The winners of the Lettre Ulysses Award – a prize for book-length reportage that I discussed a few weeks ago – have been announced. Alexandra Fuller’s account of her travels with a white, African mercenary, Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier took the 50,000 Euro first prize while A Season in Mecca: Narrative of a Pilgrimage by Moroccan Abdellah Hammoudi and Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq by Riverbend won the 30,000 Euro second prize and 20,000 Euro third prize, respectively.
As a judge for an upstart literary award specializing in translated literature, it’s hard not to feel insignificant. After all, aren’t there enough literary awards out there already? And translated literature—what’s up with that? Don’t Americans care far more about the latest celebrity bio than some piece of literature written in Austria?
There’s even more to make us feel unimportant. Unlike some awards, we don’t have thousands of dollars of prize money to give to our winner (instead we have very classy bookends). Nor do we have a prestigious history going back decades (we’ve only been doing this since 2008). Heck, in all likelihood our winner won’t even speak English, so we’ll have to use Google Translate to congratulate him or her.
Yes, though we’ve been covered in places like The Guardian and The Independent, there’s a lot to make the University of Rochester’s Best Translated Book Award feel inadequate, but there’s one very important thing we’ll never feel inadequate about: the books—we have outstanding books that most people have probably never heard of. The Pulitzer is all well and good, but does it have a Russian surrealist writing about a commie Eiffel Tower that runs away and commits suicide? Or how about an asshole B actor on a Brazilian soap opera who gets his kicks by giving graphic interviews to innocent female journalists? Does it perhaps have a metafictional novel told in the form of an interview about said novel? Or even a comic, quasi-philosophical romp about an Argentine high-rise apartment building that’s under construction and infested with ghosts?
After a long year of reading and judging the best literature translated into English in 2009, we—the few, the proud, the obscure judges of the Best Translated Book Award—are proud to announce our ten finalists.
Anonymous Celebrity by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão – Translated from the Portuguese by Nelson Vieira. (Brazil, Dalkey Archive)
The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven – Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. (Israel, Melville House)
The Discoverer by Jan Kjaerstad – Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. (Norway, Open Letter)
Ghosts by Cesar Aira – Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Argentina, New Directions)
Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky – Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull. (Russia, New York Review Books)
Rex by José Manuel Prieto – Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. (Cuba, Grove)
The Tanners by Robert Walser – Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. (Switzerland, New Directions)
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker – Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer. (Netherlands, Archipelago)
The Weather Fifteen Years Ago by Wolf Haas – Translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen. (Austria, Ariadne Press)
Wonder by Hugo Claus – Translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim. (Belgium, Archipelago)
These books, of course, include all of what I’ve just laid out above, plus a number of equally compelling books that didn’t so easily lend themselves to single-sentence summarization. In many cases they were among my favorite reads in all of 2009—translated or otherwise—and in all cases they are fine works of literature that I would absolutely recommend to a friend.
But if I did recommend them, would they be read? For as small a field as translated literature is—we constantly hear that only 3% of books published in English are translated—it has nonetheless generated a remarkable number of clichés and myths, most of them negative. Two of the most pernicious are that American readers just don’t care about literature from beyond the United States and that translations are somehow lesser copies that would be a waste of time to read.
As to the first one, I believe myself and the other judges are all the proof you will need to put that myth to rest. In no cases were we reared by families of translation-lovers who instilled in us an ethic to read beyond our national borders. We don’t read these translations because we view it as social work, nor because we’re all bleeding hearts who have made these books our crusade. No. We are simply lovers of great literature, readers just like anyone who visits The Millions wondering what to read next. True, somehow we happened to discover all that one misses out on if—for some mysterious reason—you constrain yourself to books created solely by others who happen to speak the same language that you do. But I don’t really believe in the existence of these translation-averse readers that I keep hearing about. Quite frankly, if translated literature was bad enough to cause a generation of readers to retch at the very sight of it, you couldn’t get me to give up my reading time to wade through a pile of it every year. I just wouldn’t do it. But the reality of the matter is quite the opposite (and I think I speak for all the judges when I say this): we judge this prize because the books are incredibly good, and it’s a treat to have publishers and our fellow judges vying to place so many excellent books before us.
