8 February 18

This week’s BTBA post is from Jeremy Kang, an avid reader, writer, artist, and photographer and freelance reviewer. He is interested in film, languages, culture, and history.

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal, Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson (Seagull Books)

“The Ballad of Denmark Square”

A car crashes into another car and two lovers die,
everything you want to die, is there on Denmark Square.

There is a grave site on the slope above Fjosanger Street.
There is a petrol station on Michael Krohns Road.

There is an empty apartment on Ibsens Road. Here lived a
Charlotte once.

On Denmark Square. Without Denmark. Without Charlotte, without Josefine,
without Olga, without Stine, without Suzanne, without
Pia, without Mette, without Amalie, without Maja, without Janne;
what do you actually do here on these streets without names?

Without the city. Just a place where cars meet as the cars
speed by. Just streets, no city. No forest.

No trees, No field or marsh. No animals. No
river. Just this endless stream of traffic that

flows that trickles that rumbles that meanders past.
That flows in –fast-flowing streams past the nothing square.

Tomas Espedal has created such a unique genre in Norwegian literature. Part of his work is all about confessions from his inner self and the daily occurrences in his life. The other part is about the poetic nature of each phrase. He tries to find his own truth through looking at himself. Nothing is definable in his writing.

In Bergeners (an allusion to James Joyce and his Dubliners) Tomas Espedal takes the reader to New York, where he is with his girlfriend. He travels to different major European cities as if he is on a journey. In a book that seems dedicated to place, Espedal often shows how difficult it is for him to be settled hence why he is constantly traveling.

He also meets with Dag Solstad in Madrid and gets advice on how to really look and see Goya’s black paintings. I am dying to go to Madrid now and look at them this way.

We must describe the city we live in, the times we live in, our discussions, our politics, our loneliness. We mustn’t lose ourselves in a made-up, hypothetical universe, a false literature, what we write must be truth, and we must describe what’s real with all we possess of earnestness and strength, I said.

The front and back cover of this book is also unique. The front photograph is from New York and it contains a half body of perhaps a writer or a student and the head is tilted a tad and to the front are some blurred windows. The back photograph is from a Berlin train station. Natural light is used. It is almost like you are observing, entering, and exiting all at the same time in different places when you look at them together.

The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings by Juan Rulfo, translated from the Spanish by Douglas J. Weatherford (Deep Vellum Publishing)

Juan Rulfo was born in San Gabriel, Mexico and grew up during the Cristero rebellion in western Mexico. Rulfo is best known for Pedro Paramo. It is the novel that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. In his writing, Rulfo is fascinated with death and the meaning of death to those living.

The first story presented here is “El gallo de oro” (“The Golden Cockerel”). It tells the story of Dionisio Pinzon, who is unable to work because of his mutilated arm. He calls cockfights to make money. One day someone gives Dionisio a half-dead rooster. He buries the rooster in a hole and in a few days the rooster comes around, but then his mother dies. He leaves the town accompanied by his Golden Cockerel. He travels around putting his Golden Cockerel in fights around Mexico. He soon meets a singer nicknamed La Caponera. The Golden Cockerel dies in a fight shortly after and La Caponera comforts him and the two travel around together betting their lives away. La Caponera becomes Dionisio’s good luck charm and the gambling continues. Only when Dionisio loses his luck does he realize what is going on around him and once he realizes it, he can’t bear what has happened.

I really enjoyed discovering these lesser-known works in this book. One of my favorite short stories was called “A Piece of the Night.” It is about a prostitute who gets picked up by a gravedigger who is carrying a baby (not his baby though). The two of them walk through the night talking and just enjoying their time together and falling in love. When they find a hotel, the woman refuses payment and goes to bed alone. The way Rulfo writes this story is so relaxed and the shift into sleep and memory is fascinating. There is also a letter Rulfo wrote to his wife Clara in February 1947. I highly recommend this book to anyone especially if you are interested in Latin American literature.

Thank you Deep Vellum!

1 February 18

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore, an upstanding young citizen whose novel will be published by Coffee House next year.

The Kites by Romain Gary, translated from the French by Miranda Richmond Mouillot (New Directions)

Romain Gary’s final book (and my first experience reading him) is a story about a young French boy falling in irredeemable love with a Polish girl at the onset of World War II. On its surface it seems like a traditional, exhausted trope: young love, lost innocence and the tribulations of war. I can tell you The Kites is anything but. To begin with, the writing (and stunning translation by Miranda Richmond Mouillot) bursts with energy and lovely turns of phrase. The novel, published in 1980 and in English for the first time, feels highly contemporary. The language certainly, but the humor and irony of the book, even the tone, feels highly now. Toward the beginning I found myself laughing at the descriptions as well as the richly developed minor characters, knowing full well war was on the horizon and things would darken. Things indeed darken, but not at the expense of the book, which doesn’t spare the reader the terrible effects of losing friends and family and even one’s own country, but tells a fabulous story in the most fabulous way. I would recommend The Kites to just about any type of reader, it’s that good. The Kites is also a reminder of what great fiction can do even in genres that feel well-trodden.

