At this moment in time, I have no idea what books are on the Best Translated Book Award longlist. The judges are still conferring—in fact, I’m not even certain that the list of 25 has been finalized . . . Which means that it’s a great time to start spreading rumors about what books are in and which are out.
Remember, everything below is pure speculation on my part. (That said, reading everyone’s BTBA posts has provided me with a few ideas.) In other words, it’s pure bullshit, and you should feel free to tell me so (or to add your own guesses) in the comments below.
The Three Locks
Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krashnahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (New Directions)
This could be the first time in BTBA history that the same author wins two years in a row. I’m not entirely sure this was ever even possible before (I don’t think any of the past winners had a new book come out the ensuing year), but with the amount of attention this book got, and the overwhelming amount of love out there for Krashnahorkai, it seems quite possible.
Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Archipelago Books)
The first volume of Cartarescu’s trilogy (by god do I hope the other two books come out in the next couple years) is right down the middle of the plate for BTBA juries of years past: dark, complicated, stunningly well-written, ambitious, mesmerizing. I’ll be stunned if this isn’t on the longlist.
My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books)
How many times is Archipelago going to win this award? With all the buzz surrounding Knausgaard—which happens every time a new book of his is released, and will continue to happen until the sixth and final volume of this project is available in paperback—this seems like a definite for at least the longlist. It’s maybe the most Flavorwire-friendly of these three though, which may prevent it from taking the award . . .
These Have to Make It, Right?
Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, translated from the French by Mike Mitchell (Other Press)
It’ll be a shame if this book gets left off the list. It’s long, yes, and about a relatively obscure historical figure (Athanasius Kircher), but it’s also one of the most playful books that came out last year, what with the faux-biography of Kircher and his bizarre inventions (the scene with bloated corpses is fantastics), and all the sex-related word games. None of Blas de Robles’s publishers did the book justice though, leaving out the index and self-referential footnotes which, although they would’ve expanded the book by 200 pages, add layers and layers to the postmodern joy of it all.
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Open Letter)
Of all the great Open Letter books from last year, this is the one I think has the best chance of winning the BTBA. It’s very readable, yet incredibly skilled, and gets darker and darker as the story progresses. I’m proud of the very short copy I came up with for Consortium’s next catalog: “Jörgen Hofmeester once had it all, but recently has been abandoned by his wife, watched his oldest daughter move away, lost his publishing job, and had his savings evaporate. At least he still has Tirza, his youngest daughter. But now she’s going away to Africa, from which she’ll never return.”
Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (NYU Library of Arabic Literature)
Pages upon pages of slang for penises, vaginas, and sex? SOLD! It would be both strange and fitting if this book, written in the mid-1800s and being published in four volumes by NYU, made the list. I have a good feeling about this one. And hopefully a BTBA appearance will prompt NYU (or someone) to publish a more affordable paperback edition.
Sleet by Stig Dagerman, translated from the Swedish by Steven Hartman (David Godine)
Dagerman was my personal favorite find of 2013, so I really really really want this to make the list. Amazing writer with a heartbreaking life story whose work has been rediscovered the past few years thanks to Godine and University of Minnesota Press. It’s always great for a collection of short stories to make the list, and based on this year’s entries, I think this might be the one . . .
High Tide by Inga Ābele, translated from the Latvian by Kaija Straumanis (Open Leter)
Dark Road by Ma Jian, translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew (Penguin)
The Infatuations by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Random House)
Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu (Feminist Press)
Under this Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Frisch & Co.)
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull (NYRB)
Errors of Young Tjaz by Florjan Lipus, translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins (Dalkey Archive)
The Whispering Muse by Sjon, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (FSG)
True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter (Other Press)
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Yale University Press)
Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (University of Oklahoma Press)
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Picador)
Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon, translated from the Arabic by the author (Yale University Press)
Shantytown by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions)
Red Grass by Boris Vian, translated from the French by Paul Knobloch (Tam Tam Books)
The Maya Pill by German Sadulaev, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio (Dalkey Archive Press)
That only adds up to 23 books . . . And I’m sure more than half of these are wrong. Feel free to leave your own guesses in the comments section, and as soon as I can start dropping hints, I will, all building up to Tuesday morning’s announcement . . .
Poorly detailed Google map
With the longlist set to be announced in a matter of days—just this morning the judges received the (top secret!) results of our initial vote to narrow down all eligible books to a longlist—I thought it might be interesting to share some statistics about the list we were culling from.
Below is a list of books by country, as included on the BTBA spreadsheet. As usual, Western Europe is heavily represented, Africa and the Middle East are under-represented, and, largely owing to Dalkey’s Library of Korean Literature, I suspect (without comparing this list to previous years) that Asian literature, outside of China and Japan, which are generally well served, is better represented.
Of the surprises in these numbers, the one that stands out most to me—though I’m sure Michael Orthofer could help contextualize this—is the paucity of Indian books on the list. That we have just one book translated from Hindi seems to me curious. Are there any numbers here that surprise you?
COUNTRY NO. OF BOOKS
Czech Republic 3
Dominican Republic 1
Puerto Rico 2
Saudi Arabia 2
South Africa 1
South Korea 12
Syrian Arab Republic 2
In all, the BTBA committee has looked at books written in 39 languages—from Afrikaans to Yiddish, as you can see below.
Elizabeth Harris has translated fiction by Mario Rigoni Stern, Fabio Stassi, and Marco Candida, among others. Her translation of Giulio Mozzi’s story collection Questo è il giardino (This Is the Garden) will be published by Open Letter Books in 2014; the individual stories have appeared in The Literary Review, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. Her translation of Mozzi’s “Carlo Doesn’t Know How to Read” appears in Dalkey Archive’s annual anthology Best European Fiction 2010, and her translation of an excerpt of Candida’s Dream Diary appears in Best European Fiction 2011. She teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota.
