Antígona González – Sara Uribe (translated by John Pluecker) – 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry


Today more from Mexico, moving from Valeria Luiselli’s latest book “Tell Me How It Ends” back to the 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry longlist. Sara Uribe’s “Antígona González” uses the daughter/sister of Oedipus and the tale where she attempts to secure a respectable burial for her brother Polynices who was killed in battle, and transposes the search for a corpse to the present Mexican landscape where numerous people go missing.

My name is Antígona González and I am searching/among the dead for the corpse of my brother. (p7)

A work that is a grieving book, for a missing brother, for nameless bodies, for an uncaring society that allows disappearances to become the norm.

I came to San Fernando to search for my brother.
I came to San Fernando to search for my father.
I came to San Fernando to search for my husband.
I came to San Fernando to search for my son.
I came with the others for the bodies of our people. (p103)

Our poet’s missing brother is Tadeo and Sara Uribe uses a raft of inputs to explore disappearance, “the verb to disappear”, this is a heart wrenching work gives voice, and life, to the nameless, the anonymous;

 In my dream, I’m certain one of those suitcases is
Tadeo’s. Mamá gave him that name because he was
the one who struggled most at birth. She promised
ninety novenas to Saint Jude if he would save her son.
She prayed those novenas and baptized him in his
honor so that the hope of the hopeless would always
shine on him. So that the smallest of her children
would never forget that from his very birth he had
overcome adversity. (p43)

Through extensive use of space, some pages with central text, others from the top, others from the bottom of the page, the English translation appears alongside the Spanish text. The all-encompassing vastness of the Mexican desert, the missing persons and a fruitless search is relayed through the visual open presentation;

So I head out to my job on an empty stomach and as
I drive I thank of all the gaps, all the absences no one
notices and yet are there. (p81)

The stress, tension of not knowing comes through in the tight language, it is easy to imagine the poet ranting these lines at you, yelling her frustration at you. The book contains fourteen pages of references and notes, a detailed explanation of the resources used to create this multi-layered work, quotes from blogs, italicised text an interloper’s voice, facts including testimonies from victims and family members as compiled by journalists and quotes from other writers, including a sequence of questions by Harold Pinter from the poem “Death”, such as “WHO WAS THE DEAD BODY?” with answers coming from various other sources, the book resembles a performance art piece rather than simply a poetry collection.

All of us here will gradually disappear if no one searches
for us, if no one names us.

All of us here will gradually disappear if we just look
helplessly at each other, watching how we disappear one
by one. (p 165)

A book that explores the impacts of people disappearing, the grief that remains behind, the questioning, “the interpretation of Antigone is radically altered in Latin America – Polynices is identified with the marginalized and disappeared” (p23)

Also including seventeen pages of translator notes;

There is a startling specificity to this Antígona. We are in Tamaulipas, a state along the Gulf coast in Mexico and bordering the Río Bravo/Rio Grande in South Texas. It is a time of brutal violence that strains the very definition of the word “war,” as it evades any previous understanding of what “war” might be. A specific moment and a specific horror.

Antígona González is not Sophocles’ Antigone, though Uribe’s book is inexorably tied to the long trajectory of Sophocles’ tragedy. In his version, Antigone could not bear the dictate of Creon to leave her brother’s dead body exposed and unburied on a dusty plain. In Uribe’s version, Antígona González is bereft of a body to mourn, a body to bury. (p191)

Including a rationalisation process where the poet wonders what to do with Tadeo’s killers, the various stages of grieving are walked through as you become further and further frustrated at the lack of knowledge, the unknown and the endless missing persons, this is a very complex and moving book. Yet another worthwhile inclusion on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award longlists.

Instructions Within – Ashraf Fayadh (translated by Mona Kareem, Mona Zaki and Jonathan Wright) – Best Translated Book Award Poetry 2017


In November 2015 Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death for renouncing Islam, his original sentence of four years in prison and 800 lashes in May 2014 was overturned on appeal and a “new panel of judges rules that his repentance did not prevent his execution.” (“The Guardian 20/11/2015 A further appeal has resulted in an eight year jail sentence and 800 lashes to be carried out over 16 occasions.

