27 January 15

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

I have an embarrassing inability to remember plots. It took me three readings of The Brothers Karamazov just to be able to remember beyond a few weeks who had actually killed Fyodor Pavlovich — and The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite books. I have no idea why this happens; but no matter how exciting they are, plots in my brain have a very short half-life. On the other hand, the emotional or ethical texture of a book — especially a book I liked — will remain with me for years, completely unattenuated. Now that the announcement of the longlist is approaching, it’s been interesting to go back to my notes, to see which titles I’ve forgotten and which are somehow still with me.

The following books don’t have much in common, other than this tenacity (which is, of course, highly subjective) and the fact that they haven’t been talked about much on this blog. None of them, I feel, would be out of place on the longlist.

There’s a type of mysticism in Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin (translated from the Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich) that recalls Clarice Lispector, but Qiu’s philosophy feels solid in a way that Lispector’s often does not. Qui’s narrator, a young, queer Taiwanese woman living in Paris, feels a pain and an ecstasy embedded in everyday objects and experiences: letters, phone calls, film screenings. Hugely important to the blossoming Taiwanese literary culture of the 1990s, Last Words from Montmartre also bears the tragic urgency of books whose authors later committed suicide. Qiu took her own life at the age of 26, but the work she left behind is astonishingly mature. Its literary merit alone would be enough to recommend Last Words from Montmartre to the longlist, but as a work of queer literature — a tradition that up to now has been disappointingly underrepresented among BTBA contenders — it deserves even more serious consideration.

Tove Jansson, the Swedish-speaking Finnish author best known for her children’s books about the Moomin family, was also one of the most brilliant short story writers of her time. Her stories have been slowly making their way into English for a few years now, but NYRB’s The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella) is the first collection likely to attract significant attention from American audiences. I am unabashedly biased when it comes to Tove Jansson; I love her, and even though technically she’s already posthumously won the BTBA once (in 2011, for her novel The True Deceiver), her short stories could give almost anyone a run for their money.

The Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach (translated from the Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and the author) is a very mysterious novel about an entomologist in a remote, desert-encircled South African town. Summer lies heavily over every sentence, sleepy, slow, and sensual, and yet throughout the novel there is a taut, nearly unbearable line of tension. As elusive as its title promises, Winterbach’s novel may not exactly be the sort to inspire rabid enthusiasm, but it is very subtly and intelligently done.

And one more word on my most recent read: Like Last Words from Montmartre, Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst (translated from the Portuguese by John Keene) is passionate and epistolary, but its tone couldn’t be more different. Letters from a Seducer is an irreverent catalogue of outrageous, theatrical sexualities. Hilst delights in breaking taboos and detailing fetishistic obsessions, making constant fun of phallocentrism and bourgeois sensibilities. But she does it with a good sense of humor and often great literary panache. (Translator John Keene deserves praise for the number of euphemisms he’s managed to generate for various body parts alone.) Behind the absurdity are also flashes of deep feeling, comical desperation in the face of writing, and these meditations lend Hilst’s short novel staying power as literature, and not only as (in the author’s own words) “brilliant pornography.”

19 January 15

Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.

The January 2015 Translation Issue that I edited for The White Review recently went live. Nearly a year in the making, it gathers various kinds of texts: recent poems, excerpts from forthcoming titles, new and newly translated interviews, and works rendered into English expressly for this number. I’m not just mentioning The White Review because its dedication to literature in translation aligns it with projects like Three Percent; I’ve made it the focus of this post because judging The Best Translated Book Award has proven invaluable for my other editorial activities. To state the obvious: there’s no discovery without a search.

Two contributions to this issue resulted directly from past readings for BTBA. Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, was one of last year’s most delightful surprises. She is represented here with the opening to a novel whose original title reads 私小説 from left to right. As you can see in the snapshots below, the book does interesting things with language and form—especially for the Japanese reader.


But Mizumura is a gifted storyteller, as anyone familiar with A True Novel knows. That is evident in even an extract this short. Rumor has it that a different novel of hers is on its way into English. In the meantime, I’m priming for it with Mizumura’s recently published polemic, The Fall of English in the Age of English, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter (Columbia University Press).

The other work inspired by the 2014 BTBA is a 6000+ word interview with Guatemalan master Rodrigo Rey Rosa, conducted and translated by my fellow judge Scott Esposito. Like A True Novel, Rey Rosa’s The African Shore, translated by Jeffrey Gray, posed the most serious challenges to last year’s winner. Rey Rosa covers fascinating territory here, from the two novels recently published by Yale University Press (one of which, Severina is eligible for the 2015 prize in Chris Andrews’s excellent translation) to the influence of Borges and Kafka and Wittgenstein. Here is Rey Rosa’s wonderful response to a question concerning the virtues of the baggy novel with cosmic ambitions—in this case Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (trans. by Natasha Wimmer).

