9 Moments That Make “Tomb Song” the Frontrunner for the National Book Award in Translation


Tomb Song by Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Graywolf Press)

Moment Number One

“Technique, my boy,” says a voice in my head. “Shuffle the technique.”

To hell with it: in her youth, Mamá was a beautiful half-breed Indian who had five husbands: a fabled pimp, a police officer riddled with bullet holes, a splendid goodfella, a suicidal musician, and a pathetic Humphrey Bogart impersonator. PERIOD.


The 2018 translation that’s the occasion for this post is Tomb Song by Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney and published by Graywolf Press. But to be honest, this is mostly just going to be banter. Or whatever you call banter that only involves one person and is written instead of spoken.

But we’ll start with a bit about Tomb Song, one of the better works of international literature to come out so far in 2018. It’s referred to as “An Incandescent U.S. Debut” on the press release, which normally would land it on my “do not read” list, but I like the cover. And suspect this is a potential finalist for the National Book Award in Translation (more on that below).

Categorized as “fiction,” it’s a book in which Julián Herbert writes about Julián Herbert writing about the death of his mother from leukemia. (And the death of his father as well.) It resides in that Ben Lerner, or Karl Ove Knausgaard, or maybe Geoff Dyer realm of being a “nonfiction novel,” in which truth and literary technique come together and create something else.

From a recent interview in the Paris Review:

To me, this is a novel. A nonfictional novel, most of the time, though there are some fictional elements. But the protagonist—my mother, Guadalupe—was real. She was a prostitute, and she died of leukemia. Why does it matter if the particular events around her happened in this world or not?

I think novels are novels because of technique, not because the content is made up. I wrote Tomb Song using a novelist’s tools—prolepsis and analepsis, digression, a plot twist that lasts three decades, plenty of characters. It’s always been strange to me that some Spanish-language critics insist that Tomb Song is a memoir and that my other book, The House of the Pain of Others, is a novel. To me, that book is a mix of reportage and narrative history. But honestly, I don’t lose sleep over this. I’ve always written between genres.


Moment Number Two

We’re always hearing about what a headache the frontier is for the United States because of the drug trafficking. No one mentions how dangerous the United States frontier is for Mexicans because of the trafficking of arms. And, when the subject does come up, the neighboring attorney general points out: “It’s not the same thing: the drugs are of illegal origin, the arms aren’t.” As if there was a majestic logic in considering that in comparison with the destructive power of a marijuana joint, an AK-47 is just a child’s toy.


Earlier this week, the National Book Awards announced all the specific details about applying for this year’s awards—including all the info on the recently re-established National Book Award for Translation.

Back when it was announced that the National Book Foundation was bringing this back, I wrote a long post about how great it was that Lisa Lucas (and her predecessor at the foundation, Harold Augenbraum, two of the most energetic, concerned people in the book world) made this happen, while also wringing my hands over what this would do to other existent translation awards (the BTBAs in particular, which will be greatly overshadowed), and who exactly would able to afford to apply. (We also did a podcast that touched on this, which has been getting a lot of downloads.)

My primary concern was about all the backend fees for books that are finalists. From that first article:

All publishers submitting books for the National Book Awards must agree to:

Contribute $3,000 toward a promotional campaign if a submitted book becomes a Finalist ($750 for presses with income of under $10 million).

Inform authors of submitted books that, if selected as Finalists, they must be present at the National Book Awards Ceremony and at related events in New York City.

Inform authors that the Finalists Reading will be held at The New School on Tuesday, November 13, 2018.

Inform authors that the National Book Awards Ceremony will be held at Cipriani Wall Street on Wednesday, November 14, 2018.

Cover all travel and accommodation costs for Finalists and provide them with a seat at the Awards Ceremony.

Purchase from the National Book Foundation, when appropriate, medallions to be affixed to the covers of Longlist, Finalist, and Winning books. The Foundation also will license the medallion image artwork for reproduction on the covers of Finalist and Winning books.