When a fiction translator really knows her job, the resulting book in English—if the original author is good enough—shines. You might have a spectacular work of fiction in the original, but if the translator isn’t up to it, that book will be lackluster in English. The translation, people will say, is clumsy, because it’s noticeably bad. The translator who has truly done her job shouldn’t be noticed. Gustave Flaubert (as translated by Francis Steegmuller) insisted that authors should be “like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” Such is the fate of good translators as well.
As we approach our selection process for the longlist of the Best Translated Book Award, I’m finding that there are some books in the mix that truly shine. They were no doubt glorious in the original, and—due to their translators’ abilities as writers—they are glorious in the English as well. And in these wonderful books, paradoxically, the translators’ skills as writers have made them disappear as writers. The books now seem to be original works in English, as if an author has magically moved from her own language to English, without missing a beat. Many of these fantastic books have already been mentioned by other judges, but I thought I might emphasize a few here and applaud their ever-present, invisible translators.
The first is Steven Hartman’s translation from the Swedish of Sleet, by Stig Dagerman, a beautiful collection of short stories (David R. Godine, Publisher). Alice McDermott, in her preface to the collection, speaks of Dagerman as rivaling Joyce “in his ability to depict the intractable loneliness of childhood, but time and again…he tempers this loneliness with brief gestures of hope, connectedness.” Hartman has captured Dagerman’s sensitivity to the child’s and others’ points of view so beautifully in his translations—the narrative distances involved, the narrative voice—as to be rendered unnoticeable. What we are left with are quiet, humane, and often heart-wrenching stories, Hartman’s interpretation of Dagerman’s art.
Another book that I found to be astoundingly beautiful in English is Jeffrey Gray’s translation from Spanish of The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (Yale University Press). Many of the BTBA judges have praised this surprising, imagistic novel that takes place in Tangier and wanders between two characters, a shepherd dreaming of Spain and “of riches to come” and a Columbian tourist stranded in Morocco; it is a book mysteriously (and wonderfully) held together by an owl passing from hand to hand until it finally escapes, leaving us with a final startling image of the bird hiding in a dark attic. Rey Rosa was a protégé of Paul Bowles and we can see this in his startling imagery and spare prose (Bowles even translated some of his earlier books); Rey Rosa’s style is widely praised: it is “precise, mythic” (Raphaëlle Rérolle) and this book in particular is “inhabited both by poetry and by silence” (Luis Alonso Girgado). This is the kind of book that could easily collapse under the weight of a plodding translation, but that is not the case here: Gray is keenly sensitive to the effects of the original as he interprets Rey Rosa’s pure style—including his silences—and his imagery. I am sure Gray’s work must have been endless to obtain that purity in the English. The sparest of prose shows the effects of translation even more: one misstep is glaring.
There are a number of other books under consideration for this year’s award that I’ve found to have spectacular translations, but I’ll only mention them here: Juliet Winter Carpenter’s incredibly clean, beautiful translation from Japanese of A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura (Other Press); Don Bartlett’s creation of narrative voice in Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Two (Archipelago Books). The extremely complicated, gorgeous sentences of Ottilie Mulzet’s translation from Hungarian of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below from New Directions (see a great interview with Mulzet at The Quarterly Conversation with BTBA judge Scott Esposito that shows just how complicated and challenging this book was to translate).
I’ll end here on another one of my favorites so far from this year’s selections, Sean Cotter’s translation from Romanian of Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding: The Left Wing (Archipelago Books). I remember when Cotter was first offered this book; we were at the American Literary Translators Association’s annual conference, and he told me he’d just been approached by Jill Schoolman of Archipelago about translating Cărtărescu. The look on his face said it all: excitement—such a great opportunity for a translator, this incredible novel-memoir that’s considered one of the most important of contemporary Romanian literature—and mixed with that excitement: fear of taking on such a daunting task. But from the original, Cotter has created a great a book in English, a journey through childhood and hospitalization, a “kaleidoscope world” as described on the book jacket, of “hallucinatory Bucharest” as told by a deeply sympathetic, vital narrator, a character that Cotter interpreted, created in English. Carla Bariez, a poet and translator from Romanian, had this to say about Cotter’s translation in her review of the book for Words Without Borders: “Sean Cotter has done a masterful, inspired job with the translation. The meditative, Baroque rhythms of Cărtărescu’s Romanian flow into graceful, vigorous English thanks to Cotter.” She goes on to talk about “the linguistic pyrotechnics” of the book that might become “overwhelming” in a work that is “deeply philosophical,” but to her, “nothing seems gratuitous: language itself, in its long lists and flights of fancy, proves Cărtărescu’s ultimate point about birth. Every human life is a Gospel, every birth an Annunciation…” Cotter’s sensitivity to language and to what he has interpreted as Cărtărescu’s intentions in his book are what have given us these “linguistic pyrotechnics” in English.
I thought it would be illuminating to delve a bit more into Cotter’s technique, so I asked him for a sample of the original novel plus a “trot,” a “literal” translation of this sample. Here’s just a taste of his approach, with the opening lines of the novel:
Before they built the apartment blocks across the street, before everything was screened off and suffocating, I used to watch Bucharest through the night from the triple window in my room above Ştefan cel Mare. The window usually reflected the room’s cheap furniture—a bedroom set of yellowed wood, a dresser and mirror, a table with some aloe and asparagus in clay pots, a chandelier with globes of green glass, one of which had been chipped long ago. The reflected yellow space turned even yellower as it deepened into the enormous window, and I, a thin, sickly adolescent in torn pajamas and a stretched-out vest, would spend the long afternoon perched on the small cabinet in the bedstead, staring, hypnotized, into the eyes of my reflection in the transparent glass.