I believe that all kinds of novels are important. The ‘totalising novel’, that can claim to cover the world or contain an entire epoch (although, or course, it can’t actually do that), seems to me as important as the short novel or the fragmentary one. A novel’s particular importance doesn’t depend on its size or theme or intention, only its execution. What matters is the literary experience, what happens to us as we are reading it. Reading 2666 is a unique experience, and because of this it is important. It presents us with a point of view, a ‘segment’ of reality that did not exist before we read it.


I am indebted to the BTBA for Indian novelist Uday Prakash as well. We read The Girl with the Golden Parasol for the 2014 competition. It failed to make the longlist, but the novel was compelling enough for me to seek out Walls of Delhi when Seven Stories published it this year. Prakash’s story for The White Review, “Judge Sa’b,” is set just outside of Delhi but it’s consistent in theme and tone to the three novellas in Walls. All three of these works by Prakash are rendered brilliantly into English by Jason Grunebaum.

It is perhaps too soon to tell, but other contributions to the Translation Issue strike me as potential contenders for the 2016 BTBA. The Vegetarian by South Korean novelist Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith for Portobello Books, already has a US contract. Had it been published before December 31st, Daniel Sada’s One Out of Two would have undoubtedly made my own shortlist; it is an extraordinary book. Graywolf will release the novel in November (in a brilliant translation by Katherine Silver); in the meantime, you can read its first pages here. Lastly, there’s Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality, which New Directions will publish next month in the late Michael Henry Heim’s masterful translation from Romanian. We’ve accompanied a self-contained episode from Adventures with an essay by Herta Müller that introduces readers to Blecher’s genius.

The crop of French titles competing for the 2015 BTBA is strong. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that two of my recent favorites were both translated by Jordan Stump. (Like Margaret Jull Costa and Daniel Hahn, Stump is making a strong showing among eligible titles.) I admired the muted strangeness of Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, which Two Lines Press published earlier this autumn.

And a thousand cheers to Stump and Dalkey Archive for Éric Chevillard’s wonderful The Author and Me. A cross between Beckett’s Molloy and Monty Python, it is the funniest novel I’ve read yet for the competition. (The villain is a cauliflower gratin.) Halfway through, the novel descends into a footnote, whose story—as it were—consists of the narrator and a growing entourage following an ant. What better way to finish this post than to share its helpful advice for the new year:

Friend, when misfortune strikes, when hard times befall you, entrust your fate to an ant. An ant always knows where to go, and the well chosen path will serve you far better than any endless wandering. May I tatoo this axiom on your forehead? HE WHO WALKS BEHIND AN ANT WILL NEVER AGAIN BE CALLED A VAGABOND. At long last you have a goal, even if you don’t know what it is. What matters is that you will draw strength from the ant’s tenacity. You’ll be galvanized by her glorious ardor. And in your loins, in your once faltering legs, there will be her drive. No more doubt, no more procrastination. Forward! From here on you will cleave the waves.
12 January 15

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

Some five-hundred-odd translated titles are in contention – well, at least get considered – for a book prize, the Best Translated Book Award. Not surprisingly, a number of them have previously won literary prizes of one sort of another, and it’s interesting to see how they stack up against the still-un-prized competition.

Two of the authors with books in the running are Nobel laureates – though in the case of José Saramago, the eligible title is not one which was taken into consideration in awarding him that prize: his posthumously published but very early novel, Skylight, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. 2014 Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences(trans. by Mark Polizzotti), on the other hand, is unusual in being a three-for-one collection, collecting three novel(las) that were originally published as stand-alones. Despite all the criticism the Swedish Academy gets for some of their Nobel selections, it’s rare that a laureate’s work isn’t worth reading. The Saramago – written in the early 1950s, and, when it was not accepted for publication, leading him to abandon writing fiction for nearly a quarter of a century – stands in every way apart from the rest of his work but already suggests many of the qualities of his later writing. The Modiano-trio, on the other hand, is from a writer at the height of his powers – and benefits some from being a triple-dose: Modiano’s work is all related – arguably part of just one very big book – and this volume nicely presents three versions of it. (On the other hand, it suffers a bit by comparison with one of the few of his other works available in English, Honeymoon(trans. by Barbara Wright), written during the same period (chronologically it belongs in the middle of these three) and still my favorite of the available-in-English Modianos.)

