3 May 16 | Chad W. Post |

It took a bit longer than planned, but we did it! There are now “Why This Book Should Win” write-ups for all 35 books that were longlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. Browse through these, find a few to read, and tune in to The Millions tomorrow at 7pm to find out who won.

To make it easier to catch up on all the entries in this series, listed below are all of the titles, linked to their WTBSW post. (I’ll keep updating this as more of the pieces go up.)

These pieces are a great way to handicap the field, to get a sense of what the particular juries were paying attention to this year, and to find a handful of titles to check out for your own reading pleasure.

Enjoy!

BTBA 2016 Fiction Longlist


A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola, Archipelago Books)

Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated from the French by Donald Winkler (Canada, Biblioasis)

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (South Korea, AmazonCrossing)

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen (Algeria, Other Press)

French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir, translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins (Sudan, Antibookclub)

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)

Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (France, Deep Vellum)

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter)

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)

The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press)

Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (Israel, New Directions)

Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker (Indonesia, New Directions)

The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions)

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Deep Vellum)

The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein (Mexico, Seven Stories Press)

The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Argentina, Open Letter)

I Refuse by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway, Graywolf Press)

War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)

One Out of Two by Daniel Sada, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Mexico, Graywolf Press)

Berlin by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovene by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander, and Aljaž Kovac (Slovenia, Counterpath)

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (Russia, FSG)

Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press)

The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (China, Grove Press)

Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad (India, New Directions)


BTBA 2016 Poetry Longlist


A Science Not for the Earth: Selected Poems and Letters by Yevgeny Baratynsky, translated from the Russian by Rawley Grau (Russia, Ugly Duckling Presse)

Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel (France, Burning Deck)

Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Brazil, Phoneme Media)

Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets, edited and translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström (India, HarperCollins India)

Empty Chairs: Selected Poems by Liu Xia, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern (China, Graywolf)

Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Persian by Farzana Marie (Afghanistan, Holy Cow! Press)

Silvina Ocampo by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (Argentina, NYRB)

The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo, translated from the Spanish and Isthmus Zapotec by Clare Sullivan (Mexico, Phoneme Media)

The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Djibouti, Seagull Books)

Sea Summit by Yi Lu, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (China, Milkweed)

3 May 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, BTBA judge, journalist, writer, and translator from the Danish. She previously served as editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and as blog editor at Asymptote and Words without Borders. She is currently an editor at the Council for European Studies and teaches creative writing at Columbia University. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Silvina Ocampo by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (Argentina, NYRB)

“There is in Silvina a virtue usually attributed to the Ancients or the people of the Orient and not to our contemporaries: that is clairvoyance.” This high praise of Argentinian Silvina Ocampo’s writing came from Jorge Luis Borges, who also made the distinction that it was her condition as a poet which exalted her prose. To the English-speaking world, Ocampo has become known through her short stories as a writer of the surreal, the fantastic, and the grotesque—while Silvina Ocampo, published by New York Review Books and translated by Jason Weiss, is Ocampo’s first collection of poems to appear in English.

Upon reading this collection—and “discovering” Ocampo’s poetry for the very first time—I was struck by the ease with which Ocampo shifts between the quotidian and the dreamlike. These shifts sometimes occur between poems, sometimes within poems—even within lines—guiding the reader through equal amounts of personal desperation and wild mythology. In “The Infinite Life”, for instance, the poem begins in a seemingly realistic present where the speaker ponders the meaning of life as well as life after death—but soon enough, the reader meets Atropos, the Greek goddess of fate and destiny “with her black butterfly face”; a winged horse which “passes like a beam of light through glass”; the distant empire of China and the monks in Tibet; victims of witchcraft, and the “lustrous Mediterranean.” Then, the reader is suddenly pulled back into a familiar reality:

It will not be the same river over the mud,
the burning of trash nor the cart,
the dogs in the suburban nights that
lose their way beside a cruel blond boy.


Yet just as the reader thinks she’s back on solid ground, Ocampo takes her on a new journey in the very next couplet:

There will be no queens of Egypt, nor coins
preserving their likeness, nor will there be silks.


The poems that enchanted me most, however, were Ocampo’s earlier work from 1942—arranged in the first section of this collection under the title “Enumeration of My Country.” This entire section consists of poems describing Argentina’s vast and stunning landscapes in such rich detail—and with such a powerful, almost forceful, voice—that the reader might be led to believe these poems were, in fact, written by some kind of deity. The result? I am left awestruck by both Ocampo’s Dickensonian authority as a poet (I was pleased and not at all surprised to discover in Weiss’s introduction that Ocampo’s final book of poetry was not her own writing but translations of six hundred poems by Emily Dickinson) as well as Weiss’s capacity to render Ocampo’s utterly unique poetic voice.

19 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

These sixteen finalists represent an incredible array of writing styles and reputation, and include the likes of Clarice Lispector, Elena Ferrante, Georgi Gospodinov, Gabrielle Wittkop, Liu Xia, Abdourahman Waberi, and more. These titles were selected from the nearly 570 works of fiction and poetry published in English translation in 2015.

The sixteen titles on these two shortlists are translated from nine different languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish having the most finalists, with three a piece) and thirteen different countries (Brazil, China, and Mexico have two authors each). Ten of the shortlisted titles are by women, including Load Poems Like Guns, which features the work of eight Afghani women poets. Fourteen different presses, with only New Directions and Open Letter Books being responsible for more than one shortlisted title, published the finalists.

As in recent years, the Best Translated Book Awards are underwritten by the Amazon Literary Partnership program, which allow both winning authors and winning translators to receive $5,000 cash prizes. Thanks to this gift, Three Percent at the University of Rochester will have awarded $100,000 in cash prizes to international authors and translators since 2011.

The finalists for both the fiction and poetry awards will be announced on The Millions (www.themillions.com) on Tuesday, April 19th, and the winners will be announced on Wednesday, May 4th at 7 p.m., simultaneously on The Millions and at a live event at The Folly in New York City. There will also be a celebration during BookExpo America at 5 p.m. on May 11th at 57th St. Books in Chicago.

This year’s fiction jury is made up of: Amanda Bullock (Literary Arts, Portland), Heather Cleary, translator from the Spanish, co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review), Kevin Elliott (57th Street Books), Kate Garber (192 Books), Jason Grunebaum (translator, writer), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), Stacey Knecht (translator), Amanda Nelson (Book Riot), and P.T. Smith (writer and reader).

The poetry jury includes: Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Council for European Studies), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Becka McKay (writer and translator), and Deborah Smith (writer, translator, founder of Tilted Axis).

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

19 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As announced “earlier this morning at The Millions,”: these are the ten fiction finalists for this year’s Best Translated Book Award:



A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola, Archipelago Books)

Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated from the French by Donald Winkler (Canada, Biblioasis)



The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter)



Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)

Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (Israel, New Directions)



The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions)

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)



War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)

Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press)

As in years past, each of the winning authors and translators (for poetry and fiction), will receive $5,000 cash prizes thanks to the support of Amazon’s Literary Partnership program. Actually, after these are awarded, the BTBA will have given out $100,000 in prizes to international authors and their translators—not a bad accomplishment!

To celebrate this year’s Best Translated Book Awards, we will be hosting two separate events.

First up, on May 4th from 6:30-8:00pm, the official awards ceremony will take place at The Folly (92 W. Houston St., New York). The two winning titles will be revealed at 7pm sharp—both live in person AND at The Millions.

Then, one week later during BookExpo America, there will be a special celebration at 57th Street Books (1301 E. 57th St., Chicago) from 5:00-6:30pm. There will be some drinks and refreshments on hand, along with several BTBA judges. (Worth noting that this event will be immediately followed by Family History of Fear: Agata Tuszynska, Ron Balson, and Greg Archer. This is part of the Polish programming that’s going on during BEA, and something a lot of BTBA fans will likely be interested in.)

Finally, just to thank them publicly once again, here’s the list of all the wonderful judges for this year’s award: Amanda Bullock (Literary Arts, Portland), Heather Cleary, translator from the Spanish, co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review), Kevin Elliott (57th Street Books), Kate Garber (192 Books), Jason Grunebaum (translator from the Hindi, writer), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), Stacey Knecht (translator from Czech and Dutch), Amanda Nelson (Book Riot), and P.T. Smith (writer and reader).

Now you have sixteen days in which to argue about which title deserves to win . . . And for more information about all of these, I highly recommend checking out the Why This Book Should Win posts.

19 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As announced “earlier this morning at The Millions,”: these are the six poetry finalists for this year’s Best Translated Book Award:



Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Brazil, Phoneme Media)

Empty Chairs: Selected Poems by Liu Xia, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern (China, Graywolf)



Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Persian by Farzana Marie (Afghanistan, Holy Cow! Press)

Silvina Ocampo by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (Argentina, NYRB)



The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Djibouti, Seagull Books)

Sea Summit by Yi Lu, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (China, Milkweed)

As in years past, each of the winning authors and translators (for poetry and fiction), will receive $5,000 cash prizes thanks to the support of Amazon’s Literary Partnership program. Actually, after these are awarded, the BTBA will have given out $100,000 in prizes to international authors and their translators—not a bad accomplishment!

To celebrate this year’s Best Translated Book Awards, we will be hosting two separate events.

First up, on May 4th from 6:30-8:00pm, the official awards ceremony will take place at The Folly (92 W. Houston St., New York). The two winning titles will be revealed at 7pm sharp—both live in person AND at The Millions.

Then, one week later during BookExpo America, there will be a special celebration at 57th Street Books (1301 E. 57th St., Chicago) from 5:00-6:30pm. There will be some drinks and refreshments on hand, along with several BTBA judges. (Worth noting that this event will be immediately followed by Family History of Fear: Agata Tuszynska, Ron Balson, and Greg Archer. This is part of the Polish programming that’s going on during BEA, and something a lot of BTBA fans will likely be interested in.)

This year’s poetry jury consisted of Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Words Without Borders), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Becka McKay (writer and translator), and Deborah Smith (writer, translator, founder of Tilted Axis).

19 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, BTBA judge, journalist, writer, and translator from the Danish. She previously served as editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and as blog editor at Asymptote and Words without Borders. She is currently an editor at the Council for European Studies and teaches creative writing at Columbia University. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo, translated from the Spanish and Isthmus Zapotec by Clare Sullivan (Mexico, Phoneme Media)

Though Zapotec has existed as a written language for more than 2,000 years, Natalia Toledo was the first woman to write and publish poetry in her native language. In 2004 she won the Nezhualcóyotl Prize—Mexico’s most prestigious prize for indigenous-language literature—for The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems, a collection of poetry which describes contemporary Isthmus Zapotec life in rich detail. Or rather: in vivid imagery, in Clare Sullivan’s gorgeous translation, published by Phoneme Media.

In the opening poem, an overflowing river turns the world’s population into fish while God appears on a peeling wall, observed by the speaker of the poem “from behind a black leafed tree.” Leaves and flowers, sometimes black, form a recurring motif in this hauntingly stunning collection. These plants appear to be inevitable extensions of the humans inhabiting Toledo’s poems, for better and for worse. For instance, in “Loving”, a water lily is “born on the river’s surface / as you break forth / from the dream between my legs” in a tender yet slightly violent moment; in “Huipil”, flowers are involved in yet another violence, this time of the skin: “Facing the sky like a lizard / I settle you in a trunk that smells of pine. / My skin bursts with the flowers etched upon my dress. / Men and hummingbirds can come and pinch me / tonight, / my happiness is nectar that flows.”

The hummingbird motif reminded me of another Zapotec poet whose work I greatly admire: Irma Pineda. Upon finishing The Black Flower, I was thrilled to discover in Clare Sullivan’s translator’s note—located at the end of the book—that Pineda actually assisted Sullivan during the challenging translation process: “Toledo herself translated all the poems [. . .] from Zapotec to Spanish and Pineda helped me compare the original to Toledo’s translation verse by verse. Sometimes the poet deliberately changes a poem when rendering it from Zapotec into its Spanish incarnation, perhaps to clarify an image for a wider Mexican audience or to enrich the sound in Spanish.”

Sullivan goes on to explain that these translations into Spanish are always “poetry in their own right: This requires a tremendous effort on the part of Toledo and other indigenous language poets: they must not only be poets who know another language but poets in two different languages.” All the more reason why The Black Flower should win the Best Translated Book Award—this collection is clearly the result of intense and masterful poet/translator collaboration, and it is a collection which I will surely revisit for years to come.

18 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I wanted to write a lot more about this, but I’m running out of time . . . Here are a few clues about the fiction and poetry finalists for the 2016 Best Translated Book Awards. The shortlists will be officially unveiled tomorrow morning (Tuesday, April 19th) at 10am over at The Millions.

Fiction Finalists:

  • Authors from nine different countries on the shortlist;

  • Books translated from eight different languages;

  • Eight different publishers are on the list;

  • Half of the books are written by women;

  • Yes, there is some overlap with the Man Booker International shortlist;

  • Eight of the translators on the shortlist are women.

That should get you started . . . I suspect that someone will be able to guess at least seven of these titles.

As in years past, the first person to email me and correctly identify all ten titles will receive a complimentary one-year subscription to Open Letter.

* * *


Over on the Poetry side of things:

  • There are six titles on the shortlist;

  • Five are by women;

  • Five different countries are represented;

  • Five different languages are represented;

  • No publisher has more than one book on the list.

OK, since this is a bit easier, I’ll give the first person to guess all six a complete set of Open Letter poetry titles.

Guess away!

18 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Monica Carter, former BTBA judge and writer whose fiction has appeared in The Rattling Wall, Black Clock, Writers Tribe Review, and other publications. She is a freelance critic whose work has appeared in World Literature Today, Black Clock and Foreword Reviews. She is the Project Coördinator for Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools. She is currently working on her novel. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (China, Grove Press)

“I left some portions of the document in my drawer, and handed over others. The parts I handed over described my contribution and loyalty to Re-Ed, while the ones I left behind in my drawer contained material I hoped to use for a novel after I succeeded becoming a new man. I didn’t know which of these was more important to me, just as I didn’t know which is more important – the life of an author, or his works.”


Yan Lianke is a distinguished novelist not quite recognized as he should be in his own native China despite having been nominated for the Man Booker Prize as well as winning the Franz Kafka Prize, which is based on an author’s oeuvre to date. He is revered in China although most of his works have been banned there, including Serve the People, Dream of Ding Village (a run was published but then recalled) and his current work, The Four Books, which never found a mainland publisher. Political dissension doesn’t make a literary work great, but a continual effort to challenge bureaucratic revisionist history of one’s own government provides a strong foundation for honest, compelling, exemplary work especially in the face of reprobation. The Four Books is morbidly farcical, a literary feat that few authors can achieve, but more importantly stuns with its complexity that appears simple, its messages that seem to be reductive reboots of communist propaganda and its styles varied yet fluid enough to be utterly readable.

This is not an “entertaining” book, although it entertains. It is a book of importance and by the fact that it is banned in the author’s homeland; it no doubt will be included one day in the canon of great Chinese literature.

The Four Books chronicles the time of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and also sardonically includes the use of red blossoms as rewards for good deeds based on Mao Zedong Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956) that promoted open expression of the regime in order to let intellectual ideas flourish. Of course, Mao did a quick turnabout deciding that those intellectuals who took advantage of that freedom should be imprisoned for their counterrevolutionary ideas. As part of Mao’s economic initiative to reign victorious in grain and steel production over the West, where the “United States is a pair of balls, and England, France, Germany and Italy are cock, balls and feces,” he collectivized farming in rural areas and established Re-Education districts for rebellious criminals.

The novel opens with the setting of the ninety-ninth district located on the embankment of the Yellow River where the goal was to assign each criminal “a number and re-educate them through hard labor.” The characters that figure prominently in this district are the Child, a low level leader in the Party whose ideology is based on an adolescent viewpoint of the world, Communism and the concept of reward and punishment, followed by intellectuals only referred to by their former profession: the Scholar, the Musician, the Theologian and most importantly, the Author. Almost a character itself, Chinese color symbolism imbues each page using red, white, yellow and black often and effectively to represent traditional interpretations ranging from beauty to imperial power to Communism.

Lianke shrewdly structures the book with alternating excerpts from four books. Translator Carlos Rojas stylistically creates fluidity and vibrancy throughout the novel with his language and interpretative choices. It opens with Heaven’s Child, an anonymous book written in holy language borrowed from a pastiche of religious texts including the Bible and The Four Books of Confucius. Then he alternates with excerpts from Criminal Records in which the Author records the infractions of his fellow district criminals and is promised by the “higher-ups” “that as long as you finish the this book, not only will they allow you to return to the provincial seat to be reunited with your family, but they will have the book printed and distributed throughout the country. They will reassign you to the capital, to be a leader of the country’s writers.” With the rationed ink and paper he is given, the Author also begins his memoir, Old Course, an intimate first person account of his thoughts, his gradual devolvement from witness of the ninety-ninth to a gradual obsession with growing wheat bigger than an ear of corn. The fourth book is also the final chapter that is the Scholar’s partial version of The New Myth of Sisyphus. The Scholar’s unfinished philosophical text about what he has learned from living in the Re-Ed District states that once humans become acclimated to the conditions of punishment, humiliation and debasement, harsher forms must be introduced make them understand the idea of hardship and challenge. Lianke turns up Camus’s myth into a futile exercise that involves the draconian task of not only rolling the rock up the hill, but down it as well.

As a symbol of the Communist Party, the Child is demanding, easily provoked, craves attention and wants to be constantly rewarded by the “higher ups.” The intellectuals make promises to him in order to gain paper red blossoms, which once they gain one hundred twenty-five, they will be allowed to leave and return home. He makes them swear that if they don’t mean it they say he makes childish, melodramatic demands like asking them to take a gun (placed on a platter), shoot him in the chest and make sure that he falls forward, not backwards.

Even though through raiding all the counterrevolutionary books of the intellectuals he is usually caught reading comic books emphasizing the simplistic nature of the bureaucracy as well as its lack of substantive provocative ideas. Paralleling the belief system of Christianity, even though the Theologian is forced to give up his copy of the New Testament for the Child to burn, Child’s is fascinated by a picture of Mother Mary. He ends up believing in the mythological nature of the stories of Genesis to justify the actions of the Politburo in Beijing.

Determined to earn enough red blossoms to return home, the Author goes to live by himself so he can produce wheat as big as ears of corn. At first, he encounters a feeling of freedom and renewed vitality to write but then in order to keep his promise of growing this Monsanto-esque wheat stalks, he devolves into chained slave vulnerable to the perils that threaten his wheat including bad soil, sun, and sparrows (one of animals of the Four Pests Campaign the Mao created in order to kill these pest that threatened the grain). He cuts himself to mix his own blood with water to make the stalks grow bigger. He forgoes sleeping in his hut to guard his wheat from disaster and continues bloodletting until he is pale and too dizzy to walk back to his hut. His desperation is palpable when he thinks, “Instead I wanted to crawl back, and in the process show all of the wheat plants how much I had sacrificed for them, like parents who exaggerate their illness in order to get their children’s sympathy.”

While the “higher-ups” demand unrealistic wheat production and steel production from the labor camps, the land is barren with no hope of producing food for the Re-Ed workers and starvation results. When it is clear that the Great Chinese Famine hit the rural provinces hardest, some Re-Ed districts were faced with incidents of cannibalism. When it occurs in the ninety-ninth, the Scholar brings it up to the Child:

“The Scholar stared at the Child and said, “But at the very least we can’t permit people to eat each other, right?”

The Child open the picture book he was holding to a page near the end, and said, “Early on, there was a devastating famine, and people died throughout the land. There was also an enormous flood in which nearly everyone drowned, and only Noah’s family survived.”


The satirical nature of the Author that Lianke employs in the beginning of the book slyly progresses to horror when the he realizes survival seems unlikely for anyone:

“I retreated to the middle of the room and told the Scholar not to look. The Scholar then walked over to the corpses lying on the innermost cot. As soon as he reached the bed, I recognized the two bodies that belonged to the Theologian and a young associate professor. The Theologian originally had not been on his bunk. Feeling flustered, I went over and pulled back the sheet covering the Theologian’s body, and immediately felt a wave of nausea run through me. The body had no arms or legs, instead merely his trunk was lying there, like a corpse that has been disinterred after many years. I quickly covered him again with the sheet before the Scholar could see it and retreated from the room. I squatted in the doorway and repeatedly dry-heaved, as thought there were a clump of putrid grass wedged in my throat.”


Lianke lays out the slow burn of this genocide by insidiously eliminating basic human rights and primal needs from each character. The only expression of sexual (which is forbidden) and romantic love happens between the Scholar and the young, pretty Musician. Ultimately, after being reported by the Author, they are brutally abused for their behavior and endure degrading behavior in order to obtain food for each other.

The realization that no matter how many red blossoms they collect, they are doomed to die without dignity or recognition. Loyalty to the Party is the highest goal which none of the criminals can ever achieve when the requirements are constantly changing.

It’s not simply that The Four Books should win because Lianke continues to challenge the tragedies of China’s past and their denial in the present of those tragedies, but because he represents the curiosity of a writer who refuses to let them be ignored. The Four Books, as well written and as devastating as it is, confronts history and the roles we play in it. It’s a powerful testament to the courage Lianke renders as the obligation of a writer. Shouldn’t more writers do this with each novel they write? The Four Books should win for the voice it gives to the millions who died without recognition, without acknowledgment that they even existed.

18 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Tess Lewis, BTBA judge, writer, translator from the French and German, and an advisory editor of the Hudson Review. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Djibouti, Seagull Books)

for miniature republic
parsimonious poems
          Engravings


The Djibouti writer Abdourahman Waberi’s name will be familiar to BTBA followers for his novel Transit, short-listed in 2013. The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper is Waberi’s first collection of poetry and there is a palpable sense of urgency to these lean poems. Size, of course, is not a reliable indicator of impact or import. Waberi sees his small native land as part of the cradle of mankind, of homo erectus, to be exact. Here, humans first stood, first put one foot in front of the other, joining gesture, movement and breath into a kind of freedom. And it is that instant, that conjunction, that inspires Waberi to imagine man making “that first gesture in the bed of [his] pages.”

Writing poems, for Waberi, is “a matter of strictest necessity.” He sows these “modest pebbles” in readers’ paths, not to guide them—Waberi is suggestive, not prescriptive—but as markers to use in charting their own way to a meaningful life free from the tides of economic, financial, ecological, and spiritual excess that are washing over the world. “Another path of life is possible, apparent in the creases and folds of this collection.”

These spare poems are laconic but evocative, conjuring up desert landscapes, a nomadic tribe, or his small country’s struggles with civil war and extremism. He sees the wind as a calligrapher, covering the dunes with words.

brush in hand the wind sketches
landscapes of words
sculpted mountain slopes
shadow plains
horizon enclaves


This is a landscape that has witnessed much suffering, great and small. The Somali bullet,

. . . bloom of a new genus
that bans
all transports of joy
all shedding of tears in the name of love
drawn from the bittersweet milk of peace


is countered by a lame herdsman who laments

with my skinny legs
I’ve crossed vast desert sands
with my short strides
I’ve kept up with my camels’ pace
so why should I care
if my shrew of a wife slanders my name!


Unsparing in their frankness, Waberi’s poems are also finely attuned to the beauties and joys in a harsh landscape of “tortured geology” and happy simplicity. Waberi enjoins us to “let nomadic words live” for they, as much as any others, can open up new worlds and lead us to “the tree of knowledge [which] has wings to surpass the horizon.”