“In August 2013, he was detained by the mutaween (religious police) following a complaint that he was cursing against Allah and the prophet Muhammad, insulting Saudi Arabia and distributing a book of his poems that promoted atheism. Fayadh said the complaint arose from a personal dispute during a discussion in a cafe in Abha.” (“The Guardian” 3/2/2016)

His collection of poems “Instructions Within” was published, in translation, by The Operating System in November 2016 and was recently longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award (Poetry).

The first thing that strikes you when you pick up this collection is the binding, right bound, opening to the left, the book comes with an insert explanation from Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, the Founder and Managing Editor;

Each of The Operating System’s books questions design standard in order to dislodge our normative patterning and expectation, with the belief that continuous exposure to diversity on the page – both in content and design – affect not only the cognitive brain by the body as well, in so far as this required the ‘rewiring’ of brain behaviors, essentially getting us out of a ‘rut’ of repetitive reception.

INSTRUCTIONS WITHIN goes one step farther – requiring the western reader to hold and read the book as one would an Arabic or Hebrew volume, that is, by being right-bound. The westerner might find him or herself saying that the book ‘starts at the back’ or feeling vaguely uncomfortable holding the book and/or turning pages ‘backward’ but this is precisely the point: to disrupt the proprioceptic modelling that tells you that the way to do things, your patterning is not only yours but ‘right’ or ‘normal,’ when in fact hundreds of millions of people – billions of people – experience books and texts in directions different from our own.

Reading you are certainly off kilter, with the English versions of the poems appearing on the left page and the Arabic versions on the right, working from “the back”.

Immediately you are struck by the writer as a refugee;

The air is polluted, and the dumpsters,
and your soul, too, ever since it got mixed up with carbon.
And your heart, ever since the arteries got blocked
denying citizenship
to the blood coming back from your head.

  • From “A Space In The Void” (p6)

This opening poem setting the tone, space abounds, on the page, in the text, the loss of personal space, a newborn “child to fill another part of the void” (p14) even sleep is to “go back to your void” (p18). The page lightly peppered with the test, the white page filling the void.

The political is not far from the poet’s pen either with people displaced from their lands for oil, the poem “On The Virtues Of Oil Over Blood” containing;

You tremble now,
so take what there is of your blood
to fill the belly of exile –
to gather the overseers’ oil
and smother their intention to drag away your soul.
Ask forgiveness of the river –
and loudly apologize as your blood seeps into its waters. (p32)

The notes on page 42 explaining, “Almost all of this poem is quoted by the court that ruled for Ashraf’s death sentence.” The themes of the heart, desire, corpses, blood, oil and displacement are the recurring images, poem after poem.

I am looking for a land to love…or to love me
for a homes to shelter all the captives
of a war that didn’t carry any burdens
To lay them down.
I am looking for a ceiling other than a sky,
sick of veiling my shameful history

  • From “A Hired Lover” (p80)

The book also includes experimental works as in “B.I.M.”;

compare and choose what the world accepts of you
I am
I am
I am

(p 170)

This is activist poetry, poetry of oppression, jail cells, writing on walls, the conditions of being interred, all of this visited in the twenty-page poem “Amnesty”.

Although a 296-page book, the dual language presentation and some of the pages containing a mere two or three lines, it is not a weighty tome. Personally, I found the shorter one or two page poems more coherent, the longer ten to twenty page ones some of the symbolism or references were too obscure or politically specific for me to understand.

Being a refugee means standing at the end of the line
to get a fraction of a country.
Standing is something your grandfather did, without knowing the reason.
And the fraction is you.
Country: a card you put in your wallet with your money.
Money: pieces of paper with pictures of leaders.
Pictures: they stand in for you until you return.
Return: a mythical creature that appears in your grandfather’s stories.
There endeth the first lesson.
The lesson is conveyed to you so that you can learn the second lesson, which is
“what do you signify?”

