Sometimes it seems like all there is to write about is book awards. The National Book Awards are handed out, but wait, here are the Whitbread finalists. The Whitbread, Britain’s second most prestigious prize after the Booker, is, it seems to me, at a disadvantage. Since the Whitbread comes out only a couple of months after the Booker, the selections are compared in the press. If the Whitbread too closely mirrors the Booker, it loses some of its punch, but if the judges pick a shortlist with no overlap with the Booker, the Whitbread is criticized for being too obscure. This year, the only overlap with the Booker is that they have both shortlisted Ali Smith’s The Accidental. As was much remarked when the Booker list was announced, many well-known authors have books out this year: Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith and Julian Barnes, among others. None of those made the Whitbread list, a fact that seems likely to have prompted head judge Philippa Gregory’s defensive sounding remark in the Guardian: “Our shortlist may confuse the book trade. We are not saying these are the only good books. They are books which happened to resonate powerfully with the judges of the moment.” The list does include two notable names: Salman Rushdie for Shalimar the Clown and Nick Hornby for A Long Way Down. Rounding out the fiction list is Cotton by Christopher Wilson (which, since it is going by a different title in England, has been much misrepresented in the press, as the Literary Saloon points out.) For the finalists in all the categories, visit the Whitbread site.
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.
The shortlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize was announced today. The prize, run by the BBC, “aims to reward the best of non-fiction, from biography, travel and popular science to the arts and current affairs.” The winner will be announced on June 15th. Here are the shortlisted titles:A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill BrysonGulag by Anne ApplebaumJohn Clare: A Biography by Jonathan BateStasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna FunderThe Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands by Aidan HartleyRubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom HollandAll in all, a pretty solid group of booksIn other news, the cd from the little record label that my friend Derek and I run is now available at Amazon. It’s by a band called The Recoys or you can buy it through the Realistic Records homepage.
The Booker frenzy is reaching a fevered pitch. I’ve scoured the web for the words of the shortlisted authors. Place your bets accordingly.The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall — excerptLine of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst — profileCloud Atlas by David Mitchell — excerptThe Master by Colm Toibin — excerptI’ll Go to Bed at Noon by Gerard Woodward — excerptBitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor — interview
The IMPAC shortlist is in. If you don’t know about the IMPAC, it’s very unique prize with a very long longlist. The longlist is composed of nominees from over 150 libraries around the world. Those picks are then whittled down to a shortlist via a panel of judges. As you’ll see from the shortlist, since the process leading up to this award takes so long, some of the books aren’t exactly new. I think involving libraries makes the IMPAC unique compared to a lot of other awards out there. It seems a lot more egalitarian than, say, the Booker or the National Book Award, and I appreciate the international flavor as well. That’s why I included it in my prizewinners post last year. There’s more info about the award at the IMPAC site. Now, here’s the shortlist with some comments:Graceland by Chris Abani – This book about Nigeria was nominated by a library in Sweeden. – excerptMaps For Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam was an LBC nominee – we wrote about it for five posts sarting with this one. Another example of the multiculturalism of the IMPAC: this book about Pakistanis living in England was nominated by libraries in Belgium and South Africa. – excerptHavoc in Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett – I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since I first heard about it. Was read and loved at Book World. – excerptsThe Closed Circle by Jonathan Coe – excerptAn Altered Light by Jens Christian Grondahl – excerptBreaking the Tongue by Vyvyane LohDon’t Move by Margaret Mazzantini – excerptThe Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra – excerptThe Master by Colm Toibin – excerptThe Logogryph by Thomas Wharton