14 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Charlotte Whittle, translator, and editor at Cardboard House Press. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein (Mexico, Seven Stories Press)

Guadalupe Nettel’s unsettling autobiographical novel, which follows on the success of her story collection Natural Histories, recounts the disorienting childhood of a girl coming to terms with living in her own skin. From the psychoanalyst’s couch, the narrator recalls a youth marked by trauma and displacement, and details the magnified perceptions and small-scale metamorphoses of her coming of age. The Body Where I Was Born is a story of a girl learning to inhabit a body, and of how the body inhabits its surroundings. In her exploration of this process of becoming, the author trains her gaze on the uncomfortable discoveries of youth many of us would prefer to forget. Nettel’s prose is elegant yet unadorned, and her translator, J.T. Lichtenstein, has preserved the book’s matter-of-fact and sometimes deadpan tone in her skillful rendering of the novel.

Born with a birthmark on her cornea, the young Guadalupe is subjected to a series of corrective treatments and forced to wear an eye patch the color of her skin. This gives her the uncanny appearance of having only one eye, making her classmates “curious and uncomfortable,” and initiating Guadalupe into her status as an outsider. The treatment regimen also involves exposure to black light: “for this, my parents built a wooden box that my small head fit into perfectly, then they lit it up. In the background, like a primitive cinemascope, drawings of animals went around and around: a deer, a turtle, a bird, a peacock.” The image anticipates Guadalupe’s withdrawal into her own world, where animals will become her protective totems.

In a defensive gesture, Guadalupe grows hunched and turns in on herself. Critical of her posture, her mother nicknames her “Cucaracha.” Partly as a result of this, Guadalupe comes to identify with the kingdom of insects, creatures that provoke the same mix of curiosity and revulsion she feels she causes in others. This process of identification reveals Nettel’s interest—also visible in Natural Histories—in the distasteful and beastly aspects of existence, those from which we might prefer to look away. Guadalupe’s cold, distant grandmother, with whom she is forced to live after her parents abandon her, banishes her from lunch “exactly how one might throw an undesirable insect outside so as to not have to squash it in front of guests.” Around the time of her first stirrings of sexual desire, Guadalupe sees in the mirror “something similar to the caterpillar found dead in my shoe.” Even as she discovers the latent potentialities of her young body, she creates an “alternative geography” for herself, recognizing that “I really did resemble the cockroaches that travel through the marginal spaces and buried pipes of buildings.” It is fitting then that Guadalupe reads Kafka, and recognizes her kinship with Gregor Samsa of The Metamorphosis: “Nowhere in the story does it say exactly what kind of insect Gregor Samsa was, but I quickly gathered it was a cockroach. He had turned into one; I was one by maternal decree, if not by birth.” Guadalupe’s identification with the indestructible cockroach and with the ancient trilobite places her within a tribe of tough-shelled survivors.

While Guadalupe’s narrative is profoundly intimate and personal, it is also punctuated by far-reaching events that marked the era of her childhood. She grows up surrounded by members of the diaspora prompted by a series of Latin American dictatorships. Recalling the Villa Olímpica where she lived, built in 1968 to accommodate athletes and journalists attending the Olympics, Guadalupe associates it with the 1968 massacre of students at Tlatelolco on the eve of that same event. And in 1985, she and her mother watch in shock as a Mexico City in ruins, after the earthquake that killed thousands, appears on the television in their living room in Aix-en-Provence.

A child of the 1970s, Guadalupe is subjected to experimental practices typical of the decade. She attends a Montessori school, and witnesses her parents’ flirtations with open relationships, communal living, and the predictive capacities of the I Ching. But despite their apparently liberated mindset, her parents are still conditioned by the mores of their own childhoods, and subject to curious blind spots and inconsistencies in their parenting ethos. When, after years of insisting that no truth should be withheld from their children, Guadalupe’s father disappears, it takes years for Guadalupe to discover the truth of his whereabouts.

One of the book’s most memorable episodes concerns the silent communication between Guadalupe and Ximena, daughter of exiles from Pinochet’s military dictatorship. In a ritual of “marvelous symmetry” the two girls see each other from their windows and each recognizes the other in her isolation; they return to their respective windows night after night to quietly watch one another. It is as if each had found in the other a companion to share the quiet, intuited truths of their afflictions. But while Ximena sets fire to herself and escapes “once and for all from the cage of her life,” Guadalupe is already on her way to developing the cockroach-like carapace that will shield her.

The novel’s epigraph “I always wanted / to return / to the body / where I was born,” from Allen Ginsberg’s “Song” is borne out in the final sequence, in which the eye surgery Guadalupe’s mother has been planning is ultimately deemed unsafe: returning from the journey, Guadalupe accepts her body and the marks it bears, saying: “my eyes and my vision were the same but I saw differently: . . . I decided to inhabit the body where I was born, in all its peculiarities.”

The Body Where I Was Born captures the alienation of a childhood spent in solitude, and is a powerful testimony of a woman claiming her agency and her place in the world. In its measured, incisive prose, the small incidents of adolescence carry as much weight as the global, political events that frame them. We are thus invited to witness the evolution of a hardened, resilient self that wears its wounds like stamps of survival: “these tattoos and scars we add with our personality and convictions, in the dark, by touch, as best we can, without direction or guidance.” Nettel’s complex, probing testimony of survival and Lichtenstein’s deft translation make The Body Where I Was Born a strong contender for the BTBA.

14 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Deborah Smith, BTBA judge, translator from the Korean, and founder of Tilted Axis Press. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Persian by Farzana Marie (Afghanistan, Holy Cow! Press)

This collection, subtitled “Women’s Poetry from Herat Afghanistan,” bears moving witness to the extraordinary impact both poetry and translation—usually seen as minor, or marginal pursuits—is able to have on both our intellectual and emotional lives. In her introduction, powerhouse translator Farzana Marie explains that “poetry holds an exceedingly revered place in the consciousness of the people of Afghanistan,” its orality lending it endurance in a country where so much else has been repeatedly destroyed. Her tight editorial focus makes this anthology as effective as a single-poet collection; poems by eight young women from Herat, an ancient city near the border with Iran, all written post-2001 (in other words, post Taliban). The feeling is one of an intimate circle, especially as the latter seven are in some sense disciples of Nadia Anjuman, the poet whose work opens the collection and who was widely seen as the city’s leading literary light until her untimely death, a victim of domestic violence.

Two things about this book blew me away—one was the strength of the writing itself, and another was the astonishing work of its translator, whose time in Afghanistan has been spent volunteering at orphanages, on active duty in the US Air Force, and as a scholar of Persian literature. Crucially, though, Farzana Marie is also a poet in her own right, and an extremely gifted one, with the literary sensibility needed to carry off the tricky task of making poetry which relies heavily on strict forms like the ghazal and end rhymes come alive in English, substituting internal and slant rhymes to retain the music of the original (these translations beg to be read aloud). Here, in one of Nadia Anjuman’s most famous poems, rhythm, line-breaks and vowel sounds combine to produce an effect both heady and heavy, the long “u” at the end dulling the poem into a soporific stupor, similar to the way that earlier repeated “full” hung alone like a weight or a stopper, bringing any hint of exuberance up short.

Smoke-bloom

I’m full of the feeling of emptiness,
full.
An abundant famine
boils me in my soul’s fevered fields,
and this strange waterless boiling
startles the image in my poem
to life.
I watch the new-living picture,
a peerless rose
blush across the page!
But barely has she first breathed
when streaks of smoke begin
to obscure her face and fumes
consume her perfumed skin.


Sadly, I wasn’t able to interview Farzana herself as she’s currently recuperating from a stroke (and fundraising to pay for treatment), but her publisher Jim Perlman, at the wonderfully-named Holy Cow! Press, found time to answer a couple of questions.

How did you come to publish the book?

a.) We first became aware of Farzana Marie (her birth name is Felisa Hervey) in 2012 when we accepted her poem “Be-long-ing” for an anthology we were putting together called The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home. In her bio notes, Farzana wrote that she was currently studying for a Ph.D. in Persian Literature at the University of Arizona. In the winter of 13/14, wanting to escape the frozen tundra of northern Minnesota, I planned a two-week visit to Tucson where I have extended family. I decided to contact Farzana and set up a meeting. We met for lunch, and during our conversation, she mentioned that she’d translated a collection of contemporary poetry by Afghan women and was looking for a publisher. Soon after returning to Minnesota, I received a copy of that same manuscript. Although Holy Cow! are known primarily for writing by midwest regional American authors, I felt that Load Poems was a powerfully unique and historically important book. So, we went for it.

How does it feel to be longlisted?

b.) We’re overjoyed that Load Poems has been selected for the BTBA—the nomination confirms for us the wisdom of taking this bold step in publishing Farzana’s ground breaking collection, and it will definitely encourage us to seek out other translations to add to our list.

For those who are interested, here’s a clip from the reading tour for this collection:



14 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Stacey Knecht, BTBA judge and translator from the Czech and Dutch. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (Russia, FSG)

There I lay, on my little yellow sofa, felled by the flu. The first three days were foggy, inside and out, but on the fourth day my eyes began to clear, and I reached for the fat Russian novel that had been waiting next to me ever since the fever hit: The Big Green Tent. Given my penchant for things Slavic, and the fact that the second half of a flu is usually easier than the first, this promised to be a pleasurable recovery.

It’s fascinating to trace the trajectories of people destined to meet. Sometimes such encounters happen without any special help from fate, without elaborate convolutions of plot, following the natural course of events—say, people live in adjacent buildings, or go to the same school.


These lines, at the start of Chapter One (they appear again halfway through the book, as if to remind us of their significance), sum up not only the book itself, but also the style in which it’s written. The novel unfolds, “following the natural course of events,” to reveal the cast of characters and the storylines one has come to expect from “the dear, dead, nineteenth-century Russians,” as my favorite literature teacher used to say, the kind of book in which we’d write a list of all those characters on the inside cover. Yet the author of The Big Green Tent, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, is still very much alive, widely acclaimed, and “an outspoken protester of the Putin regime” (The Atlantic, December 2015). The events she describes, the post-Stalin years up through the early 1990s, are palpably recent; and repression, unfortunately, is timeless.

Perhaps to ensure that the reader is aware of the fact that history can and does repeat itself, Ulitskaya brings past and present together, blurring our sense of time. There are passages here that echo those dear, dead Russians:

The storm took place at half past two in the morning. It was like an opera or a symphony—with an overture, leitmotifs, and a duet of water and wind. Lightning bolts flew up in columns, accompanied by incessant rumbling and flashes. Then there was an intermission and a second act. Maria Nikolayevna’s heart pains, which had plagued her all day, stopped immediately, as did Captain Popov’s headache, from which he had been suffering for the past twenty-four hours. He even managed to get some sleep before going to work. The only thing he didn’t manage to do was put a stamp on the document. But he could do that later.


Or:

Boris Ivanovich loved his mother-in-law; in her he saw Natasha, but with a more decisive character. In his wife, Natasha, he saw features of his mother-in-law — the first signs of a gentle fullness, small lines around the mouth, and a burgeoning soft pouch under the chin. Good, healthy stock. The generous plumpness of Kustodiev’s women, but all the more alluring for it.


Then, just two pages later, we’re reminded that this is a different era entirely:

What he was looking for was lying on his own desk in his office in the form of photocopied pages from Stern magazine. These were cartoons: gigantic letters spelling “Glory to the Communist party of the Soviet Union,” and under them a crowd of people and dogs trying to reach the sacred words. The words themselves were made of sausages: boiled salami, with circles of white fat where they had been sliced. [. . .] Another cartoon depicted a mausoleum made of the same kind of salami, with the word Lenin written in sausage links.


I’d be very happy for The Big Green Tent to win the BTBA 2016. The prose is rich, the translation, strong, the themes, relevant. There’s history, and humor, and a pinch of folklore. But above all: it cures the flu.

13 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Tiffany Nichols, who will start her Ph.D. studies this upcoming fall and is a contributor at to Three Percent. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Argentina, Open Letter)

My first rather obvious reason as to why The Things We Don’t Do should win the Best Translated Book Award relies on the prestige already gained by Andrés Neuman. Neuman was introduced to the English-speaking audience with Traveler of the Century, a work which I personally believe is the War and Peace of the twenty-first Century. As Jeremy Garber points out in his Three Percent review of the work, Neuman “has been celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, having attracted a number of prestigious awards.” Further, Neuman was celebrated by Roberto Bolaño (in verified print— Between Parentheses). In discussing Neuman’s first novel, Bolaño states:

In it, good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature, the kind written by real poets, a literature that dares to venture into the dark with open eyes and that keeps its eyes open no matter what. In principle, this is the most difficult test (also the most difficult exercise and stretch) and on no few occasions Neuman pulls it off with frightening ease. . . When I come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know what the future holds for them. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like that happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.


Personally, I believe we can drop the mic here as to why Neuman should win the BTBA. Namely, (1) Neuman is still writing, and (2) Neuman has assumed a position of literary prestige in the Spanish-speaking world (and the English-speaking world)—All of Bolaño’s criteria having been met. . .

Most works of literature stay with us for a short period of time upon completion. However, there are a select few that sneak into our thoughts weeks and months (even years) after completion. These works are challenging and thought-provoking not only during the act of reading, but also appear in one’s thoughts without provocation when the mind is busy handling our daily lives because the subconscious needs time to make its own assessment of the work within the greater context of time and the reader’s own identity. The Things We Don’t Do (along with his other works) is one of such work. Neuman’s aforementioned prestige and now his ability to write literature with staying power—the case is building for a winner.

Focusing on the work itself, The Things We Don’t Do is divided into five parts, which appear to be based on thematic similarities between the short stories in their respective sections ending with a section containing clever aphorisms on writing within the short story form. The strength of the collection lies in Neuman’s ability to craft short stories covering topics, on which people remain silent or often forget completely while carrying out their day-to-day activites. These topics range from terminal illness to suicide to the contents of hotel guest books to experiences of sex intertwined with birth and the clues one can observe from a clothes line.

True to this established style, Neuman places observations that are so globally ubiquitous that anyone could engage with his work as if there was a direct channel between the reader and the work. These observations are so simple and stated with such finesse that any reader will be forced to provide his/her undivided attention to the work. Examples (absent context) include:

. . . [I]n today’s session he declared that people born in the ‘70s are orphans through excess. That is to say, a generation that feels unprotected due to its parents’ overprotectiveness.

Ariel was, so to speak, a classically envious person. And, like all people of his kind, his fury turned against his own interests and slowly ate away what little happiness he had.

. . . [M]y male neighbor on the third floor, who takes the trouble to sort out his washing by size, type, and color. Never a shirt next to a hand towel. He lives alone. I am not surprised. How can anyone possibly sleep with someone unable to trust in the hospitality of chance? No doubt about it, my obsessive neighbor is a master of camouflage.


Scattered through the entire collection, the reader will also stumble across clever mind games, which add to the intrigue of the work as a whole and demanding the reader’s attention (and later that of the reader’s subconscious) despite the deceivingly simple and unencumbered prose. Further, Neuman’s playfulness when it comes to these mind games, result in a work that becomes quite endearing to the reader without a scintilla of kitschiness. In addition, each story starts from a point of zero and flourishes into concepts that cannot be predicted or sensed until they occur, amplifying the suspense which is often laking from a short story collection. As Neuman himself states:

The extreme freedom of a book of short stories derives from the possibility of starting from zero each time. To demand unity from it is like padlocking the laboratory.


Turning to the end of the work, the last section of Things We Don’t Do is comprised of series of statements—not meant to be “dogmatic poetics” but are “happy to contradict each other”—serving as an enjoyable reference pertaining to the art of writing short stories. The section’s placement serves as a dare to the reader to apply the preceding stories to the statements to test whether the collection passes muster which can only come from an author who is aware of not only his craft, abilities, comfort with language, and peers, but also one who understands what came before and what will come after. To contain such a dare in one’s work is yet another reason why The Things We Don’t Do should win.

In closing, just as Patti Smith carried Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal throughout the world in a small metal suitcase, I have done the same with The Things We Don’t Do (albeit, a generic polyester Samsonite suitcase). Like Astragal for Patti Smith, The Things We Don’t Do has become a “trove of bittersweet memories” probably because The Things We Don’t Do is “a book [that] tells me something I was trying to say, I feel the right to appropriate its words, as if they had once belonged to me and I were taking them back.” I rest my case as to why this book should win.

(It should also be noted that The COOP at Harvard University believes that The Things We Don’t Do is a perfect alternative to doing your homework. So you do not have to take my word for it.)

13 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Amanda Bullock, BTBA judge and director of public programs at Literary Arts, Portland. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)

Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, translated by Christina MacSweeney, is the most inventive and invigorating book I have read this year and it the most deserving of the Best Translated Book Award. The Story of My Teeth is about stories and storytelling, about art and how we value objects, about influence, and about teeth. It manages to be intelligent and experimental without an ounce of pretension (something I could not say for some of the other books on the longlist). In her afterword, Luiselli describes the book as a “collective ‘novel-essay’ about the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and literature.”

Our narrator is the self-proclaimed “best auctioneer in the world,” Gustav Sánchez Sánchez, known as “Highway.” Highway is “a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.” One of the most delightful sections is “The Hyperbolics,” in which Highway auctions off his own teeth, which he had removed in order to make room for Marilyn Monroe’s (well, allegedly Marilyn Monroe’s), spinning yarns about his teeth’s origins in the jaws of Plutarch, Virginia Woolf, G. K. Chesterton, and more of his philosophical heroes. He is demonstrating, he explains, that objects themselves have no value, but that we give them value and meaning through stories.

The book is about storytelling, yes, and another way to describe “storytelling” could be “making things up,” or “lying.” Highway is an unreliable narrator, sure, and in fact we meet a second narrator, Jacobo Voraigne, a little more than midway through the story, but Highway’s unshakeable confidence in himself and his style are irresistible. As we learn later from Voraigne, Highway is a self-made and self-mythologized man, a man who has written his own story.

The book is just the right amount of odd, making it playful where a lesser writer would be in danger of falling into pretentiousness or tweeness. Highway learns auctioneering from a Japanese man, “Master Oklahoma,” in Mexico City and furthers his studies in Missouri. He builds a huge house and a warehouse for all of his objects bought at auction on Calle Disneylandia. He buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth and has them put into his own mouth. There is a truly disturbing scene that will haunt me forever involving clowns. Luiselli provides lanterns to the larger project at play. There is a lot of name-checking: Highway mentioned uncles including Juan Sánchez Baudrillard, Miguel Sánchez Foucault, Marcelo Sánchez Proust, Roberto Sánchez Walser, and Fredo Sánchez Dostoyevsky. Most of the seemingly strangest parts of the book are the parts that are real places (the Missouri Auction School, Calle Disneylandia, an art gallery attached to and funded by a juice factory) or people (El Perro) or events (the clowns are a real art installation, at the Jumex Gallery). Luiselli’s is an intelligent humor, but is actually smart and actually funny.

Although I would argue that the novel alone, outside of the origin story, is worthy of the prize, in fact, the collaboration throughout this book is, if anything, the clincher. The award is not the “Best Novel Originally Written in a Foreign Language,” or even “Best Novel.” It is specifically “Best Translated Book Award,” and both the author and the translator are recognized. I think that the final of the book’s seven sections, “The Chronologic,” (and the Afterword, in fact) is one of the strongest arguments for why it should win this award and not, as some would posit, a strike against the novel. The Chronologic was written by the translator, Christina MacSweeney, and is a narrative timeline of Highway’s (fictional) life alongside events directly relating to the people and places in the novel: the death of Foucault, the beginning of work on Mexico’s first Volkswagen plant, the birth of Doug Aitken. It’s an amazing footnote to this strange story and highlights the close work between Luiselli and MacSweeney. In the Afterword, Luiselli says that she prefers to think of the translations of her books as “versions,” as she is so involved in their journey into English and often much changes in the the process. This book in particular, written as a commission by the Jumex gallery and then in direct collaboration with the workers at the factory that funds the gallery, is so highly and intentionally participatory and open that it strikes at the very heart of translation.

The Story of My Teeth is a book about truth and fiction, a question I think is central to reading translated work. How does the reader know this is “true”? Can a translation ever be “true”? How do we know what was meant by the author? Who is telling the story? The novel is in many ways directly tied to the dilemma of translation itself, making it the perfect winner of the Best Translated Book Award.

End of argument.

13 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To celebrate this year’s Best Translated Book Awards, we’re going to have two separate parties. The first is on Wednesday, May 4th at 6:30pm at The Folly (92 W Houston, NYC). That’s where we’ll announce the two winning titles. (For those of you who can’t make it in person, be sure and tune into The Millions where the info will be posted promptly at 7pm.)

Here’s the official invite to that event:



Since not everyone is based in New York, and since we wanted to do something special for booksellers, we’re having a second event on Wednesday, May 11th at 5pm at 57th Street Books (1301 E. 57th St., Chicago). A number of BTBA judges will be there, along with food and drink.

Here’s the official invite. (And yes, you can come even if you’re not a bookseller.):



I’ll be at both of these—hope to see you there as well!

13 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For any and all booksellers out there looking to promote the Best Translated Book Awards—or for anyone who just has the BTBA spirit and likes to hang things on their walls—we’ve designed a series of shelf-talkers and posters that you can download, print out, and use in your displays.

If you click on any of these below, you’ll get a 8-1/2” x 11” high res jpeg. Print that out, slap it on a wall, table, display case, whatever, add some titles from the BTBA longlists, and you have a very stylist Best Translated Book Award display! Feel free to go nuts.









12 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Hal Hlavinka, bookseller at Community Bookstore. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press)

Wolfgang Hilbig made his English-language debut last year with the publications of I (Seagull Books) and The Sleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press). Isabel Fargo Cole, the translator for both titles, brilliantly renders the bizarre beauty and breathlessness of Hilbig’s German, its lyricism, its repetitions, its many shades and shadows. Of course, to call Hilbig’s prose beautiful or breathless is to fear a misreading, for it’s a beauty bloomed in ruin, a breathlessness bound to suffocation. Landing on the BTBA’s longlist, The Sleep of the Righteous should win for its seven visions of an East Germany gone mad, back when the wall was not yet a relic, Stasi roamed wolflike through the streets, and a longing for escape blurred against the feeling of abandonment.

Hilbig finds poetry in paranoia, and his stories are strewn with wreckage and warning. Writing for the Boston Review, Tyler Curtis carefully locates Hilbig’s unease as a product of the East German surveillance apparatus: “[The] very fabric of The Sleep of the Righteous is an instantiation of this anxiety, an exercise in memory, and a meditation on the struggle between concealment and excavation.” Indeed, paranoia, particularly in its political guise, tends towards multivocality, collapsing distinctions between past and present, presence and absence, self and other—sometimes all at once. At their very best, Hilbig’s sentences are many-headed with these horrors. The harrowing story “The Afternoon” features a writer (always a writer, with Hilbig) who seeks to describe the arc of a Stasi arrest which happened long ago, but feels as if its happening outside his door right now. Between sitting down to compose and lingering on the arrest, the writer falters:

“How can you sit at a table and write, I said to myself, and set down the impression of a completely inert town, when you’re constantly tormented by the knowledge that someone out there in the dark is being hunted, and may this very moment be running for his life?”


The scene is scattered: table, town, hunt, all held haphazardly together by the writing act. The tension between representation and reality seeks an ethical answer; the writer’s present chronicle might stand in as a savior, called forth from the shadows of a man’s memories of his town to bear witness, but the writing act is overwhelmed, finally, by the past’s political terror, and off the story goes into the arrest. It’s a question asked of the present and the past at once, and left unanswered by both. Witness, for Hilbig, isn’t enough, even when it’s the only thing we have, and the only thing his writing can offer. But the writer must conjure these images, tormenting as they may be, or else we’d have no narrative to contend with.