11 January 18

“Why am I reading this?” I ask myself this almost constantly. Sometimes the answer is obvious: when the book is a masterpiece, when the pleasure is so deep or constant that there’s little else I want. I treasure those books, but if it was the only reason I read a book, I wouldn’t read much. There are novels where the concept is grand and exciting, so I want to follow it through to the end, generous with my judgment of the execution. There’s the craft option: Jean Echenoz is going to be worth reading for the quality of his finely crafted sentences. In last week’s post, Adam Hetherington pointed out how pace can dominate a book, and that too can be the single reason to stick with a novel. Sometimes it’s that the novel is the single best work focused on a slice of life or culture, the best baseball novel, the best restaurant novel, etc.

Reading for BTBA, it becomes an even more important question, because I need a damn good answer to keep on reading. So why the hell did I keep on reading Wu He’s Remains of Life? The jacket copy opens with

On October 27, 1930, at a sports meet on an aboriginal reservation in the mountains of Taiwan, the Atayal tribe rose up against the Japanese colonial regime, slaying one hundred and thirty-four people in a headhunting ritual.

Am I reading to educate myself about this event? I didn’t even realize that Taiwan was one of the places Japan had a colony. No, fuck no. If that’s the answer, I’m putting that book down. Besides, this would be the wrong damn book for that. As that same copy says later, “Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, it contains no paragraph breaks and only a handful of sentences.” Not the type of style that lends itself to historical or cultural edification, though one I’m a sucker for. I love Bernhard and By Night in Chile may be my favorite Bolaño. So stick with Remains of Life because its stylistic prose is compelling and unrelenting? Well, no.

I’ll stop being coy and cut to the end. I don’t know why I stuck with this book. I don’t know why I’m still thinking about it. So, that’s the reason why? Because even though I wasn’t in love, even though the answer to each reason to stay was “No, not that,” I still didn’t want to walk away, and that confusion itself fascinates me. I have no idea the last time I was so uncertain in my response, so willing to continue to work and engage and struggle, hoping to crack through to deep pleasure. There have been times I’ve done that work for pages upon pages and realized no breakthrough would come, so I dropped the book. There’ve been times it did happen, suddenly and intensely: Shishkin’s Maidenhair comes to mind.

I want to talk about that prose style. However difficult Bernhard’s prose can be, and his mood so fiercely off-putting, it’s hypnotic, and that takes readers in. There’s repetition, there are base phrases and the sentences use them like breathing, a way for the reader to fall as with a tide. Remains of Life gives you no such thing. The narrator is not the madmen so common to Bernhard’s works but he is a man adrift in his thoughts and in his pursuits, and sees no distinguishing one avenue from another. Commas are a brief break, and may come when you need them, or take you by surprise. At other times, you need one and there’s nothing there.

He’s a man living in a reservation village, fascinated by the way contemporary history views the tribal uprising and subsequent slaughter by Japanese troops. His neighbor identifies herself as the granddaughter of the leader of the headhunt and from there his unbroken narrative begins. In Wu He’s afterward he identifies three topics, which I’ll rewrite to my own understanding as: the historical investigation, and the possible interpretations of that history; the lives of the people, their connections to and dissociations from both past and the contemporary; and the life of that neighbor, known as the Girl, and without quite recognizing it, coming to fall in love with her. He can write about any one or all three at any given moment, and a subtle switch from one to another can occur across the space of a comma. The scarce periods are his way of resetting completely. Of finally shutting down a stream, needing to switch from one of these topics to another. Even when he is focused, thought carries on from thought. Prior to this is dense and intricate political, ideological, and moral thinking about his research and the headhunt, then the period to clear his mind:

By the time I wrote down the words A Politicized Headhunt I prepared a hodgepodge hotpot with sardines and flowering cabbage and hastily ate before crawling into bed and passing out into a deep sleep, after I woke up I sat down in the living room, the mountain mist felt like it was right on my front doorstep, in my daze I seemed to still be stuck on those “two questions,” I already forgot if there was anything I had written that could destroy one’s dignity, but I know that strong white spirits can destroy one’s awareness, I paced back and forth in front of the kitchen cabinet, rummaging through all the items inside, until I actually did get my hands on a bottle of some kind of hard liquor, it took only one look to see that it was 66 proof, probably one of the Ancestral Spirits secretly stashed it there before going home, after all there is nothing wrong with preparing for an emergency, I’ll be sure to give it back to him a little later once it is dark when he comes back with his bag full of white spirits, I took a sip and the primitive flavor wasn’t bad, by the time I took my second sip a well-dressed woman with long black hair and a cool gaze had suddenly appeared outside my screen door, I waited for her to say something but after three seconds she was still dead silent, I had no choice but to sip my way over to the screen door, the woman with the long hair grinned and I immediately recognized that it was the Girl and she was wearing a tight dark-green dress, she was so well dressed, all so that her breasts would really stand out, I raised my cup to her but she shook her head, “I came over to invite you to observe the ceremony the day after tomorrow,” her breasts were pressed right up against the screen door, I told her to be careful not to get her shirt dirty, “It’s okay these are my pajamas,” I almost wanted to tell her that it was no big deal, my birthday suit is my pajamas, “I’m going to Christmas morning prayer and joining the church, you wanna come,” wearing your birthday suit to bed is much more convenient as you can wear it both summer and winter

Like Girl, most characters don’t have names, instead an identity the narrator gives to them, based one something about their life, their physicality, their personality, and this can shift, without warning, as his conception of them does. It both distances him from them, and creates intimacy, in line with his role in the village. He’s an outsider, but he’s the most honest outsider they’ve encountered, because he knows that’s his role. He lives alone, he wanders, he visits people and they visit him. It’s an independent pattern of life that they all recognize and respect. He pressures no one. Many have come to research the Musha Incident, but he may be the first to simply live there.