As to the second myth, that these translations we read and judge are somehow an adulteration of the original. I suppose there are some stuffy, absolutist authors out there who actually believe this nonsense, but in all the time I’ve corresponded with translators and the authors they translate, I’ve never found a single person to espouse that opinion. Quite the opposite. Very frequently authors will see the translation as a unique creation in its own right, neither greater nor lesser than the original book. (In fact, Jose Manuel Prieto, whose novel Rex graces our list of finalists, endorses this opinion right in his book.) Some very famous authors have even claimed that they like the translation better than the original. Even if some authors will say that they prefer the original to the translation (and wouldn’t you, knowing you wrote the original?), they will be quick to add that ninety percent of, say, Tolstoy is better than zero percent, which is what most of us would have if we had to read it in Russian.
So now that we have spent a year to put this list of finalists together, I encourage everyone to give at least one of these titles a shot and see if they aren’t refreshed and inspired by reading beyond our language’s borders. (To help you pick, you can see write-ups of all the finalists.) These are all books that explore the possibilities of language and literature in exciting and innovative ways, they are all books that offer fresh perspectives, and most of all, like any good work of literature they are all books that offer the chance to see things we didn’t know we wanted to see. And remember to check in for the announcement of the Best Translated Book for 2009 on March 10.
If there is an award season for the book industry, it’s probably right around now. The Booker will be announced in a couple of days, the Nobel Prize was just announced, and now the finalists for the National Book Award have been announced. (The Pulitzer doesn’t happen until the spring, though.) The big news this year is that the 9/11 Commission Report has been nominated in the non-fiction category. It’s an unprecedented development, and I can’t help but think that a message is being sent. And it is a rather clever way of getting publicity for the award. It also, however, reflects the important place in history that 9/11 will hold. On the fiction side, the nominees are an interesting bunch, all of the women and none of them big, well-known names. Below you can find the nominees for the fiction and non-fiction categories, and some excerpts or whatever else I could find.FictionMadeleine Is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum — profileFlorida by Christine Schutt — interviewIdeas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories by Joan Silber — excerptThe News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck — excerptOur Kind: A Novel in Stories by Kate Walbert — excerptNon-FictionArc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle — reviewWashington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer — excerptLife on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett by Jennifer Gonnerman — excerpt (this is a good one)Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt — excerpt9/11 Commission Report — read it here
In what seems peripherally related to our recent exercise in award aggregation, The Prizewinners, the Booker Prize recently announced their Best of the Booker, a prize to commeorate the 40th anniversary of the Prize and also to name the “best overall novel to have won the prize.” It went, somewhat predictably, to Salman Rushdie for Midnight’s Children – the book also won when the Booker gave out a similar award 15 years ago. Scott, however, makes a very compelling argument that J.G. Farrell’s “novel of imperial decay,” The Siege of Krishnapur, deserved to be honored instead.Meanwhile, in what seems peripherally related to our recent exercise in books-in-translation aggregation, The Prizewinners International, the Lit Saloon points us to The Times’ (UK) list of “the 50 outstanding literary translations from the last 50 years,” presented alphabetically. Some Millions favorites like The Master and Margarita, 100 Years of Solitude, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler appear. Interestingly, Edith Grossman, one of the most celebrated translators in recent years, does not make the list.
It’ll be in tomorrow’s papers and on most Web sites tonight at midnight but a couple of foreign papers have posted their stories early: Jonathan Lethem has been awarded a genius grant worth $500,000. I’ll update this post tomorrow with more details once all the winners are officially announced.Update: Well. Not much to report. Usually there’s three or four literary-related Macarthur Fellows, but this year there are just two, Terry Belanger, a rare book preservationist from the University of Virginia, and Lethem. Here’s the only Lethem quote about his windfall that I could find so far (from the NY Daily News): “‘You probably ought to check in with me in six months,’ he said. ‘I think I can safely say it’s going to give me a lot of the security and freedom that any artist craves.'” I’m sure that he will be compelled to discuss his plans at length sooner than that, and I’m sure other folks will be weighing in on the meaning of this honor for Lethem soon enough, as well.
For my money, Domingo Martinez was the coolest person in the house. And that’s saying something because the house — a cavernous marble ballroom on Wall Street, site of Wednesday evening’s National Book Awards ceremony — was full of very cool people, including Elmore Leonard, Martin Amis, Terry Gross, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, and Dave Eggers.