  • From “The Last Of The Line Of Refugee Descendants” (p 248)

There are a few poems where the number of Arabic lines differ from the English translated lines, something that I found a little strange.

Overall an important work, one bringing to the English-speaking world the work of an activist poet, wonderfully presented to ensure you are always thinking about the original texts, and the process of reading. I will leave this review with a quote from the end notes by the founder and managing editor of “an operating system” Lynne  DeSilva-Johnson; “For it will, indeed, be the poets (musicians, artists, creators of all kind” who “wake up the world”.” An important message for these uncertain times.

War and Turpentine – Stefan Hertmans (translated by David McKay) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize and Best Translated Book Award


As a member of the Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury in 2016, I was a lone voice with my views on “Mend The Living” by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore) and with “War and Turpentine” being longlisted for both the Man Booker International Prize and the Best Translated Book Award (a US based translation award), I feel my views are, again, going to be different than the broader population.

Before I present my views on this book I think I need to point out that personally I had no relationship with either of my grandfathers, with both of them not surviving World War II, this missing relationship in my life may have influenced my views on this book.

“War and Turpentine” is described on the back cover thus;

Shortly before his death in 1981, Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain gave him some exercise books, filled with his writing. When Hertmans finally opened then, he discovered unexpected secrets. His grandfather’s life was marked by years of childhood poverty in late-nineteenth-century Belgium, by horrific experiences on the front lines during World War I and by the loss of the young love of his life. He sublimated his grief in the silence of painting.

So my first question…is this fiction? For example, outside of the obvious retelling from the exercise books, and a detailed recounting of the writer’s relationship with his grandfather, we also have numerous examples of research presented back to us. At one stage there are three pages dedicated to explaining the history of the Ghent World Fair and the plight of the Senegalese and Philippino visitors.

The book is split into three sections, the first recalling the writer’s relationship with his grandfather Urbain, the reading of the exercise books and an explanation of Urbain’s youth, relationship with his own father and the living conditions in 1800’s Belgium. The second section is a first person narration of Urbain’s experiences during World War II and the final section, his post-war life (back in the 3rd person) and relationships. There is a common theme of drawing and painting but it is sprinkled throughout.

The early section sets you up as a story of a writer’s connection with his grandfather, it is not just a history imagined, it contains a deeply personal edge. There is a fine balance between the telling of an anecdote and its personal interpretation and using poetic language Stefan Hertmans manages to walk this fine line, an example being the peppered references to Liverpool, these entice you to read further, surely the jigsaw puzzle will be completed and all the pieces will simply fall into place. But are these simply tricks drawn from a writer’s tool kit?

As a white-haired elder surrounded by an admiring circle of my aunties and cousins, he could spend hours lost in the particulars of that life in the last decade of the nineteenth century, his childhood years wrapped in the sulphurous fumes of early factories, the memories of the street hawkers’ cries, the slam of the thin wooden door of the public toilet at the end of the alley beside an ivy-covered wall that smelled of urine and nettles. The everyday dreariness of the first wave of industrialization had thoroughly shaped the contours of his thinking, although he also began early in life, after leafing through the few books his father owned, to dream of the colour palette of Tintoretto and Van Dyck.

Once the story moves to the front, and surrounds, during World War II, it is difficult to tell if  this is a history imagined, or a direct representation of Urbain’s exercise books, or a blend. Given the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, Hertmans tells us that his book needed to be completed to ensure he didn’t miss the publishing rush in 2014, and as we now know there are a large number of WWI fictions available as a result of this anniversary. Therefore the recreation of the horrors of the trenches needs to be masterful, at least, to stand out from a plethora of similar writings, either that or you have a great publicist working at your publishing house. With comments such as “A multi-award winner in Europe that sold 200,000 copies in the Netherlands and Belgium alone” appearing in the blubs, I’m firmly in the “great publicist” camp here.