The narrator himself may explain my uncertainty about Remains of Life. He is unsettled: in his own identity, in his role in the village, in the village’s role in his life, in what his future will hold, in his understanding of the past, in culture’s understanding of the past, and on and on. He may not have many answers, and answers he finds are slipping away, to be replaced. In a book as complex as this, with a narrator so willing to confront uncertainties, maybe it’s not surprising that’s mostly what I’m left with. Throughout the novel, he talks to as many people as he can, in conversations both long and short, about whatever the other person wants. In that spirit, I want others to read this, so conversations can come, and maybe I’ll figure out what I make of it all.

4 January 18

This week’s BTBA post is from Adam Hetherington. He lives and works in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is the author of the forthcoming novel Ontogeny Is Beautiful.

My clever idea was to very briefly quote him in the title of this blog, then claim that any extended quotation does him a disservice. I was going to tell you that Hilbig (published by Two Lines Press and gorgeously translated by Isabel Fargo Cole) cannot be fruitfully exampled. He can’t be fractaled. I really believe this to be true, but I don’t have time to reread the book tonight, looking for the word “pace” or “pacing,” so I don’t really actually have a good way to start talking about the way pace works in a few books I’ve read recently. Sorry about that! We’ll all just have to settle for this wonderful paragraph you’re finishing.

Old Rendering Plant puts me in mind of a cruel teacher I had as a child. She would hit us with her homemade ruler, or pull our hair to physically turn our heads to face exactly what she wanted us to see. Other things that very old people teaching elementary school 25 years ago could do—I’m sure you can imagine. Anyway. So she was cruel, but the book doesn’t remind me of her cruelty. It reminds me of her absolute demand of our attention. The complete pacing of her order. The experience of reading Old Rendering Plant is like being led by the scruff of your neck, at a slow and even speed, gorgeous line by gorgeous line. Except you should imagine this experience to be just incredibly pleasant and addictive. I read it start to finish two days in a row. I doubt many people read this in more than one sitting.

— —

I remember reading Patrick Suskind accurately describe smells in his novel Perfume (translated by John E. Woods and published by Vintage) and thinking, “How in the exact hell did he do that?” even before I finished the sentence. A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen and published by Knopf) made me ask the same question. The bulk of the novel takes place at a small theatre during a show by an aging, declining, but still relatively famous comedian. Second by second, Grossman and Cohen take us through Greenstein (the comedian) killing, totally blowing it, bombing, kind of almost saving it, arguing with the entire audience, connecting with individual audience members, driving the audience to leave, reacting to their leaving, then repeating the process. If you’ve seen much live comedy, you know the room lives and dies almost syllable by syllable. A Horse Walks into a Bar perfectly shows how tone can change between—or even because of—Greenstein’s breaths. The touch and go (then pause, then rush, then stop completely, etc) pacing here is masterful.

— —

Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories (published by Soho Press and translated by Roy Kesey) comes as a kind of encyclopedic mania, though tempered by the author’s incredible grasp on academic language. The practical uses, the surface-level absurdity, and especially the way that academese in modern philosophy lends itself to ridiculous framing of pet issues: Oloixarac gets it all right. A wild, horny energy propels nearly all of the characters’ actions, but that same horniness serves as a lens through which they—ugly, lonely, and overeducated—contextualize (and repeatedly recontextualize) their lives and ideas. But the trick here is that Oloixarac and Kesey somehow manage to use this specific kind of university jargon at a rapid, whirlwind clip while managing to be funny. Oloixarac is a truly hilarious writer, and Kesey is a deft (and probably funny in his own right) translator. The plodding crap of academese is entirely absent under their watch. It’s all electric movement.

— —

I just realized I didn’t quote anyone, so I didn’t actually need to justify not quoting Hilbig, but if I change it now I worry the whole post’s pacing will be off. Thanks for reading.

22 December 17

This post was compiled by BTBA judge P.T. Smith.

From now until the announcement of the long list, we’ll be running one post a week from a BTBA judge, cycling through the nine of us. To launch those posts, just in time for the holidays (just in time, yes), here’s a gift guide. These are books that have stood out to each of us, whether for personal reasons or in ways that make them just right for certain types of people and readers. We’ve also indulged ourselves, including a book that’s not eligible for the award, but still so good that some people should be buying or receiving a copy this year.

Caitlin Luce Baker

August by Romina Paula, translated by Jennifer Croft

It was something about wanting to scatter your ashes; something about wanting to scatter you.

August is a meditation of what it means to go on living while forever mourning the death of your best friend. Emilia journeys back to rural Patagonia to scatter the ashes of her best friend who committed suicide and finds herself turning into the person she was five years ago at nineteen.

Pair with several bottles of cheap red wine, weed, Six Feet Under, and a mix CD featuring The Counting Crows, The Police, Bob Marley, and Nirvana.

A Simple Story by Leila Guerriero, translated by Frances Riddle

A Simple Story is an intense look at the high stakes world of the men who dance the malambo.

This was one of my favorite reading experiences of the year. I recommend reading while watching the malambo dancers on YouTube.

Pair with obsession, drama, sweat, Fernet con Coca and Yerba Maté.

Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine, translated Jeffrey Zuckerman

Radiant Terminus is set in a desolate landscape after the fall of the second Soviet Union.

It was one of the most disturbing books that I read this year. I read it late at night and welcomed Volodine’s words into my nightmares.

Pair with Swans, Killing Joke, This Mortal Coil, Shostakovich, a survival kit, and damn good whiskey.

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

Gabe Habash’s stellar debut takes the reader on a road trip through college wrestler Stephen Florida’s senior year of college. We are in Stephen’s head as he navigates sex, love, and his raw desire to win. This is a wild headbanger of a novel.

Pair with Led Zeppelin, Cream, Van Halen, sweat, obsession, a full tank of gas, and cheap beer.

Kasia Bartoszynska

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Annie Tucker

Kurniawan made a big splash last year with his sprawling historical epic, Beauty is a Wound. This is shorter and punchier but just as good: a startling combination of violence, humor, and tenderness, Kurniawan’s gangster road trip novel about the trials and tribulations of a young man whose “little bird” won’t get erect is the perfect gift for the friend who loves movies by Tarantino or Martin McDonagh.

Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler, translated by Alexander Starritt

A gorgeous novella from this master of Mitteleuropa. The story of an aging artist who is “rediscovered” by a group of eager young poets, it’s a melancholic but humor-tinged exploration of art, aging, and literary celebrity. Perfect for the friend who enjoys a quiet afternoon or evening with a good book.

Not One Day by Anne Garreta, translated by Emma Ramadan

In this mesmerizing work, Garreta sets herself a task of remembering, each day, a woman she has desired, or who has desired her. These formal constraints fade into the background amidst the sensuous quality of the memories; their vivid intensity. A spellbinding reflection on memory, list, and literature. Get it for someone sexy.

Almost Never by Daniel Sada, translated by Katherine Silver

A rollicking, deadpan, utterly hilarious story about a man who is caught between his mother, his lover, his fiancée, and his aunt. So funny, and so ridiculous, and so wonderful. Anyone who enjoys Flann O’Brien, or Beckett’s novels, will love it.

Tara Cheesman

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Ross Benjamin

When a screenwriter and his family rent an isolated villa in the mountains strange things being to happen. The writer hopes the forced solitude, and stunning views of glaciers, will help him complete a long overdue screenplay. But there’s something wrong with the house. Within its walls time and space bleed through dimensional boundaries and overlap. And as the laws of physics collapse around him, the writer slowly loses his grip on reality. Told through a series of journal entries, You Should Have Left is a classic horror novel in the style of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. I do not recommend reading it in an empty house at night. Kehlmann understands too well the power things left unsaid have over the imagination.

Hell’s Gate by Laurent Gaudé, translated by Emily Boyce & Jane Aiken

What will a father do to save his son? And what will a son do to avenge his father? Matteo and Giuliana De Nittis’ son, Pippo, is hit by a random bullet in the streets of Naples and dies in his father’s arms. One senseless act of violence will cost not only Pippo his life, but his parents their marriage. Matteo takes to drinking in a dive bar with a group of outcasts. The bar’s big-hearted owner, a disgraced professor, a priest on the edge of excommunication, and a transvestite prostitute form an unlikely family. They share their stories, finding and giving comfort. And with them Matteo finally finds a kind of peace. Until, one night, the professor reveals that he has discovered an entrance into the underworld and a daring rescue plan is formed.

Gaudé’s novel explores love, loss, and families—the ones we make and the ones we find—grounding Matteo and Pippo’s tale in a harsh reality devoid of sentimentality, yet still beautiful in its humanity.

Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, translated by Hannah Chute

Both an homage to the nineteenth-century adventure novel and an experimental writing exercise, de Roblès’ plot (unapologetically madcap) and characters (decidedly eccentric) are entirely unlike anything I’ve ever read. The narrative occurs in two, seemingly parallel, universes. The first is set in present-day France and revolves around a cigar turned e-reader factory managed by Wang-li Wong, a revolting man who spies on, sexually harasses and assaults his female employees. Until, one day, the tables begin to turn. The second storyline is an overtly fabulous tale that bears the hallmarks—names, places, plot devices—of multiple works of classic 19th-century novels. Readers will easily recognize the influence of Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Our delightful group of protagonists travel across the globe on a fantastical adventure to catch a thief.

The two plot lines repeatedly intersect and diverge until the long, meta-fictional game Robles’ is so masterfully playing finally reveals itself. Funny and playful, for the right reader this is a book that delivers huge payoffs again and again.

Lori Feathers

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump

NDiaye took my breath away last year with her masterful novel, Ladivine. But I think that this, her most recent novel in translation, is even better. My Heart Hemmed In is extraordinary: an original and suspenseful novel that exposes all that is monstrous and ugly in the way that we regard those around us—our tendency to harbor suspicions, judgments, and prejudices against people we do not want or even try, to understand. NDiaye takes us inside the disturbing mind of Nadia, her unforgettable protagonist, with writing that is arresting; the tension, immediately palpable, builds steadily. The temptation to turn the pages quickly is great but the prose is so fine that you will want to savor it. With its unsettling atmosphere reminiscent of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, NDiaye’s brilliant novel obtains pride of place with the very best literary horror. My Heart Hemmed In is a morality tale for our times. NDiaye may well be our most important living writer.