The paragraph goes on, but these opening sentences work together incredibly well, one leading rhythmically to the next, and Cotter’s seemingly slight touches have intensified the imagery and sentences’ effect.
Here is the original in Romanian:
Înainte să se construiască blocul de vizavi şi totul să devină ecranat şi irespirabil, priveam nopţi întregi Bucureştiul de la tripla fereastră panoramică a camerei mele din Ştefan cel Mare. Fereastra reflecta de obicei mobilierul sărac al încăperii, un dormitor de lemn gălbui, o toaletă cu oglindă, câteva plante, aloe şi asparagus, în ghivece de argilă, aşezate pe masă. Lustra cu abajururi de sticlă verzuie, unul dintre ele ciobit de mult timp. Spaţiul galben al camerei devenea şi mai galben adâncindu-se în uriaşa fereastră, iar eu, un adolescent ascuţit şi bolnăvicios, în pijama rufoasă şi cu un fel de vestă lăbărţată deasupra, stăteam toată după-amiaza aşezat cu fundul pe lada de la studio, privind în ochi, ca hipnotizat, reflectul meu din oglinda străvezie a ferestrei.
And here is a very rough, literal “trot”:
Before was built the block vis-avis and all became screened and unbreathable, I would look nights whole at Bucharest from the triple window panoramic of room my on Ştefan cel Mare. The window reflected usually the furnishings poor of the room, a bedroom set of yellowy wood, a toilet with mirror, some plants, aloe and asparagus, in pots of clay, sat on the table. The light fixture with shades of glass greenish, one of them chipped of much time. The space yellow of the room became and more yellow getting deep in the giant window, and I an adolescent sharpened and sickly, in pajama ragged and a kind of vest misshapen on top, stayed all afternoon sat with bottom on the chest of the bedstead, looking in eyes, like a hypnotized person, the reflection my in the mirror see-through of the window.
Already, with the very first phrase of the opening, we see Cotter facing a dilemma: a lot of information in the Romanian is introduced with a dependent clause—but the opening line of a novel has to be perfect, can’t be overly cluttered with details, which are so hard to sustain in English. Cotter’s decision to break that clause down into two dependent clauses, both introduced with a repetition of “before,” is very wise, I think, very musical, very inviting, almost hypnotic, reinforcing a dream-like atmosphere so appropriate to this book. Each sentence here shows this same level of attention. I’m especially taken with the third sentence that pulls us closer to the narrator, where we see him for the first time, how beautifully we’re led to him with an abstraction, the lovely, active phrasing here, the “yellow space turned even yellower as it deepened into the enormous window,” which is a long way from the what we find in the “trot,” the much flatter “yellow getting deep.” Cotter has interpreted the author’s intention with that abstraction, heightened the imagery and lyricism for his English rendition and prepared us for this important turn, the introduction of the narrator, the “I,” the “thin, sickly adolescent” staring at himself, hypnotized by his own eyes, his own frailty, reinforced by his thin, ghostly reflection not in a mirror but in a glass window. Even Cotter’s choice at the end to replace the abstract “window” with the concrete word, “glass,” creates a strong effect: the image is much more tangible as a result.
If you took any of these wonderful translations I’ve mentioned and placed them alongside the original language versions, you’d find similar choices to those that Cotter made in Blinding. These choices are everywhere in a translation; they involve every word, every punctuation mark. They’re the endless choices and techniques that the best fiction translators use to make their English versions shine as brightly as possible, as brightly as the originals, while they, the translators, turn to shadows.
The deadlines approach – well, that one first, big deadline: with the Best Translated Book Award longlist due to be announced March 11 we judges have to decide what makes the 25-book cut. Twenty-five titles seems like a lot, but the procedure is that each of us submits our top-ten list (on March 1), from which the top sixteen vote-getters make the longlist, and then each judge gets to add one personal choice to round off the list, for a total of twenty-five titles. So each of us only gets to select ten+one titles. (Last year, only six of my top-ten choices for the longlist made it (with a seventh then slipping on as the plus-one).)
Since my top-ten/must-have list currently stands at roughly fourteen titles (fluctuating daily, as two or three titles different fall in and out of favor, depending on my mood …) this is proving a more arduous exercise than I had hoped. Twenty-five slots would be easy (well, easier … maybe) to fill), but ten feels really, really tight.
There are half a dozen or so titles that I simply can’t not put in my top-ten (which, in cruel-tease-form I won’t name here – though I’m probably sufficiently on the record regarding my feelings about them elsewhere …) – because I think they are really the most deserving (and, in some cases, because I worry that they might otherwise be overlooked) – but after that it gets complicated. There are a couple of titles that so many judges already seem to feel enthusiastic about that I’m not sure I need to put my full weight behind them yet – books by recent BTBA winners like Wiesław Myśliwski’s A Treatise on Shelling Beans or Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, for example, or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle II, among others. But it’s hard to leave off any title that I truly want in the running: one favorite not making the initial cut is okay, since we each get to add that one personal selection, but likely there will be several that don’t get enough votes, making for quite a quandary with that lone personal selection…..
There are a lot of titles at the upper margins, the ones that I think I could make a case for – clear top-25 titles, to me, but maybe not top-ten (though some days I’m convinced title X is, other days title Y …).
There are the big novels my name-authors: Javier Marías’ The Infatuations (translated by Margaret Jull Costa), Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time (translated by Edith Grossman, The Economist just recently reminding us that: “Its author, one of Spain’s leading writers, has been unjustly ignored in the English-speaking world. With this book, he should get the acclaim he deserves” (though Entertainment Weekly (yes, well …) suggests the novel moves at: “the pace of a narcotized elephant” …)), Christa Wolf’s City of Angels.
