—the latter calling her “the greatest, and the last” poet—Pizarnik is one of the most important contributors to twentieth-century Argentine poetry. Known for her lyricism and concession to misery, Pizarnik wrote of terror, suffering, estrangement, and death, but also of love and tenderness. She wrote seven books of poetry and one book of prose before ending her life at age 36 in 1972.

Extracting the Stone of Madness, published by New Directions and unbearably, stunningly translated by Yvette Siegert, comprises all of Pizarnik’s middle to late work, as well as a selection of posthumously published verse. A reader unfamiliar with Pizarnik’s life and work might flip through the first couple of pages and find her poems gentle, romantic even. Lines like “May your body always be / a beloved space for revelations” and “Only you can turn my memory / into a fascinated traveler, / a relentless fire” could fool anyone. It doesn’t take many minutes of reading, however, before the romance turns into a bitter longing (“You speak like the night. / You announce yourself like thirst”) followed by a violent absence (“The wind had eaten away / parts of my face and my hands.”)

Upon finishing this initial section, Works and Nights (1965), the first-time Pizarnik reader might feel as if they are somewhat prepared for section two, Extracting the Stone of Madness (1968). They are not.

The title poem references a circa 1494 painting by Hieronymus Bosch titled The Cure of Folly (or The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, or Cutting the Stone) depicting a surgical intervention in which a hole is drilled deep into the skull of a “fool”—a medieval practice once believed to relieve mental disorders.

The bad light is near and nothing is real. When I think of all that I’ve read of the spirit — when I closed my eyes, I saw luminous bodies turning in the mist, on the site of tenuous dwellings. Don’t be afraid, no one will come after you. All the grave robbers have gone. Silence, always silence; the gold coins of sleep.

I speak the way I speak inside. Not with the voice intent on sounding human, but with the other one, the one that insists I’m still a creature of the forest.

—from the poem “Extracting the Stone of Madness”

In this phenomenally eerie section, Pizarnik’s poems turn into feverish dreamscapes occupied by solitary women dressed in blue or red, fetuses of scorpions, mirrors, lilacs, and sorcery. Similar motifs extend into the next section of the book, A Musical Hell (1971), which references another painting by Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights. This title poem refers to the “hell” panel of Bosch’s famous triptych, depicting musicians playing on instruments that are simultaneously used for torture.

Like in Bosch’s hell, the horror in Extracting the Stone of Madness is inescapable. Every Pizarnik poem is a step down a phantom staircase, an insomniac descent leading to the final text of the book: a poem that was found written in chalk on a blackboard in the poet’s workroom after her suicide.

So why should anyone read this disturbing piece of literature, let alone award it with one of the finest translation prizes in the U.S.? Because Pizarnik’s poetry, and Siegert’s rendition of it, is inescapable: not due to its terror, but due to its mastery.

15 April 17

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, who is one of the founding editors of EuropeNow, a journal of political research, literature, and art at Columbia University. She previously served as editor in chief of the Columbia Journal and blog editor at Asymptote and Words Without Borders.



tasks by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, translated from the Spanish by Katherine M. Hedeen (Cuba, co-im-press)

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

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 2%

How does an immigrant return to their native country if they’ve never actually left? Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez-Núñez asks this timeless (and timely) question through twenty-one sections that make up the long poem tasks, translated masterfully into English by Katherine M. Hedeen and published by the exciting co-im-press.

In terms of describing tasks, I honestly don’t know where to begin—and this seems to be exactly the point: experiences, like Rodríguez-Núñez’ lines, are without beginning or end, borderless and beyond differentiation:

beards half a century old
scissors dread me
         I’m hardheaded
I’m from another dream of roosters crowing
raccoon bandit
hygiene of bathrooms both exotic
not so much as a volcano

a sooting of flurries
I’m a blue mark in the silence
freshly cut grass flamboyant trees
wonders of doubt

in the mirror there’s someone gazing back
ransacked by the light
an old acquaintance

—attempted excerpt from the section “origins.”

Through the elimination of commas, periods, and uppercase letters (save for proper nouns and the “I” in translation), Rodríguez-Núñez moves toward a form which he in the book’s introduction calls “edgeless poetry.” Indeed, it is difficult—sometimes impossible—for the reader of tasks to find a point where an idea begins or ends, and it’s exactly within these limitless impossibilities that new meanings and magical images emerge from the text. Rodríguez-Núñez and Hedeen leave the reader hanging in a compelling cloud of disorientation—guided by question marks as the only sentence-splitting punctuation—throughout the book:

what does the peasant
right in the middle of a furrow
weeds no longer relevant
facing the freeway
where cars hum
for a moment head-raised want to tell you?
that it’s rained and the corn is coming up strong this year?

that the sun’s yolk
has just burst the horizon
starry with palms and agave flowers?
that the task is hard
and you won’t write about all this?
tulips glimmer
only proof the sun survives

leaves aren’t tame
they turned to glass in the night
when the workers cut the grass

—attempted excerpt from the section “indisciplines”.

Although memory perpetually haunts the quotidian, a comforting regeneration of nature always surrounds the narrator’s experiences. tasks deserves to win the Best Translated Book Award 2017 because it reads like a stunning, hopeful requiem—or a cut-up poem crafted from the transcript of a roundtable discussion between Federico García Lorca, Inger Christensen, and The Kinks—presenting an imaginative remix of otherness and eco-poetics in a carefully crafted form where words, like migratory birds, roam freely across borders.

14 April 17

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Lori Feathers, co-founder of Interabang Books in Dallas, TX.



War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated from the Dutch by David McKay (Belgium, Pantheon)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 79%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 24%

Regretfully I became curious about what kind of man my grandfather had been, only after his death. I know his life episodically—a wedding, births, jobs, homes, accomplishments—and these milestones orient my fragmented memories of him. Unfortunately, his emotional life, the expectations and disappointments that colored his beliefs and actions, is a blank. Stefan Hertmans’s eloquent novel, War & Turpentine, speaks to this longing to understand.

Compelled by the approaching centennial of World War I, Hertmans immerses himself in the hundreds of pages of memoir that his grandfather, Urbain Martien, gave him years earlier, shortly before he died. Throughout his life Martien was impelled by a sense of duty—the duty to support his mother and siblings after his father died; the duty to fight in the trenches during WWI instead of becoming a professional artist; and the duty to marry the older sister of his fiancé, Maria Emilia, who fell victim to the Spanish flu. These are the episodes, so to speak, of Martien’s life. Hertmans takes his grandfather’s story and determines to “. . . rediscover it in my own way” by visiting the places that Martien writes about and the original masterpieces that he reproduced with his painting. Hertmans reimagines his grandfather’s life, shining a light on the strong emotions of a man who, in Hertmans’s memory, maintained an almost stoical countenance.

Although duty set the course for Martien the enduring passions that gave his life sustenance were painting and his love for Maria Emilia. Amid his “rediscovery” Hertmans uncovers the secretive way that Martien joined the two obsessions that sustained him. War & Turpentine is a sensitive and moving hymn to an ordinary man who each day faced “. . . the battle between the transcendent, which he yearned for, and the memory of death and destruction, which held him in its clutches.” It deserves the Best Translated Book Award because it expresses so well the bittersweet regret of coming to fully appreciate the depths of another, but reaching that point only after it’s too late.