Elle Philippe Djian, translated by Michael Katims

This slim, propulsive novel is the perfect cure for a reading slump. The story is narrated in the first person by the novel’s protagonist, Michele, a successful, divorced woman with a grown son and an aged, eccentric mother who seems to have everything but is nonetheless dissatisfied with life. When a young couple with a new baby moves next door, Michele’s life is up-ended in ways that are unexpected and force her to confront her carnal desires and what these feeling mean for her self-identity. Elle is well-written, tense, and dark—an intriguing character study of a middle-aged woman who is struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, all the while deceiving those most important in her life.

The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker

If you have never heard of Cristina Rivera Garza you need to remedy that fact, immediately! Reading The Iliac Crest is as fascinating as it is disorienting. Let’s start with the narrator. Yes, almost from the beginning you question the narrator’s reliability but what’s more you wonder who the narrator is: woman, man, transgendered; alive, dead, something in between; rational, insane, periodically delusional? The novel begins when the narrator is visited one night by two women: one, an ex-lover whose arrival is anticipated; the other, an unexpected and unknown young woman, presumably seeking shelter from the storm outside. But really the young woman needs the narrator’s help in retrieving a manuscript that she believes was left at the nursing home where the narrator is a doctor. This concise novel is so full of intrigue, allusions, and symbolism that you might just feel compelled to read it once and then immediately start at the beginning and read again, which is exactly what I did!

The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Helen R. Lane

I am embarrassed to confess that until a few months ago, I had never read anything by Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel Laureate. And losing myself within the pages of The War of the End of the World was among my most satisfying reading experiences of the year. What a novel! What a writer! Vargas Llosa’s epic novel is about the 1896–1897 War of Canudos in northeastern Brazil, a series of battles that pitted the Brazilian army against a large group of religious fanatics guided by a messianic leader who preached that Brazil’s new republican government presaged the Rapture. Vargas Llosa takes us inside the minds of the politicians, the landowners, the merchant-exploiters, and the religious zealots, many of them very former slaves and indigenous peoples. On a scale as grand as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Vargas Llosa portrays the motives, hopes, values, and beliefs of not just the battle leaders but also the very ordinary people whose seemingly inconsequential acts, taken together, played a pivotal role in creating Brazil’s history. A novel that is dense with atmosphere, character, and plot and just simply a marvel.

Mark Haber

Our Dead World by Liliana Colanzi, translated by Jessica Sequeira

Friend and fellow Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún suggested this great collection by another Bolivian author Liliana Colanzi. The stories are at once earthly and yet there’s a sense of the strange hovering over all of these tales. A dazzling collection that blends the fantastic and the bizarre into stories that feel grounded and somehow timeless.

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún, translated by Sophie Hughes

I envy subtlety in a writer, a soft touch. And Hasbún has this even when writing about subjects that are traditionally treated with a heavy hand. Affections is a novel that goes all the places you don’t expect. Based loosely on Hans Ertl and his family who left Germany after World War II and settled in Bolivia, this is a story of a family living under the burdens of history. Each chapter is told by a different character but focuses especially on Hans’ daughters who come of age during the turbulent and revolutionary 60s and 70s in South America. A subtle, often sympathetic and evocative novel—stunningly translated by Sophie Hughes—that manages to carry the breadth of a big novel but with a third of the pages.

Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated by Katherine Silver

This was one of the many books from Latin America that New Directions began publishing around 2007 and 2008, right around the time Bolaño was on the cusp of exploding (I also remember some incredible New Directions titles from Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Evelio Rosero during this period). Visceral, haunting and completely unforgettable. This novel, about a man hired by the Catholic Church to edit a 1,100 page report detailing the massacres of indigenous people in an unnamed Latin American country, is by turns funny and haunting. The translation by Katherine Silver is seamless. An explosion of a book that has not left me in the decade since I’ve read it.

Adam Hetherington

Knots by Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated by Kari Dickson

In these stories, Øyehaug sharpens the surreality of life through formal experimentation, then uses our resulting focus as a tool to wedge the mundanity of the everyday even closer to home. Odd, funny, and sad, Knots would be a perfect gift for lovers of Lydia Davis, Amelia Gray, and early George Saunders.

Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac, translated by Roy Kesey

Two unattractive, overeducated college students push theory into practice through their horniness, culminating in a video game that turns the Argentinian Dirty War back on itself, disappearing the place, rather than the people. Also: it’s a comedy. I promise. This manically ambitious book would be a great gift for the funniest person you know.

Enfermario by Gabriela Torres Olivares, translated by Jennifer Donovan

Olivares maps the space of symptoms meeting audiences. She linguistically organizes a physical world around individual otherness, prioritizing the experience of the ill and the unique, and the haunted ways that they live and suffer in our everyday world. Enfermario would be great gift for someone whose trust you want to gain.

Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Simply put, this is the best short story collection ever written. Buy yourself a copy. You deserve it.

Jeremy Kang

On Darkness by Josefine Klougart, translated by Martin Aitken

This book is about the space between eyes and what is seen and felt that leads in some way to darkness. For fans of Maggie Nelson, Virgina Woolf, and Anne Carson.

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba, translated by Lisa Dillman

A spellbinding story about childhood, loss, and belonging, Barba nails childhood perfectly and the translation by Lisa Dillman is extraordinary. I will never forget this gem and hope one day Sofia Coppola brings it to the screen!