There are translations that have already won translation prizes: Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker, which won (under a different title) the British counterpart to the BTBA, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013 and Dimitri Verhulst’s Vondel Translation Prize-winning The Misfortunates. And I was already on a translation-prize-jury that found Elfriede Jelinek’s Her Not All Her to be a worthy winner – the 2011 Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize – so how can I not longlist it this time around? (Sure, the competition might be tougher here – certainly there are a lot more titles in the running – but this remarkable piece of work (and the excellent translation) continues to stand out – helped also by the fact that it’s different from almost everything else we’re looking at.)
There are the smaller works that linger nicely (and often don’t seem to have gotten enough attention). Sure, Amélie Nothomb’s Life Form is kind of simple much of the way – but in its conclusion totally won me over. Jang Eun-jin’s No One Writes Back – among the least-Dalkeyesque of the (many) Dalkey Archive Press titles to consider – has been among this year’s most pleasant reading surprises. The same goes for Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol, a rare (okay, the only …) translation from the Hindi we get to consider. And while Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge is the rare smaller (paperback original, too) title in translation to get pretty widespread coverage I still think it’s widely misread as a story-collection: I find it comes together beautifully and very effectively as a unified novel-whole. And then there’s a book like Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom, which held me rapt and whose strangeness still haunts me.
Finally, there’s than annual search for a worthy ‘genre’ title – a top-notch thriller, solid sci-fi, or the like. There were certainly mysteries and thrillers galore to consider this year (like every year), but it was not a great year – with the highly touted ones feeling particularly derivative. I suppose Ogawa’s Revenge might be considered genre, of sorts (horror). Otherwise, there’s only one of these titles in my mix: Ofir Touché Gafla’s The World of the End (and not just because of the author’s awesome/ridiculous name – touché!), which certainly hasn’t gotten the (‘mainstream’) attention it deserves.
Of course, time is not yet up, the decision doesn’t have to be made yet. I still have a few
weeks days of reading ahead of me, a few more books to discover and consider. Part of me hopes to find another gem – but part of me also worries: what then? which book gets knocked off the already too-long list?
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators, is an editor of The Cahiers Series ,and co-hosts the podcast entitled That Other Word. He has authored a study of Franz Kafka in the work of three international writers (Northwestern University Press, 2010) and curated the second volume of Music and Literature magazine (Krasznanorkai/Tarr/Neumann), and recently edited a translation issue for The White Review.
Minae Mizamura’s A True Novel was my great discovery this winter. Alongside Faris al-Shidyaq’s eccentric classic, it ranks among the most memorable books I encountered as a judge for this year’s BTBA.
The book’s length is misleading: once caught up in the narrative (which gets traction almost immediately), I found it impossible to read in draughts of less than 150-200 pages. The characters fascinate, as do Mizamura’s manner of relating their histories. But the pleasures of A True Novel exceed those of the conventional storytelling kind. Mizamura is an author profoundly concerned with literary tradition and she pulls off several feats here, merging a shishosetsu work (first-person Japanese autobiographical narrative) into a honkaku shosetsu (panoramic Western novel), while successfully recasting Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in a postwar Japanese setting. Its effect recalls the greatest of Yasujiro Ozu’s films or Chekhov’s shorter fiction: a deep humanism is palpable beneath the dispassionate narrative. I’m still astonished by how much Mizumura has managed to include about Japan’s transformation from defeated imperial power to economic powerhouse—all without sacrificing the intimacy of a chamber play. I first became aware of this novel thanks to Caroline Bleecke’s review at Music & Literature, which provides helpful context about A True Novel’s formal ambitions and Mizumura’s previous efforts.
Writers from Transylvania have a special place in Hungarian literature. Their use of the language is particular and, in many cases, peculiar—they evince a sensitivity to words not uncommon among speakers of a minority language. Ádám Bodor is one of the region’s giants, andThe Sinistra Zone his masterpiece. Entertaining, odd and strikingly true to the spirit of that twilight zone where Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary meet, Sinistra is a classic example of what Michael Hofmann has called “celestial provincialism”: a “blend of allegory, surrealism, fantasy and exuberant narrative … derived from Hašek and Kafka.” The world of Bodor’s novel will be immediately familiar to his contemporaries from the once-Soviet Other Europe. Here is a passage by one of its most prominent representatives, Polish novelist Andrezej Stasiuk, about a visit to the region that inspired Sinistra:
We drove to the Sinistra district. Everything here belonged to the mountain refilemen, to Colonel Puiu Borcan, and, when he died, to Izolda Mavrodin-Mahmudia, also holding rank of Colonel and called Coco for short. From the Baba Rotunda pass, we had a view of Pop Ivan; in the valley crawled narrow-gauge, wood-burning locomotives. The inhabitants of Sinistra wore military dogtags on their chests. Everyone who came here and stayed was given a new name … Diluted denatured alcohol was used here to dry mushrooms, and it was drunk with the fermented juice of forest fruits. The frosted glass for the Sinistra prison was made by Gabriel Dunka in his workshop: he frosted a pane by putting it in a sandbox and walking on it with his bare feet for hours. He was thirty-seven and a dwarf. One rainy day he picked up a naked Elvira Spiridon in his delivery van and for the first time in his life smelled a woman’s body, but loyalty triumphed over desire and he turned her in… All this supposedly took place near Sighetu Marmației, but I learned about it only two years later, in Adam Bodor’s Sinistra District, and the story has pursued me since. Pursued me and replaced the flat spot on the map. Once again, the visible pales before the narrated. Pales but does not disappear. It only loses its force, its intolerable obviousness. This is a special quality of auxiliary countries, of second-order, second-tier peoples: the ephemeral tale in different versions, the distorted mirror, magic lantern, mirage, phantom that mercifully sneaks in between what is and what ought to be. The self-irony that allows you to play with your personal fate, to mock it, parrot it, turning defeat into heroic-comic legend and a lie into something that has the shape of salvation. —from On the Road to Babadag (Harcourt, 2011)
Other highlights of winter readings include A Most Ambiguous Sunday by June Young Moon (Dalkey Archive), whose stories “Mrs. Brown,” “Drifting,” and “Animals Songs of Boredom of Fury” share the deadpan humor that makes reading Beckett or George Saunders such fun;
Bullfight, the flawless debut of Japanese master Yasushi Inoui;
The Errors of Young Tjaž by Florjan Lipuš (Dalkey Archive), a strange and discomfiting account of childhood in postwar rural Austria;
and Life Form by Amélie Nothomb (Europa), a refreshing, funny, and clever counterpoint to some of this season’s sterner submissions—despite its own dark subject matter.