For presses that are doing well for themselves—Graywolf, New Directions, Europa—this is likely to be less of a concern. (And for other nonprofits with functioning boards, they could probably raise the money if it was a big issue.) But for a lot of other presses, these extra thousands could be prohibitive, leading to questions of who this award is really for.

BUT! When the actual details came out, almost all of those extra fees were eliminated for translation presses. From the updated National Book Award website:

Contribute toward a promotional campaign if a submitted book becomes a Finalist. For presses with income of $10 million or above, a contribution of $3,000; under $10 million, a contribution of $750; and for presses with income under $1 million, the fee is waived. (So this went from $750 to $0.)

Inform authors that the National Book Awards Ceremony will be held at Cipriani Wall Street on Wednesday, November 14, 2018. If the publisher attends, it is the expectation that they will provide a seat for their Finalist (discounted tickets are available for small, nonprofit, and/or university presses) (Still not sure what the cost actually is, but the fact that we don’t all have to pay Big Five rates is reassuring.)

Cover all travel and accommodation costs for Finalists (the Foundation will provide travel support for Finalists in the Translated Literature category). (Even if the NBF only covers part of this, it’s still a big help.)


So there you go! Even though a Twitter conversation established that Lisa Lucas never read anything I ever wrote on the subject, and was only aware of the BookRiot piece (which is basically a 1:1 rewrite of everything I said), I’d like to think that maybe Three Percent did a bit of good by remarking on all of this and making the economics of translation publishing a bit more transparent.

(Which is bullshit. The only time anyone reads or responds to any of these posts is when they’re offended. A near weekly occurrence, and something that’s really getting me down and making it hard to fully enjoy writing these. This is how self-censorship happens. Although, to be honest, since it seems that no one actually reads these, I should feel way more liberated!)

Moment Number Three

This last point must refer to me. I prefer to imagine Mamá—drunk and sniveling—singing to the sham lights of La Habana than to see her as I do today: bald, silent, yellow, breathing with greater difficulty than a chick raffled off at a charity event. For over a week now, my mother has been, biochemically speaking, incapable of crying. The ideology of pain is the most fraudulent of all. It would be more honest to say that, since she fell ill with leukemia, my mother’s political thought can be expressed only through a microscope.


As much as I like this book, there are a few instances where I think the voice wavers. This isn’t to detract from Christina MacSweeney’s work at all—as a whole, this is quite good—but there are a few choices that I’d be curious to know the back story on. This one, “breathing with greater difficulty than a chick raffled off at a charity event” is simply a question of meaning. I’ve never heard that phrase in my life and am unsure if it means a “chicken”? or a derogatory term for a woman? When I Google the phrase, all that comes back are references to Tomb Song. I’m just curious.

Moment Numbers Four and Five

“If you want to move in with that frigging bitch, fine: do it. But she’ll make your life hell. And you’re abandoning me, the person who’s taken so much shit to get you this far. If you’ve already made up your mind, go ahead. But you’re not my son anymore, you bastard, you’re nothing but a mad dog.”


In my family, it’s fine to utter any kind of curse (frigging, bastard, screw, idiot), but obscenities (prick, ass, fart, whore-monger) are prohibited. Although it’s a bit late in the day for me to offer a clear explanation of the difference between the two categories, I can easily intuit which new words belong in one hemisphere and which in the other. The universal term my siblings and I employ to substitute impolite expressions is This.


The first time “frigging” came up, I was immediately reminded of this bit from an interview MacSweeney gave about Daniel Saldaña París’s Among Strange Victims:

With Among Strange Victims, I started the process in British English and then, when Coffee House Press decided to publish it, I had to rethink certain passages. I remember that the expletive “bloody” (my translation of pinche) was considered too British when it came to editing, and there was a suggestion of replacing it with “damn.” But the problem was, I’d already used “damn” in other contexts, and wanted something more specific for that very Mexican term. Anyway, after a great deal of thought, I decided on “frigging,” which seems to fit neatly between the two cultures: Daniel liked it too.