For Isabel: A Mandala by Antonio Tabucchi, translated by Elizabeth Harris

An investigation for space and time. Tadeus, a dead poet, makes circles through different times and places (mimicking a Buddhist mandala) attempting to find a lost love and classmate. The poet travels from Lisbon across Europe, his travels copying the events of Isabel’s life. Tadeus interviews people who knew Isabel at different points in her life. The book reminds me of a dream that when you awake slowly fades from the perception of reality.

The Book of Disquiet: The Complete Edition by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

One of my favorite books ever written and this new edition and translation is gorgeous. This book will make you question who you really are and you’ll come out transformed.

Bradley Schmidt

The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor

Binet’s second novel is a colorful amalgam of crime novel, academic satire, and conspiracy theory. Starting with the historical fact of the famed literary critic Roland Barthes dying in a traffic accident, the book considers the possibility that it wasn’t an accident at all. Binet weaves together fact and fiction, developing a secret history of 1980s (primarily French) intelligentsia, including stars such as Foucault, Derrida, Searle, and Umberto Eco. Taylor’s translation takes us on a lively ride and pulls back the curtain. This book is ideal for those who have survived academia and may have vague recollections of theory, but also would like to imagine a more exciting version of the ivory tower, featuring plenty of sex, violence, duels, and debates. For fans of a slightly exciting version of semiotics.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated by Eliza Marciniak

This slim book is the first novel by Greg, a Polish poet who lives in England, and richly conveys a coming-of-age story is a rural village in southern Poland. Childhood rituals are a colorful mix of the Catholic and the pagan, or folkloric. In Eliza Marciniak’s deft translation, the short, episodic portraits give readers an unusual perspective on events both large (the Solidarity movement, collapse of the Soviet Bloc) and small (a beloved cat drowning in a pond). Although we don’t discover what becomes of Wiola, it is clear that her reconstruction of the past is cherished, but remains unsentimental. This debut is a true gem and was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. For fans of provincial prose and novellas written by poets.

Angel Station by Jáchym Topol, translated by Alex Zucker

Named after a metro station in Prague, this short novel packs a punch, giving a glimpse of a run-down neighborhood shortly after the end of Communism. The main character, Hooks, is a meth head who has spent time in mental hospital. Zucker’s translation renders the highly colorful, colloquial language, drug trips, and other adventures. While occasionally hard to follow, Topol’s rough-and-tumble tale takes us along for a ride. It’s a thrill watching Hook get into trouble and hope for the best as he tries to get out alive. Written directly after City Sister Silver, it can be seen as a shorter, more accessible version. It may burn going down, but Angel Station can be read in a single sitting. It will stay with you for a while. For fans of Trainspotting and Prague.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Yoko Tawada is perhaps one of the most interesting writers in contemporary German fiction. Memoirs of a Polar Bear tells the story of three generations of polar bears. One of the many changes that occurs over these generations is a decreasing ability to communicate with humans. Although the first two bears are circus performers and the third lives in a zoo, the bears are never quite let into the fold. In its own way, it is a story of family, exile, and what odd creatures humans are. Susan Bernofsky’s translation preserves the unique voice, rendering a prose full of vivid imagery. Memoirs of a Polar Bear was awarded the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. For fans of deep thought and polar bears.

P.T. Smith

The Longest Year by Daniel Grenier, translated by Pablo Strauss

Gifting someone a book, you want to give something that suits them, but it should having something of you, too. So, the most transparently biased recommendation here is this book from Quebec, the drum I beat whenever I can. Does someone have a loyalty to American literature? Do they love realism and historical settings? Do you think they can handle more? Give them The Longest Year. Part contemporary story of a young American boy coming to terms with his absent father and his French-Canadian heritage, and part historical tale of a man who hardly ages (once every leap year) and wanders Quebec and American, stretching across borders and across time, from the 1700s and on. Grenier’s is a beautiful book, American and Quebecious, grounded and mythical.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qui Miaojin, translated by Bonnie Huie

Is someone you know tormented? Prone to heartbreak? Obsessive in both love affairs and friendships? Fiercely loyal and quick to see, and forgive, betrayal? Are they honest with themselves about this but unable to change? Then this book is for them. Or if they just enjoy reading something like that, then yeah, it’s for them too. In this novel told through notebooks, Qui Miaojin creates characters who are passionately human in their struggles, with themselves, their sexuality, their identity, and with those they care for. It’s raging with feeling, in beautiful sentences, and painstakingly works out the nuances of those emotions.

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán, translated by Will Vanderhyden

I’ve probably been told to shut up about this novel. Who is it a good gift for? Anyone. Tell me you like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, or Pink Floyd, I’ll tell you to read this book. You want funny books? There are cows bred by a monstrously rich family in a mad, clueless scheme, cows that turn out to be cannibalistic, and decapitate and rape horses “in that order.” It is intellectual, heady, aesthetic fiction that uses all of that to find depth of heart. Whatever you read for, you can find it here. It’s the type of book that opens itself to let someone discover they can read “difficult” fiction.