Finally, I’d like to draw attention to three titles that were published in 2013, but proved ineligible because of a previous translation. Stig Dagarman’s A Burnt Child, trans. Benjamin Mier-Cruz (Minnesota); Ahmet Hamdi Tanipar’s The Time Regulation Institute, trans. Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe (Penguin); and Natsume Sōseki’s Light and Dark, trans. John Nathan (Columbia) are all remarkable novels, and would have appeared on my longlist were it not for having been published previously. Here’s hoping they receive the attention they—along with their latest translators, and the publishers who commissioned them—deserve.
Sarah Gerard is a writer who used to work at McNally Jackson Books, but recently took a job at BOMB Magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, and other publications. Her new book, “Things I Told My Mother,” can be purchased here. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
There’s so much praise out there for fat books, but what about little books that pack a big punch?
Nobody has talked about Commentary, yet, and I just don’t know why. This autobiographical epistolary novel was written in the weeks before Sauvageot died of tuberculosis in a sanatorium on the coast of France, and is addressed to her lover who left her for another woman just days after she admitted herself. On its premise alone, it’s almost too easy to love.
Granted, I’m a sucker for strong first-person voices, but Commentary sucked me in immediately. Sauvageot is fierce and incisive, and seconds away from inevitable death. She has nothing to lose, and says everything with that in mind. She simultaneously pities and despises the other patients in the sanatorium because she can’t escape their coughing. She hates their passive acceptance and scorns the person who betrayed her and left her alone in this place. Her sentences scream with vulnerability and suffering.
Included in the book are a foreword and note by Charles du Bos and an essay by Jean Mouton, from previous French editions, as well as a new introduction by Jennifer Moxley that contains these lines, which I had to copy into my notebook: “We recall here that in Latin, vulgare, meaning ‘of the people’ but also ‘to publish,’ was used as a slur against women who were thought to have made their bodies ‘public.’ Thus a vulgar woman is a woman who ‘publishes’ that which men believe should stay private.”
A note about the book’s design: Ugly Duckling Presse has done a beautiful job. A flesh-tone letterpress cover, clean, geometric cover design, vintage aesthetic. This book feels good in your hand.
In many ways, this book is a typical small-town procedural, complete with a cast of colorful local characters, unexpected diversions, and a protagonist who discovers more about his past than he bargained for. Except, in this story, Miguel Salvatierra isn’t looking for a killer; he’s looking for a painting. And in looking for a painting, he’s looking for a missing piece of history. And in looking for a missing piece of history, he’s looking for his father.The story is constructed elegantly around the metaphor of the scrolls Miguel Salvatierra’s father painted one-per-year throughout his lifetime: their movement from left to right is synchronized with the movement of the story – then reversed, right to left, like the movement of the turning pages of the book you’re holding, or Miguel’s journey into his family’s past. In the end, the story and the scrolls make a circle; we end up where we started. Except now (you know this already), everything is different.
To say that Marial’s setting is vivid is to blanche it. It is warm and earthy, humid and pungent, colorful, and slightly sour. It is old and familiar but not entirely unchanged. It is remote, but civic, with suggestions of encroaching commercialism. I loved inhabiting this place and felt at home among its community.
New Vessel Press was founded in 2012, and The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is one of only six titles they’ve published thus far, and the only one I’ve read. A second New Vessel title, Some Day by Shemi Zarhin, is translated from Hebrew and is also eligible for the award this year.
Several of this year’s BTBA judges have said that they’d love to see Sjón on the longlist, and I agree. The Whispering Muse follows a fish enthusiast, Valdimar Heraldsson, on board a Danish merchant ship occupied by the Greek god, and the ship’s second mate, Caeneus. Each night, Caeneus regales the crew with tales of his travels with Jason and the Argonauts, making this a sort of frame story along the lines of a humorous, Nordic Heart of Darkness.
While Heraldsson is quirky and entertaining, Caeneus is by far the best part of this book, as he brings with him wonder and metaphor, and a cast of characters both mythical and familiar. His story opens up varicolored and metaphysical dimensions out of reach for Heraldsson, whose focus is perpetually on the small, limited to the goings-on of the ship’s crew, in particular their diet. Caeneus: the hero; Heraldsson: the anti-hero. These disparate agents come together in the end, in a delightful recapitulation of the origin of the namesake Muse.
We are just about done reading for the longlist of the Best Translated Book Award. Here are a few last books that I haven’t read yet but will be considering very closely as we come on home.
This week’s BTBA post is written by George Carroll, a publishers representative based in Seattle who blogs at North-North-West. He is also the soccer editor for Shelf Awareness and he and Chad frequently spent part of the weekend texting about EPL match-ups and Manchester Fucking United. He’s also helping to organize our forthcoming World Cup of Literature.