Really curious to know if that’s the same situation here. I personally have never heard anyone say
“frigging” before, and would never think of it as a substitute for any swear. It does help maintain the confusion between the categories of “curses” and “obscenities” (bastard and screw are allowed but fart isn’t?), but it stands out to me, especially when his mother says it, and against the larger backdrop of characters who say “fucking” and do a lot of cocaine and opioids.

If there really isn’t a satisfactory match for pinche (assuming that’s the original in this book as it was in Among Strange Victims), it would be bold—and cool—to just leave it. I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of readers had come across pinche before, or could at least glean it’s swear-status from context. Which brings me to my last translation-related observation/question:

Moment Number Six

(Scrawneebly is a word Mónica and I invented to refer to cowards: a mixture of scrawny and feeble. We stand facing each other, arms akimbo, in superhero pose, and recite in unison, “And did you really think I was scrawneebly?”)


I’m all for neologisms—and hate autocorrect for making word inventions difficult to circulate—but this feels a bit too forced to me. The Spanish neologism MacSweeney is working out is “ñañenque,” which, obviously, doesn’t have an easy English solution. In both Spanish and English, the terms components are explained, so it’s possible that this could’ve been another instance where one could leave it in Spanish and use the following line as a chance to make it clear that this is a translation and that there is a distance between languages. “Ñañeque is a word Mónica and I invented to refer to cowards: a mixture of spanish word (scrawny) and other spanish word (feeble).”

Again, not that there’s anything wrong with MacSweeney’s solution. It just stood out to me, and I’m again curious about the thought process and other possibilities.

Moment Number Seven

We occasionally had breakfast with other Latin American poets, who seemed deeply self-satisfied with their own genius. [. . .] The best poets were, naturally, from Cuba and Chile. But when it came to conversation, nothing doing: they would have had to send them over with built-in subtitles.

Going back to the NBA for Translation and the great job Lisa Lucas has done with this (which only builds on what she’s done for the foundation as a whole since taking over for Harold Augenbraum) is in her choice of judges for the award. The five judges this year are: Harold Augenbraum (former head of the National Book Foundation, translator from Spanish), Karen Maeda Allman (Elliott Bay Book Company), Sinan Antoon (The Corpse Washer, which he translated into English himself), Susan Bernofsky (translator from German), and Álvaro Enrigue (Sudden Death). That’s a good mix of very qualified and generous people.

Since it’s never too early to speculate, based on my pre-existing knowledge of these judges and the eligible books, here are five that I expect to see on the longlist:

Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani (New Directions) (I’m assuming this is eligible even though Bernofsky translates Tawada’s German works)

Armand V or T Singer by Dag Solstad, translated from the Norwegian by Steven T. Murray and Tiina Nunnally, respectively (New Directions)

My Struggle: Book Six by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Martin Aiken (Archipelago Books)

Tomb Song by Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Graywolf Press)

Blue Self-Portrait by Noemi Lefebvre, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis (Transit Books)

One question: Is it OK to lobby for your own books? Given how small the translation world is, I know four of the five of the people on this committee, which makes me uncomfortable. I’m desperate for our books—and our website, and Open Letter as a whole, and myself personally—to get some national respect, to be considered to be “cool” or “necessary,” but prefer that it happens because people read the work itself and respond to quality. As you surely know, I suck at generating favorable vibes for myself or our press and its programs. It’s a curse I struggle with all the time in ways that I don’t want to share, and that you wouldn’t want to experience. But if I were a good publisher, maybe I could do that extra bit of Oscar-esque soft-diplomacy that creates a warm context within which these judges would more likely appreciate our submissions . . .

There are four books of ours that I think deserve to be longlisted: Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán, Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters by Maria José Silveira, and The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen. If one of those makes the longlist, I’ll be ecstatic.

Moment Number Eight

As a child, I wanted to be a scientist or a doctor. A man in a white coat. But all too soon I discovered my lack of aptitude: it took me years to accept the roundness of the earth. In public, I faked it.