The literary-prize-winner that BTBA watchers might have their eye on most is (sort of) the winner of last year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which is the closest British approximation to the BTBA. (The IFFP differs from the BTBA in that it does consider re-translations (the BTBA doesn’t) and doesn’t consider books by dead authors (the BTBA does).) The IFFP went to Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ ; confusingly, the US edition of his stories eligible for this year’s BTBA, The Corpse Exhibition(trans. by Jonathan Wright), is made up of a collection of stories from that volume, as well as from a previously-published-in-the-UK volume, The Madman of Freedom Square. Twice as much Blasim as in his IFFP-winning book – that presumably can’t hurt his chances! Short story collections have historically had a hard time in the BTBA-process, but Blasim’s is certainly among the more promising contenders in recent years.

Not that many national or regional book prizes – beyond those awarded to English-language books like the Man Booker – are well-known in the US but one that probably should be is the Nordic Council Literature Prize, the top Scandinavian prize. The list of winners is an impressive one, and several winning titles have been among the BTBA contenders in recent years. This year Baboon, by Naja Marie Aidt (trans. by Denise Newman), the 2008 winner, is in the running. Another short story collection – in a year with quite a few of these – it’s certainly a title to look out for.

While the Prix Goncourt is the major French literary prize, the Prix Renaudot is the clear runner-up – and Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile — translated by Melanie Mauthner and published by Archipelago, who always seem to have a couple of titles on the BTBA longlist – is in the BTBA-running this year.

And while genre novels always have a tough time asserting themselves in the BTBA, how about Bed of Nails, by Antonin Varenne (trans. by Sian Reynolds) – the 2009 Prix Polar Michel Lebrun- and Grand Prix Sang d’encre-winner? (The fact that it’s been such an impressive year for French noir – a quartet of Pascal Garnier novels, and a Jean-Patrick Manchette leading the way – is probably the biggest hurdle to this title making the cut.)

It’s also interesting to see what translations into other languages have been prize-winning. There’s Leonardo Padura’s Trotsky novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, for example, a Spanish novel whose French translation won the 2011 Prix Initiales.

And then there’s a book like Maylis de Kerangal’s Birth of a Bridge(trans. by Jessica Moore): the original French won the 2010 Prix Medicis and the Prix Franz Hessel, and the Italian translation won the 2014 Premio Gregor von Rezzori. Published in English by Canadian Talonbooks, this is yet another translation that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves but which has the stuff to go far in the BTBA, introducing a new and distinctive voice (in admirable translation) whom we’ll be hearing a lot more of.

Of course, winning a literary prize is not a guarantee of quality, and one title in the BTBA-running stands out in this regard. Winner of both the 2012 Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and the 2012 Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, a finalist for both the highest French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, and the Prix Femina, you’d figure Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair would have to be a front-runner for the BTBA. I can’t speak for my fellow judges, who may yet vote to put this thing on the longlist…no, I think I can speak with confidence in stating that this will not be among the books that will be in anywhere near the final running. Despite – or actually in part also because of – its American setting, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair manages to feel foreign in all the wrong ways, certainly to American ears.

5 January 15

George Carroll is the World Literature Editor of Shelf Awareness and an independent publishers’ representative based in the Pacific Northwest.

My day job is publishers’ representative, which is a snottier way of saying “traveling book salesman.” I present thousands (low thousands) of books twice a year to book buyers who work for independent bookstores. The key in keeping things moving along in an appointment with a bookseller is to use book shorthand. No waxing on. Nothing purple. Why is much more important than What. And, definitely, most importantly, using one word rather than ten. When I start to write something that quacks like a review, I freeze, which hopefully explains the brevity of the few BTBA blogs I’ve been asked to bang in. It’s not laziness; it’s a cultural thing.

Readers who were totally pissed off/depressed by the final Kurt Wallander book The Troubled Man, will find Henning Mankell’s An Event in Autumn, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson, a reprieve, a bit of fresh air. The novella, written for a crime book promotion, immediately precedes The Troubled Man. The plot involves a skeletal hand that pokes its way out of the garden at a house Wallander considers buying.

If that sounds familiar, it’s the first episode of the third season of the BBC Wallander series. Wallander’s daughter Linda gets a nod in the book, a character that plays a much larger role in the Swedish Wallander series that came from BBC4. It reads quick, YA-sized print and includes the moment in which Wallander comes closest to joining the Choir Triumphant.

Jorn Lier Horst has won the Glass Key, Martin Beck Award, Golden Revolver, and Norwegian Booksellers Prize for his William Wisting mystery series. Two books are eligible for the 2015 BTBA award Closed for Winter and The Hunting Dogs, both translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce.

The main character, William Wisting, is the Chief Inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Larvik Police. Who could write the character better than Jorn Lier Horst who – wait for it – is Chief Inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Larvik Police.