The Sleep of the Righteous arrived to several comparisons (from Two Lines’s jacket copy, from the LARB) to the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and, surprisingly enough, the comparison stands. Not that a riff on Poe is altogether unheard of—Bolaño sneaks more than a few into his stories—but it’s rare to encounter a mimic done well. In particular, the story “The Bottles in the Cellar” reads like pulp horror from the Eastern Bloc, uncanny enough to renew Poe’s same sense of panic, at least in this reader. The young man in the story, drunk off his family’s cider, finds himself increasingly unable to conceal his theft by refilling pilfered bottles. Humorous enough in its excess—“I had not filled them, the bottles, I had not yet disposed of them; on the contrary, I had bolstered their superior might with more and more fringe groups”—the story soon sobers, so to speak, against the threat of alcoholism: “[In] my body there was a curse like the very being of the bottles: for a fullness in me did not lead to satiety, but flung open ever greedier maws within.” Of course, it all ends where you’d expect—in vomit:

“It was something else I wanted to vomit, something imaginary: perhaps it was an ocean, frozen to glass to the very bottom, perhaps it was an Earth, plummeting through the night like an overripe apple.”


Vomit transforms into an image of the void. Hilbig’s horrors have the ability, like Poe’s, to explode the mundane (vomit from drink) into the cosmic (“an ocean, frozen”; “an Earth, plummeting”). But unlike Poe, whose stories hinge on allegory and metaphor to engage with the American republic, Hilbig refers again and again to the malaise and suffocation of life in East Germany, as set up in the story’s opening lines: “The old contraptions, survivors of two wars, held and held…no one generation gained the upper hand, and finally I accepted the fact that I didn’t belong to them.” The postwar generation under Communism cannot make their lives inside the glories and terrors of the past, but instead must suffice with drink and other petty pleasures that they find beneath the boot.

“The Dark Man,” the final story in the collection, twists the struggle for survival against the state back onto the state itself, or what’s left of it after the fall. The narrator, another writer, makes a trip back east to visit his mother, and begins receiving mysterious phone calls from an unknown man who demands they meet. Eventually, the story reveals that the unknown man is a former Stasi agent who was once tasked with reviewing the writer’s mail, from which he discovered an affair. At their first meeting, he describes the impenetrability of the writer’s style, even in correspondence: “A haze of writing . . . and can you even still see the life behind it? Is there actually still flesh behind the writing? Or just more writing?” As fitting a formulation of Hilbig’s style as any I’ve set down, the agent’s description cuts to the bone of the East German’s moody methodology. Living under surveillance amounts to hiding, encoding, encrypting, and who better to house the heart away from harm than a writer and his words. And though he labors hard through these seven stories to admonish the role of the writer, Hilbig always returns to the centrality of writing to resistance. Put another way: our words are the thoughts and things in our heads, graver than a gun which can be wrenched from our grasp, and their preservation is synonymous with survival—because what good our words without our heads, or our heads without our words?

Best I think to leave the last to the author of the introduction, perennial BTBA-winner László Krasznahorkai: “Wolfgang Hilbig is an artist of immense stature. He discovered a wondrous language to describe a horrific world. I admit this is sick illumination. Nonetheless, it is illumination. Unforgettable.”

12 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Stephen Sparks, former BTBA judge and bookseller at Green Apple Books on the Park. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)

Signs Preceding the End of the World tells the story of a young switchboard operator’s harrowing attempt to cross a border between worlds—Mexico and the United States, but also between reality and myth, between the living and the dead, between any here and distant there—in search of her brother, who like uncountable others before him has gone north to seek out a better life. Makina, Herrera’s plucky, hard-boiled narrator, undertakes an arduous journey from one hell to another: she leaves her remote mining town where a giant sinkhole has just swallowed a man, a car, and a dog, to enter into a realm strewn with the remains of those who have tried (and often failed) the crossing. During her journey she is assaulted, badgered, shot at; she passes through a stark otherworldly landscape; she survives physically unscathed, though perhaps bewildered.

A story like this already has a certain weight borrowed from the contemporary situation on the Mexico-US border, but Herrera ballasts his novel with myth, a decision that imbues the work with an almost vertiginous depth that resounds with echoes of the ancient past. Makina’s journey is, in fact, based on pre-Hispanic myths of the underworld. In these stories, the departed are forced to traverse several levels on their way to a final destination, much like Herrera’s narrator moves from supreme confidence (as the switchboard operator, she controls all information while serving as a go-between) to uncertainty (though she sets out with disdain for the north, planning on returning quickly, Makina finds herself less certain when she finds herself there). The “end of the world” referred to in the title refers both to the novel’s mythic roots and in the finality of the border crossing: until cheap technology made cell phones and calling cards available, many of those who went north were effectively cut off from contact with the old world.

Such layering is common in the book, and is accomplished both structurally and linguistically. During a conversation with Daniel Alarcon at Green Apple Books on the Park last spring, Herrera mentioned his use of obsolete words that, stumping his Spanish readers, must surely have provided difficulties for his English translator Lisa Dillman. As an example, he explained the use of the verb “to verse,” a seemingly odd choice until one considers that its Spanish counterpart is based on an Arabic-influenced poetic term (jarchar) from the 13th century that referred to women in transition. Dillman’s solution to this and other problems is ingenious and bold.

Signs Preceding the End of the World stands on its own as an estimable work of fiction. It doesn’t need the backdrop of the current political firestorm raging over the US-Mexico border or the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe to prove its value—as long as there are borders, there will be injustice—but the fact that it so clearly and powerfully speaks to the state of migrants today renders it all the more powerful. I can think of no better reason for a book to win the Best Translated Book Award than this.

11 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Najeebah Al-Ghadban. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir, translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins (Sudan, Antibookclub)

It may be only through humor that one can willingly enter the haze of Amir Tag Elsir’s French Perfume. The text—translated from Arabic by the renowned William M. Hutchins, and published by ANTIBOOKCLUB—tugs at the insides of anticipation until they are strewn across a table, staring back at you like doctored images of a woman you have never met but have just married.

The image is of Katia, a Frenchwoman, but mostly a name, who embodies promise and release for Ali Jarjar, a man who “from an early age [. . .] toughened himself by training his bladder’s urinary control, his lungs’ resistance to coughing, and his memory’s avoidance of vagaries.” A man with pride knotted in self-restraint. A man who incessantly dangles himself before the local women “who sold tea to the poor, women who were maids, and women who were immigrants.” Women he abandons, “enveloped in a warm dream and in the fantasy of a happy life.” Jilted, because like the cracks in the town walls of Gha’ib (or, “Nonexistent”) they are easy to overlook yet undeniably there. Women who, much like the ever-present squeaky doors of the neighborhood, denounce intimacy because “a door that opened quietly and smoothly was respected by no one.”

But Katia is a promise so intoxicating that men die writing poetry for her:

Beautiful Katia: where are you?
Where is desire for this melancholy flow
And where is the pure river of letters that will course through
     your blood with love and affection?


Katia is the exception, who oils the doors of Gha’ib with the anticipation of her arrival:

She will make us famous in the whole world by documenting us in a video, she will send us the money necessary to develop the neighborhood and to bury its sewers and fill its potholes, she will care for our stray dogs and cats, she will ask some of us to migrate and live with her in Paris, and perhaps she will fall madly in love with one of us and ask him to marry her.



Katia is the Angel, who renames the stores and paints houses blue.

Katia Cadolet—the image and the undoing.

Hutchins’s translation of Elsir’s French Perfume elicits sense from absurdity. It is a book dominated by fragrance of passion so annihilating because of its very absence. Its scent becomes the promise for the physical, but ultimately lacks the body—leaving only notes of overpowering delusion and heady expectation. It inflames a slow burn of want for the need to touch the intangible. This is a text that deforms the mind as it pulls one into the rituals of preparing for passion—for there is nothing closer to skin than scent, and only at the loss of restraint does reason unravel.

Why should this book win? Because “it was the desperate hope of a man without any hopes.” And because, once, you too must have loved the image of a ghost.

8 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by George Carroll, former BTBA judge, sales rep, and international literature editor for Shelf Awareness. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola, Archipelago Books)

In Why Geography Matters, Harm de Blij writes that Americans have a dangerous geographic ignorance of other countries, particularly China. And if we’re iffy on China, we’re totally clueless about Africa, and worse, we don’t care.

So it’s satisfying that two of my favorite books on the BTBA longlist are set in sub-Saharan Africa—Tram 83 (Fiston Mwanza Mujila / Roland Glasser / Deep Vellum) and A General Theory of Oblivion (Jose Eduardo Agualusa / Daniel Hahn / Archipelago Books)—Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, respectively. Both books are also on the Man Booker International Prize—you know, the other translation prize.

The basic plot of A General Theory of Oblivion is that a light-sensitive agoraphobic walls herself and her white German Shepherd in her Luandan apartment for 30 years, eventually living off roof garden fruits and vegetables and the pigeons she traps, using diamonds as bait.

Outside her building, Angola is approaching the tail end of the War of Independence.
Dark and brutal when it needs to be, sensitive and thoughtful when it should be, the book is a bit of a riffle shuffle. It’s the callbacks,1 for a lack of a better word that I loved most in A General Theory of Oblivion. Characters who seem like one-offs or throwaways re-enter the book as major characters. It all leads to a denouement, minus all of the chuckles of, say, Comedy of Errors.

If the book title isn’t enough to entice you, the chapter titles should be:
Our Sky is Your Floor
The Substance of Death
On the Slippages of Reason
The Subtle Architecture of Chance
About God and Other Tiny Follies

Daniel Hahn’s translation is up with the best of his work. Is there anyone as consistently good as Hahn?

The reason A General Theory of Oblivion should win the Best Translated Book Award, or at least advance to the shortlist, is that the number one seed, the other book translated from the Portuguese shouldn’t be a shoe-in. Seriously—Villanova beat North Carolina. Leicester City could win the Premier League.

1 My favorite part of the television series Arrested Development was the callbacks. Well, second to the classic lines:

Michael (to GOB): Get rid of The Seaward.

Lucille: I’ll leave when I’m good and ready

I made a fool of myself with one of the series writers, now novelist Maria Semple at a book tradeshow. Rather than tell her I that was excited/interested in her book Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I asked her a raft of questions about how they writers built callbacks into the episodes

8 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Lucina Schell, editor of Reading in Translation. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



One Out of Two by Daniel Sada, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Mexico, Graywolf Press)

One Out of Two is a philosophical fable disguised as spinster fiction. From the dream team behind Almost Never (Graywolf, 2012), giant of Latin American literature Daniel Sada and acclaimed translator Katherine Silver, this compact hundred-page book is tightly stitched with the same perfectionism as its twin heroines’ tailoring output. On the surface, it is a delightful romp to be devoured in one sitting, but linger longer with the text and it raises profound questions about the desire for union with another person versus personal independence. “Then: intimacy as an idea that unravels.”

The spinster plot concerns Constitución and Gloria Gamal, identical twins who have only grown increasingly alike with age. Rather than trying to distinguish themselves from one another, the twins delight in accentuating their similarities by wearing matching dresses, styling their hair in the same way, and mirroring each other’s mannerisms. The Gamal sisters are as interdependent as they are fiercely independent. Orphaned as children, they flee the aunt who raised them and her constant exhortations to “‘get married soon and have loads of children!’” as soon as they come of age, and use their inheritance to buy a house in a small desert town and start a tailoring business, which quickly thrives due to their strong work ethic.

Their aunt’s advice continues in the form of increasingly contradictory letters, “Get married, you silly girls, and be quick about it! But don’t flirt with the first young man you meet; you have to be coy, give yourselves airs, or you’ll regret it . . .” But the twins don’t much care, focusing their attention instead on their growing business, until one day they receive an invitation to a family wedding. Now 42, and without any prospects, this might be their last chance to snag husbands! Their aunt suggests they distinguish themselves by hair style, but the twins have spent too many years refining their similitude to have any hope of looking different now. Thus, only one will go to the wedding, and they decide which with a coin toss, the first of many perfectly chosen metaphors for their predicament. When Constitución Gamal returns with a suitor, the twins concoct an elaborate ruse to share the man, thus putting their years of studied imitation to the test, because, “what’s mine is yours.” (The repetition of this marital maxim throughout the novel reminds us that the twins are in a sort of marriage already.) The narrative voice, peppered with folksy interjections and perfectly matched idiomatic expressions, reads like an omniscient town gossip, never letting us forget the twins are being watched. Yet, we revel in their abandon as they decide “To wit: let people think whatever the hell they like.”

This all sounds like a fun farce, but we are in the hands of a master stylist. As Sada pushes every cliché to the breaking point, it springs back with deliciously surprising prose. We can feel the pleasure he takes in crafting the bodice-ripper landscape in which Gloria takes the budding romance to the next level on “Constitución’s” second date with Oscar, while her sister watches from a few feet away: “To the chagrin of the observer, this Johnny-come-lately was painting the walls of her own scenario with wild and passionate hues splashed across the distance, cloud pompoms dripping with ocher and deep red settling in between the hills.” Constitución contemplates hurling a stick at her imprudent sister, but worries it will only land in the nearby bush, releasing a cloud of butterflies. In every flight Sada takes, Silver hugs his sentences as tightly as the twins press against walls while spying on each other.

The novel shifts seamlessly between genres and low to high literary diction, as when the twins, each falling in love, evolve from “one out of two or two in one” to, “A triangle, to put it simply: three gnawed points and a conjugation: or to put it indirectly: two similar points and a third one far far away. Passion conjugated: repressed, obsessive, in full conformity with the rules of the game”. The unusual, yet consistent use of colons—at times many in a single cascading sentence—sets up constant equations or analogies, and creates a staccato rhythm that heightens the growing tension as the inevitable marriage proposal approaches. Meanwhile, frequent sentence fragments remind us that the twins are only whole together. On a syntactic level, the novel is refreshingly suspicious of virtuous individualism.

But Oscar, a rancher, is hardly an ideal match for either of the twins, and increasingly, they realize their infatuation with him is more fantasy than true love. Oscar’s greatest ambition is “to one day open, next to any road whatsoever, a huge restaurant for truckers only, serving carnes adobadas and fresh tortillas, where there would be a jukebox and a dance floor and some shabby sluts—who would double as grub-slingers—available for pickup.” As Oscar drones on about his current reality, raising pigs and goats, one of the twins “conjured up abstract images that consisted of small arrows being shot at sentences—we could call them precepts—of the most profound transcendence.”

We expect the proposal to end in tears, the story to end in tragedy, with Oscar rejecting the twins when he finds out the truth. But the subversive, even feminist, conclusion to this fairytale is one of its best features. The deal-breaker ends up being the prospect of losing their business, to join Oscar in his distasteful venture: “because it would be unbecoming for the so-called better halves to compete with each other”. Turning the coin toss on its head, the twins make “An about face!” Together they are better halves than either could ever be with another man.

One Out of Two is much more than two in one. In few pages it manages to cover and subvert various literary genres, virtuosically, hilariously, while leaving us to ponder paradoxes such as, can true independence only come from perfect union with another human?

8 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Jarrod Annis, BTBA judge and bookseller at Greenlight Books, We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Empty Chairs: Selected Poems by Liu Xia, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern (China, Graywolf)

Spanning some thirty years of work, Empty Chairs presents readers with the first bilingual edition of Liu Xia’s poetry, augmented by a selection of her work as a photographer. It’s a stark volume, but illuminated by an indomitable interior light that refuses to be extinguished. Living under strict house arrest since 2009—when her husband, poet and activist Liu Xiabo, was imprisoned by the Chinese government—Liu Xia’s poems are hermetic meditations on a larger world at work, both interior and exterior, where the push and pull between absence and presence is a daily conflict. When Xia writes

I must guard these
small fragile things
as if guarding our life


she could very well be referencing her poetic output, while is under the continual threat of an imposed silence.

While political constraints do play a role in much of the work, it is never at the cost of the Xia’s emotional core. If anything, it lends an urgency to the work, the feeling of reading these smuggled words, these poems of disconnect. In their chronicling of Xia’s daily life and feelings, the poems feel traced though the ages to more ancient Chinese poets of the Tang and Sung dynasties. When taken with the original Chinese characters en face, the process of translation is never far from the reader’s mind, the active function of language as it makes a vital voice available.

7 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Joseph Schreiber, who runs the website Rough Ghosts, and is a contributor at Numéro Cinq. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (France, Deep Vellum)

What I was feeling for A*** needed its own embodiment; the pleasure I took in A***’s company demanded is own fulfillment. I wanted A***, it was true, and all my other desires, needs, and plans paled in comparison. Suddenly, the obsessive clamor for amorous possession took hold of me.

I was surprised to find myself desiring, painfully. In a sudden rush of vertigo, I was tantalized by the idea of contact with A***’s skin.


What we have here is the impassioned confession of the unnamed narrator of Sphinx by Anne Garréta. A*** is the object of this sudden and intense desire. Neither character is defined by sex or gender. This factor acts as a constraint that places this French novel within the ranks of the works of the OuLiPo group though, written in 1986, it predates the author’s own admission to this famed groupof writers. Yet in the end, Sphinx requires no such designation to work as a powerful literary and darkly existential meditation on memory, attraction, and identity. To finally have it available in English, and at a time in which the public understanding of sex and gender is evolving, serves as an invitation to approach this work as more than either a literary challenge in itself or a polemic of feminist/queer theory. The exquisite timeliness of the translation of this bold and dynamic novel is perhaps the greatest argument in favour of rewarding Sphinx with the Best Translated Book Award.

But, wait a minute. Is it a good story? Can it stand on its own merits? At first blush, the set up sounds, and at points may even feel artificial, but that oddness passes quickly. The narrator is a young student of Catholic theology who is drifting without strong direction and, through a series of unusual, even disturbing, coincidences ends up working as a DJ at an after hours Paris nightclub. This serves as an introduction to a new world, an alternate reality that opens late at night and unwinds into the very early hours of the morning. Our narrator demonstrates a tangible ambivalence toward this radical change of lifestyle.

I acquiesced to whatever presented itself without much arm-twisting, and I neither suffered from nor reveled in it: I was spared the exhaustion of searching and seizing. I was giving up a state of being that was in turn abandoning me and sliding into another that slowly, imperceptibly came to envelop me.


In learning to navigate this world, an identity that may or may not be valid or true is adopted to serve as a barrier, a means of mediating an alien environment. Within this identity a certain boundary, a sober vantage point is maintained until A***, an exotic dancer at a strip club, comes into the narrator’s life. At first their friendship is platonic, existing in a stylish public sphere. The narrator realizes it is not built on strong romantic or intellectual engagement. The attraction is one of opposites—race and personality—until sexual desire arises abruptly, throwing the narrator’s carefully constructed identity into a crisis which is heightened as A*** initially refuses to take their relationship to an intimate level.

When it is ultimately consummated, a highly charged sexual and romantic liaison develops, enduring several years marked by turns of passion, jealousy, and domesticity. As might be anticipated in a union built on obsession rather than common interests, cracks and fissures begin to grow. This is heightened as the narrator seeks to revive abandoned theological pursuits, carving out time to focus on an essay, quite fittingly, on the apophatic tradition—the attempt to describe God only by negation. Later on, after the tragic end of this ill-fated love affair, the narrator will sink into a deeply existential rumination on love and loss. No sexual encounter, romance, intellectual or academic pursuit will fill the void left behind. A restless wandering overtakes our hero, driving a spiral into ever-darker self-exploration. Without the “other” as a frame of reference, it becomes increasingly evident that the self is isolated, disconnected.

Had I confided more in A*** than in anybody else? What had I revealed? Had I unmasked myself? No, more likely I had exposed my own collapse, the ruin of the edifice I had so painfully constructed out of rhetoric and made to stand for an identity.


At heart this is a novel of obsession, of memory, of mourning. The language is rich and sensual, with an intensity that is visceral and emotionally powerful. For that quality alone, Sphinx is a work worth attention—it reaches beyond the novelty and challenge of its conceit to touch a common ground of human experience.

But what about the matter of sex and gender? I suppose it will come down to how important it is to have a fixed image of the protagonists in your mind as a reader and how fluid your conception of gender is in relation to sex and sexuality. Are they bound together, or three separate aspects of identity? For the majority of people, biological sex conforms to gender identity—they are experienced as one and the same. Sexuality hinges on the sex and gender of the persons to whom one is attracted, and “transgender” is an umbrella term for those for whom sex and gender do not fit exactly. The range of gender expressions, identities and bodies under that umbrella is wide and the intersection with sexuality can further complicate the issue.

Queer theory aside, a novel like Sphinx opens up the potential for a completely open reading experience: one can choose gender, sex and sexuality as desired, play with alternatives in the reading, or re-encounter the work with repeatedly different contexts. Garréta has incorporated enough ambiguity to allow all possibilities. There is, in truth, something here for everyone—the undefined sex and gender of the protagonists offers an exciting challenge to the imagination for those who have rested in relative certainty about their identities; whereas for a queer reader like myself it is a glorious opportunity for self exploration that I would have welcomed in my isolated teenage years.

However, if you are not quite convinced that Sphinx is a most worthy contender for the BTBA, there is Emma Ramadan’s wonderfully lucid translation. As Ramadan describes in her afterward, Garréta was forced to employ a great deal of ingenuity and creativity to avoid revealing the narrator’s gender. In English genderless narrators are not unique, but A*** has to be presented with more care and, consequently, less depth. However, this compromise is not at odds with the narrator’s own lack of understanding of A***. It all falls together beautifully through prose that is meditative, unsettling and, at times, deeply moving.

7 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Jarrod Annis, BTBA judge and bookseller at Greenlight Books, We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



A Science Not for the Earth: Selected Poems and Letters by Yevgeny Baratynsky, translated from the Russian by Rawley Grau (Russia, Ugly Duckling Presse)

This book is a beast—it is a hefty, beautiful bulk that constitutes one of Ugly Duckling Presse’s biggest translation endeavors to date. The stately volume is justified by the work it contains—the most substantial selection of Yevgeny Baratynsky’s poetry to be available in English. Readers are also treated to a selection of letters and detailed notes, all compounding into a detailed portrait of a unique poet who was lauded by Pushkin, his great contemporary, and had a key influence on Russian modernists such as Akhmatovah and Mandelstam.

Reading A Science Not For the Earth, it’s hard not to feel a sense of disbelief at not having encountered the work before—how could it have slipped through the cracks? This surprise is perhaps due to Rawley Grau’s crisp translations, which render these nineteenth century gems in a language that feels contemporary and lively, despite beyond their nearly two-hundred years, while still honoring Baratynsky’s original forms. This is poetry that transcends ages, poetry which is not through speaking. As Baratynsky writes,

But why talk now of ancient times?
The poem is ready. Very likely,
as a register of who I am
you’ll soon find it will come in handy.


Don’t be put off by the size of this collection—we have Rawley Grau and Ugly Duckling Press to thank for a volume of poetry as fresh and elegant as the work it contains.

7 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Joseph Schreiber, who runs the website Rough Ghosts, and is a contributor at Numéro Cinq. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



I Refuse by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway, Graywolf Press)

As a rule I drove home before the first cars came down the hill towards the bridge, but today I had frittered my time away. I hadn’t even started to pack my bag, and the cars that were coming were classy cars, expensive cars. I turned my back to the road, my navy blue reefer jacket wrapped tightly round me. I’d had that jacket ever since I was a boy in Mørk, and only one of the old brass buttons was still intact, and I had a woollen cap on as blue as the jacket, pulled down over my ears, so from behind I could have been anyone.