The protagonist of Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy, is a police hitman named Filiberto Garcia. His job is to eliminate people as directed by his superiors. He says “Pinche!” a lot, mostly in exasperation. Katherine Silver translates “Pinche!” as “Fucking!”
So, here’s a synopsis of the book seen through Garcia’s interior monologue:
Fucking tame tiger! Fucking goddamn captain! Fucking furniture! Fucking jokes! Fucking Chinamen! Fucking experience! Fucking laws! Fucking Revolution! Fucking Chinamen and old people! Fucking conscience! Fucking loyalty! Fucking sovereignty! Fucking colonel! Fucking mysteries! Fucking gringos! Fucking Outer Mongolia! Fucking souls! Fucking bitch! Fucking tears! Fucking Marta! Fucking Poles! Fucking Chinese gal! Fucking stiffs! Fucking investigation! Fucking gringo! Fucking broad! Fucking Russian! Fucking mission! Fucking washed-up gringa! Fucking little brat! Fucking father! Fucking del Valle! Fucking Charanda! Fucking host! Fucking bills! Fucking Chink! Fucking meat! Fucking hands! Fucking team! Fucking life! Fucking faggot! Fucking Doris! Fucking Liu! Fucking solitude! Fucking wake!
My favorite line from the book actually doesn’t have “fucking” in it. Garcia is dressing to go out, straightening his tie, arranging his handkerchief, examining his nails, “The only thing he couldn’t fix was the scar on his cheek, but the gringo who’d made it couldn’t fix being dead, either.”
The first short story in Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, The Apprentice & The Football Fan is Da Ma’s “Way of Talking.” Da Ma is a pretty annoying character. He and his class are sent to northeast China for a month’s training in the People’s Liberation Army. When they’re on the shooting range, he points a rifle at the students on his left and yells “Freeze! Or you’re fucking dead.” One of the students says “Fucking hell! . . . That gun’s loaded! Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck.” Four occurrences in one sentence, devoid of other words, is hard to beat.
I recommend both Rafael Bernal and Zhu Wen’s books highly. They’re very fun reading that I’ve been able to sandwich between The Literary Submissions of High Art.
Finally, there’s a book I haven’t received yet—Jens Lapidus’s Never Fück Up. It’s part of The Stockholm Noir Trilogy, published in Sweden as Aldrig Fucka Upp. Nice to know some things just translate easily.
One of the many interesting things about judging the Best Translated Book Award is the sense it gives you of what (and how much) is actually being translated into English (and published/distributed in the US). Thanks largely to Dalkey Archive Press’ Library of Korean Literature, for example, we’re suddenly exposed to about a dozen Korean titles this year (without the Dalkey publications, it would be more like … one). The statistics can be revealing – and disappointing. Sure, we get … well, if not quite any number so at least a whole lot of French titles – but Chinese ? Isn’t Chinese literature hot right now ? Last time the database we rely on was updated (i.e. there might still be some unaccounted for) I counted all of three eligible titles.
Numbers-wise, among the literatures which seems to consistently punch above its population-weight, along with Icelandic and Hebrew, is Dutch (meaning: Dutch and Flemish), and while we have (at last count) quote-unquote only six works of fiction to consider … well, damn, it is an impressive selection (and the Vondel Prize-folks — who have to consider two years’ worth of publications — have their work cut out for them).
I haven’t seen one of these yet — The Square of Revenge, ‘An Inspector Van In novel’ by Pieter Aspe – and I suspect that its being part of a mystery series makes it a longshot to get longlisted, but I note that Aspe has apparently sold millions and that this book did get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review (only as part of Marilyn Stasio‘s ‘Crime’-round-up, but still). [As it turns out, there’s a double-bill of Inspector Van In novels eligible – a second one, The Midas Murders, having also appeared in the eligible period (but failing to make it onto the database for now – an omission Chad will rectify shortly. So that’s seven – and counting … – Dutch titles in the running.]
Even if they are great mysteries, the Aspes will be hard-pressed to compete with the other Dutch titles elbowing for spots on the longlist. First off, there’s Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake , in Ina Rilke’s translation — which fellow-judge Daniel Medin has already delighted in in a previous Three Percent/BTBA post. Haasse — who died just two years ago, at a very ripe old age – wrote this back in 1948. While quite a bit of the work by this grand old lady of Dutch literature has been published in translation, it’s great to see this important, powerful little novel about colonial Indonesia finally also available in English.
There’s another, even older work in the running, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s 1932 novel, The Forbidden Kingdom. This unusual time-bridging narrative features Portuguese traveler and poet, Luís de Camões, as well as a modern-day (well, early 20th-century) events, and is a wonderful (and wonderfully surprising) more-than-just-adventure novel.
Then there’s Gerbrand Bakker’s Ten White Geese — which you might also recognize from the title it was published in the UK under, The Detour , since it, in David Colmer’s translation, already won the biggest translation-into-English prize on the other side of the Atlantic, the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, With Bakker’s previous novel, The Twin, already making the 2010 BTBA shortlist it’s clear he’s an author – and this a book – that has to be taken pretty seriously.
Finally, there are the two Sam Garrett-translated titles – notable not just because they share a translator (Anthea Bell has him beat there, hands down, with five translations in the BTBA-running) but because they’re in many ways quite similar works – and both were incredibly successful in the Netherlands. One is Tirza, by Arnon Grunberg, the other The Dinner by Herman Koch. Amazingly, both were reviewed in the not-known-as-very-open-to-fiction-in-translation New York Times Book Review – here and here – and The Dinner even got the Janet Maslin treatment in the daily Times (she loathed it).