Nice father-daughter crime-solving duo but unlike police agent Linda Wallander, Line Wisting is a journalist. I have to say the subplot in Closed for Winter is really stupid because it hits you in the head 100 pages before Wisting gets it. Both books have twists and turns in stoppage time that work well, but much more impressed with The Hunting Dogs.

There are five Pascal Garnier books eligible for this year’s award, of which I received and read but the one, How’s the Pain?, translated from the French by Emily Boyce. A pest exterminator who’s dying fast needs to hire a driver to help him finish one last job. And yes, of course, “pests” is more inclusive than rats and cockroaches. I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more Garnier.

I recently read Mathias Enard’s (translated by Charlotte Mandell)Street of Thieves (longlist, longlist?) and the main character is an avid reader of French noir, particularly Jean Patrick Manchette. New to me, but I’m late for all kinds of parties. In The Mad and the Bad, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith, hitman Thompson is hired to off a couple of innocents who go on the run. Great jacket copy, NYRB: “Thompson pursues. Bullets Fly. Bodies Accumulate.” If I were trolling for an action movie, I’d option The Mad and the Bad in a Hollywood minute.

9 December 14

Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.

As the calendar draws to a close, annual lists of the year’s best books begin to proliferate. However subjective these literary lineups may be, it should come as no surprise to readers of translated fiction that titles originating from outside the English-speaking world are seldom included in these year-end roundups. The lack of astonishment that comes with seeing a dearth of translated books included on such lists is outweighed perhaps only by the frustration that a bevy of such remarkable books will never enjoy the attention they truly deserve.

Reviewers, critics, and editors are, of course, entitled to their own opinions, but charged as they are with shaping the readerly landscape and exposing their audiences to books they elseways would not likely discover on their own, it can be rather dispiriting, year in and year out, to see some of the world’s best fiction go neglected, ignored, and otherwise uncelebrated (hence the need for the Best Translated Book Award).

What is it about literature in translation that fails to attract its deserved share of both popular and critical acclaim? Theories abound – and have for some time. Are American readers simply not properly exposed to the breadth of titles available in English translation? Are they provincial and xenophobic? Are they sated by the wealth of domestic talent? Do they mistakenly presume books rendered from another language will be needlessly arduous and unrewarding?

Are publishers, bookshops, media, and reviewers equally culpable for the disproportionately low interest in international fiction? Does lack of review coverage keep the average reader from discovering an exceptional work from without our borders? Are the big houses unwilling to publish more works in translation – having seen disappointing or diminishing returns previously? Are booksellers, despite their often-tireless advocacy for the books they admire, unable to engender and maintain enough of a groundswell? Is lit in translation to be forever relegated to a niche market, comprising but a sliver of the publishing and bookselling world?

With over 500 works of fiction published in English translation in each of the past two years (about a 50% increase from 2010), it appears interest in such books is, in fact, growing. As ever more translation-centric publishers join the scene (whether for profit or not), the abundance of titles available to English readers from all over the world will surely increase – a veritable windfall for those with broad, open-minded tastes (and monolingual backgrounds). But how to make those books appeal to the larger American readership? For the success of every Larsson, Murakami, or Bolaño are scores of writers equally worthy of as ardent an audience. Perhaps an industry with creative output as its product will forever remain a fickle and unpredictable one. Perhaps the arbiters of taste and merit are slow to evolve.

Knowing that great books written in languages other than English often have a laborious road to the American bookshelf, an award that aims to recognize the best translated book in a given year has more to consider than what a first glance may reveal. Ought the award, all things considered, bestow the prize upon the most altogether worthy entrant (excellence in writing, translation, presentation, et al.)? What if the book in question is unlikely, given even the most robust accolades and promotion, to ever find appeal beyond academic circles or a very narrow general readership? Should the notion of how a book has done critically (or might do commercially) bear weight upon the decision? Do we trust that readers will, if given a hearty enough recommendation from a reliable source, take a chance on something that they would otherwise pass by?

Undeservedly or not, a single work in translation (at least for a reader not normally inclined to pick up such a book) may well be seen as a reflection of all works in translation. For a reading public that relies on reviews and best-of lists as much as bookseller recommendations and word-of-mouth encouragement from fellow readers, it is incumbent upon publishers, reviewers, and bookshops (and award juries, as well) that we champion deserved works and their authors – if international fiction is ever to gain a wider appeal.

While end-of-the year lists often feature the more obvious selections, there is an (increasing?) opportunity for the so-called also-rans to get their due. Blogs, social media, and other non-traditional outlets are constantly reshaping the literary landscape. Books which, even a decade ago, may not have had a chance to wend their way into the hands of readers now have an easier time doing so (although it remains prohibitively difficult for most). A good many of the books translated into English in any given year are very likely amongst the best in their native languages (as it is difficult to imagine mid-list international authors finding either a translator or publisher stateside), so a list of the year’s translated titles is already a quasi-best-of selection by default.