Norwegian author Per Petterson’s I Refuse opens in the predawn hours of a September day with the chance encounter between two childhood friends, Jim and Tommy. Now in their mid-fifties, more than thirty years have passed since they last saw each other. Jim, the sensitive and more intellectually inclined of the two, has struggled with mental illness and, as we meet him engaging in his early morning fishing ritual, he has exhausted a year of sick leave after an unsuccessful attempt to return to work as a librarian. He is nearing the end of his emotional tether. Tommy, who dropped out of school at 16 to work at a mill, has benefited from some shrewd investments and a head for numbers, and has worked his way up to a high level position in a financial investment firm in Oslo. However his life, with his fancy clothing and new Mercedes, is hollow. Both men have failed marriages behind them, and lack meaningful relationships. Over the course of the day that follows this early morning meeting, each man will face his own simmering internal crisis and reach differing critical convictions.

While the experiences and reflections of his two main protagonists on this fateful September day, form the central core of the narrative, Petterson employs a winding chronology and a variety of perspectives and characters to frame the peculiar circumstances that helped forge the original bond between Jim and Tommy, and trace the fractured pathways that each has followed after Jim’s attempted suicide, at the age of nineteen, initiated events that drove them apart.

Growing up in a semi-rural region outside a small town, the boys have very different backgrounds. Jim is the only son of an evangelical Christian single mother whereas Tommy comes from a family almost surreal in its dysfunction. He has a sister, Siri, with whom he has an exceptionally close relationship, bordering on incest, and two much younger twin sisters. Their mother disappears off into the snowy distance one night in 1964, leaving the children at the mercy of their violent father. Tommy suffers the abuse until one day an especially brutal beating drives him to break his father’s leg with a bat, effectively forcing this parent out of their lives as well. It is 1966 and he is just shy of fourteen years old. The children try to manage on their own but social services intervene—the twins go to one family in town, Siri is sent to live with another, and Tommy moves in with Jonson, the owner of the mill. From this point on, Jim and Tommy are inseparable as they face the joys and challenges of adolescence together.

Prose as spare and luminous as the northern Norwegian setting, grounds this exploration of time and friendship, loss and longing. First person narratives carried, in turn, by the two main characters are interspersed with cameos from select supporting actors and segments narrated from an open indirect third person perspective. These shifts enhance the melancholy, meditative atmosphere, as in this scene set soon after Tommy’s family has been dismantled:

At the top, near the dam, the bikes were leaned against the railings and they stood by the bikes and leaned against the railing and looked down into the waterfall, and Tommy ran his fingers carefully over the eyebrow and the long gash along it, and over the scabs on his cheek and said, sometimes you feel like jumping, don’t you, just feel jumping over and sailing out like a bird. I know, Jim said, just climb up on to the railings and dive. My mother says it isn’t dangerous to jump off and fly, you can jump off a skyscraper if you like, and it isn’t dangerous. It’s the landing that’s the problem. I’ve heard that one before, Tommy said. I know Jim said. Everyone’s heard it.


Like countless other readers my first introduction to the work of Per Petterson was with his masterful novel Out Stealing Horses which won the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. I went on to read everything that was available at the time, and watch eagerly for new releases as well as the long awaited translations of earlier works that began to appear. With I Refuse, his sixth novel, we see a writer at the height of his powers. The themes that drive Petterson’s creative vision—absent or distant parents, male friendship, the bond between siblings, childhood loss and emotional injury, secrets and unspoken tensions—are all revisited here in his broadest, darkest, and most complex work to date. And in Don Bartlett he has, I would argue, a perfectly matched translator. Bartlett captures this novel’s stark beauty, brooding tone, and shifting voices cleanly and effortlessly.

Petterson’s gift lies in his ability to penetrate to the heart of his protagonists’ insecurities, hopes, and longings. His characters are often haunted by memories, repressed emotions, and by the many things that have been left unsaid or unspeakable. I Refuse introduces us to two men who, over the course of the day that begins with their unexpected meeting on a bridge, are faced with circumstances that will either alter or reinforce the trajectories of their lives. Tommy’s day includes a call from the police asking him to come and collect his father—after forty years his father is alive and needs his assistance. Their reunion is, as one might imagine, charged with unresolved tension but marks a critical turning point for the son:

We both knew why he limped and we had forgotten nothing, repressed nothing, but we weren’t supposed to talk about it, no, that was the trick, instead we would just look at each other with maybe a quick smile on our lips and share that knowledge, that memory, as though it was something that was ours together, his and mine, something intimate and violent, a secret, burning bond that held us together, a bond of blood.

Then I stood up. No peace, I thought, nothing that binds us together. I refuse.


As the day turns into night, Petterson pulls his narrative into the third person, raising the tension as the two men reach their distinct states of resolve. Will their paths collide again or will it be too late? The true power of this work lies in Petterson’s skill and confidence in the reader to leave the space for ambiguity and hint at the possible dynamics that drive the characters without feeling the need to answer all the questions or resolve all the mysteries. He is content to leave us with equal measures of hope and despair, light and gloom. The powerful timelessness of this mesmerizing tale is perhaps the strongest justification for recognizing this achievement with the Best Translated Book Award.

6 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Tess Lewis, BTBA judge, writer, translator from the French and German, and an advisory editor of the Hudson Review. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Brazil, Phoneme Media)

ma’am, do you have a mallarmé in your house?
do you know how many pessoas die every year
in accidents with mallarmé?
               statute of mallarmamento


In Rilke Shake, the Brazilian poet, Angélica Freitas, whips up a powerful tonic for even the most stubborn case of anxiety of influence: one cup Rilke, a pinch Gertrude Stein (farting in the tub), two tablespoons Poundian cadences, a dash of Marianne Moore, and toasted Blake, with five hundred hollygolightlies thrown in for good measure, the whole lot shaken not stirred.


Freitas’ antic irreverence and exuberant poetic license are contagious but don’t come at the expense of depth. Even as she “smooth[es] the rough edges of farce,” life’s sharper blades intrude in her poems as heartbreak, poverty, loneliness, depression. In family sells it all, a litany of loss, sacrifice, and shady survival strategies ends as expected. “family sells it all / for next to nothing / . . . you know how it goes.” Even the luxury of perfect teeth are no match for market forces: “perfect teeth, listen up: / you’re not going to get anywhere.” Gathering rosebuds or reading great literature is fine as far as it goes, but an empty stomach will have its way.

ah, yes, shakespeare is very nice, but beets, chicory, and watercress?
and rice and beans, and collard greens?
. . .
life’s tough, perfect teeth.
but eat, eat all you can,
and forget this chat,
and dig in.


Tragedy and heartbreak can strike at any time, even lunchtime, say, as in boa constrictor.

the creak crack
     of bones breaking
     a single tear escaping
     it was like love
the lack of air
     blood rising to the head

where history begins.


Translator Hilary Kaplan won a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to translate these poems. She has done the grant and Freitas’ poems justice, capturing the many shifts in tone in and between the lines, from playful to wry to sardonic to pathetic, even sentimental, to deadpan and back to playful, sometimes within a single poem. For all of Freitas’ lyric clowning, it’s clear she takes poetry too seriously not to dismantle it and use it to her own purposes.

you need
to live in the ellipses
need to dissect
the frog of poetry—
don’t abolish the pond.
leaper, leap in
to the great leap.


Yes, reader, leap in with both feet, leap in often. But don’t take just my advice, listen to the statute of dismallarmament—“be a patriot, surrender your mallarmé. olé”—and order a Rilke Shake today.

6 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Tony Malone, founder of Tony’s Reading List. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (South Korea, AmazonCrossing)

Anyone with more than a fleeting interest in literature in translation will be aware of the lack of women published in English, but Korea seems to be a country that could buck this trend. Despite the passing of the grande dame of K-Lit, Park Wan-suh, and the aging of other major writers of that generation (O Chong-hui, Ch’oe Yun), there are several female writers ready to make a splash in the West. Over in the UK, Han Kang is the one who has made the biggest waves so far, but across the Atlantic it is Bae Suah who might become the new face of K-Lit, particularly if she takes out the Best Translated Book Award this year. It certainly wouldn’t be undeserved.

Nowhere to be Found is one of two Bae Suah novellas released by AmazonCrossing (both translated by Sora Kim Russell), and what it lacks in size, running to only around sixty pages in print form, it makes up for in quality and emotive writing. Bae’s narrator is a young woman in her mid-twenties, stuck in the lower rings of what young Koreans call “Hell Choseon,” a country where those who fail to excel at school are destined for a life of crappy, badly-paid jobs (and those who do can look forward to working 100-hour weeks while being screamed at by their boss for the next fifty years). Although the story was originally published over twenty years ago, I suspect little has changed since the story first appeared in Korean, and anyone in a country where the working classes are exploited will be able to empathize with the characters (which, I guess, would be just about all of us . . . ).

With the nameless narrator finding herself as the main breadwinner for her family, for reasons that only become clear towards the end of the book, she is forced to work almost around the clock. Friends and family assume that she will marry her high-school friend Cheolsu, an average guy in the middle of his mandatory military service, yet she is not the kind of woman to simply give in to keep everyone else happy, even if getting married to a spoiled mummy’s boy will make her life a little easier. Just as is the case in the earlier novella, Highway with Green Apples, Bae’s character is a strong woman in a society geared towards serving men’s needs, perfectly willing and able to stand up for herself when necessary (and when she says she doesn’t like chicken, just go with it . . . ).

What lifts Nowhere to Be Found above Highway with Green Apples (and many of the BTBA longlist titles), though, is the way the writer spends half the story creating a tone before suddenly shattering it in a few brief paragraphs, the casual account of a humdrum daily life giving way to a frenzied moment of passion and self-harm. This pivotal moment half-way through the story turns the action on its head, preparing us for the second part of the book, which we now suspect might not be as calm as we were expecting. In fact, it becomes ever more confused. After a bizarre visit to Cheolsu’s army camp, in the course of which she begins to lose touch with reality, the narrator’s life drifts slowly along until we return to the scene we glimpsed at the heart of the work, which this time is even more disturbing . . .

Of course, none of this would work unless it were well-written, and Bae, even at this early stage of her career, manipulates the story masterfully. She excels in sudden shifts of pace, deliberate attempts to unsettle the reader, and you often find yourself being dragged from the middle of one anecdote into another, as if the narrator had just remembered something and needed to get it off her chest before continuing with her tale. Whether it is random asides about subway stations full of people she used to know (and others she will meet in the future), or stories about her brother’s past relationships, everything she comes up with is interesting and also somehow linked to the bigger picture, providing another detail which may, or may not, help us to understand what her story is all about.

For those who enjoy it (and I suspect many will), Nowhere to Be Found is a frustratingly brief glimpse of the abilities of an excellent writer, but never fear—help is at hand. Two longer titles will be released later this year, Recitation from Deep Vellum and A Greater Music from Open Letter (with the latter publishing another title in 2017), news that will gladden the hearts of those who are desperate for more of Bae’s work. It appears that the future of literature in translation may well lie with writers like Bae Suah and her countrywomen, and I, for one, welcome our new female Korean overlords (or should that be overladies . . . ).

6 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Gwen Dawson, founder of Literary License. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen (Algeria, Other Press)

This year’s longlist is very strong, but I have no problem making the claim that The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud deserves to be at the head of the list. No other book on this longlist will force you to reexamine your reading of one of the Western world’s most studied novels like Daoud’s novel will. On top of that, this novel will expose your unconscious reading bias and, if you’re like me, make you feel pretty guilty in the process. If I were an English professor, The Meursault Investigation would go on my syllabus next semester.

In this novel, Daoud takes on Albert Camus’s The Stranger (sometimes translated as The Other or The Outsider) and dares to tell the other side of the story. For those few of you who escaped having The Stranger as assigned reading in school, it is widely regarded as the classic existential (or, some say, absurdist) novel. Camus wrote it in French and first published it in 1942. To summarize, in the first half of the novel, the protagonist Meursault ends up shooting an “Arab” on a hot sunny beach out of either boredom/ennui or heatstroke (the critics disagree) and, in the second half, he languishes in his jail cell waiting for death while questioning the meaning of life. Meursault eventually concludes, “Nothing, nothing mattered . . .” The story is told in the first person in unadorned, almost acetic, prose.

Daoud comes at this same story from a different angle. His protagonist Harun is the surviving brother of Musa, the “Arab” murdered by Meursault in Camus’s novel. In Harun’s world, The Stranger is a kind of memoir by Meursault, describing his crime and its aftermath. The Meursault Investigation is Harun’s first-person response to Meursault’s narrative, albeit fifty years after the crime. For Harun, Meursault murders Musa first by calling him what he is not (Arab), second, by refusing to call him what he is (Musa), and third, by shooting him five times. All three are inexcusable, and as readers of The Stranger, most of us were complicit in the first two murders, only recognizing the five bullets as wrong.

Unlike many readers of The Stranger, Harun refuses to accept the label of “Arab” for his brother:

Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighborhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers,” the roumis God brought here to put us to the test . . .


Meursault also neglects to give Musa a name or even a body. Without a body, there’s “a weird funeral” and an “empty grave,” and, understandably, Harun is angry about this:

Just think, we’re talking about one of the most-read books in the world. My brother might have been famous if your author had merely deigned to give him a name. H’med or Kaddour or Hammou, just a name, damn it! . . . But no, he didn’t name him, because if he had, my brother would have caused the murderer a problem with his conscience: You can’t easily kill a man when he has a given name.


The brilliance of Daoud’s work here is that many of his readers will be recognizing these gaps in the classic story for the first time. When I read The Stranger in ninth grade (I think), all of the focus was on Meursault’s motivations in shooting “the Arab” and his resulting struggle to define the meaning of his life. I don’t recall thinking much about the Arab whose death animates Meursault’s famous philosophizing. This is where the guilt comes in. Why didn’t we think about the murdered man and his family when we read The Stranger? And when we didn’t, why weren’t we taught that we should?

I don’t have space here to unpack all the masterful ways in which Daoud engages with Camus’s novel except to say that the resonances are multilayered and reward close reading. One point of contrast, however, is notable. Both novels were written originally in French, but where Camus writes with spare efficiency, Daoud employs a lush, descriptive language. John Cullen’s translation of Daoud captures the warmth and sensuousness of the language as well as Harun’s conversational tone. The stark difference in linguistic style between the novels highlights the different worlds inhabited by these two protagonists, even though they walk on the same streets.

The Meursault Investigation is uncomfortably thought-provoking in the best way. It deserves to be read and studied alongside its classic companion. Even with only a passing familiarity with Camus’s The Stranger, Daoud’s novel is a rewarding read. The Meursault Investigation’s brilliance, however, becomes most obvious when read right after reading (or rereading) Camus’s classic. It is then that its complex interactions with the classic are best appreciated.

5 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Kevin Elliott, BTBA judge and bookseller at 57th Street Books. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker (Indonesia, New Directions)

If you read the initial reviews of Beauty Is A Wound from all of the usual media suspects, you might get the feeling that reading Kurniawan’s is akin to picking up a Marquez novel crossed with George R.R. Martin and run through a collander of Indonesian history. Forgive the kitchen reference. I cook when I’m feeling anxious or otherwise seriously affected by a novel or other work. And believe me, you will be affected when you read Beauty Is A Wound . . . Far far more affected than the death of one of your favorite characters or a multi-year wait for the next volume. I’m still so shaken, stunned, horrified, and amazed, that these noodles will most likely sit in my sink for a few days. Despite what you’ve read about the contents elsewhere, Beauty Is A Wound is one of those novels that sticks inside of your gut and churns long after you finish, making it difficult to forget . . .

. . . it may also need a disclaimer, as some of the contents will be extremely triggering to some readers.

What a way to start a post about why this book should win, huh?

Indonesia has been a thinly represented country in contemporary translated literature, but we were lucky enough to see three separate novels released in 2015 (Home by Leila S. Chudori from Deep Vellum, and another novel by Kurniawan, Man Tiger published by Verso). Each novel approaches Indonesia’s brutal history in unique ways, but this is the novel that reaches the farthest in every direction and succeeds on many levels in creating a multi-layered narrative which delights, informs, and disturbs in equal dose.

Blending elements of magical realism, allegory, satire, and a skewed marriage-plot sensibility, the novel begins with Indonesia’s most beloved and beautiful prostitute, Dewi Ayu, rising from the grave to tell the story of her own history and that of her three beautiful daughters who are all beset by terrible tragedy. But perhaps the primary reason for Dewi’s strong willed return to life is to visit her fourth daughter, to whom she gave birth just before dying. Her name is Beauty, and she is blessed with an ugliness that Dewi does not understand or approve of.

Among various characters who are introduced and storylines that seem destined to go nowhere (though Kurniawan displays his skillful storytelling most while threading disparate plotlines together), beauty with a lowercase “b” plays a pivotal role. Tragic ends, brutal interactions, and more than a little bit of sexual violence by way of husbands, suitors, and other male lovers swirls around the centerpiece of beauty. Though not graphic or obsessed over in the text, the rape and brutality in the novel targets physical beauty, yet character of Beauty is repeatedly dismissed as one who is immune and devoid of value. The male characters we are introduced to are the ones pointing the finger, and because this unfortunately plays in a contemporary western setting as realism, it’s difficult to remember that each character is in some small way a personification of an era and setting of Indonesia’s deceptive and bloody past. It’s easy to forget the satire since the world of the novel is so immersive and skillfully laid out.

There is even a point in the middle of the book where it is as if nothing were wrong with ignoring the brutality of the narrative at hand. A chapter begins “Once upon a time” as a fairy tale would. It’s as if nothing were wrong with the grotesque worship of beauty and the selfish means in which it is pursued and dominated. As if even the fairy tale itself should be swallowed like a spoonful of sugar. But even this chapter slowly reveals itself as an allegory of the bastard revolution promised to the country under new rule.

And that’s the hidden and true beauty of this novel. It draws you in so that, as a reader, no matter how far removed you try to place yourself, every terrible detail offends while every joke brings a laugh. The layered texture of its storytelling provide readers with multiple ways to approach the novel, including tuning into the allegory or choosing to read the entire novel as a multi-generational ghost story.

Kurniawan’s ambitious writing is filled with a joyful necessity and Annie Tucker’s translation seems to capture this by being straightforward and simple where the story needs and precisely elegant elsewhere (and knowing the difference between the two). There’s also a feeling of discomfort that comes from reading a novel like this, but the discomfort may very well be intended when reading about a history of place that is often ignored . . . and while realizing that even a people experiencing struggle in light of a fate they have no control over will often find strength to laugh in the face of those who seek to control them. To find beauty in what is not mandated or considered acceptable and to forge ahead is a strength of Kurniawan’s country and a strength that comes through the darkness of the novel.

After reading the last line of this book, I kept going back to reread passages that I couldn’t shake from my memory. Beauty Is a Wound lived inside of me long after the last page was closed. At first, there were single lines and passages that made me think I didn’t want it to win, but it was its unflinching nature, all-encompassing ambition, and astounding narrative achievement that convinced me it should.

5 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Betty Scott from Books & Whatnot. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)

Frankly, any one of the novels in the Neapolitan Quartet should take the prize in almost any conceivable matchup (except cover design—but trust the famous aphorism). Each maintains an impossible tension through a pretty significant number of pages, all of which seem entirely necessary. Each of them contains a breadth and depth of character to a degree that’s both uncommon and uncommonly well executed. Each adds a layer to the rich relationship established in My Brilliant Friend while mapping the cracks in its foundation, but it’s not until The Story of the Lost Child, the stinging coda, that a reader can truly understand that Ferrante isn’t just putting a life between these covers but life itself.

Birth. Death. Marriage. Divorce. Bigamy. That’s just a start. Classism. The labor movement. Feminism. Autochthony. That’s still not the half. While all of these subjects appear in the Neapolitan novels, they’re also questioned. Do they matter? Maybe. How do we know what matters? Who knows. Who knows anything?

Starting with the first novel, Ferrante’s style mimics thought and conversational speech, and while much of it is grammatically incorrect, it’s not ignorance on her part or Goldstein’s error but a deliberate choice. When Ferrante questions language, learning, and communication itself, it becomes clear that the wandering sentences and meandering paragraphs are no accident. The Story of the Lost Child establishes that this is for a purpose and to an end—while some readers will look past these structural elements and focus on the drama, the fourth book gets incredibly meta. That we read it in translation makes it even more so. At one point, it describes a translated review of a translated book in a conversation that is being spoken in a second language. Ferrante highlights language and thrusts it to the fore repeatedly. The opposition between the Neapolitan dialect and formal Italian is just one example. It’s tied to other oppositions—emotion and reason; formulation of identity and its destruction; authenticity and pretense; knowledge and ignorance; the two main characters—and the characters call them into question about as often as they can without it becoming a schtick or interfering with the action.

To take so many disparate elements and connect them not only to a solid narrative arc with a phalanx of arresting characters but to language itself is a nearly impossible feat. To question communication both on the linguistic level and as a concept while so perfectly communicating both the minute details that make life concrete and the immense range of emotion present in human existence is more difficult still. I can’t think of another book whose form so spectacularly follows its function, undermining itself as it builds itself down to the sentence level, which in turn mirrors the novel’s events. That it does this while addressing enough weighty ideas for a hundred philosophy courses and covering the pulpy, lurid parts of life that “respectable” literature often omits or marginalizes? That’s certainly a prize-winning feat. If there’s an award for novels that induce dizzying mental tug-of-war, one for books that undermine themselves while proving their own points, or books that make you care deeply about the characters and then damn you for caring. The Story of the Lost Child should win those first. Then, it should win the BTBA.

4 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Deborah Smith, BTBA judge, translator from the Korean, and founder of Tilted Axis Press. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets, edited and translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström (India, HarperCollins India)

This has been my first year as a co-judge for the BTBA, and it’s been an enormous privilege. We’re all incredibly proud of our longlist; the quality is top class, but the breadth of languages (Tamil! Zapotec! Dari!) and the fact that 7/10 of the books are by women is also exciting and important. I’m a passionate believer in the inseparability of aesthetics and representation, and in Calvino’s concept of translation as stylistic evolution; rather than a worthy box-ticking exercise, actively seeking work from literatures as yet little-known in English is one of the most effective ways of sourcing writing which feels genuinely new—a seemingly impossible feat these days.

The incredibly violent reaction to the four female Tamil poets whose work is collected in Wild Words gives alarming confirmation to Malayali translator and scholar J. Devika’s assertion that “translating women authors from regional languages is an important escape route from the overbearing and overwhelming patriarchies that have shaped and continue to shape regional literary publics.” We should be doubly grateful, then, to translator Lakshmi Holmström, for bringing these brave, wild words to a wider audience, and for producing translations of such arresting imagery and tonal variety.

Paths by Salma

Upon the almirah
against the room’s walls
between the swirling fan’s blades
a bat clashes,
falls, scatters.

But birds, thousands of miles away
flying across the blue of the sky
and the massing of mountains
and have never, so far,
lost their way.


Equal gratitude goes to the book’s publisher, HarperCollins India—their commissioning editor and rights manager Manasi Subramaniam first brought the book my attention when she contacted me to suggest some potential authors for Tilted Axis Press (we’re publishing two novels by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, both translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha). She’s a passionate advocate for translating India’s regional literatures, which, as you’ll see in this interview I did with her, is not the easiest job in the world.

How do you feel about the longlisting?

Hearing about the longlisting of Wild Words for such a prestigious award gives us immense joy. I’m so glad and grateful that awards like this one even exist.

How did you come to publish the book? What made it stand out for you, and what has the reception been like?

The reception has been absolutely fantastic. The reviews have been unanimously positive and admiring. I just wish poetry would sell more!