But they’re household names to book lovers. They were supposed to be in the house. Domingo Martinez was not. This year, in an effort to blunt criticism that the awards were being watered down by a tendency to honor obscure authors of obscure books, the National Book Foundation told judges not to be shy about nominating popular books by well-known authors. The judges complied magnificently. The fiction finalists were four big names — Eggers, Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, and Ben Fountain — plus first-time novelist Kevin Powers.
Same for the non-fiction category. Four of the finalists — Robert Caro, Katherine Boo, Anthony Shadid, and Anne Applebaum — had won at least one Pulitzer Prize apiece, and each had worked for The New York Times, The Washington Post, or Newsday. The fifth finalist was unknown Domingo Martinez, a first-time author who wrote a blistering memoir about growing up in Brownsville, Tex., called The Boy Kings of Texas.
As the cocktail hour wound down on Wednesday evening and guests began taking their seats for the $1,000-a-plate dinner, I spotted a rotund, merry-looking guy in a corner of the ballroom, regaling a small crowd with a story. It was Domingo Martinez. His agent, Alice Martell, was standing nearby, and she told me that the manuscript to Boy Kings had come to her unsolicited and, against some seriously long odds, it jumped out of the slush pile and grabbed her by the throat and wouldn’t let her go. “This almost never happens,” said Martell, who represented Carlos Eire, whose memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2003. “I only work with authors I like,” Martell said, “and Domingo’s a doll.”Non-fiction finalist Domingo Martinez, fueled by ginger ale, telling a story.
He finished telling his story, one hand chopping the air for emphasis, the other wrapped around a wine glass full of…
“What are you drinking?” I asked.
“Ginger ale,” Martinez replied.
“But there’s an open bar!”
“I know, but I don’t like to drink alcohol before I read.” He made a squinting face. “You know, it can make the words run together.”
This was astonishing, and beautiful. Martinez was not one of those dewy-eyed longshots you always see on the Oscars show, those first-time nominees who gush about what an honor it was just to get nominated and get a chance to wear an ugly dress and share Meryl Streep’s oxygen, blahblahblah. Screw that. Despite the long odds against him — a rough childhood in a border town, a manuscript that got plucked from the slush pile, some ridiculously stiff competition for a major literary award — Martinez had prepared an acceptance speech. And he wanted to be silver-tongued and alert when it came time to deliver it during the awards ceremony after dinner.
Domingo Martinez didn’t come to New York just wanting and hoping to win a National Book Award. He had come here prepared to win. Like I said, the coolest guy in the house.
It didn’t happen, of course. The non-fiction prize went to Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” grant. Not what you would call a dark horse.
The next day Martinez, the longest of the night’s longshots, wasn’t answering his telephone. Was he disappointed?
“Anybody would be disappointed,” Martell said. “Win or lose, in the aftermath of these things there’s a certain exhaustion. You suddenly hit a wall. Domingo hit a wall.”
It’s a safe bet that the people who run the National Book Foundation were not disappointed by Boo’s victory, or by the renowned Louise Erdrich’s in the fiction category. Overall, it was a good night for boldface names. Venerable, indefatigable Elmore Leonard was handed a medal by Brooklyn’s highest profile new resident, Martin Amis. Though teen-actress-turned-author Molly Ringwald failed to show, many other literary stars came out. The known trumped the unknown, which may be just what the doctor ordered for a foundation worried about becoming irrelevant in an industry that’s facing terrifying challenges.Stephen King talks to a fan, the German filmmaker Marianne Schaefer.
I’ve never been a big fan of prizes for artistic achievement, but seeing the Domingo Martinez story unfold this year gave me a new appreciation for the argument that anything that sells books in these dire times is a good thing. Martinez’s career got a to-die-for jump start. What’s wrong with that?
“Books, obviously, are not the same as other commodities,” Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, acknowledged in a telephone interview before the awards ceremony. “Competition between artworks is not accepted universally, and you can’t judge artworks the same way you judge consumer goods. But the National Book Award gives people the opportunity to disagree. It opens the conversation, which is a good thing. Literature should be discussed. In talking about books, we come to understand them better.”
Fine. But please, in your effort to become more mainstream, don’t get rid of all the longshots. They’re the real stars of any awards ceremony.
Also, check out The Millions’s recap and related coverage of this year’s National Book Award winners.