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

This one is for SF fans. There’s only a little doubt about it in my mind, but Banks is my favorite SF writer. Most of his SF books are set in the same universe, one of post-scarcity, a society that’s lasted for centuries, held together by hyper-intelligent AIs called Minds implanted in ships, and is filled with possibility for the humans who inhabit it. These are massive books, massive in scope, world-building, ambition, ideas, and yes, number of pages. They are works of genius and absurdly entertaining. They can be read in any order. So why Surface Detail? It’s what I’ve read most recently, and it’s got a pitch. There exist computer-generated afterlives, hells in which real consciousnesses suffer. Civilizations are fighting a simulated war to end or preserve these hells. That war is about to break out into the Real.

29 August 17

It’s that time again! Listed below are all the details for this year’s Best Translated Book Award juries!

Award Dates

In terms of dates, this is subject to change, but currently we’re planning on announcing the longlists for fiction and poetry on Tuesday, April 10th, the finalists on Tuesday, May 15th, and the winners on Thursday, May 31st.


The Best Translated Book Award was founded in 2007 (making this its eleventh iteration) to draw attention to the best works of translated literature that came out the following year. The award’s emphasis is on the quality of the book and translation, with the argument that you can’t have a great work of literature without both of these aspects working at a very high level.

Starting with the 2009 award (all years given are for the year in which the winners are announced; the books are from the year previous), works of fiction and poetry were awarded separately. And beginning with the 2011 award, each winning author and translator received a $5,000 cash prize thanks to the Amazon Literary Partnership program. Thanks to this program, we have given out $125,000 in prizes to international authors and their translators.


Any work of translation published in English for the first time ever between January 1, 2017 and December 31, 2017 is eligible for the award. A book that existed in English in a previous translation is not eligible, unless more than half of its content is new. (For example, a new collection of poems of which one-third appeared in an early translation would be eligible, but a novel with an extra ten pages added that were previously censored would not.) Books published in the UK are eligible if they are distributed in the U.S. through normal means. Self-published ebooks in translation are eligible if they have an ISBN and are available for purchase through more than one outlet.

Submission Process

To ensure that their books are given full consideration, publishers should send a copy to each of the judges in the appropriate category. Please write “BTBA 2018” on the front of the package. There are nine fiction judges and five poetry, but Open Letter’s offices are included as well for record-keeping purposes. There is no submission fee. Although e-versions are acceptable, they are not encouraged. Every book that’s submitted will be reviewed in full by at least one judge. Unlike past years, all of the 2018 judges are based in the U.S. to save publishers on shipping costs. Send the books now, but make sure you get them all in by December 31, 2017. Thanks!

Click here for mailing labels for the fiction judges (and here for one with email addresses included).

Click here for mailing labels for the poetry judges (and here for one with email addresses included).

Poetry Judges

This year’s poetry committee:

Raluca Albu is the online literature editor for BOMB, and a senior nonfiction editor with Guernica. Her writing about translation, migration, and history has appeared online in The Paris Review, The Village Voice, The Rumpus, The Guardian, and Words without Borders.

Jarrod Annis is a writer and bookseller. He manages Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY. His work has appeared in Coldfront, Greetings, and Poems By Sunday.

Tess Lewis is a writer and translator from French and German and serves as an Advisory Editor for the Hudson Review. Her translations have won a number of awards including the 2015 ACFNY Translation Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Aditi Machado is the author of the poetry collection Some Beheadings (Nightboat Books, 2017) and the translator of Farid Tali’s novella Prosopopoeia (Action Books, 2016). Her poetry, translations, and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in Western Humanities Review, The Chicago Review, Volt, Jacket2, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She is the poetry editor of Asymptote, an international journal of translation.

Emma Ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, Rhode Island, where she will soon open Riffraff, a bookstore and bar. She is the recipient of a PEN/Heim grant, an NEA Translation Fellowship, and a Fulbright in Morocco. Her translations include Anne Garréta’s Sphinx and Not One Day (Deep Vellum), Fouad Laroui’s The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (Deep Vellum), Anne Parian’s Monospace (La Presse/Fence Books), and Frédéric Forte’s 33 Flat Sonnets (Mindmade Books). Her forthcoming translations include Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things (Feminist Press), Delphine Minoui’s I’m Writing You From Tehran (FSG), and Marcus Malte’s The Boy (Restless Books).

Fiction Judges

This year’s fiction committee:

Caitlin L. Baker is the fiction buyer for University Book Store in Seattle, Washington.

Katarzyna (Kasia) Bartoszyńska is an English professor at Monmouth College, a translator (from Polish to English), most recently of Zygmunt Bauman’s and Stanisław Obirek’s Of God and Man (Polity), and former bookseller at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago.

Tara Cheesman-Olmsted is a freelance book critic and National Book Critics Circle member whose recent reviews can be found at The Rumpus, Book Riot, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Quarterly Conversation. Since 2009 she’s written the blog Reader At Large (formerly BookSexy Review).

Lori Feathers is a co-owner of Interabang Books in Dallas, Texas and the store’s book buyer. She writes freelance book reviews and currently sits on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle. @lorifeathers

Mark Haber is the Operations Manager at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas. A book of his short stories, Deathbed Conversions, was published in 2009 and translated into Spanish in a bilingual edition in 2017 by Editorial Argonáutica in 2017.

Adam Hetherington lives and works in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He’s the author of the forthcoming novel Ontogeny Is Beautiful.

Jeremy Keng is an avid reader, writer, artist, and photographer and freelance reviewer. He is interested in film, languages, culture, and history.