This is an unusual book for many reasons: it’s poetry, it’s translation, it’s an anthology, and it’s all women. All four of these things excite me for very different reasons, and I love that there exists a collection such as Wild Words that manages to bring them together. I actually chanced upon this book in its earlier edition, which was published as a bilingual Tamil-English book by Kalachuvadu Publications and Sangam House. I’m a Tamilian myself, so I was very taken with the book, as well as with the reasons for putting together these 4 poets in particular.

In 2003, a group of men and women, setting themselves up as guardians of Tamil culture, objected publicly to the language of a new generation of women poets—particularly in the work of Malathi Maithri, Salma (an activist and political who is also the subject of a brilliant documentary—Ed), Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani—charging the women with obscenity and immodesty. The response of the Tamil literary world was markedly violent. A lot has changed since then—but a lot remains unchanged still.

What’s the status of India’s regional literatures, as opposed to work written originally in English?

Indian fiction in languages other than English represents the richness and diversity of our tongues in ways that only multiplicity can. There’s so much wonderful work happening in the Indian languages (English is an Indian language too!) and it seems only fair that the languages all translate into and out of each other. If we don’t keep doing that, these voices will never be heard outside of their languages. Intercultural understanding seems increasingly important in a country like India that’s both global and multilingual. While critics and reviewers are incredibly receptive to translated literature, it does seem harder and harder to get the reading public as excited about translation as we ourselves are. So—while we are able to do high-quality translations and work with other publishers and translators—it remains a problem of numbers. We also have to depend on scouts when it comes to languages we are not familiar with.

What’s it like trying to get publishers outside the subcontinent interested in these translations?

I haven’t had a great deal of luck getting publishers internationally to pay attention to our translations. I do want them to have a wider market and be published in the U.S. and the UK, but I think perhaps that the English-speaking world’s interest in translations is still restricted mostly to the European languages. There’s the odd success story here and there, but it isn’t as yet easy for me to pitch translations to the U.S. and UK publishers that we work with.

*


Here’s the trailer for the documentary of Salma mentioned above:



4 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you’ve probably noticed, the Why This Book Should Win series has basically taken over the website. Our plan is to highlight all 35 titles longlisted for the Best Translated Book Awards before the announcement of the finalists on Tuesday, April 19th. Most of these posts are written by BTBA judges, although a number of reviewers, booksellers, readers, and Three Percent fans are contributing as well.

We’ve been lining people up for these posts as fast as possible, but we do have a handful of titles waiting to be assigned. So, if you’ve already read one of these, and are interested in writing something up for the website (I’ll need it by the end of the week), just email me at chad.post [at] rochester.edu. First come, first serve. And remember, these posts don’t have to be carefully crafted reviews—just passionate responses on why these particular titles are so great.

Here are the books that we still need people to cover:

A General Theory of Oblivion
Nowhere to Be Found
French Perfume
Sphinx
The Body Where I Was Born
I Refuse
The Four Books


Thanks in advance!

4 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Amanda Nelson, BTBA judge and managing editor of Book Riot. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions)

The two kinds of literature I most gravitate to are: 1) epic, sweeping, generations-long East-of-Eden-War-and-Peace-ish narratives; you know, old-fashioned stories that draw you in and shove you deep into the lives of the characters and 2) shorter, more introspective, less plot driven punch-in-the-gut books that use words and sentences like a razor to cut out your heart; you know, the ones you have to read with a pen so you can underline each perfectly crafted thought. The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector is somehow (miraculously) both of these things. That is why it should win.

It’s odd to think of a huge collection of short stories as in any way comparable to the multi-threaded Steinbecks and Tolstoys (and Dickenses and George Eliots and etc.), and it’s true that the characters in Lispector’s stories don’t appear and re-appear. You’re not following a single person or family from birth to death, but you are following Lispector from (artistic) birth to (actual) death, and her characters are so human, so vivid and flawed and normal and strange and real, the stories could be and are about everyone and no one. All the happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

One of the most remarkable things about this collection is that it is so complete. You can follow the writer’s development from the beginning of her career through her artistic maturity and into and out of the more experimental phases, accompanying her along all the twists and turns of her mind until she died. There are so few female authors (especially from the middle class, especially mothers) with a body of work that begins at young adulthood and continues into old age, that isn’t interrupted by the necessities of marriage or children or caring for aging parents. There is nothing at all wrong with a writer not writing anymore or taking pauses to do those things—it’s just notable that the gaps you so often find in the work of women because of necessity is not really present here. Editor Benjamin Moser says it best in his introduction: Clarice was a “woman who was not interrupted: a woman who did not start writing late, or stop for marriage or children, or succumb to drugs or suicide. A woman who, like so many male writers, began in her teens and carried on to the end.”

That inherent feminist thing happening in the book is also notable in the stories themselves, and while we judges have spent time debating just how accidentally (or maybe not) misogynistic some of the long list might or might not be, there’s no ignoring that the Lispector is simply better at portraying women than pretty much any other candidate (the Ferrante and Nettel being the only real competitors). Lispector gives us the inner lives of women from childhood through very old age. Not only are women underrepresented in literature in general and literature in translation specifically, but when they are present it’s so often as a plot prop or object through which the male characters (or authors) can discover things about themselves. That is not Lispector’s game: her women are real, they wrestle with marriage, they struggle with motherhood, they make art, they are bored, they have affairs, get old, play the “cool girl” game long before Gillian Flynn’s Amy gave it a name in Gone Girl. Lispector’s stories all in one place say: we have always been here.

That’s the macro, now about the micro: Lispector is precise at a word-for-word level. To put on my I-Was-Raised-Southern-Baptist hat, I was constantly put in mind of a verse in the book of Hebrews about the word of God being a double-edged sword that cuts between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow, while reading these stories. She’s doing surgery with sentences. A few tidbits:

Not being devoured is the most perfect of feelings. Not being devoured is the secret goal of an entire life. (“The Smallest Woman in the World”)

I also knew that only a mother can resolve birth, and ours was the love of those who rejoice in loving: I was caught up in the grace of having been allowed to love, bells, bells ringing because I know how to worship. (“The Foreign Legion”)

And out of a whole lifetime, by God, sometimes the only thing that saves a person is error, and I know that we shall not be saved so long as our error is not precious to us. (“Mineirinho”)

I’m going to tell you all a secret; life is fatal. We keep this secret in muteness each faced with ourselves because it’s convenient, otherwise we would make every instant fatal. (“Soul Storm”)


And on the translation: well, what an undertaking. To translate the work of a lifetime, to maintain its uniformity without losing the nuances of what changed about her style or tone or voice over time? It’s an admirable feat. Dodson catches that slight, off-kilter weirdness that Lispector’s language has, that low-level-buzz of unease, without being awkward or missing a word or leaving a verbal pothole for the reader to stumble over and cause you to fall out of the story. It’s seamless, it’s strange, it is very, very good.

4 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by P.T. Smith, BTBA judge, writer, and reader. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Berlin by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovene by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander, and Aljaž Kovac (Slovenia, Counterpath)

This year’s BTBA long list can, like others in years past, be praised for its diversity, and I’m sure that for most, that calls to mind gender, cultural background, language, etc, but for me, just as interesting a form of diversity on an award list is in style, length, tone, etc. We have long novels, we have short novels, we have a linked story collection, and a collection from across multiple works, across a lifetime. There are novels on a grand scale, and with the microscopic, funny books and wholly serious ones, realist and reality unsettled. Aleś Šteger’s Berlin (published by Counterpath) should win because it’s a masterpiece of the shortest short stories, so much so that I wholly rediscovered my forgotten love for the form.

Long before flash fiction, Yasunari Kawabata wrote what he called palm-of-the-hand stories, and though there is much more event in his stories and Šteger’s are personal and observational, they are of the same tradition. Brevity dominates, ephemeral beauty captured ever so briefly, and emotions turn on a single line, shift completely with a thought or a glimpse. The shifting, unsettled nature of his tales makes them well suited to being worked on by three different translators, Brian Henry, Aljaž Kovač, and Forrest Gander. The two to three page stories are ideas distilled to their essence, complete offerings that left me satisfied in a way so many novels fail to do it. There is nothing lesser in literature so brief, so seemingly consumable, and each scene should be sat with, pages turned slowly. That’s not to say, though, that I couldn’t keep myself from reading many in a sitting.

Berlin should win because it is not about a city or place in the sense that it uses history, fact, the verisimilitude of the physical, but instead it is about the experience of place, and that is a more significant, and difficult to achieve, accomplishment. Though clearly inspired by Šteger’s time in Berlin, in the type of moments it portrays, in the emotions of them, it’s about the particular way that a place is experienced by a visitor, whether there for a week or for months. The specific place at hand is Berlin, but it could be any place, so long as the passing through is deeply felt.

So Berlin should win because it not only reminded me how much I love the truly short form, but also why I have loved travel. The moments where you see a city in a detail and feel it personally, feel a connection to that place that is private, and in its total insignificance is infinitely more memorable, more sentimental, than experiences you sought, had expectations of. If I’m being honest, what I mean is that Berlin should win because Šteger does what I wish I could do with any of my travels to foreign cities: make them interesting, beautiful, worth sharing, instead of obsessive navel-gazing by someone who thinks travel makes them interesting and beautiful, who sounds like they think their gaze is so privileged that they discovered something essential to that city that no one before them ever did.

So yes, I think Berlin should win because if I’m to be this jealous of a book, it better damn well impress everyone else, be so accomplished that my jealousy is of something far beyond me. Mundane moments become loaded just by being detached from familiarity. In “Flea Markets,” Šteger visits exactly that, and sees it the way traveler does, inspired by what others, in their routine instead of out of it, don’t. It creates desire, “The objects develop photographic negatives in the memories of those who would resist the urge to buy them.” It haunts his day, this unnamed object, “around which I’d spun my own thick skein of longing,” so much so that he returns to it, his desire easily read by its seller, vulnerable in the face of it. That vulnerability only makes his satisfaction greater when he is the owner of a chair, proudly sitting in it, on the subway, others happy to witness this level of contentment in the traveler.

“The museum of museum guards” captures the poetic idleness travelers can be granted. Visits to museums are sometimes not about the art, but about passing the time, about seeing what events or ideas somehow come along with the trip. Here, the guards become the focus, the work of art, the movements of this breed of human, this job: “The museum, in which the exhibits protect themselves, will end with a room with a display of a guard’s fart, an act inspired by classical art, a gesture of pure, organic creative expression, without restraint and without apology.”

Berlin is a book of pleasures. The melancholic, the funny, the weight of history, the heights of art, the minor interactions of street life, the changes in weather that change us, insights triggered by glimpses of another’s life or of a building, all these minor pleasures are offered. There is sadness in all of it, as pleasures so brief always are, but Šteger pins them down in writing, to be revisited, to be paired with our own versions of the same.

If you need to read only one story in this collection to believe it is a worthy BTBA winner, I’d ask you for a favored memory, one that rests in a deep place in your heart, from time in a distant city. For me, in a rather embarrassing cliché, it’d be bookstores, whether they sell books in a language I could read or not. In his own cliché, Šteger’s visit to a bookshop is an act of worship, “About temples.” It’s utterly, almost absurdly, romantic, but he makes it felt, beautiful and intimate, bringing it back from that point of eye-rolling, so skillfully that I know I will reread it both in preparation for, and returning from, travel, as I will many other pieces in this collection. Šteger has been “ordained in books, which uncover the secret correspondences between Berlin and its gods,” and it does not mater if I have ever uncovered secret correspondences, it does not matter if I think of Berlin or Kyoto or Dublin or Reykjavik, what matters is that some part of me, for once, feels something true in the expression, and that ability is why Šteger and his translators should win this year.

1 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Heather Cleary, BTBA judge, writer, translator, and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated from the French by Donald Winkler (Canada, Biblioasis)

In Samuel Archibald’s Arvida, carried attentively into English by Donald Winkler and shortlisted last year for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, one small town’s secrets become a universe that alternates between the tender and the terrifying, often blurring the line between the two.

Arvida is a collection of stories named after a town named after the American industrialist Arthur Vining Davis, who underwrote its construction around an aluminum smelting plant over the course of an astonishing 135 days back in 1927. As a child born to this far-flung outpost in Saguenay, Quebec, Archibald’s world was a tapestry of tales of madness, misfits, domesticated bears, and a Yeti-like cougar prowling the woods. The fact that Arvida was quickly absorbed by a neighboring town and exists, in a sense, solely as a memory only reinforces Archibald’s fascination with the mythic dimension of these private and shared histories. As he observed in an interview with the Canadian press, “growing up in a place that is so remote it’s on the edge or outside history, you never have any history except for the stories you told each other.”

There are two kinds of spaces in the narrative world of Arvida: the vast, unknowable ones of the Canadian wilderness, and the claustrophobic, unknowable ones of the home.

Archibald excels in the latter, filling domestic spaces with the minor chords (and occasional bloodcurdling screech) of gothic horror. Yet for all the attic rattlings and mythical predators that abound in this narrative world, there is nothing more frightening than the interactions among its inhabitants, or their behavior when left to indulge in isolation. As Bryan Demchinsky observed in the Montreal Gazette, “there’s a dark, hard presence in the stories, sometimes wry, sometimes muted, but always lurking” . . . most menacingly, perhaps, among armchairs and embroidered tablecloths.

Several stories are quite direct in asserting that genuine horror belongs to the domestic or interpersonal, rather than the supernatural, realm. “House Bound,” which appears toward the end of the book, is the account of a successful contractor who buys the house of his dreams and only later realizes the true cost of his investment. “Not many people will understand me,” he reflects, “but there’s something strange about taking over an ancestral domain . . . When a man buys a place like that, he buys the nest and protective shell of someone else, someone else’s wiring, and someone else’s ideas, and he has to decide how far he’s going to go to become that person, how much of that man he’s prepared to graft onto himself.” And yet, no matter how dark the history he adopts with the place turns out to be (and it does turn out to be quite dark), in the end it is emotional and physical violence of the most mundane and terrible sort that truly haunts the family’s new home.

“A Mirror in the Mirror” is also the tale of a haunted house, though the violence that undergirds this particular story is self-inflicted, and offers a glimpse into the often desperate position of women in this narrative universe, many of whom have little agency beyond the power to make themselves disappear. Likewise, in “Jigai,” probably the collection’s most brutal entry, a Japanese girl and her mysterious foreign governess enclose themselves in a world of erotic bodily mutilation, slicing off fingers and toes, eyelids and lips while leaving their tongues intact, because “because without [pleasure], pain is only pain.”

It is to Archibald’s credit that not all the stories of the collection are written in this mode: just as unity of place opens on to a vast range of narrative settings, the book’s gothic tropes are offset and enriched by the understated tensions and literary allusions of its other tales. The first, willfully charming, story offers insight into the mind of the narrator’s father through a chronicle of his petty thefts as a young boy—the very first in Arvida, and almost exclusively of pastries. “The comedy darkens,” he observes, as he considers his father in light of these stories, “something tragic makes its presence felt . . . the idea that the fulfillment of the desire never satisfies it, nor does it make it disappear, and that in the midst of all the things longed for desire survives in us, dwindling into remorse and regret. My father no longer lacks for anything,” the narrator continues, “but he misses the taste food had when there was not enough of it.”

Arvida does not employ the fancy stylistic footwork that characterizes some of the other nominees for the BTBA this year: grounded in oral history, the book is exceptional in its attention to the rhythms of storytelling and subtle regional and demographic modulations in vernacular. Its language is also quite restrained, and Donald Winkler rose admirably to the challenge of the narrow margin of error that this implies; the range both author and translator manage to achieve while remaining anchored to the collection’s unifying conceits is truly an achievement worthy of recognition.

1 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Jason Grunebaum, BTBA judge, writer, and translator. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad (India, New Directions)

Would you like read the book that Salman Rushdie had hoped to write with Midnight’s Children? Looking for that book that satisfies your itch for the reliably bawdy and resoundingly literary, a tale read out loud, episodically and euphorically, by your favorite Pakistani uncle—or the one you wish you had—and who never sleeps a wink?

Do your friends look at you wonky and miffed when you declare, “Give me picaresque or give me death?” Have a soft spot for wow-y stories told with countless detours and details by a manic raconteur who resides well south of the high peak of K2 but nevertheless can see the whole wide world?

Do you prefer your Partition history baked so deeply into the gooey mantle of your South Asian fiction that you don’t realize how much you’ve just learned until three weeks later while waiting at the dentist’s?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you should immediately go out and read Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, originally published in 1990, beautifully translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed, and published in English by New Directions—“this book” in today’s installment of “Why This Book Should Win.”

Let’s begin in the usual place with a bit of “Donkeyography”: the title of a short section in this episodic and delightfully meandering book.

“Donkeography” examines the important differences in perceptions of donkeys and owls in the imaginations of East and West. The reason that we’re here is that lots of bad things are about to happen to our comic hero Basharat’s automobile, but he hasn’t settled on a car purchase yet. Other possible ways of getting around are discussed in detail. “[W]ith all this talk about modes of conveyance, why didn’t I suggest donkeys and donkey-carts?” After dispensing with owls, the narrator continues:

The mascot of the Democratic Party has always been the donkey. It’s on the party flag. The entire American people were like this donkey in their single-mindedness opposition to Iran. I mean, they were numb, dumb, and frozen in place. In the West, the donkey does not inspire any satire. In fact, the French philosopher and essayist Montaigne was so impressed with the noble qualities of this animal that he wrote, “Nowhere on earth can you find an animal more certain, decided, disdainful, contemplative, grave, and serious than a donkey.” We Asians think ill of donkeys because they have some human qualities. That is, they carry loads heavier than their power of endurance and strength will allow; and they are obedient, obliging, and grateful to their master to the same degree that they are beaten.


There’s more than one way to bring down an empire, skin a cat, or take the fort. One approach is to write a book thick with psychological portraiture and voices of something like insight from the psyche’s inside. This is not that book.

Another approach is to look at a brick wall suffering from efflorescence, caked with salt and peeling away, and see each flaky layer not as rot but zest—and then endeavor to make sure each and every brick and all the natural elements that have pushed through to the surface get their fair shake so that the whole can be viewed anew, with wisdom and awe.

Balban, the horse that drew the carriage that conveyed Basharat, before he settled on the purchase of a car, and before the discussion of donkeys, was to be shot to death by the ostensibly pious Maulana, on account of the horse having run amok on the road while passing a funeral procession, which caused Basharat to be almost blinded by an errant blow to the eye by the horsewhip and both Balban and Basharat to be nearly murdered by the discommoded, grumbling mourners, while Basharat’s father, old and infirm and Balban as his best and only friend, was not informed of the execution order on the horse, but rather told simply that the horse was being sent from Karachi to the Punjab to graze for a couple of months—all the while Maulana, the supposed executioner, quietly ordered a stay for Balban, and instead put the still living animal to work on the sly, a secret that Basharat discovers after a harrowing trip to the slums where Maulana lives.

All because a friend had given Basharat unwise counsel:

A friend advised him not to let a vet put [Balban] down. He said, ‘It’s a bad way to go. It’s not pretty. When I put my Alsatian down at a hospital, I saw it dying. I couldn’t eat for two days afterwards. He had been by my side through a lot. He was looking at me pleadingly. I sat with my hand on his forehead. This is a very inauspicious, a very miserable, horse. Despite his disability and pain, he served you and your children well.’

This friend arranged over the phone for Balban to be shot to death.


As run-down brick is reconstituted into a lapidary mural, something happens to the ego of the reader. “Defeat” is a strong word, and “solace” not quite happy enough for the dazzling experience that is the reading of this book. Nevertheless, the narrator advises this near the end of the tale:

How and where the defeated ego finds solace depends on a number of things—your taste, your skills, your ability to put up with failure (your patience), and the available means of escape:

__Mysticism
__Renunciation
__Meditation
__Liquor
__Humor
__Sex
__Heroin
__Valium
__The Fantasy Past
__Daydreaming

Whichever form of intoxication you prefer. At the moment of imminent colonization, Arnold wrote about the ability of the navel-gazing East to withstand defeat:

     The East bow’d low before the blast
     In patient, deep disdain
     She let the legions thunder past
     And plunged in thought again.

And, in this arrogant meditation, centuries slip by. The most hypnotic and deepest form of intoxication available to humankind—the one that makes you indifferent to your surroundings—takes place through an admixture and imbrication of your thoughts and dreams. If you know this high, then everything else is A-okay.

     A thousand miseries will dissolve into one great dream

31 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Mark Haber, BTBA judge and bookseller at Brazos Bookstore. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)

My first (and possibly strongest) argument why War, So Much War should win the Best Translated Book Award is that Mercè Rodoreda is symbolic of the importance of translated literature. The Catalan language—a language banished under the Franco regime and during the bulk of Rodoreda’s writing career—is today spoken by a mere nine million people. That may seem like a lot but, comparatively, it’s only the size of a large city, say Mexico City or New York. It is a language that has survived against the odds. Rodoreda was an author who wrote in a prohibited language and almost exclusively in exile. Imagine leaving your home and writing in a language Franco had called the language of dogs. And yet the book. The book. How often do you read a book and feel that it’s essential? That it always existed and you just had to find it?

War, So Much War seduces with its apparent simplicity until the reader realizes something rather brilliant and rare is taking place. It has one foot in the world of the living and another in a fever dream. The premise is simple: a young boy runs away from home during the Spanish Civil War (although the name of the war is never mentioned). The chapters are short and the novel is episodic. The world of war, its strange and surreal cruelty, is seen through the eyes of the boy as he tramps through the countryside. Strangers come in and out of focus, some longer than others. I read War, So Much War just after finishing Don Quixote and the similarities are hard to ignore: it’s a pastoral and episodic novel. Each tiny chapter moves the story forward by small increments. The tones are very different of course but the similarities are pronounced.

Translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent the language of the novel is never less than stunning. A passage where the young protagonist listens to an old man imprisoned in an empty castle is especially memorable. The old man rambles as the boy listens:

Observe and admire the perfect order of stars, the passing of time with its retinue of seasons: the gates of summer, the gates of winter. Observe the waves, attend to the grandeur of the winds that the angels blow from the four corners of the pulsating heavens. The lightning that streaks everything with fire, the crawling thunder . . . I adored rosy cheeks, turgid buttocks, honey-sweet breasts, dawn-colored thighs, snow-white, nacreous feet . . . Books that impart wisdom, blazing sunsets from my windows, the pearly light of the night star. My life had been a perfect jewel, a diamond. What are my broken bones but a way of binding me to the realm of memories, to everything I once had and still retain because it dwells in the darkest recesses of my heart?


For a book with War in the title (twice!) there is very little war. War is present, but often in the distance or on the periphery. Instinctively the reader knows bad and violent things are taking place nearby, perhaps over the next hill or in the neighboring valley, but the violence is mostly off-screen. The effects of war, however, the way war changes how people live in, feel and perceive the world, especially children, is omnipotent. This is another reason why War, So Much War is so relevant and universal. War and its ravaging effects are, unfortunately, timeless. Though written toward the end of her life, in 1980, the novel, like all great novels, feels immune to trends.

I could say a lot more about this novel. How customers who have purchased War, So Much War have returned to Brazos Bookstore to not only thank us for the recommendation but to ask: ‘what other books do you have by her?’ How I think a posthumous Nobel Prize she should be awarded to Rodoreda. How the Book Group is reading The Time of the Doves in May and I couldn’t be more excited. Her titles are not only selling well but being talked about in, of all places, Houston, Texas. And in the year 2016. Yes, the mere fact that this brilliant writer and her amazing book is being discussed in 2016 for its literary merit, its translation and its timelessness is a cause for celebration. Mercè Rodoreda is the writer I never knew I needed until I’d read her.