It’ll be a welcome (and exciting!) day for all those interested in great literature when the ever-popular “best books of the year” lists count even a quarter of their entries as those rendered from a foreign language. Readers, culture, and society alike will benefit greatly, confirming and reiterating the fact that exceptional works of art need not be confined by arbitrary borders or the limitations of tongue. No “best of” list could ever presume to have the definitive word on the extraordinary, but declining to include more works in translation does a disservice to all readers. Much as ecosystems thrive best with greater diversity (and suffer, conversely, wherever monoculture is present), we, too, will be all the richer for indulging the abundance of authorial voices which currently flourish.

4 December 14

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

It’s December. I still have a shit-ton of books left to read for the BTBA, and the very thought of writing a blogpost about my favorite contenders is giving me mild anxiety. But, as a Chuang Tzu once wrote (in David Hinton’s excellent translation), “small fear is fever and worry; great fear is vast and calm.”

The great fear, in this case, consists in creating a longlist from so many well-designed, well-written, and well-translated books. It’s so frightening that I’m actually okay with it. But here comes the small fear: my two cents about what’s good in the pile of submissions.


I can certainly reveal some of my favorite titles to you, such as Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (trans. by Christina MacSweeney), Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita (trans. by Natasha Wimmer), Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile (trans. by Melanie Mauthner), and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Three (trans. by Don Bartlett), but since all of these titles have already been mentioned several times, I figured my blogging energy would be better spent on two Danish titles that have not yet come up as anybody’s favorites. I will allow my fellow judges the benefit of the doubt, and assume they have yet to read the books I’m about to highlight.

As a Dane, Naja Marie Aidt’s writing has been an inevitable part of my life. I grew up reading and analyzing her short stories in middle and high school classes, and I’ve remained fascinated by her fiction ever since. One of Aidt’s literary fortes is her depiction of distorted human relationships; sometimes conveyed explicitly through master-slave abuse, pedophilia, or snuff (Vandmærket, 1993), sometimes portrayed through subtle powerplay and deceit as a matter of routine (Tilgang, 1995). Aidt’s latest short story collection and first book in English, Baboon (Two Lines Press), is no exception:

“I slowly peeled the clothes off her, and she looked beautiful on the red Persian rug, in the warm light from the fire. She spread her legs. She looked at me with dark, sorrowful eyes. Your sister has a tighter cunt than you. I wonder whether you’re born that way, or if it’s just because she’s so young.” (From Bulbjerg)

These disturbing tales will potentially stay with you for years; they have certainly haunted me since 2006, when I first read the collection in Danish. Rereading Baboon in English was an immense pleasure, thanks to an incredible translation by Denise Newman who managed to capture the beauty of Aidt’s descriptive prose while maintaining a sense of urgency within the lines:

“Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of an astonishing landscape: luminous, white sand dunes on all sides, wind swept, small trees twisting under the vast open sky. We gasped joyfully as though coming up for air after being under water too long. We stood there looking around, our eyes blinking after staring at the gravel road in the dark forest for so long. Even the smell was different here, salty and fresh, the sea had to be close by. But we lost our bearings long ago.”

Aidt’s talent for combining brutality and beauty is, in my opinion, nothing less than extraordinary.

Another Dane who deserves honorable mention in the BTBA is Dorthe Nors. Her short story collection Karate Chop (Graywolf Press/A Public Space) is a delightfully fast and punchy read, expertly rendered by translator Martin Aitken. Nors’ combination of light language and dark humor is captivating -not only within each individual story, but also in the way the stories complement each other. From the tragicomic self-proclaimed Buddhist, to the man who googles female killers when his wife is asleep, to the heron in Frederiksberg Gardens with mites living in its underfeathers:

“Last winter I saw one slouching on the back of a bench with its long, scrawny neck. Its feet were completely white and it barely even reacted when I walked past. The way the wind ruffled its neck feathers made me want to go back and sit down next to it. It was the way the suffering had to be drawn out like that, the way herons never really muster the enthusiasm. But I won’t touch birds, alive or dead.” (from “The Heron”)

Nors’ short story “The Heron” was the first Danish piece to be published in The New Yorker, and it truly does work well as the literary centerpiece of the perfectly unpredictable Karate Chop.

27 November 14

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

The news has been worse than usual this year, so I’ve been particularly thankful for books that make me laugh. Here are some of the funniest contenders – in what I’m sure is just a coincidence, they all take place in the 1980s and involve either children or Soviets or both.

Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is narrated by a little boy named Orestes who lives in a very small, very poor town in Mexico. His father’s favorite activity is cursing the police, while his mother spends most of her time making quesadillas to feed Orestes and his numerous siblings (all similarly named after figures of Greek tragedy). When the family’s two youngest children, the twins Castor and Pollux, disappear, it sets off a chain of wild events that culminates with the appearance of some extraterrestrial visitors.

But before the aliens get involved, Orestes runs away to make his fortune, and so the book becomes a kind of sad, but hilarious, parody of a poor boy’s rags-to-riches story. Villalobos’ novel, originally titled Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (“If we lived somewhere normal”), criticizes a system of poverty and corruption that is, of course, not limited to Mexico, all while delivering lines so colorful and surprising that you can’t help but laugh.

Another tale narrated by a clever, resourceful, and chronically poor child, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki (translated by Stephen Henighan) moves the scene to Angola. The novel is populated by a cast of odd, lovable characters, including the eponymous Soviet, called Comrade Gudafterov by the children for his habit of greeting everyone with a solemn “Gudafter-noon,” no matter the time of day. Though there are moment in the plot when things seem to be getting dangerous, nothing really terrible actually happens, and we are left with an unusually vivid sense not only of the Angola of Ondjaki’s own childhood, but of the general texture of childhood itself. Stephen Henighan has done a particularly fine job conveying the range of Ondjaki’s style – the Soviet’s comically broken Portuguese and the narrator’s fleeting moments of poetry, for example, seem to arrive in English with equal ease.

Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov (translated by Katherine Dovlatov) is not narrated by a child. Rather, our hero is Soviet version of the superfluous man – poor, highly sensitive to literature, perpetually drunk, and somehow badly equipped for life. After a divorce and at the end of his rope, he arrives one summer at Pushkin’s country estate, looking for work as a tour guide. His ensuing adventures are punctuated by witty-one liners worthy of a vodka-soaked Oscar Wilde (“Are you good friends [with Mitrofanov]?” someone asks the narrator, who replies, “I’m good friends with his bad side.”), but overall, the novel owes more to Bulgakov, whose humor builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, until suddenly the entire situation is absurd. The book, like all my favorite Russian tales, is a tragicomedy, one of the saddest and funniest to appear this year.

12 November 14

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

The size of a book shouldn’t really matter, not when judging whether or not it’s Best Translated Book Award-worthy, but one of the things that has struck me about this year’s batch of eligible titles is that page- if not quality-wise many of the pickings are slimmer than usual.

Mind you, I’m still reeling from 2011 and the memories of (lugging, not to mention reading) Péter Nádas’s 1133-pager Parallel Stories …. (I don’t even want to think about 2009 and Jonathan Littell’s … let’s say unfortunate near-1000 page The Kindly Ones.) So, yes, there’s something to be said for shorter books – beginning with the logistical advantages, of getting through them, as well as the quicker variety moving from one to the next allows for (getting bogged down in a 500-pager is very different (and more drawn-out-painful) than getting bogged down in a book of 100 pages …).

Last year’s shortlist had quite a few substantial books: if not quite the norm, there were a decent number of 400+ page books, including the winning title. Hell, 400 pages seemed almost unremarkable. Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time topped 600, and along the way there had been longer books too: Goliarda Sapienza’s The Art Of Joy was just short of 700 pages, France Daigle’s For Sure easily topped that.

Quite a few 2014 books make it into the 400 page range – including obvious contenders for at least the final award-stages (longlist, shortlist): this year’s Knausgaard (My Struggle: Book Three), just like last year’s; this year’s Ferrante (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay), just like last year’s …. But there just don’t seem to be that many other bulky books. And there seem to be a lot of very slim ones.

True, we’re unlikely ever to have an entry as short as last year’s Her Not All Her — Elfriede Jelinek’s longlisted … well, it was barely a forty-page pamphlet. But the pile of top titles that come in at under a hundred pages is surprising.

Among my favorites this year has been Julio Cortázar’s (comic book-)inspired Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires (87 generously illustrated pages), which is about the most fun I’ve had reading any of these books this year. With cameos by Susan Sontag and Alberto Moravia this is … well, wild barely begins to describe it. But the writing (and translation, by David Kurnick) is sharp, and, despite being almost forty years old, it feels surprisingly topical and current.

Arno Camenisch’s The Alp (82 pages) is just one of what seems like dozens of Dalkey Archive Press entries in the 100-page-range (it’s not dozens, but there are quite a few). Here is an author who works in both German and Romansh (the fourth official language of Switzerland) – a challenge Donal McLaughlin seems quite up to here.