The other day, I came across this headline from the Chicago Review of Books: “You’ve Never Read a Novel Like Empty Set.” That’s some solid Internet hyperbole! I made a joke on Twitter about how this sounds like a BuzzFeed headline, but that didn’t go over well (as per usual), in part because most people favor exaggerated positivity over learned accuracy—especially in headlines. (Even the title of the L.A. Times review of this book brushes up against that: “Mexican novelist Julián Herbert’s ‘Tomb Song’ marks him as one of the most innovative prose stylists of our time.”)

(BTW, the review that went along with the Chicago Review of Books headline is totally reasonable, and Empty Set is totally reasonable as a book as well. It’s not Joyce or anything—which that headline implies—but it’s good.)

So what I decided is that I should go back and change all of my previous posts to reflect this sort of “clickbait” mentality. Hell, I wrote an article once about how no one reads articles, they just glance at the headline, who’s tweeting it, and then click “heart” and/or “reshare.” It’s a complete inefficiency to write long, voice-driven posts that shoot for nuance and call-backs and embedded jokes, but I’d get way way more readers if these posts have BuzzFeed-inspired titles like: “9 Moments That Make ‘Tomb Song’ the Frontrunner for the National Book Award in Translation,” or “How ‘Empty Set’ Revolutionized the Marketing of Translations,” or “10 Paths to Obscure Books That Will Make You Say ‘Wow’,” or “Readers Born in the 1970s Will Recognize These Vargas Llosa Classics,” or “15 Ways Books About Chess Can Rewire Your Brain—And Make You Smarter!”

That’s the new Three Percent policy: sell-out when you can. Rochester is lonely enough, there’s no honor in spending four hours a weekend writing shit that no one ever clicks on.

Moment Number Nine

All of a sudden Émil Cioran’s little books on antipersonal development for adolescents come to mind. The one, for example, in which insomnia reveals to him the most profound sense of the trouble with existence: it impelled him toward unlimited spite: walking to the shoreline and throwing stones at some poor seagulls. Jeez, what a punk.


This is something I’ll get into more next week, but I wanted to mention it here since it’s on my mind.

A lot of Book Twitter was talking about this profile in the Guardian of Will Self, in particular, this bit:

You’re not awfully optimistic about the future of the novel, are you?

I think the novel is absolutely doomed to become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony. And that’s already happened. I’ve been publishing since 1990, so I’ve seen it happen in my writing lifetime. It’s impossible to think of a novel that’s been a water-cooler moment in England, or in Britain, since Trainspotting, probably.

It’s frequently said that that’s partly because narrative has migrated to box sets. Is there any truth in that?

The relationship between the novel and film in the 20th century was like the relationship between Rome and Greece. Film depended upon the novel, at least in its infancy and youth. The problem is that now that film itself is being Balkanised – carved up, streamed, loaded on to DVDs, watched on people’s phones – it no longer needs its grease, it no longer needs the novel lying behind it. It’s a disaster for the novel, actually – I think the novel is in freefall.


All of the reactions I saw were of the “It’s hypocritical to say the contemporary novel is doomed and not read any contemporary novels!” line. I might be completely off-base, but I thought Self was getting at something different. There are questions about narrative approaches within contemporary novels—and whether good TV is more narratively innovative than, say, a Franzen novel—but I think there’s also the question of the relevance of the novel within culture. It’s really hard to think of a novel that generated the same amount of discussion about non-book industry people as several Netflix shows. And that doesn’t seem to be going away. The centrality of the novel to culture has definitely evolved since 1990—and not in a particularly positive way.

More on that next week . . . Along with some thoughts about Lispector’s The Chandelier.

One response to “9 Moments That Make “Tomb Song” the Frontrunner for the National Book Award in Translation”

  1. […] get the negative of this article out of the way: YES, long-time readers, there are a few “friggings” in here, which I couldn’t help but notice. But I […]

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