31 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Ben Carter Olcott, who is a writer, editor of the KGB Bar Lit Magazine, and a bookseller at 192 Books. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press)

I can think of no better way to begin gushing about Murder Most Serene (Wakefield Press; translated, exceptionally, by Louise Rogers Lalaurie) than by granting its author, Gabrielle Wittkop, the credit she claims on the first page of the novel:

Concealed beneath a hood and clad in all black, the bunraku master controls his puppets’ movements, endlessly invisible to the audience, who forget his implacable interference, as we forget all fatalities. The figures breathe, walk, shudder and lie, love or kill one another, laugh or sob, but they do not eat, apart from the occasional morsel of poison. This, then, is how it shall be: I remain present, masked as convention dictates, while, in a Venice on the brink of downfall, women gorged with venom bust like wineskins.


Indeed. The downfall is that of the Venetian Empire (Bonaparte is on the march), the women are the five doomed, successive wives of Venetian aristocrat Alvise Lanzi, who is “something of a parvenu” (via the gorged, burst women’s dowries) and a devout bibliophile for whom books are “anchor and salvation”—his bookish passivity in these events is a not-so-veiled swipe at certain atrophied masculinities—Murder Most Serene is of a robust and exultant femininity—and, indeed, as promised, these women burst—and rot, and fester, and putrefy as someone close, some criminal within, administers in secret horrible potions of Henbane, Aconitum ferox, English yew, et al. To consistently spectacular effect, literary and otherwise, well-worth citation:

She is given opium. What else is there to do? The opium brings relief but it closes her gut, too. She shrieks that she does not want to die, doesn’t want to, doesn’t want to! . . . She vomits pestilential ink, pisses blood, and from time to time, blood pours from her nose, too . . . ulcers appear all over her body, and the smell becomes so bad that no one can stay in the room. Hide, oh hide, those livid, leaden stains, the purulence, the lethal stases, apply powder or ointment.


Indeed: it is Wittkop who jolts these doomed women into life and Wittkop who sends for their poison, Wittkop whose deft hands manipulate her puppets’ desires, their irreducible, irreplaceable life strings. We are rarely allowed to forget it: Wittkop cannot and does not endure narrative “convention” that would obscure her. A broken form facilitates that breaking-in: Murder Most Serene is “a piece of writing made as if from shattered mirrors.” As such it is written in mostly short, jagged paragraphs voiced from ever-shifting, oft-anonymous perspectives. There is a personal, epistolary voice; a staccato voice that reads like a transcript of grainy security camera footage; an “impersonal” narration (though Wittkop’s idiosyncrasies are never far from the surface); and, lastly, that of the marionettist herself, Wittkop the transgressive and irrepressible—and all these are often intermingle in single paragraphs that become, by glint and dint of imagination and insight, mosaics, or as Wittkop deems them, “husks,” overlaying the “kernel” or the “core” thought. To extend her metaphor, what light rebounds from the shattered glass directs the novel: everything else is superfluous if not restriction. This is writing that flows with mind, that abhors submission to a poetics of unities, that generates, in its liberality, passages perverse, disturbing, subversive, free of cliché, and beautiful. This sequence, for example: first, a longer passage describing the birth—“Felicita Lanzi expels a bald monkey, attended by a stench of butchery and all the horrors of parturition”—of a hydrocephalic baby; then several spangling sentences—“But there are not prophecies for now. The parturient feigns sleep. A phial shatters on the stone floor. A clock rings”— then, at the baptism, in reference to a deranged church-goer exhibiting his “flaccidity,” “leaving obscene drawings between the pages of the missals”:

Shameful fascination and no less shameless repulsion serve as mutual mirrors, but the horror of the flesh prevails, perhaps, over its appeal, so that the images may contribute to the salvation of souls; disgust at fornication in all its forms may be transmuted to elevating energy, and the mystic’s vile wilting may reveal the face of his god. This is of no importance, merely anecdotal interest, a flourish.


Wittkop is a disciple of Marquis de Sade, and she applies his extreme libertarianism to literary form itself, to novelistic convention, synthesizing an absolute freedom-of-form-and-content (her kin are Kundera, Barth, Cixous). That de Sade is reagent is fairly explicit: he’s quoted in the epigraph, and the substance of the book calls out in its intensity and depravity to de Sade’s aesthetic of revelatory atrocity. This excerpt from an autopsy scene is instructive:

The face is absent, obliterated beneath the pale, leathery mask of the scalp, fringed by a few remaining strands of hair, which the raven-beaked anatomist has just pulled down to the chin. Sawn open, the cranium is a casket like any other. The flesh is both flaccid and marmoreal, singularly compact and tight, like frozen fat. The skin is aqueous, one might say, sheathing the hands in heavy folds, livid stases marble the feet and legs. Every dead body is opaque and anonymous, with a hint of meanness, irremediable indigence. Carved in gray, the brain, smooth yet convoluted like a lump of Chinese soapstone, lies in a nearby bowl. An appetizing morsel.


Like de Sade’s, Wittkop’s world is motivated by hidden forces generating in body, the effluence of which is desire. As such, Wittkop the puppeteer, the character-author of the novel Murder Most Serene is a contraption herself, a humanoid reification of that that shadowy fundament within; she is something impossible in the lived-in world. Undoubtedly, these are tropes redolent of the po-mo; and MMS is certainly of that clade—but without the stench. Because of its intellectual integrity, yes, and more powerfully, because it does not devolve into irresolvable and sanctimonious koans on “lacks”: she attempts to fill in those spatialized negativities with things, places, beauty. In other words, though the world is obscure, though what fits into these vacuums must emerge decayed, depraved, Wittkop will not let it remain obscure. Her aim of revealing and through language inhabiting the literal grotesqueries of interior body, the sanctified and thus metaphoric and umbrageous flesh and blood, is illuminative. And this applies to every facet of the book, holistically, totally. Rarely is a city evoked with such lush, lusty, personal passion—Wittkop’s Venice has a body as much as any puppet-person, and she applies to it the full breadth of her copious and powerfully positive descriptive power. It is site to desperate, unknowable trysts and triages, desires of every grotesque mutation, “bejeweled putrescences”, charades, masks, debauchery, and, simultaneously, at every turn, in every breath, death. The city “held aloft on millions of felled trees . . . the great trunks cut down, dragged, floated, flayed, and sawn into piles, planted in the mud, bolt upright and tarred like mummies . . . doubly dead,” is simultaneously, on its “alive” side, host to a society steeped in traditions of decadent and decaying excess—traditions on which they now rely, frivolously, Wittkop suggests, as they hurtle toward their inexorable destruction. At the Carnival of Venice, “that endemic epidemic:”

The masks ape death better than ever. Removing the refuse has become a problem, on a par with the disposal of a corpse. Baskets and pails are overflowing with filth, spewing forth their bubbling putrefaction, snot, purplish riches, gray-green defecations, iridescent stews, buzzing with life. In the veins of the labyrinth, laborers sweep up the vile remains, exchanging lackluster obscenities and jokes.


This as the pulchinelle, Wittkop’s derisive term for the insipid and mawkish carnival goers (the name derives from the famously fatuous, drunken clown of the commedia dell’arte) “groan and rumble” as they flit from pleasure to pleasure, unwittingly consuming the city’s riches, perpetuating its death throes, having long ago turned it into a city where “nobility may be bought for a hundred thousand ducats.” The chimera of the body, urban or human, and the protean, hidden fundament of life, are thus both beautiful and utterly base, viral and destructive and the edifice itself. In a phrase: desire is the prettiest poison. That Wittkop lands squarely on that narrow line and never—never: there isn’t a stray word in MMS—deviates, and in fact illuminates what’s there, is surely an extraordinary artistic achievement.

There is so much more to say about this book—a masterpiece, in my opinion—but this one last thing I fear will go underreported: Murder Most Serene is a delight. It’s concise, fast-paced, and funny—I think you’ll find in any one of the above lengthy citations at least one morsel of laugh-out-loud wit; and I can assure you there’s at least one smart-ass quip in every paragraph in the entire book. Really, despite the seriousness of its ideas, (or because of what those serious ideas seek to undermine) MMS is a romp. Wittkop, too, is a superior writer, and I mean superior to nearly everyone I’ve ever read. These sentences are gorgeous; these sentences are so gorgeous they rekindled my belief in the efficacy of the beautiful. But when I recommend this book to friends, and they dutifully ask me why, I say this, first: Murder Most Serene will be the most fun you have reading this year. It was for me.

But do have a dictionary nearby: you’re going to need it.

30 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Kate Garber, BTBA judge and bookseller at 192 Books. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (Israel, New Directions)

Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole, should definitely win the Best Translated Book Award. Outside of what might objectively be considered its qualifying elements, the fact is, when I think about all of the what-seems-like-thousands of books I’ve read during this award process, Moods is the one that makes my heart flutter the most. This almost makes it difficult to write anything. Like if you’ve just fallen in love, and the person is actually great, but you try to talk about this person and then suddenly it’s impossible to speak in full sentences because you’re busy blushing and remembering.

There’s something oddly witchy about this book, in that Moods is precisely what it’s named to be: moods. It is not about moods; it is moods.

It’s like a pressure chamber where Hoffmann is slowly and sometimes suddenly changing your atmosphere, making you weep then making you laugh then making you feel inexplicable guilt. Particularly affecting is his work in sadness:

Here are some other things that break the heart: An old door. A glass left out in the yard. A woman’s foot squeezed into shoes, so her toes become twisted. A grocer whose store no one goes into. Above all, a husband and wife who don’t talk to each other. One-eyed cats. Junkyards. The stairwells of old buildings. A small boy on his way to school. Old women sitting all day by the window. Display windows with only a single item or two, coated with dust. A shopping list. Forty-watt bulbs. Signs with an ampersand (such as ZILBERSTEIN & CHAMNITZER), and when a person we love disappears (at a train station, for instance) into the distance.


Out of context, maybe that won’t make you weep. The crazy part is that the “context” that does make you weep isn’t a storyline at all. It’s the precise engineering of the pressure chamber, in which a vague list of items (which don’t seem to relate to anything) can evoke even more sadness than a seven hundred page novel where your favorite character dies in a tragic accident on the last page. I have theories about how this engineering works, but please, just try it and see what happens. This is why Moods should be named the best fiction, best poetry, best machine, and best spiritual possession of the year.

I’m flipping through the book again, and hang on, it’s just too much.

Sometimes it is discomforting honesty:

Penina Tuchner we loved like the Twin Towers, especially when they were burning.


Sometimes it is pure sensitivity:

We should call all things by their first names. All dogs. All frogs. All trees. Once upon a time we took pity on a gourd that the gardener wanted to uproot, and so we called it Simcha.


Sometimes it is depression without sadness:

Life itself should be lived like that. As in a silent film in which one sees only a single hut with a rooster strutting every so often from the left side of the screen toward the right, and a little while later coming back across it.

Once every thousand years or so a word will be heard.


Sometimes it is delight:

My father Andreas like to play tricks on people. Mostly on his sister, my Aunt Edith.
Every year, on April 1, he’d come up with another prank. Once he started muttering strange syllables and wrote a note to my aunt saying that he had vowed from that day on to speak only Mandarin.


And overall, it is a bit of everything. I’m ashamed that I can’t do it justice, but that’s okay because you’ll see what I mean once you read it.

Beyond this, Moods should win because Peter Cole’s translation is exquisite. Because it queers the line between fiction and poetry so elegantly. Also, because New Directions has published six previous books by Yoel Hoffmann, and this year is the first time I’d even heard of him. Not that you haven’t heard of him—maybe you’ve already read several of his books—but I’ve been working in bookstores for a decade and “Yoel Hoffmann” didn’t even ring a bell. I’m sure I’m partially to blame, but listen, it’s really about time that this fucking grand master becomes a household name.

30 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Rachel Cordasco, who writes for Book Riot and runs the site Bookishly Witty. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Deep Vellum)

Relatively short, but consciously powerful, Tram 83 is one of those books that draws you in with the first note and carries you through every variation and improvisation before ejecting you with a last crescendo.

I read Tram 83 in one sitting, and I think that this is the best way to experience it (if possible). After all, the swirling, kaleidoscopic, jazzy, crude, and hyper atmosphere of the novel (which makes jazz central to its expression of a nonexistent State) is best appreciated through complete immersion. This story of Lucien (a writer trying to hold on to some utopian vision of art) and Requiem (a gangster and trafficker who clings to his power over the debauched world of a fictional separatist African city) offers us a vision of modern colonialism and the devastating cycle of war after war of liberation that has gripped nations across the African continent for over a century.

Mujila himself hails from Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tram 83 is his first (and already award-winning) novel. We see his exploration of literary ideals clashing with the mundane, even grotesque, necessities of daily life in a city that has become unmoored from a state and a history. It is Tram 83, the city’s most infamous nightclub, that acts as a gathering place for prostitutes, criminals, tourists, soldiers, and others. Here Lucien comes night after night, sometimes with his friend/sworn enemy Requiem, sometimes with his would-be publisher Malingeau, and each time he writes down snatches of prose that capture the whirlwind, wild nature of this uninhibited place.

But above all, it is the profiteering tourists who, together with corrupt politicians, exploit the diamond mines and suck out the wealth that they offer. Thus money, corruption, and sexual abandon characterize the nightclub where everyone who seeks prosperity gathers. Tram 83 is the petri dish and Mujila is the scientist peering through a microscope at the chaotic and carnivalesque results of this gathering.

It is jazz, though, that gives Tram 83 its rhythm and body. Mujila set the novel in a nightclub, after all, where music and conversation mix with sights and smells until everything melds into a series of tangible experiences. Each chapter opens with a line or paragraph that’s striking in its seriousness, as compared to the more casual, colloquial language of the novel itself. For example:

Strategy means resolving a given situation intelligently.

Requiem and Malingeau, or when two crooks drink to each other’s health.


This latter opening (to chapter 14), which sounds like the title of some 18th-century English play, then leads into a series of stage directions:

Tram 83, interior.

In the background, a saxophonist performing a solo.

Center-forward, the young ladies of Avignon in their vestal robes eyeing up all the masculine clients.


This constant stylistic flux embodies the “swinging rhythms, keyboards, clarinets, saxophones, drums, and electric guitars” that can be heard in the nightclub. Even opera finds its place in this novel- chapter 25 describes a nightclub singer who looks like, and even sort of sounds like, the famous Maria Callas.

Such a shifting, swirling novel poses its own unique translation challenges, but Roland Glasser has expertly captured the story and its rhythms and made the English translation seem like the original French. We read this book with the understanding that “translation” is itself a character- Lucien trying to translate his experiences into literature, criminals translating scams into money, music translating emotions into sounds. With Tram 83, Mujila shows us a liminal, shifting world, and Glasser has captured it for English ears. A performance like this one deserves to be rewarded.

29 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the first entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, which will highlight each of the 35 “longlisted”: titles for this year’s Best Translated Book Awards. Tom Roberge of Albertine Books wrote this piece.



The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter)

The nature of these “Why This Book Should Win” pieces is that they, by virtue of the various writers’ particular fondness for whatever book they’re arguing on behalf of, are, in their conception and execution, capable of taking almost any form. They are not reviews; that’s been done. They aren’t critical examinations; that’s for another time and place. And they aren’t the sort of recommendations people like me (booksellers, publicists) make on a daily basis because those tend towards the succinct, which is not a problem, per se, but which means that a lot of the gritty beauty of a book is summarized in ways that, in the service of making one’s case before the target loses interest in a tangle of plot.

Which is all a way of saying that I’m going to try to make my case for Georgi Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow, translated from the Bulgarian by Angel Rodel and published by this site’s beneficent overlord (I kid, I kid) Open Letter, in my own damn way. By which I mean I’m going to try to sway you by using a few related passages of the text itself to demonstrate just how insanely beautiful and captivating this book is.

First, a bit of summarization, since it is, I’d argue inseparable from the overall scope and style of the book, which functions on several levels at all times, and which jumps around in time and space in a way that intentionally disorients and then immediately reorients the reader (something that I’d further argue is itself a grand metaphor and commentary on the plot and subject matter, but I don’t have time or, quite frankly, the intellectual dexterity to tackle that notion). The story sprawls across a century of wars and miseries and inter-war miseries that dominated Eastern Europe until recently and, of course, that have left their indelible marks in myriad ways. The narrator, we might as well explain at the outset, possessed, as a child, a certain ability to leap into the buried memories of other people (and creatures, as you’ll see below . . . ). Though given a scientific explanation and name (empathetic-somatic syndrome), it seems to be an invention of the writer, albeit one that yields an abundance of material as the narrator pieces together his family’s history, which passes through two real wars, the cold war, and finally the end of Soviet rule, a period itself full constantly shifting attitudes and socio/economic realities. But this is not in any way a novel that wallows in historical gravitas. The historical aspects of the book are present in the way historical incidents are present in DeLillo’s best novels: as un-ignorable facts of life, monoliths casting massive shadows.

Now, in addition to these time-out-of-joint retellings of his family’s history (think Slaughterhouse Five), the narrator dives into the enduring depths of Greek mythology in order to draw lessons, to find solace amid the chaos, and to lend the history itself a new context. More specifically, the myth of the Minotaur is examined and revisited throughout, the story expanding and developing greater nuance with each visit. So what does this mean in practice? Consider this passage, which I’ve chosen from an early mention of the myth that I believe helps establish the book’s unique mise en scène:

I never forgave Ariadne for betraying her brother. How could you give a ball of string to the one who would kill your unfortunate, abandoned brother, driven beastly by the darkness? Some heart- throb from Athens shows up, turns her head—how hard could that be, some provincial, big-city girl, that’s exactly what she is, a hay- seed and a city girl at the same time, she’s never left the rooms of her father’s palace, which is simply a more luxurious labyrinth.

Dana returns to the mill all alone in the darkness and rescues her brother, while Ariadne makes sure that her own brother’s murderer doesn’t lose his way. I hate you, Ariadne.


In the children’s edition of Ancient Greek Myths, I drew two bull’s horns on Ariadne’s head in pen.

To clarify, Ariadne is the Minotaur’s sister, and Dana is the narrator’s grandfather’s sister, who had to retrieve her younger brother after he’d been simply forgotten when the family had visited the mill to sell a load of flour. The mother, for what it’s worth, very nearly left him there; such was the desperation of the time.

Then, not a handful of pages later, we get this, without introduction:

The slugs slowly drag themselves across the newspaper, without letting go of it. Several are timidly clinging together, body to body. My grandfather grabs one with two fingers, closes his eyes, opens his mouth and slowly places the slug inside, close to his throat. He swallows. My stomach turns. I’m afraid for Grandpa. And I want to be able to do as he does. My grandfather has an ulcer. The slugs are his living medicine. They go in, make their way through the esophagus and stop in the soft cave of the stomach, leaving their slimy trail there, which forms something like a protective film on top, a thin medicinal layer that seals off the wound…

This is then followed, after a section break, with a version of the action as told from the slug’s point of view, which, of course, the narrator can access:

A huge hand lifts me up and sets me at the opening of a red, warm and moist cave. It is not unpleasant, even if a bit frightening. The red thing I have been placed on constantly twitches, slightly bucking and rising, which forces me to crawl farther in toward the only available corridor. At the entrance there is a soft barrier, it isn’t difficult to overcome. It’s as if it opens on its own, in any case it reacts when I touch it. Now there’s the tunnel, dark and soft, which I sink into, horns forward, like a slow bull. I leave a trail behind me to mark the way back. I feel safer with it…

The juxtaposition of the slug’s trail in the grandfather’s stomach and the string left for Theseus by Ariadne is, in my opinion, breathtakingly brilliant and beautiful and something that I cannot possibly expound upon any further; it speaks for itself. And this is but one example of the sort of genius on display in The Physics of Sorrow, which is why I think this book should win.

29 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s here! The twenty-five best translations of 2015 according to our esteemed panel of judges. As mentioned in the earlier post, we will be highlighting each of these titles on the site starting this afternoon, and finishing just in time for the April 19th announcement of the ten finalists.

The winners will be announced on May 4th at 7pm both on The Millions website and live in person at The Folly (92 West Houston, New York).

Before getting into the books, I want to praise our group of judges one more time. This is a huge undertaking and they’ve done a marvelous job reading dozens and dozens of books and winnowing down all that was published last year into this stunningly good longlist. This year’s judges are: Amanda Bullock (Literary Arts, Portland), Heather Cleary, translator from the Spanish, co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review), Kevin Elliott (57th Street Books), Kate Garber (192 Books), Jason Grunebaum (translator from the Hindi, writer), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), Stacey Knecht (translator from Czech and Dutch), Amanda Nelson (Book Riot), and P.T. Smith (writer and reader).

And now, onto the books!



A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola, Archipelago Books)

Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated from the French by Donald Winkler (Canada, Biblioasis)



Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (South Korea, AmazonCrossing)

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen (Algeria, Other Press)



French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir, translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins (Sudan, Antibookclub)

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)



Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (France, Deep Vellum)

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter)



Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)

The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press)



Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (Israel, New Directions)

Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker (Indonesia, New Directions)



The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions)

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)



Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Deep Vellum)

The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein (Mexico, Seven Stories Press)



The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Argentina, Open Letter)

I Refuse by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway, Graywolf Press)



War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)

One Out of Two by Daniel Sada, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Mexico, Graywolf Press)



Berlin by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovene by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander, and Aljaž Kovac (Slovenia, Counterpath)

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (Russia, FSG)



Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press)

The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (China, Grove Press)



Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad (India, New Directions)

Back in a bit with the first entries in the “Why This Book Should Win” series!

29 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

And here are the ten longlist books for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry, which is being judged by Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Words Without Borders), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Becka McKay (writer and translator), and Deborah Smith (writer, translator, founder of Tilted Axis).



A Science Not for the Earth: Selected Poems and Letters by Yevgeny Baratynsky, translated from the Russian by Rawley Grau (Russia, Ugly Duckling Presse)

Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel (France, Burning Deck)



Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Brazil, Phoneme Media)

Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets, edited and translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström (India, HarperCollins India)



Empty Chairs: Selected Poems by Liu Xia, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern (China, Graywolf)

Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Persian by Farzana Marie (Afghanistan, Holy Cow! Press)



Silvina Ocampo by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (Argentina, NYRB)

The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo, translated from the Spanish and Isthmus Zapotec by Clare Sullivan (Mexico, Phoneme Media)



The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Djibouti, Seagull Books)

Sea Summit by Yi Lu, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (China, Milkweed)

We’ll start featuring each of these titles on the blog in the very near future, and the finalists will be unveiled on Tuesday, April 19th!

29 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry is the general press release about this year’s awards. If you want to skip ahead, you can find the poetry list here, and the fiction one here. Check back in later today—we’ll be kicking off the “Why This Book Should Win” series in the afternoon.



March 29, 2016—Clarice Lispector, Elena Ferrante, Valeria Luiselli, and Abdourahman Waberi are a few of the authors included in this year’s remarkably diverse Best Translated Book Award longlist for fiction and poetry.

Announced this morning on the Three Percent website, these longlists represent the results of months of reading by fourteen judges tasked with deciding which were the “best” works of fiction and poetry in translation to be published in 2015. Over 560 eligible titles were published last year, written by authors from more than eighty countries and published by 160 different publishers.

This diversity is reflected in this year’s longlists, which include books written in nineteen different languages—from Arabic to Urdu—from authors born in twenty-three different countries, including Angola, Afghanistan, and Indonesia, among others.