There’s a second Haruki Murakami book due out this year, too — The Strange Library, another book that counts as “heavily illustrated” and still doesn’t make it to a hundred pages. There’s a fairly new Murakami translator at work here too – one we haven’t read in the previous translations, Ted Goosen — and while it is a very small piece (and competes against the other Murakami in the running this year, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, translated by older Murakami-hand Philip Gabriel) can’t be discounted at this early stage.

Some good-looking short story collections come in under the century-mark — Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water and Kjell Askildsen’s Selected Stories among them – but I’m particularly surprised by the number of novels of this size. And by how many of them punch considerably above their weight: Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog Eyes is probably only sustainable over this length, while Jean Echenoz’s just over 100-page 1914 is a master-class in economical storytelling.

Others under 100 pages include the almost obligatory annual diminutive César Aira – Conversations this year (88 pages) – and Antonio Skármeta’s A Distant Father. Special mention has to go to Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences, a volume we weren’t expecting until next year until he was named this year’s Nobel laureate, leading Yale University Press to push up the publication date: it consists of ‘Three Novellas’, filling just over 200 pages – but in France (and elsewhere) the slim volumes have also been published individually. Almost unfair for the Nobel laureate to get three chances to wow the judges in one go (and, helped along by translator Mark Polizzotti, who seems to have a really good feel for Modiano’s style, he certainly wowed this one).

So are there any fat chance-counterweights to these slim pickings? As I said, a couple of contenders make it into the 400 page range, but beyond that the choices are few and far between. Some thrillers and the like but from what I’ve seen so far, nothing that could make a serious dent (sorry, Zoran Drvenkar’s You may have an intriguing range of voices, but … yeah, sorry, no). The best 500+ pagers I’ve checked out so far are Leonardo Padura’s Trotsky novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, which has the qualities that could put it on the longlist, and Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Victus, which also turns out to be a nice surprise. But they both do sag a bit under their weight – always the danger with the long ones.

The one I’m most curious about is one I haven’t seen yet: H.G. Adler’s The Wall (a reported 656 pages), the last in a trilogy that has impressed so far. This comes with some very good buzz, so I definitely see some potential here. Of course, I do have to see it before I can properly judge …..

We’re used to meaty books when it comes to fiction in translation, as if length were more proof of a book’s weighty worthiness. From the biggest Bolaños and recent BTBA winners Myśliwski and (2x) Krasznahorkai they never entirely shoved smaller works aside, but maybe had an easier time making more of a big impression. I wonder whether we’ll now see a shift towards some of this smaller work – looking even stronger this year than usual.

6 November 14

George Carroll is the World Literature Editor of Shelf Awareness and an independent publishers’ representative based in the Pacific Northwest.

None of the San Francisco Giants spoke with pitcher Madison Bumgartner in the dugout before he took the mound in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series except for a brief exchange with his catcher Buster Posey. Partly due to superstition and partly because Bumgartner was intensely focused, was in the zone.

I’m currently in The Best Translated Book Award reading zone. Please do not distract.

There are rules and traditions about not speaking the name of something, whether it’s Voldemort in the Harry Potter books or Nest Egg in Lost in America, or saying rain while fly-fishing.

This is so, in my mind, with longlist and the BTBA.

There’s an ultra-secret password-protected, for-your-eyes-only spreadsheet that the BTBA judges use that lists the title, author, translator, publisher, language, and country for each of the 2015 submissions. There is a column for each judge to place her notes or remarks. (Don’t try to access the spreadsheet, publishers, it will self-destruct quicker than Jim Phelps’ MI instructions.)

Fortunately my spreadsheet column is at the beginning of that section, just to the right of Katrine Osgaard Jensen’s. She uses a letter code, which I’m pretty sure I’ve cracked. But I scroll right no further, for therein lies the use of longlist, the word that assigns power, the word which can strip power. “Longlist contender, must longlist, short of longlist, no longlist.” It can draw you in (I better read this) or repel (I better move on to something else).

I just have a list. Books move around like the stairways at Hogwarts. (Did I mention I just watched all of the Harry Potter movies?) Books that I read early in the process that I thought were really good, were really good, but they’re not as really good in comparison with the other really good books that I’ve now read.

That doesn’t mean that some of the books I’ve read don’t keep popping up a like a literary Whac-a-Mole. But will they make it to l-word? I don’t know.

Milena Michiko Flasar’s I Called Him Necktie, Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain, Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery, both Bohumil Hrabal titles Harlequin’s Millions and Ramblin’ On, Carlos Labbe’s Navidad & Matanza, Michel Laub’s Diary of the Fall, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, Andres Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves, Roderigo Rey Rosa’s Severina, Paulo Scott’s Nowhere People, Solvi Bjorn Sigurdsson’s The Last Days of My Mother, Goncalo Tavares’ A Man: Klaus Klump, Antoine Volodine’s Writers, Christa Wolf’s August.