The final section is an absolute mish-mash, almost unreadable, where Hertmans staggers from one cliché to the next trying to find an exit for his previous 290 odd pages. It covers Urbain’s post war life, hardly touches on WWII, tells little of his wife (Hertmans’ grandmother) or daughter, muddles around with copying paintings (is this a parallel reference to Hertmans copying his grandfathers’ exercise books) and uses melodrama poorly to keep you turning the pages. It is rare I tackle a 300 page book and keep procrastinating when only 29 pages from the end, with this one I delayed the last 10% for over a day and may well have left it aside if I didn’t have Shadow Jury duties.

Two overblown examples of cliché, plot device are the family heirloom, a pocket watch that has survived untold horrors (including the trenches) and a secret nude painting reproduction that brings tears to the eyes of Urbain, a cheap “mystery” device sprinkled throughout to keep you page turning.

If this book is fiction then it is over worked, formulaic and manipulative, if it is not fiction then what the f* is it doing on two literature longlists?

There is one redeeming feature for this book and it is the quality of the prose, Hertmans can write, it is a pity he has reduced himself to schmaltz, corniness and cheap writing techniques taught in books for “dummies”. Thank goodness he can write, it is the quality of the prose that rescues this book from the “unreadable” pile.

2017 Best Translated Book Award Longlists – Fiction and Poetry


The flurry of translated fiction awards continue with the announcement of the USA based Best Translated Book Award longlists (Fiction and Poetry) about seven hours ago. Given it was at 1.30am here in Australia I chose to sleep after the announcement instead of an immediate post.

As the judges (and organisers) know from my tweeting over the last week, I am extremely disappointed about the omission of one book from the list, but I will save my “rant” until after the longlist announcements – that way you can choose to ignore it.

Here are the twenty five fiction and ten poetry titles that made the 2017 BTBA longlists (links are to my reviews):


The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Egypt, Melville House)

The Young Bride by Alessandro Baricco, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)

Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell (Dominican Republic, Mandel Vilar Press)

Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Brazil, Open Letter Books)

On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, New Directions)

Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman (Mauritius, Deep Vellum)

Zama by Antonio di Benedetto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Argentina, New York Review Books)

A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska, translated from the Macedonian by Christina Kramer (Macedonia, Two Lines Press)

Doomi Golo by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the Wolof by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Senegal, Michigan State University Press)

Night Prayers by Santiago Gamboa, translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis (Colombia, Europa Editions)

Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap, translated from the German by Tess Lewis (Germany, Archipelago Books)

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated from the Dutch by David McKay (Belgium, Pantheon)

Umami by Laia Jufresa, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Mexico, Oneworld) –

Last Wolf and Herman by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and John Batki (Hungary, New Directions)

Oblivion by Sergi Lebedev, translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis (Russia, New Vessel Press)

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, Knopf)

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Chris Clarke (France, New York Review Books)

Ladivine by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Knopf)

Among Strange Victims by Daniel Saldaña Paris, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)

Moonstone by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland, FSG)

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Japan, New Directions)

Vampire in Love by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, New Directions)

My Marriage by Jakob Wassermann, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Germany, New York Review Books)

Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto, translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda (Japan, Counterpoint Press)

Super Extra Grande by Yoss, translated from the Spanish by David Frye (Cuba, Restless Books)




Berlin-Hamlet by Szilárd Borbély, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary, New York Review Books)

Of Things by Michael Donhauser, translated from the German by Nick Hoff and Andrew Joron (Austria, Burning Deck Press)

Instructions Within by Ashraf Fayadh, translated from the Arabic by Mona Kareem, Mona Zaki, and Jonathan Wright (Palestine, Operating System)

Cheer Up, Femme Fatale by Yideum Kim, translated from the Korean by Ji Yoon Lee, Don Mee Choi, and Johannes Göransson (South Korea, Action Books)

In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Morocco, Archipelago Books)

Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert (Argentina, New Directions) (read our review)

Thief of Talant by Pierre Reverdy, translated from the French by Ian Seed (France, Wakefield Press)

tasks by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, translated from the Spanish by Katherine M. Hedeen (Cuba, co-im-press)

Building the Barricade by Anna Świrszczyńska, translated from the Polish by Piotr Florczyk (Poland, Tavern Books)

Antígona González by Sara Uribe, translated from the Spanish by John Pluecker (Mexico, Les Figues Press)


I do own several these titles, including a few from the poetry longlist, and have actually read two of the fiction works and part of a poetry work, I am simply yet to review them, another upcoming task!!