“Not only has it been a pleasure to read such a strong field of poetry submissions this year—it’s also been incredible to see such diversity in countries and languages being published by presses of all sizes,” said poetry judge Katrine Øgaard Jensen. “I’m thrilled that our poetry longlist actually manages to capture this diversity to a certain extent with titles from China, Djibouti, Brazil, Argentina, Afghanistan, France, Mexico, India, and Russia—China being the only country that’s represented twice.”

As in years past, there is a healthy mix of established authors—like the aforementioned Ferrante and Lispector—with those who made their English-language debut in 2015, such as Eka Kurniawan and Yuri Herrera. Twenty-six presses have books on this year’s lists, with New Directions having the most titles (four), followed by Graywolf and Open Letter (three each).

“Even as someone who regularly tries his best to read diversely and wide in world literature, being a jury member this year exposed me to presses I’ve never heard of and regions I’ve never read from before,” said fiction judge Kevin Elliott. “Though we all still have work ahead of us in promoting and alerting the public to the unique voices being translated and published in English, there are more and more small publishers and tireless translators working endlessly to bring all that world literature has to offer to a larger audience. Regardless of who wins from this list, the submitted works this year prove that the art and craft of letters and translation is no longer simply an academic endeavor, but a necessary and (thankfully) increasingly accessible reality in the world of books.”

As in recent years, the Best Translated Book Awards are underwritten by Amazon.com’s giving programs, which allow both winning authors and winning translators to receive $5,000 cash prizes.

The finalists for both the fiction and poetry awards will be announced on The Millions on Tuesday, April 19th, and the winners will be announced on Wednesday, May 4th at 7 p.m., simultaneously on The Millions and at a live event at The Folly in New York City. There will also be a celebration during BookExpo America at 5 p.m. on May 11th at 57th St. Books in Chicago.

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

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

This year’s fiction jury is made up of: Amanda Bullock (Literary Arts, Portland), Heather Cleary, translator from the Spanish, co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review), Kevin Elliott (57th Street Books), Kate Garber (192 Books), Jason Grunebaum (translator from the Hindi, writer), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), Stacey Knecht (translator from Czech and Dutch), Amanda Nelson (Book Riot), and P.T. Smith (writer and reader).

The poetry jury includes: Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Words Without Borders), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Becka McKay (writer and translator), and Deborah Smith (writer, translator, founder of Tilted Axis).

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

Additionally, over the next month, leading up to the announcement of the shortlists, Three Percent will be featuring a different title each day as part of the “Why This Book Should Win” series.

28 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I know the BTBA announcements will be taking place tomorrow morning, but we have one last preview post for you. This is from judge Mark Haber, who works at Brazos Bookstore in Houston—one of the best stores in the country. Enjoy and tune in tomorrow to find out what made the longlists!

If you’ve ever had your heart broken nothing has to be said, it’s understood. A psychic anguish and soul-crushing plague that seemingly has no end. The earth seems to slow, every joke is at your expense; it’s like the flu of your emotions. Well, Norwegian author, Tomas Espedal, wants you to know that he’s had his heart broken too. Toward the end of his novel Against Nature, a much younger girlfriend has left the home they shared and moved to Oslo. The protagonist (ostensibly Espedal himself) walks the house, unshaven and often drunk, reminiscing, brooding, attempting to write, seeing in each empty room the emptiness of his own existence. It is one of the closest examinations of a broken heart I’ve ever read, equal parts painful and beautiful.

Espedal was a new name for me until a fellow juror raved about Against Nature, published by Seagull Books and a companion to an earlier volume, Against Art. Both books were translated by James Anderson and based on Against Nature, Anderson is an incredible translator. The language is crisp and lucid, with passages that beg to be reread and underlined and read aloud.

Like fellow Norwegian contemporary Karl Knausgård, Espedal’s novel blurs the line between memoir and fiction, between narrative and navel gazing. In style, however, there couldn’t be more of a difference; Espedal eschews the pages upon pages of exposition and daily minutiae that Knausgaard has mastered; Espedal has a minimalist approach that often borders on poetry (although the comparisons to Knausgård are inevitable, neither should suffer for both have plenty of their own to offer).

Against Nature jumps between periods of time, from the narrator’s youth working in a factory (where his father also works) to a doomed marriage and the daughter from that union. His life, he seems to be saying, goes against nature, from an unhappy marriage to falling in love for the first time at age 48 to a woman half his age, nothing he does agrees with the way things should be. At one point the young parents go to Nicaragua (she’s an actor and planning to take part in a touring acting troupe) and amidst their turbulent marriage a coup occurs, certainly a symbol of their own state of affairs; the couple and their child quickly abscond to Europe. No one, it seems, has a plan. There are bursts of time that pass and not given much attention, only for the lens to slow and a sudden myopic attention attended to relationships, states of mind and nature. Yet, between all the jumping back and forth, a life is formed and examined. Deaths occur, plans dissolve, marriages end.

Espedal is a deadly serious writer and treats his craft with that gravity. Toward the end of the novel, during his lowest ebb, he still writes every day and explains his maxim:

I attempt to write as quickly and directly as possible, without worrying whether it’s bad or good, without correcting or deleting, without troubling about whether it will be read; and it’s here I achieve a vital freedom, I can write whatever I want.

One of the joys of novels is there are no rules. A story can be told in an endless variety of ways, indeed, in as many ways as the human imagination allows. Tomas Espedal proves this case with ease. Gorgeous, profound and exquisitely translated, Against Nature has made me an Espedal devotee and I will seek every book that carries his name.

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Tomas Espedal claims he became a writer in order to know his mother, a voracious reader, better. For anyone interested, this short clip is an incredible glimpse at his inspiration for becoming a writer.

7 January 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge P. T. Smith. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

There have been books throughout the year that stand out because they astound on a general level, accomplish a number of things well. Others are memorable because they do one or two things incredibly well. In some cases, it’s as if the books are devoted to that one ambition, to that one possibility of literature. This seeking out of one specific bit of a book, whether it’s something in the structure, tone, style, or subject matter, etc. has a couple motivations. The most common one, unfortunately, is when a book isn’t very good, and I still want to engage with it. I have faith there must still be something interesting there, and I seek it out. When it’s found, not only does the reading experience turn more pleasurable, but help forms another way to think about writing. Less common, more worth spending time writing about, are the books that have the one fascinating aspect and do it so well that the reading becomes about that singular pleasure, even if others play in the background. And in the end, I just find this way of identifying a single stand out aspect of a book a way of entertaining myself and beginning conversations. So, here are some BTBA books from the latter category, of books memorable from one pleasure, rather than mundane books scarcely saved.

The first such experience in BTBA reading was Violette Leduc’s Thérèse and Isabelle (trans. Sophie Lewis). The story of a love affair, kept secret, between two girls at a boarding school, Thérèse and Isabelle is so hyper focused it is nearly overwhelming, which is exactly what Leduc portrays. It is unrelentingly physical: “My recollection of the two fingers grew sweeter, my swollen flesh began to recover, bubbles of love rose up. But Isabelle was there again, the fingers turned faster and faster. Where had this mounting wave come from? Smooth wrappings inside my knees. My heels were drugged, my visionary flesh was dreaming.” There is little to no time spent describing how or why these two are attracted to each other, because it is irrelevant. All that matters is the overpowering attraction, the desperate emotional desire that courses in their bodies.

With absolutely nothing in common with Thérèse and Isabelle, Christian Kracht’s Imperium (trans. Daniel Bowles) may have at its heart something to say about the blind following of ideals that led to the world wars, as the cover copy wants to emphasize, but that was not the compelling reason to read. Instead, the humor, the parody of historical adventure novels, is the source of pleasure. The hero is the joke, August Engelhardt, idealist, blind to his flaws and to the fact that other people aren’t the naïve waif he is. His faith is in coconuts, the purest food devised by God, and in nudity. Telling the story of Engelhardt’s travel to New Guinea, his life on an island there, and the failure of his attempt to found a society, the narrator celebrates and mocks sailing and adventure tales, all the while cynically undermining, knowing his utter failure is coming, the man it puts forth as a hero.

It’s through prose that makes the most minute details and observations into something affecting that Jean Echenoz’ story collection The Queen’s Caprice (trans. Linda Coverdale) finds its identity. The opening story, “Nelson,” is of that oftentimes epically depicted historical figure, Admiral Nelson, but this is not of battles and history being made. Instead, it is him visiting friends, their care for him, his adjustment to age and his loss of arm and eye. It is a simple, pleasing tale of him planting acorns so for them to grow into “trees whose trunks will serve to build the future royal fleet.” Only then can the grand scheme of history return through his death in battle. The title story is a roving description of a country landscape, leaving a writer’s hand to travel across the surrounding land, in details of hills and trees, all building to make a tiny moment with ants full of depth and insight. These stories are above all quiet. That quietness is the success of The Queen’s Caprice, parsing down even and abundance to the quietness scenes that can communicate the most.

Regina Ullmann’s The Country Road (trans. Kurt Beals) is a story collection that is completely of a time and space, yet a step outside of that, a skewed mirror image not quite real, but unsettled. The Dream of My Return (trans. Katherine Silver) is Horacio Castellanos’ distillation of paranoia, anxiety, and haunting guilt of a culture, of a time, into the daily life of a man who may in fact be utterly safe. This could go on, this way of reading and talking about books, the aspect that makes one memorable, makes it stand off from others, but these are the best of the bunch so far, though if I wrote this a week from now, Léon Bloy’s Disagreeable Tales (trans. Erik Butler) would probably make the cut for its triumph of the sinister.

27 May 15 | Chad W. Post |

The eighth annual Best Translated Book Awards were announced at BookExpo America this afternoon, with Can Xue’s The Last Lover, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, taking home the award for fiction, and Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong, winning in poetry.

Thanks again to the support of Amazon.com’s giving programs, the winning authors and translators will each receive $5,000.



“I’m so excited,” Can Xue said when she was reached for a comment, “I think it’s the most beautiful thing that has happened in my whole life. I always think of the BTBA as a very prestigious prize rewarding writers who have the great courage to achieve their literary ambitions.”

According to the jury, Can Xue’s (“tsan shway”) The Last Lover (published by Yale University Press) was the most radical and uncompromising of this year’s finalists, pushing the novel form into bold new territory. Journeying through a dreamworld as strange yet disquietingly familiar as Kafka’s Amerika, The Last Lover proves radiantly original. If Orientalists describe an East that exists only in the Western imagination, Can Xue describes its shadow, offering a beguiling dream of a Chinese West. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen’s translation succeeds in crafting a powerful English voice for a writer of singular imagination and insight.

The judges also named three runners-up in fiction: Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht and published by Archipelago Books, for the wonderful lyricism of its winding sentences; Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney and published by Coffee House Press, for the exceptional promise it demonstrates as a debut novel; and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein and published by Europa Editions, for its vibrant characters and sweeping narrative power.



On the poetry side of things, David Shook, the co-founder and editorial director of Phoneme Media “congratulates translator Anna Rosenwong for her masterful translation of Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, our first book of poetry and one of the most fascinating and important books to have been published in Mexico this century. Phoneme Media is incredibly grateful for the support of the BTBA’s judges and organizers, to Three Percent and its indefatigable director Chad Post, to our fellow shortlisted publishing houses, translators, and authors, and to our readers around the world. Congratulations, Anna and Rocío, on receiving this much deserved award!”

Past winners of the fiction award include: Seiobo There Below and Satantango, both by László Krasznahorkai (recent recipient of the Man Booker International Prize) and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes respectively; Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston; and, The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal. (Jansson and Teal are the only author and translator on this year’s fiction shortlist who have previously won the award.)

In terms of the poetry award, past winners include: The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky; Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stănescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter; and Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura, translated from the Japanese by Kyoko Yoshida and Forrest Gander.

This year’s fiction jury is made up of: George Carroll, North-North-West and Shelf Awareness; Monica Carter, Salonica; James Crossley, Island Books; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Jeremy Garber, Powell’s Books; Katrine Øgaard Jensen, Asymptote; Madeleine LaRue, Music & Literature; Daniel Medin, American University of Paris, Cahiers Series, Quarterly Conversation, and the White Review; and Michael Orthofer, Complete Review.

The poetry jury includes: Biswamit Dwibedy, poet; Bill Martin, translator, critic, organizer of The Bridge; Dawn Lundy Martin, poet; Erica Mena, poet and translator; and Stefan Tobler, And Other Stories and translator.

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

16 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, now that ALTA is over and the new catalog doesn’t come out for two months, I have a bit of time to concentrate on this year’s Best Translated Book Awards. Over the next couple weeks I’ll be posting information about the fiction and poetry panelists, along with an updated list of all translations published in the U.S. this year. Also might highlight some of the books I think will be favorites, announce official dates for the announcements of the longlist, shortlist, and winners, etc.

(And at some point we’ll figure out how to update the official BTBA website. With E.J. gone to Berlin, we’re still getting a handle on some of these logistical things.)

First up, I wanted to provide a general update about the fiction award. Here’s the list of this year’s Fiction Judges. Added to this year’s group are translators Bill Martin and Tess Lewis, and booksellers Stephen Sparks and Jenn Witte. They’re joining Michael Orthofer, Susan Harris, Bill Marx, Scott Esposito, and Monica Carter to determine this year’s twenty-five title longlist, and eventual winner.

Just to recap for everyone’s benefit, here are the general rules for this competition:

  • There’s no fee for entering books into this competition;
  • As with the NBCC Awards, every “original” (more on that below) translation published in 2012 and distributed in the U.S. is eligible;
  • Books published previously in the UK, but NOT distributed in America until 2012 ARE eligible;
  • Books published by UK presses that HAVE U.S. distribution ARE eligible;
  • “Original translations” are translations of books that HAVE NEVER been translated into English before. For example, a new translation of Kafka’s The Trial is INELIGIBLE because The Trial was already available to American readers in an English translation;
  • Authors need not be living, and don’t have to attend the awards ceremony;
  • The award is given to the best book in the best translation. We consider these two qualities to be inseparable. In other words, a great book with a shitty translation won’t win, and a shitty book that was spectacularly translated won’t win.

Right now, the nine judges are reading their way through all the books they’ve received this year, but to make everything easier on them, presses that want to ensure that their books are being considered for the award should send copies to everyone on this list by November 30th.

A certain press that will remain unnamed (but published more translations that any other over the past couple years, and probably receives more funding for “marketing” from foreign agencies than everyone else in the States combined . . . speculate as you will) recently expressed some dismay about the perceived “cost” of giving away “free books” to this many panelists, especially since they “haven’t won” the award in the past.

Before explaining why I think this is not just stupid, but damaging to book culture as a whole and a slap in the face to the translators this press claims to be concerned about, I want to reiterate that presses are welcome to submit PDF versions of the books to all of the panelists. It’s not preferred, but if a press is concerned about the costs of shipping their product to ten of the most adamant supporters of literature in translation in the United States, then they can save a few bucks and just email them to these addresses.

Now onto the rant: The “logic” behind “demurring” from sending books to the BTBA judges is totally insane. These are ten of the most supportive readers of international literature in the country—many of whom already receive this press’s books. (Sidenote: If a press has already sent a book to one of these reviewers, they don’t need to resend it. And feel free to email and check in before sending a duplicate.) If these reviewers and bookseller’s AREN’T already receiving this press’s books, where are they sending them? Have they decided that reading copies are an unnecessary expense?

As a publisher myself, I can say that the LEAST you can do for one of your books is send copies to readers who are likely to review or recommend these books. It’s not like there’s a ton of huge media outlets for experimental fiction in translation—presses depend on readers like these judges to help spread the word about their titles.

To claim that sending out ten review copies would “leave a smoking hole” in one’s budget is kind of absurd. What is the actual cost of this? In terms of cost accounting, the books themselves are valueless—the printing is a sunk cost, that’s already paid for, and copies that haven’t sold have no intrinsic value until a reader wants to buy them. So basically, the cost is about $20 for shipping these books by media mail to the ten panelists, and maybe an extra $10 for packaging materials. To get this straight, this press’s marketing budget can’t absorb $30 per title to ensure that these titles get serious consideration for one of the most prestigious awards for international literature? An award that would result in their author & translator receiving $5,000 apiece?

This is an award that was designed to benefit all of the translators and international authors whose books are published here in the States, and which tend to be underpromoted and overlooked. Our goal is to highlight the best books in translation as a way of creating a sort of “crib sheet” for readers out there looking to explore the world of literature outside of our linguistic boundaries. And I think we’ve done a damn good job of doing this. Looking back at the shortlisted titles, I’m impressed by just how awesome this collection of books is. And as relatively small as this might be in comparison to awards like the NBCC, NBA, Nobel Prize, I think it’s fantastic that the translators of these books get some recognition for the work that they’ve done. And it they win the $5,000, that’s even better.

The translation field is one that can be pretty lonely and disconnected, and can often leave you feeling unappreciated on the whole. It’s important that everyone involved in this—particularly publishers who are making their living off of the work of underpaid translators—do whatever they can to help raise the awareness of the great books that came out last year, and the people who made these possible. As cheesy as it sounds, I truly believe that every non-profit (or for profit) who has titles eligible for this award should put aside their differences to help make this award as impactful as it can be. It’s a step in the right direction for literature in translation, and to try and undermine it because of personal grudges or “marketing budgets” is small and pathetic.

22 June 12 | Sarah Winstein-Hibbs | Comments

Congratulations to author Julian Barnes and translator Ronald Vlek, whose novel Alsof het voorbij is (The Sense of an Ending, published by Atlas Contact) just won the 2012 European Literature Prize. Initiated in 2011, the Prize selects the best Dutch translations of European literary novels to appear in the last year. For winning the award, the author receives a sum of €10,000, the translator € 2,500.

Barnes’ brief but powerful new novel is “. . . as calm as it is disturbing, as melancholy as it is comical, a novel that can be read on several levels: as a personal outpouring, an account by a man wishing to clear his name, or an assault on the power of memories. A novel that makes the reader doubt everything he thinks he knows about himself.” For Vlek’s translation, the jury expressed equal praise: “Translator Ronald Vlek not only manages to transform the narrator’s language into perfect, measured Dutch, he is remarkably successful in capturing Barnes’ undertone. He meticulously transforms the restrained, sometimes evasive sentences, the lucid images and carefully chosen words into Dutch without ever allowing them to lose any of their connotations.”

Modeled after Three Percent’s Best Translated Book Award, the European Literature Prize is sponsored by the Academic-Cultural Centre SPUI25, the Dutch Foundation for Literature, the weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, and Athenaeum Booksellers. The four other shortlisted titles for the prize are as follows:

Geluk als het geluk ver te zoeken is by Wilhelm Genazino, translated from German by Gerrit Bussink (Atlas Contact)

De kaart en het gebied by Michel Houellebecq, translated from French by Martin de Haan (De Arbeiderspers)

C by Tom McCarthy, translated from English by Auke Leistra (De Bezige Bij)

De waarheid omtrent Marie by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from French by Marianne Kaas (Prometheus)

Eleven independent bookshops selected books for the longlist. The professional jury then pared it down, selected the shortlist, and chose the winner.

19 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the B&N Review, Matthew Battles (Harvard University’s rare books librarian and author of Library: An Unquiet History, Widener: Biography of a Library, along with other articles) has a long, interesting piece on Tove Jansson. He talks a bit about the recently released Fair Play, but I really like this bit about BTBA winning title The True Deceiver:

Rarely have fiction’s ubiquitous and essential challenges been more forcibly evoked than in Jansson’s short novel The True Deceiver. The novel opens in a coastal village besieged by snow—“this steady snow piling up against doors and windows and weighing down roofs and never stopping even for an hour. Paths filled with snow as quickly as they were shovelled out . . . People woke up late because there was no longer any morning.” Katri Kling, the novel’s fierce, embittered, and sharply intelligent anti-heroine, is fixated on the sumptuously empty house of local celebrity Anna Aemelin, an illustrator of children’s books whose art consists of mesmerizingly detailed paintings of forest underbrush populated by plump, downy bunnies. The yellow-eyed Katri lives above the shop where keeps the books—and whose shopkeeper torments her with his presumptuous longing—and takes care of her slow brother Mats and a large, nameless dog. “It’s unnatural not giving your dog a name,” the villagers mutter; “all dogs should have names.” But Katri refuses to name the dog out of a kind of wild and scrupulous honesty: “Dogs are mute and obedient,” she reflects, “but they have watched us and know us and can smell how pitiful we are.

“People idealise their animals, and at the same time they patronisingly overlook a dog’s natural life—biting fleas, burying bones, rolling in garbage, barking up an empty tree all night… But what do they do themselves? Bury stuff that will rot in secret and then dig it up and bury it again and rant and rave under empty trees! No. My dog and I despise them.”

All but allergic to the kind of white lies most people use to get through their days, Katri has become a midwife of hard truths, both relied upon and reviled by her neighbors. Children chant “witch” when they see her, but late at night their parents call upon her cruel insight. (“Why do you go to her?” one villager asks a neighbor. “Yes, she puts your business to rights, but you no longer trust anyone when you come back. You’re different.” Katri sets about winning her way into Anna Aemelin’s life by showing her how people take advantage of her and one another through the never-ending succession of tiny, self-deceiving frauds. But as Anna falls under the spell of veracity, Katri begins to learn that even her scruples can add up to untruth. In their encounter with love, art, and lying, both the artist and the truth-teller undergo a kind of quietly cataclysmic domestication. Even the dog gets a name.

22 June 11 | Julianna Romanazzi | Comments

On June 20, 2011 Small Beer Press was delighted to announce their winners for their inaugural Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation “Award.”:http://tinyurl.com/3wpflje This year’s long-form award went to celebrated short story writer Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, author of the winning book A Life on Paper: Stories .

A Life on Paper: Stories , translated by Edward Gauvin and published by Small Beer Press, was also a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. and is the author’s first book to be published in English, containing twenty-three stories and a foreword by Brian Evenson. Selections of these stories have been printed in Words Without Borders, Joyland, the Harvard Review, and Agni. The awards were given to the winners at the 2011 Eurocon in Stockholm.

The complete lists of winners and honorable mentions are:

Long Form Winner

A Life on Paper: Stories, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer Press). Original publication in French (1976¬-2005).

Long Form Honorable Mention

The Golden Age, Michal Ajvaz, translated by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive Press). Original publication in Czech as Zlatý V?k (2001).

Short Form Winner

“Elegy for a Young Elk”, Hannu Rajaniemi, translated by Hannu Rajaniemi (Subterranean Online, Spring 2010). Original publication in Finnish (Portti, 2007).

Short Form Honorable Mention

“Wagtail”, Marketta Niemelä, translated by Liisa Rantalaiho (Usva International 2010, ed. Anne Leinonen). Original publication in Finnish as “Västäräkki” (Usva (The Mist), 2008).

For the full award announcement with commentary from the winners click here.

To see the Three Percent blog on the Best Translated Book Award click here.

For the Three Percent Review on A Life on Paper: Stories click here.

28 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Named inside these fancy envelopes. (And named on the trophy’s I’m currently lugging to my secret hotel in NYC.)

T-33 hours and counting . . .

27 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Sorry for the posting snafu yesterday . . . I somehow managed to leave the second part of the fiction preview on “draft,” so it didn’t go live until midnightish . . .

Anyway, today we’ll go over the five poetry books that are up for the 2011 BTBA. I’m admittedly not nearly as knowledgeable about poetry as I am about fiction, so what I think I’ll do is quote from the “Why This Book Should Win” pieces and base my odds on how convincing the praise is . . .