All have much to love and I can do no better than to arrange them alphabetically.

Cesar Aira’s Conversations, Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita, Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes, Jorn Lier Horst’s The Hunting Dogs, Giulio Mozzi’s This is the Garden, Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November, Antonio Skarmeta’s A Distant Father, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Quesdillas, Urs Widmer’s The Blue Soda Siphon.

Again, only alphabetical, all flawed in little ways, but solid nonetheless.

Predicting the longlist is a bit like handicapping horses: consistency, class, form, and pace. Books get boxed, parked out, shuffled back. Fortunately, I have miles to read before I sleep and need not place my bets until March.

29 October 14

Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.

Can Xue: The Last Lover, trans. from Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Yale/Margellos

The strangest and by far most original work I read this summer was Can Xue’s The Last Lover. How refreshing it is to encounter fiction that so resolutely disregards conventions of character and plot! The protagonists of this book do not develop—they transform, as do their relationships to one another, from one scene to the next. And they do so unpredictably, in ways that surprise and delight. As in much of Can Xue’s fiction, the prose is comic and disturbing at one and the same time. John Darnielle had Vertical Motion in mind when he pointed to the “grammar of dreams” that underpins that volume of stories: “situations in which a general meowing sound throughout a hospital provokes not the question ‘what’s going on?’ but instead ‘where are the catmen hiding?’” A similar grammar is present in The Last Lover, her most ambitious—and perhaps most radical—novel to date.

Faris al-Shidyaq: Leg over Leg volume 3, trans. from Arabic by Humphrey Davies, NYU

I wrote about the charms of this novel last winter, when the first two volumes were eligible for the prize. It should come as no surprise that the other two are now contenders as well. This chapter from volume three appeared in the 2014 translation issue of London’s The White Review. It’s preceded by a concise introduction by Humphrey Davies, whose translation of Shidyaq remains among the most gymnastic and resourceful amongst this year’s competition.

Elena Ferrante: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, trans. from Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa

There’s no denying the force of Ferrante’s writing. I discovered volume 2 of the Neapolitan Novels last spring when it made our longlist. (Such are the privileges of judging for BTBA; you have to read the 25 titles selected to this list, and thereby profit directly from the enthusiasms of others.) I devoured it whole, then did the same to The Story of a New Name. Ferrante inspires that rare thing, rarer still among contemporary writers: the compulsion to read everything she’s ever published. Like its predecessors, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay bristles with intelligence and is executed with startling clarity. And like the other books in this series, it is all-absorbing. Here’s Ariel Starling in a recent review for The Quarterly Conversation: “Subtle as the plot may be, it would do the work a grave disservice not to note that Ferrante is, in her own way, a master of suspense. Reading these novels, one becomes so immersed in the world of the characters that even an offhand comment from a minor acquaintance can (and often does) carry the force of revelation—the books are nearly impossible to put down.”

Hilda Hilst: With My Dog Eyes, trans. from Portuguese by Adam Morris, Melville House

I’ve already posted on Letters from a Seducer which had been scheduled for 2013 release but entered the world on the wrong side of January 1. Goes without saying that this title and its extraordinary translation by John Keene has not weakened in the slightest since my initial encounter. Hilst deserves to be in the mix when winter arrives and we begin to draft lists. The question then is likely to be: which horse to back? The answer’s not immediately obvious, to the great credit of Hilst’s translators and editors. With My Dog Eyes was as exhilarating to read as the Letter and The Obscene Madame D. Hilst has been blessed with a generation of astute translators who are now introducing her work to an Anglophone readership. With My Dog Eyes struck me as the most aphoristic of the three novels. It begins unforgettably: “God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter.” Adam Levy wrote a canny essay for Music & Literature about this year’s eligible Hilst titles; read it here.

I’ve little doubt concerning the importance of the above works for their respective languages. Those without Chinese or Italian or Portuguese have Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Ann Goldstein, and Adam Morris to thank for ensuring that their greatness has been preserved in the face of formidable challenges. I’d like to mention briefly the names of a few more translators whose work has impressed over these first few months of reading. They succeed at communicating the vitality of the voices translated, but also for their accomplished prose in English. They are, in no particular order, Jason Grunebaum from the Hindi of The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash; Daniel Hahn from the Portuguese (Brazil) of Nowhere People by Paolo Scott; Chris Andrews from the Spanish (Guatemala) of Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa; and Karen Emmerich from the Greek of Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, whose passages about the bewilderments of adolescent sexuality rank—alongside volume three of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard—among the funniest things I’ve encountered so far.