Best Translated Book Award Shortlists 2017

Zama

Today the Best Translated Book Award announced their shortlists, culling the fiction list down from twenty five titles to ten and the poetry from ten to five.

As with the announcement of the longlists last month I have an issue with the lists, but I will save my “rant” until after the listing, that way you can view the shortlisted titles and ignore my personal dismay should you chose.

Fiction

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)

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)

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

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)

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

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)

 

Poetry

 

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)

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)

So the fiction longlist has culled well-known names such as Rafael Chirbes, László Krasznahorkai, Javier Marías, Patrick Modiano, Sjón and Enrique Vila-Matas, and features what I feel is one of the weakest translated books I have read this year, War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated from the Dutch by David McKay.

The Best Translated Book Award aims “to bring attention to the best original works of international fiction and poetry published in the U.S. during the previous year.”

Why do I think “War and Turpentine” should not be on the shortlist?

  • The author himself admits in section one that he is pressed for time getting the work finished in time for the 2014 centenary of World War One, and this very much shows in section three, where the post war life of Hertmans’ grandfather seems rushed, half-baked and incomplete
  • The use of formulaic plot devices such as the pocket watch and the image in the painting by his grandfather are repetitive and used to pull on heartstrings, best seller page turning techniques. To me they were overblown and manipulative, non-engaging
  • The second section, whilst well written, is simply another World War One story of horror in the trenches. Yes it is a personal story, but we have hundreds, if not thousands, of personal World War One stories, what makes this one stand out from the crowd? Nothing
  • The move from a reimagined youthful time in the early 1900’s, to a personal diary, to a piecemeal “Sebaldian” ending just doesn’t hang together
  • The book is forgettable – although the fact that it has made the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist (heaven forbid they shortlist it tomorrow) and now the BTBA shortlist, will mean I will never forget it, besides that I can assure you it is not a work that you’ll be raving about at dinner parties in 2020

To think a rambling work addressing the global financial crisis impacts for Spain, or a single sentence work (again) from Hungary, or the latest translation from a Nobel Prize winner are all considered not worthy of the shortlist instead of yet another World War One story is absolutely beyond me.

Onto my concerns with the poetry listing, and it has nothing to do with the titles included, excluded for the prime reason that three of the shortlisted works are yet to arrive on my doorstep. I ordered the whole longlist three weeks ago (excluding “In Praise of Defeat” and “Extracting the Stone of Madness” which I already owned) and only two titles have arrived, both not making the final cut.

I would love to “Shadow” follow the list, I would really enjoy sharing my thoughts on the titles, but when the delivery of the titles takes such a long period of time it simply becomes problematic. Another example of why it is so hard to promote poetry titles occurred yesterday, I had a copy of “olio” by Tyehimba Jess on order, it won the Pulitzer Prize, I was then refunded my purchase price as the title is now “sold out”. Whilst this is great for Wave Poetry being able to sell out a full print run of a poetry title, to simply deny me the ability to read the book, and refund my money does nothing to promote readers to poetry works. Whilst not directly related to the BTBA I am still very disappointed that I have not had a chance to read three of the titles on the shortlist, simply due to slow dispatch and delivery.

I’ll be back with the shortlist from the Man Booker International Prize, with my thoughts (as always) and will attempt to have reviews of the remaining titles from that longlist published here in the coming weeks.

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

WarTurpentine

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

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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):

Fiction

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)

 

Poetry

 

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.