Originally from Kansas, Bradley Schmidt is based in Leipzig, Germany and has been translating contemporary German prose and poetry since 2011. Published authors include Berhard Schlink, Anna Kim, and Lutz Seiler. He is currently translating an award-winning novel featuring hooligans, forthcoming in Spring 2018 with Skyhorse.

P.T. Smith is the Creative Director for The Scofield, an Assistant Editor for Asymptote, and from time to time writes reviews.

There you go! Sometime in the next few weeks we’ll start up the BTBA blog again, to go along with our reviews and Two Month Review information.

12 May 17

I asked the winners of this year’s Best Translated Book Award to send in some comments—or a video—about the prize, their project, etc. The first to arrive is the following from Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson about their translation of Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House.

We are absolutely thrilled to have won the 2017 Best Translated Book Award, for the very obvious reason that it’s a great honour, but also because Chronicle of the Murdered House was our first co-translation, and proved to be such a happy collaboration that we are now working on a second project. Then there is the book itself, which is one of the most remarkable works either of us has ever read, and a fascinating challenge for us as translators: all those different voices—the hysterical, anguished prose of André, the Pharmacist’s rather pompous accounts, Nina’s wheedling letters to Valdo, Ana’s guilt-laden outpourings and so on. There can rarely have been a more searing and, at times, gut-wrenching description of death and decay or, indeed, of the lengths to which sexual desire can go. Our thanks to Chad and all at Open Letter for thinking we were up to the challenge! And thanks, too, to the judges for being as blown away by the novel as we were.

5 May 17

The tenth annual Best Translated Book Awards were announced this evening at The Folly in New York City, and at The Millions with Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, winning for fiction, and Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness, translated by Yvette Siegert, winning for poetry.

With four books on the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist, Margaret Jull Costa had pretty good odds that one of her projects would win the prize. This is the first time Jull Costa, Robin Patterson, and Open Letter Books have received the award.

According to BTBA judge Jeremy Garber (Powell’s Books), “Though it took longer than 50 years to finally appear in English, Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House was well worth the wait. Epic in scope and stunning in its execution, the late Brazilian author’s 1959 masterpiece is a resounding accomplishment. Thanks to the translational prowess of Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, Cardoso’s saga of familial scheming and salacious scandal deservingly comes to an even wider audience.”

Fellow judge Mark Haber (Brazos Bookstore) adds “Chronicle has hints of Dostoyevsky, Garcia Marquez and William Faulkner, yet the DNA is wholly Cardoso’s, who was not only a friend, but a mentor to Clarice Lispector. This novel is not only beautifully written and strangely profound, but a joy to read. The dramas of a prestigious family in a provincial Brazilian jungle, complete with gossip, backstabbing, cross-dressing and suicide attempts all take place beneath a single roof. There’s a fully-formed universe in this run-down mansion rotting away in the woods. Chronicle of the Murdered House is a novel about family, trust, madness, betrayal, human nature, all heavy themes really, yet handled with aplomb. . . . its translation feels long overdue.”

Extracting the Stone of Madness is the fourth collection of Alejandra Pizarnik’s to be translated by Yvette Siegert, but the first to win the Best Translated Book Award. It is published by New Directions—who has won the BTBA on three past occasions, twice for fiction, once for poetry—and collects all of Pizarnik’s middle and late works, including some posthumous pieces.

Judge Emma Ramadan (Riffraff Bookstore) said, “The judges were extremely impressed by Donald Nicholson-Smith’s translation of Abdellatif Laâbi’s In Praise of Defeat, but ultimately chose Yvette Siegert’s translation of Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness as this year’s poetry winner. It’s a book screaming and barking with jagged solitude and beautiful pain, each poem’s broken melody attempting to fill a void we can all see lurking. Yvette Siegert perfectly inhabits Pizarnik’s tortuous, vivid world and allows us to do the same.”

For the sixth year in a row, the winning books will receive $10,000 each (split equally between the authors and translators) thanks to funding from the Amazon Literary Partnership. Over this period, the Amazon Literary Partnership has contributed more than $120,000 to international authors and their translators through the BTBA.

“By sharing new voices with English-language readers, the Best Translated Book Awards highlight literary excellence from around the globe while also shrinking the world a bit, fostering empathy through storytelling,” said Neal Thompson, Amazon’s Director of Author and Publishing Relations. “The Amazon Literary Partnership is proud to continue its support of the diverse voices of BTBA’s international authors and their translators.”

Nine judges served on this year’s fiction jury: 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 was made up of: Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (EuropeNow), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Becka McKay (writer and translator), and Emma Ramadan (translator, Riffraff Bookstore).

Past winners of the fiction award include: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman; The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen; Seiobo There Below and Satantango, both by László Krasznahorkai, and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes respectively; Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston; and The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

In terms of the poetry award, past winners include: Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan; Diorama by Rocío Cerón, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong; The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky; Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stănescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter; and Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura, translated from the Japanese by Kyoko Yoshida and Forrest Gander.

4 May 17

The winners of this year’s Best Translated Book Awards will be announced at 7pm tonight, both on The Millions and live at The Folly (92 W. Houston, NYC).

Tom Roberge will be emcee, a number of judges will be there to make the announcements and celebrate the two winning titles.

In case you need to be reminded of which books are still in the running, check out the posts about “Why Each Finalist Should Win” for fiction and poetry. Or see this post with my ludicrous charts of each book’s chances of winning.

See you tonight!

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.