Here goes:

Geometries by Guillevic, translated from the French by Richard Sieburth (Ugly Duckling Presse) (Why This Book Should Win)

“The cover of the collection says that these poems were “Englished” by Richard Sieburth. They are indeed. Sieburth captures in English the specific spokenness of the poems, their philosophical wit, their pathos (who would have thought shapes could have pathos!), without losing a sense of the inherent playfulness of the project. These shapes are foreign mirrors—yet astounding mirrors nonetheless. These poems are part game, part serious seriousness, and Sieburth stealthily draws the poems down that line into a wonderfully pleasing feeling that something true has been discovered in the oddest of ways.”—Jennifer Kronovet

Love the idea of this book, the fact that it wasn’t translated but “Englished” and that Ugly Duckling Presse is back in the finalists: 3-to-1.

Time of Sky & Castles in the Air by Ayane Kawata, translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu (Litmus Press) (Why This Book Should Win)

“Not all of them are about blood and veins blowing up, but the sky is a threat in many of these poems, a violent imposition on life, body and nature. The distant blue that is too bright, and cut up, and ominous and penetrating and rupturing, is a spectacularly original feat of imagination. [. . .] Castles in the Air, published in Japanese in 1991, is a dream journal presented as prose poems, and operates within its own hybrid rationale. Operating within a familiar dream-logic, these poems are at once unbearably personal, shamelessly intimate, and frankly grotesque. They unflinchingly reveal the subconscious monstrosity of the speaker, but so bluntly, so unapologetically that the reader too is implicated by the assumed understanding in the tone. These are dreams we all have had, in one way or another, and so no embarrassment is necessary.”—Erica Mena

I would love to see a two-time winner of the BTBA (Sawako Nakayasu won a couple years back), and this does sound monstrously beautiful: 7-to-1.

Child of Nature by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Henry Israeli and Shpresa Qatipi (New Directions) (Why This Book Should Win)

“Case in point, the poem ‘Monday in Seven Days,’ a longish serial poem of ten parts, which I’m only going to quote once because otherwise the whole thing is going to wind up in what is supposed to be a brief review:

Preparing for winter
isn’t tradition, but instinct. We hurl our spare anxieties
like precious cargo from a shipwreck.

Read that again. If you don’t see on your own how good it is, how truly excellent the choice of the word ‘hurl’ is and how excellently true the observation contained in the lines is, maybe you don’t like poetry as much as you thought. Or maybe you need to read a lot more of it.”—Brandon Holmquest

Well played, Brandon, well played. Very intriguing poet (who is currently learning how to write poetry in English) and coming from New Directions, it’s got a really good chance of winning: 5-to-1.

The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry (BOA Editions) (Why This Book Should Win)

“The poems in Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things focus with nearly comic intensity on an array of everyday objects—an egg, a coat, a toothpick, a stomach. Here, a potato recollects the soil it came from. Or a hand dryer speaks a windy language we can’t quite understand. Or a doormat forgives us all. But Šteger’s poems go far beyond mere comic description, personification, or metaphor. Rather, his objects reflect our own strange complexities—our eagerness to consume, our rationalizations and kindness. Our many cruelties and our grandiosities.”—Kevin Prufer

This is the second year in a row BOA Editions has a book on the shortlist, and I like Kevin’s line about “a hand dryer speaking a windy language we can’t quite understand”: 5-to-1

Flash Cards by Yu Jian, translated from the Chinese by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett (Zephyr Press) (Why This Book Should Win)

“In Flash Cards, his first collection to appear in English translation, he writes of frogs that died in 1998 along with their pond, but also of the mosquitoes that remain there, ‘sometimes conversing in English.’ It’s hard to translate humor well, especially in the streamlined language of a poem, but American poet Ron Padgett and Chinese poet Wang Ping do an extraordinary job of getting the tone right every time. ‘Conversing’ is just the verb for a wry, quirky line like this in English.”—Idra Novey

Zephyr Press is a perennial finalist for the poetry award, and this book, translated from the Chinese, has a strong chance of winning the award. But based on Tim Nassau’s slightly less enthusiastic review I’ll put the odd at 10-to-1.

That’s it. Winners announced Friday night. Now off to PEN World Voices . . .

26 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Following up on yesterday’s look at five of the BTBA fiction finalists, below are brief bits about the remaining five titles. Again, take none of this too seriously, but please do check out and read the books—that’s the whole point of all of this. And all 15 of the shortlisted titles are fantastic—you really can’t go wrong.

And another reminder: This Friday. April 29th. Bowery Poetry Club. 8:45pm. Lorin Stein. Announcements. Drinks. Cool people. Be there.

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (New York Review Books) (Why This Book Should Win)

Cossery was the only author with two titles on this year’s BTBA, a feat that Bolano accomplished back a couple BTBAs ago. Based on that, he had double the chances of winning the award. Not to mention how well his novels tie in with what went down in Egypt, Cossery’s obsession with laziness, the all-around love for NYRB and New Directions (both of which are publishing other Cossery books later this year), etc., etc.

Because Cossery is the cornerstone of my current favorite anecdote about the 21st century, book discovery, and pretty girls in bars, I feel like he should absolutely win. Not to mention, Anna Moschovakis is one of the most talented writers/translators out there today . . . And she was featured in O Magazine! Odds of winning: 3-to-1.

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated from the Czech by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive) (Why This Book Should Win)

I remember signing this on—and a few other Ajvaz books—when I was working at Dalkey, but since I haven’t actually seen this title, I can’t really comment on it. I do remember really liking the sample, and based on all the love given it by our panelists, I’m sure it’s rather excellent, but . . .

One of my favorite “age naming” projects was Joshua Glenn’s version of all the generations from 1904-1993. Josh’s research and data gathering is the very definition of meticulous, and his reasoning behind his categorizations (which tend to be based in the concerns of the artists born in these particular time periods) is fascinating. And I can’t really disagree with his assessment of the Net Generation, which I belong to, and which takes the instantaneous communication of the internet and social networking for granted. I also dig the fact that, according to Josh, we were the first generation to association tech geekiness with coolness/attractiveness.

Anyway, The Golden Age is, in my opinion, a longshot. 50-to-1 odds of winning the BTBA. It would be great for Dalkey—one of the premiere publishers of literature in translation—to win a BTBA, but this book is probably a bit too cerebral to win. Next year!

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions) (Why This Book Should Win)

One of these years, Susan Bernofsky HAS to win a BTBA. She’s one of the best translators ever, is super cool, has great taste in literature (Walser!) and just simply deserves the recognition.

Visitation could be her ticket . . . It’s written by a woman (always plays well), is from New Directions (bonus points), and is innovative without being too daunting. It’s also about a house.

That said, Visitation may also be a bit heavy. There’s Nazi stuff in there, which doesn’t always play well with judges or readers. (WWII books haven’t fared as well in the BTBA as expected: witness Every Man Dies Alone and the lack of Hans Keilson books on this year’s longlist.) Your seesaw of BTBA worthiness has the heaviness of German history on one side, and the vibrance of Susan Bernofsky on the other. Odds: 7-to-1.

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (New York Review Books) (Why This Book Should Win)

I finished this book not too long ago. I’ve been meaning to read Tove Jansson for a while, since her story—part of the small Swedish-speaking community in Finlad, creator of the Moomins who then started writing books for adults, sort of pet project of the NYRB—was pretty intriguing. Booksellers in particular seem to really like her work, but that perception might be based on the fact that booksellers really all the NYRB books.

Nevertheless, this novel is direct, yet subtle and sly in its own way. It’s not as daunting or as overtly complicated as Gerog Letham or Visitation, but there’s something classic-seeming about the novel and the way the plot plays itself out. Intriguing enough that I kept at least one of her other books out on my “to read” shelf (which is literally an entire set of bookshelves) for the next time I’m snowed in . . . which, given this is Rochester, will probably happen in September. Overall, I think the seeming quietness of this book keep it in the game, so 10-to-1 odds that it wins.

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Tin House) (Why This Book Should Win)

It’s very cool, the amount of attention that’s been paid to South African writers over the past year. This book got a ton of good press, as did Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronje, which we published in the fall. I can’t tell if this is due to the World Cup (I really miss the World Cup . . . trying to get into the Champions League but I effing hate Fox Soccer Sports and Rochester isn’t really the best soccer-watching place in the world . . . nevertheless, Go Barcelona!), or if there’s just a lot of good stuff coming out of there. I think it’s actually the latter, and that there may be a bit of a run on South African fiction over the next few years. Or at least, I hope so.

Based solely on the make-up of this book—translated from Afrikaans, written by a woman, praised by everybody—and the review that Gwen Dawson wrote for us, I think this has a really serious shot at winning the award, and I’ll give it 5-to-1 odds.

Tomorrow I’ll recap the poetry titles . . .

25 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

So, the BTBA Ceremony is taking place this Friday, where we will crown the kings & queens of the 2011 translation universe and provide them with $5,000 cash prizes courtesy of Amazon.com.

Taking place at the Bowery Poetry Club at 8:45 and lasting till the wee hours, this promises to be an incredible event—one that was recently made even more incredible when Lorin Stein of The Paris Review agreed to MC and make the announcements . . .

Although my understanding of gambling and odds-making is a bit sketchy—I’m still confused by WTF 117 minus 127 7 ov-120 means in relation to the Cubs vs. Rockies today—I thought it would be fun if I tried to summarize handicap the finalists for the 2011 BTBA. Since I already know the winners (and no, you won’t get this out of me, although YES, I will accept bribes), don’t take any of this seriously, and since this is being written from a college campus I feel like I should reiterate that GAMBLING IS BAD FOR YOUR SOUL and that buzzed driving is drunk driving.

OK, let’s have some fun:

The Literary Conference by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions) (Why This Book Should Win)

On the one hand, I think that Aira’s Ghosts is a better overall book than The Literary Conference. Tighter, more ambitious in scope, more serious. But man, is the Literary Conference fun! There’s hidden treasure, mad scientists, Carlos Fuentes, and cloning. Of all the finalists, it’s one of the shortest and flashiest books. What’s interesting to me about Aira is how he manages to get the reader to buy into something totally batshit, thus opening up a trillion unbelievable possibilities. In Ghosts it’s the ghosts themselves, mentioned first in an offhanded way, as if ghosts at a construction site was the most natural thing possible. With The Literary Conference it’s the Macuto Line. Read that description in the opening pages and then try and draw it: I dare you. But if you buy into that little bit of linguistic trickery, the rest of the book—did I mention the clones? the massive silkworms rolling down the mountain?—is completely believable.

Based on Aira’s sneaky nature, the unceasing flow of publications, and overall readableness, I’m giving him 5-to-1 odds of taking home the trophy this year.

A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer) (Why This Book Should Win)

Seeing that the basis for Billy Pilgrim is buried just outside my office window, Kurt Vonnegut/Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud is a bit of a hometown favorite.

That said, as every book buyer in North America has told me, short stories are a tough sell. That probably holds for committees as well as customers, so I’d put KV’s odds at a healthy 12-to-1.

Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), translated from the French by David Bellos (Yale University Press) (Why This Book Should Win)

Hoaxes are way cool. Especially hoaxes played on corporate bastards who always seem to miss the joke/learning opportunity because THEY HAVE NO SOULS. But second to send-ups of society destroyers companies like GE are literary hoaxes. Paul Maliszewski’s Fakers is an invaluable source on this topic, and includes the brilliant little game he played with the editors of the Syracuse Business Journal. Totally worth the $24.95 cover price just for that. (Sidenote: I love that Paul got busted for his fraudulent pieces when writing about Watertown, NY, a city that I constantly mispronounce as Water-ton, as if it’s a semi-elegant resort on the lake. According to people who’ve been there, Watertown—emphasis on the “town”—is a shithole. Which is probably why Paul’s invented company—and description of downtown Watertown—was so easy to pick out as fake.)

Since Gary’s hoax was so well constructed and fascinating, and since I have a friend who recently wrote a pilot centering around a publishing hoax, and since all of the judges voted for this to make the shortlist, I’m going all in on this crafty novel and giving it 3-to-1 odds.

On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui, translated from the Spanish by Idra Novey (Dalkey Archive) (Why This Book Should Win)

One of my favorite editorial trips ever was to Buenos Aires. Helps that I absolutely LOVE Argentine literature (Macedonio, Puig, Cortazar, Borges, Arlt, Saer, Chejfec, Piglia, Ocampo, Bioy Casares, on and on and on), but even beyond that, the city is stunning, the weather was spectacular, the people all incredibly beautiful, and the bookstores grander than life. I also bought the only suit that fits me while I was there. At a store near Cortazar Plaza. . . . Glancing over the posts I wrote from Buenos Aires makes me both want to flee Rochester for an extended summer vacation where empanadas are 3 for a $1 and Malbec is easier to come by than clean water.

It also makes me want Tugui’s book to win the BTBA. But given that Idra is on the poetry committee, I’m thinking that this won’t happen simply for political reasons, which is why I think it’s got about a 25-to-1 chance of winning. (Doesn’t help that Dalkey Archive has never once mentioned the BTBA. Not that I expect such a thing, but good god, on their News Page, they linked to a review in the _Newark Star-Ledger. Just saying.)

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (Archipelago) (Why This Book Should Win)

In addition to the books from Aira and Gary, I think Georg Letham is the other truly serious contender from this group. Pros: Archipelago is well-loved by everyone on the committee, it’s long, it’s classic, there’s another mad scientist involved, it’s unique, nice packaging. Cons: Very long, may seem a bit dated to the general reading public, an Archipelago author won a few years ago.

Of the ten finalists, this may be the most “classic” of all the books. And since the committee members are very well-read and love “lasting” books, I really think this could winI’m going to give this 5-to-1 odds.

Last five works of fiction tomorrow . . .

9 March 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Tomorrow is the big day: We’ll be announcing the winners of the 2010 Best Translated Book Award!

Click the image below to download a PDF with all the details, but in brief: 7:00pm at Idlewild Books in NYC—oh, and drinks will be provided. Hope to see you there!

8 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [9]

Before jumping into the day-by-day look at each of the 25 titles on the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist I thought I’d post about a few of the books that didn’t make the list. It’s cliched to even say, but it really is difficult coming up with this list. Down to the final moment of voting, I was personally wavering on 3-4 titles, arguing with myself about which was more worthy, which might make more sense on a list of this sort, etc., etc. At first glance, 25 seems like a huge number of books. Especially when there were only 280-some-odd works in translation eligible for the award. But Daniel Hahn once pointed out the bottleneck effect that comes into play with literature in translation: because so little is published, what tends to make its way through is rather excellent.

As if 25 books weren’t enough, listed below are 10 books that easily could’ve made the list with a slightly different set of panelist, or a different year of competition. This is all personal conjecture and in no way are my comments below meant to represent the viewpoints of the other panelists. Links from the titles go to the Idlewild catalog, links from the publisher name to the book on the publisher’s website.

The Loop by Jacques Roubaud
Translated from the French by Jeff Fort (France)
(Dalkey Archive)

Of the books left off the fiction longlist, this is one of the ones that most surprised me. Oulipian Jacques Roubaud’s “Great Fire of London” project—of which this is the second volume—is incredibly ambitious, and the opening book in the sequence, The Great Fire of London is considered by many Dalkey-ites to be one of the best books the press ever published. This is a dense book, a reflection on memory complete with “Bifurcations” and “Interpolations” (think Hopscotch but more branch-like), and quite possibly Roubaud’s best work to date. I suspect Dalkey will be doing more books from this series over the next few years (hopefully it won’t take another 17 to get to volume three . . .), so Roubaud will have a few more chances . . .

Running Away by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith (France)
(Dalkey Archive)

Toussaint made the list last year with Camera, so it wouldn’t have been surprising if this had made it as well. Christopher Byrd wrote a nice review of this for the New York Times the other week, but I personally think that Toussaint’s novels are sort of like popcorn—good while you’re eating it, but each handful tastes pretty much the same. (That doesn’t even make sense . . . ) Anyway, Toussaint has another shot next year, since Dalkey is bringing out Self-Portrait Abroad in May. Oh, and everyone should read The Bathroom.

Dance with Snakes by Horacio Castellanos Moya
Translated from the Spanish by Lee Paula Springer (Honduras/El Salvador)
(Biblioasis)

She-Devil in the Mirror by Horacio Castellanos Moya
Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Honduras/El Salvador)
(New Directions)

Probably the biggest surprise for me was the fact that neither Moya book made this year’s list. Both of these are interesting books that are very different from one another. I reviewed She-Devil in the Mirror a couple weeks ago, and Brandon Kennedy is working on a piece on Dance with Snakes, and I’m sure this will be a positive review as well. So why didn’t Moya—whose Senselessness was one of the top three books for last year’s award—make this year’s longlist? I think it’s a problem of relativity. Senselessness was so fucking good that these two books, though great in their own right, paled in comparison. But there are more Moya titles on the way . . . And just as important—hopefully this will help bring more attention to the excellent Biblioasis Press. (Go Canada!)

The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (America/France)
(HarperCollins)

Maybe the most controversial omission from our list. The only (?) translation published in 2009 that received a million dollar advance. The most reviewed (??) translation of 2009. One of the only translations published by HarperCollins. And spectacularly translated by Charlotte Mandell. Yet, it didn’t make our list. Some panelists just didn’t care for it. (This was one of those divisive books. Even reviews tended to be adamantly against it, or very much in favor.) One interesting issue: there may well be a reverse bias on the part of the panelists against commercial presses and over-exposed books. People who read a shit-ton of international literature tend to spend a shit-ton of time reading books from smaller, indie presses. Start to develop an affinity. And feel like these presses—and their more obscure books—deserve some recognition. And they’re definitely right. But if this list were made by more conventional reviewers, I’ll bet it would be very different. In part because the system helps big books from big publisher get more attention from big reviewers/reviewing outlets. In part because our panelists have read much more broadly in the realm of translated literature and therefore have a wider base of comparison for what constitutes “the best” works of the past year. I stand by our list 100%, I’m just saying.

Your Face Tomorrow, Vol. 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell by Javier Marias
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain)
(New Directions)

Marias’s three volume Your Face Tomorrow project may well constitute one of the past decade’s absolute high points. In many ways, this should be on the longlist, and I’m personally planning a little Marias bender for the last seven months of the year so that I can read this trlogy from start to finish. And therein lay the problem for the jury. (I think.) This is the third volume of trilogy. And yes, sure, so is Jan Kjaerstad’s The Discoverer, but that’s a trilogy of three interrelated books that can be read completely independent of one another without feeling like you’re missing the entire everything. Open this Marias book and you’re greeted with a title page for “Part V: Poison.” This trilogy deserves a special award.

Five Spice Street by Can Xue
Translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
(Yale University Press)

It would’ve been great to include this book on the list if for no other reason than to highlight Yale’s “Margellos World Republic of Letters” series. But so it goes . . . One of the strangest books I read over the past year, I wrote a long review of this last spring. It also would’ve been cool to include this to highlight the role a good editor makes in making a translation work. But again, so it goes . . . Too many books. Way too many books.

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers (Russia)
(Penguin)

This collection got a ton of attention late in the year (such as this glowing New York Times review), and if the BTBA was more Oscar-like . . . Petrushevskaya is a very interesting writer, and this collection of strange, dark stories is pretty compelling. Hopefully this gets enough attention to convince someone to publish a translation of her novel Time Night, which Gessen refers to in his introduction as her “central masterpiece.”

The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
(New Directions)

Tawada has had a number of books published in English, including The Bridegroom Was a Dog and Where Europe Begins, which have received a decent amount of attention. Susan Bernofsky told me she thought this novel was Tawada’s best, and it is very interesting and beautifully written (and translated) book. I actually used a quote from here as a Facebook update a while back—mainly because I have a little thing for Canada: “Canada sounds like an ordinary noun that might mean, for example, something like ‘happiness.’ The entire world should become Canada . . .”

Metropolis Vienna by Peter Rosei
Translated from the German by Geoffrey C. Howes (Austria)
(Green Integer)

I think all the judges wish we could’ve gotten a Green Integer book on the list. Douglas Messerli (founder/publisher of Green Integer, which sounds a bit like a super-hero publishing press, no?) does a fantastic job bringing unique classics to an American audience in very cool, pocket-sized books. (Another title of GI’s from last year that’s worth checking out is Duke, the Dog Priest by Domicio Coutinho, which was translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Clifford Landers.) Metropolis Vienna got a lot of panel support, but fell just, just short. Compared to von Doderer’s The Demons, it “represents an interlinking series of individuals living in Vienna” in post-WWII times who “pick up existence as if the War had not occurred, attempting to ignore or outrun their terrible past in a rush for money and success.”

7 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On Tuesday when we announced the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist, we included links from each of the books to the Idlewild online catalog in hopes of directing some sales to our Indie Bookstore of the Month.

As an added incentive, Idlewild has decided to offer 20% off all BTBA books. Here’s a post from the recently redesigned Idlewild website with all the details.

15 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few weeks back, I posted about the 2010 Best Translated Book Award and included all of the dates and information for the Fiction selections. (To recap: We’ll announce the 25-title longlist on Tuesday, January 5th, the ten finalists on Tuesday, February 16th, and the winner at a TBD day in mid-March.)

In terms of potery, just over 60 titles came out over the past year (that year being from December 2008 through November 2009), so rather than announce a longlist consisting of 40% of all eligible books, for poetry we’re skipping right to the finalists and announcing the ten BTB poetry books on Tuesday, February 16th. And just as we do for the fiction titles, we’ll be highlighting a poetry book a day between the 22nd of February and the announcement of the winner.

I’ve been contacting all publishers with eligible titles, but in case I missed anyone, or in case you’re intentionally or unintentionally ignoring my e-mail, I thought I’d post the general guidelines on submitting books for the prize.

All original translations published between December 1, 2008 and November 30, 2009 are eligible. And by “original” we mean collections that have never before appeared in English—so no reprints, and no retranslations.

There’s no entry fee, all you have to do is mail one copy of your publication to each of the five panelists. (And if possible, send one copy to me as well—my address is on that same form—for record keeping and whatnot.) Please include a note or mark the package in some way indicating that these are 2010 BTB submissions . . .

Here are the names of the five panelists for this year’s award:

  • Brandon Holmquest, poet, translator, editor of CALQUE;
  • Jennifer Kronovet, poet, translator, editor of Circumference;
  • Idra Novey, poet, translator, Executive Director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University;
  • Kevin Prufer, poet, academic, essayist, and co-editor of New European Poets;
  • Matthew Zapruder, poet, translator, academic, and co-editor of Wave Books.

And now the countdown begins . . . I have a feeling that this year’s award will spark a lot more debate than the 2009 one. There doesn’t seem to be as many clear-cut favorites this time around, whereas last year was all about Bolano . . . And although he didn’t win, 2666 was one of the three best books that stood out to all of the panelists, along with Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness, and eventual winner Attila Bartis’s Tranquility. Should be interesting . . .

30 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Thanks to Bud Parr for posting this amazing video featuring Attila Bartis, whose Tranquility won the 2009 Best Translated Book Award. The footage is mostly taken from a conversation between Brian Evenson and Bartis that took place at Idlewild Books that took a couple months ago.

Very cool. Very, very cool.

12 January 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Local Rochester TV station 13 WHAM’s This Morning is, I think I can state quite definitively, the nation’s single most important local morning television news source for international literature. Chad made his third appearance on This Morning this morning, where he talked about our Best Translated Book Award, Roberto Bolaño, and Elias Khoury. Top that WBAY. Chad’s competition for the hearts and minds of local Rochesterians on This Morning was The Bachelor’s Jason Mesnick, who did a live-remote interview to promote a serial mockumentary about his love life.

Click the image below to see the video.

....
The Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer
Reviewed by Peter Constantine

Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.

–(The Odyssey, Book I, line 10. Emily Wilson)

In literary translation of works from other eras, there are always two basic tasks that a translator needs. . .

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I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

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Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

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Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

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The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

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Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

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The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

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