One seems to have done much, much better sales-wise than the other — The Dinner, which actually can boast of being a New York Times bestseller (indeed, it spent quite a few weeks on the bestseller lists). Yet Tirza is the clearly superior work; as Claire Messud concluded in her NYTBR review of The Dinner, that novel, while “absorbing and highly readable, proves in the end strangely shallow”. Tirza, on the other hand, is both entertaining and, ultimately, profound.
Both novels have a horrific twist. In the case of The Dinner it is one that’s, at least in its outlines, fairly obvious early on – but just keeps getting more twisted and horrific as the novel progresses (an admittedly very nice and disturbing touch). Tirza seems to follow a simpler arc of personal dissolution before taking its more surprising final turn into the abyss.
The Dinner uses a meal at a fancy restaurant as its foundation, taking readers through the many courses while incongruously (that’s the intent, anyway) increasingly disturbing revelations are made. With one of the characters running for high political office (prime minister, in fact), The Dinner is a cruel satire of contemporary Dutch movers and shakers (and any notion of civilized behavior in general). By turns shocking as well as occasionally funny, it does have considerable shock-value-appeal – but there’s not that much more to it. Koch does reasonably well, but not quite well enough with what is also ultimately a very ugly tale that – as Messud noted – doesn’t really have much depth to it.
Tirza also involves an almost unspeakable act, but Grunberg is the far superior craftsman in leading readers there, the shock, when it comes, all the more affecting. It’s a remarkably convincing portrait of a man falling apart. Like Koch’s novel, it’s uncomfortable to read, in part, but whereas Koch’s exaggerated satire can also be shrugged off – good for cocktail-party chatter, but hardly to be taken seriously as an in any way a profound critique of society – Grunberg’s novel sits much deeper.
I can see the easy appeal of The Dinner – part of which is surely also that it can be shrugged off fairly easily, as over-the-top satire often can. Tirza, much more personal than public (no one running for the highest office in the land here …), may not be a novel whose protagonist readers want to identify with either, but it’s a completely convincing portrait of (a) contemporary man and contemporary society.
This BTBA selection process, of narrowing down the three or four hundred eligible books, first to a longlist, is challenging. I’ve just gone over the Dutch titles here, and I think there’s a strong case to be made for four of them to at least reach the final-25 stage. Whatever the outcome – I am only of nine judges, after all, and I can’t be sure how my fellow judges feel about these (and the many other worthy) titles – I’d be surprised if Tirza didn’t make the cut, and if The Dinner did.
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators, is an editor of The Cahiers Series ,and co-hosts the podcast entitled That Other Word. He has authored a study of Franz Kafka in the work of three international writers (Northwestern University Press, 2010) and curated the second volume of Music and Literature magazine (Krasznanorkai/Tarr/Neumann). He advises several journals on literature in translation.
This seems a timely moment to announce the forthcoming appearance of a translation issue I’ve edited for The White Review. For those unfamiliar, TWR is a London-based journal of art and literature that publishes print (quarterly) and online (monthly) editions. In addition to supporting new writers, the editors make it a point to highlight literature in translation. Recent numbers have included contributions by Dubravka Ugrešić, Vladimir Sorokin, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Javiar Marías, to name but a few.
I spent this past autumn selecting material for the issue, which is slated to go live early next month. Not surprisingly, there was significant overlap with my readings for the BTBA. Here are a few examples:
One’s by the late great Hella S. Haasse, whose gem, The Black Lake, I cited in a previous post. I’ve found the lack of attention devoted to this novel baffling. It is a beautiful little book, conceived and executed with intelligence and grace. The translator, Ina Rilke, ranks among the very best working from Dutch today. You’ve probably come across her work at one point or another by now: Rilke was behind the classic Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, which Archipelago brought out back in 2010; she’s translated multiple titles by W.F. Hermans and Cees Noteboom; and she’s currently at work on Max Havelaar by Multatuli for NYRB Classics. (There’s a full overview of her activity, along with a lovely snapshot of Rilke with Haasse, here.) We’ll print the striking first pages of The Black Lake in The White Review. If your experience of them in any way resembles mine, then you’ll find yourself unable to stop.
I’m delighted that we can include an excerpt from the third volume of Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg. The publication of volumes 1 and 2 earlier this year by NYU Press’s Library of Arabic Literature was a moment of glory for literature in translation. Expect plenty of hot sauce in this excerpt—that, and no shortage of ingenious linguistic dexterity on the part of translator Humphrey Davies. For an in-depth take on volume 1, have a look at this review by Michael Orthofer. I share his excitement entirely, and am certain that others will as well once given a taste of al-Shidyaq’s writing.
Occasionally, a work of brilliance will make it possible for a virtuosic translator to outdo, line for line, a great deal of what’s recently appeared in her target language. In 2012, the English of George Szirtes for Satantango’s Hungarian struck me as superior to the sentences of most novels written that year in English. The same’s true of John Keene’s version of Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst. Scheduled to appear this month, it was perhaps my most unforgettable reading experience of 2013. I’m terribly eager to read more Hilst now—and impatient to get my hands on Keene’s Annotations too.
I was glad I could include an excerpt from Orly Castel-Bloom’s acutely funny—and correspondingly painful—Textile. Castel-Bloom writes uncanny narratives that depict, with sensitivity but very little mercy, contemporary Israeli society. First published in 2006, this unpredictable and frequently grotesque novel is unlike most other Israeli fiction that I’ve encountered; it’s as close to Gogol as Hebrew can get. Translated by the eminent recipient of 2010’s BTBA, Dalya Bilu.
