Joseph Epstein (Fabulous Small Jews, Snobbery) takes a look at the glut of awards, literary and otherwise in a Wall Street Journal piece: “All this prize-giving has made the field of culture rather like one of those progressive preschools where, on graduation day, even the most hopeless child is given a prize for not actually maiming his classmates.”
There are tons of literary awards out there, but last year I discovered one that caught my interest because of its international and journalistic focus. The Lettre Ulysses Award celebrates book-length reporting, and does not limit its scope to any single language or geographic area. The result is that a richly varied list of books is considered. Last year's award went to Alexandra Fuller for her account of her travels with a white, African mercenary, Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier. This year's longlist is out and once again it's very eclectic:Die Hundeesser von Svinia (The Dog Eaters of Svinia) by Karl-Markus Gauss (Austria)The People on the Street by Linda Grant (Great Britain)Der Smaragdkonig. Victor Carranza und das grune Gold der Anden (The Emerald Czar: Victor Carranza and the Green Gold of the Andes) by Jeanette Erazo HeufelderThe Deurbanization of Lvov & A Week in Kishinev, part of a series of texts on the decline of post-Soviet cities by Igor Klekh (Russia)Pais de plomo. Cronicas de guerra (Country of Bullets. War Diaries) by Juanita Leon (Colombia)The Story of "Freezing Point" by Li Datong (China)Operacao Araguaia: os arquivos secretos da Guerrilha (Operation Araguaia: The Secret Archives of a Guerrilla War) by Tais Morais & Eumano Silva (Brazil)Voyage aux pays du coton. Petit precis de mondialisation (Journey to the Lands of Cotton: A Brief Manual of Globalisation) by Erik Orsenna (France)The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer (USA)Beirut shi mahal: an Egyptian in Lebanon by Youssef Rakha (Egypt)Chasing the Monk's Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang by Mishi Saran (India)An Iraqi in Paris by Samuel Shimon (Iraq)Biz Burada Devrim Yapiyoruz Sinyorita (We are Making a Revolution Here, Signorita) by Ece Temelkuran (Turkey)Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy by Manjushree Thapa (Nepal)Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu by Yaroslav Trofimov (Ukraine)The Long MarchGenius loci by Peter Vail (Russia)Cosecha de mujeres: Safari en el desierto mexicano (Harvest of Woman. Safari in the Mexican Desert) by Diana Washington Valdez (Mexico/USA)'What Kind of God': A Survey of the Current Safety of China's Food by Zhou Qing (China)
● ● ●
The International DUBLIN Literary Award (formerly known as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award) is the world’s most valuable annual literary award for a single work of fiction published in English, clocking in at €100,000. Now in its 22nd year, the award is sponsored by the Dublin City Council and managed by the city's libraries. This year's titles were nominated by public libraries in Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Sweden and the USA, according to the award's website. The shortlisted titles are: A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw The Green Road by Anne Enright The Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
● ● ●
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.
● ● ●