Onto my rant – it is specifically aimed at the exclusion of Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream” (translated by John E. Woods). This is a massive 1.325 million word puzzle, I’d guess that 400,000+ of those words required etymological research, manipulation and rework. Almost a lifetime’s achievement the book was hailed by many as the translation event of the decade if not this century. But the book was ignored for the award because it wasn’t submitted by the publisher.

This is called the Best Translated Book Award, not the Best Translated Book Award For Submitted Books. Last year there were 512 eligible fiction titles (according to the “Translation Database” hosted by “three percent”  ) – the two largest publishers of translated works, Amazon Crossing and Dalkey Archive did not have a single work on the longlist, and indications are they did not submit their books. That means at least 104 of the 512 titles were simply ignored – a massive 20.3% of books simply ignored? And this is the “best” translated book award?

In past years, the judges have called in titles, this year the nine judges obviously chose not to call in the “translation sensation”. Is this because of the sheer size, the daunting task of reading it?

Numerous tweets to me have offered the following excuse “how many people have read it?” – I didn’t realise that to be eligible people had to have read the book, what sort of pathetic excuse is that?  I thought the role of the Award was to promote translated fiction not make judgements (or guesses) about how many people have (or even will) read it.

I have also been told that because I haven’t finished it how can I judge its “worthiness”? Sorry – I AM NOT a judge, it is NOT my role to finish 512 books and make judgement on their merits, that is what the APPOINTED judges are meant to do. I can assure readers here that I HAVE read the first 175 of 1,493 pages (11.7%) and it is head and shoulders above any other translated work I have read in the last five years, I don’t care if it deteriorates in the next 88.3% it will still be head and shoulders above any other translated work I have read in the last five years. The people making this outrageous claim probably haven’t even sighted the thing, let alone opened or read a single page of it.

I was even offered the excuse “some people feel the same way about Ferrante” – sorry? I don’t see the size, the complexity, the langage difficulties, the construction, the meticulous attention to detail in Ann Goldstein’s work, and that is no criticism of her work, it is just like saying to a James Joyce fan “some people feel the same way about Dan Brown” – apples and elephants.

I do not hold anything against the judges here, it would be a thankless task reading so many books and to throw in one that would take longer to read than most of the list itself would be beyond onerous, however they do have a role to play and if you put your hand up to judge and you cop a year where a behemoth like “Bottom’s Dream” appears, you’ve just drawn a short straw.

I am grumpy and I am staying grumpy, even though the longlist appears a very solid one indeed, this year I will be unofficially calling this the (2nd) Best Translated Book Award.

For your information, here is the eligibility criteria (I see nothing about having to be submitted, I see nothing about the number of people reading the book, I see nothing about me having to have read them) – hmmmm

Any work of translation published in English for the first time ever between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016 is eligible for the award. A book that existed in English in a previous translation is not eligible, unless more than half of its content is new. (For example, a new collection of poems of which one-third appeared in an early translation would be eligible, but a novel with an extra ten pages added that were previously censored would not.) Books published in the UK are eligible if they are distributed in the U.S. through normal means. Self-published ebooks in translation are eligible if they have an ISBN are available for purchase through more than one outlet.

I feel better now that’s off my chest.

EDIT – Since publication I have been advised (by an official judge) that I assumed “Bottom’s Dream” was not submitted/considered for the award and that it indeed was. My assumptions were incorrect, although I still feel the same way, I thought it appropriate I add this disclaimer. Thanks to the judge who contacted me, for a) taking the time to read my post and b) taking the time to contact me.