I’d like to devote a bit more space to two titles that have survived months of BTBA reading on my own personal shortlist. The first is Stig Sæterbakken’s Through the Night, whose emotional resonance brought me to tears. I found it the bravest, perhaps even riskiest of the novels in competition. (I was also surprised to discover, in its weaknesses as in its strengths, unlikely affinities with The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol.) Here’s the beginning of a review by Taylor Davis-Van Atta that will appear soon at Asymptote:
In an essay completed not long before his death last year, Stig Sæterbakken wrote: “How strong would our passions be, separated from our fear of dying? We want to live, sure. But we want to die as well. We want to be torn apart. We want to drown in the wonders of ecstasy.” Both the craft of this passage—a single rhetorical question opens a rich vein of content—as well as its sentiment seem to me to epitomize something of both Sæterbakken’s personal philosophy and his artistic ambition. As with all of his writing, the question posed by the Sæterbakken is simple, but deceptively so, situated as it is at an existential crux. And, as with all of his writing, it cannot be ignored nor easily grappled with. Sæterbakken seemingly holds no fear himself when examining the heart of his own experience, swiftly identifying a terrible and unavoidable paradox, an impossibility that nonetheless must be negotiated and further explored. His prose, which so often conveys the mandatory ugliness and pain of existence, yet which is always charged with beauty and great tenderness, is itself infused with paradox. The author of endlessly interesting novels and essays, Sæterbakken is an indispensable artist, one who must be reckoned with and one whose day in the Anglophone world is, I believe, shortly at hand.
Through the Night, Sæterbakken’s last published novel, centers around Karl Meyer, a middle-aged man who, prompted by the sudden suicide of his teenage son, Ole-Jakob, is forced to confront his past disgraces and contemplate his complicity in Ole-Jakob’s death, all while enduring overwhelming feelings of grief. The novel, which almost reads as two separate works, opens in the immediate aftermath of Ole-Jakob’s suicide, with Karl’s wife, Eva, having just lodged an ax in the screen of the family television set. The act is a statement of protest (Karl has been binge-watching since their son’s funeral), but it could almost be interpreted as a telegraphed message from Sæterbakken to his reader regarding what is to come: there will be no further distraction from the situation at hand, however terrifying and all-consuming it becomes. Indeed, the novel quickly delves into Karl’s past through a series of short vignettes in which Karl sets about tracing the history of his life’s two defining love affairs—with Eva and with another woman, Mona, for whom he had recently, if temporarily, left his family.
Issue 5 of Taylor’s Music & Literature, which will publish in spring 2015, will be devoted to Sæterbakken, Chinese novelist Can Xue, and Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. You can order your subscription, and explore numerous reviews and features, here.
Stig Sæterbakken makes a brief appearance in the introduction to the below interview of Mircea Cărtărescu. As director of the Lillehammer Festival, Sæterbakken was instrumental in bringing the Romanian novelist to Norway. There, Cărtărescu spoke with Audun Lindholm, the editor-in-chief of Vagant, Norway’s most prestigious literary magazine. (Before he embarked upon My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgård directed the same journal.) The latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation includes a long conversation between Lindholm and Cărtărescu about the Blinding trilogy. Below, a few questions and answers concerning the volume that has just appeared in English—The Left Wing— thanks to Archipelago Books.
AL: You call the child a bricoleur—could the same be said of the novel’s author?
MC: Yes. Generally, I begin with something ordinary and realistic, something I know well, and then, step by step, the logic of the text takes over. I never know what I’m about to write on the next page, I have no plan, I don’t know where I’m headed. I take advantage of the fact that I write quite slowly: because I write by hand, I have plenty of time to think at the same time. The most important thing is the texture of the individual page—it takes precedence over the story or the characters or the larger structure. Writing by hand creates an intimate relationship with the white sheet of paper, almost functioning like a mirror. When the writing turns out really well, it is as if I saw the final text in front of me, I simply erased the white of the paper that hides it. I have the impression that most prose writers start with a strong impression or a clear image in mind, gradually expanding on it and constructing a whole. I, on the other hand, aim at a writing process that consists of a series of such impressions. And I must admit that when I read other novels, even the most realistic among them, my attention is drawn to these very moments, to certain pages and specific formulations.
AL: “You do not describe the past by writing about old things, but by writing about the haze that exists between yourself and the past,” we read early on in Blinding: The Left Wing. And later: “I was always afraid to go to sleep. Where would my being go to during all those hours?”
MC: Yes, I think that the best pages of Blinding are not those that are realistic but those that are phantasmal, oneiric. The earliest memories we have, from the age of two, three, or four, mainly resemble dreams. We may recall buildings, landscapes, and people, and we have the feeling that they must have been real—otherwise we could not have seen them in such vivid detail. The same is true of some of our dreams. I have strong memories of particular dreams I’ve had, outrageous and disturbing dreams. I envision dreams, memories, and reality like a Möbius strip whose sides are indistinguishable from one another. I try to avoid changing historical facts and instead fill the gaps in my memory with fantasies. When information is hard to come by, I let my pen do the work.
To read the interview in its entirety—or a review of the novel published in the same issue—visit the Winter 2014 number of The Quarterly Conversation.
Although the judges have been reading books all year, if you're a publisher and want to make sure that your works are being considered, feel free to contact any and all of the panelists. Click here for a mailing list of the poetry judges and here for a mailing list of the fiction judges. If you have any questions, please contact Chad Post.
There's no entry fee, all you have to do is mail one copy (or send an e-version) of your publication to each of the appropriate panelists. Please indicate that the package is a 2014 BTBA submission. . .
All original translations published between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2013 are eligible. Reprints and retranslation are ineligible. Submissions for the FICTION award will be accepted until November 30, 2013. Submissions for the POETRY award will be accepted until January 31, 2014.