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The Longlist for the National Book Award for Translated Literature

By M.A. Orthofer

M.A. Orthofer considers the new National Book Award for Translated Literature and walks us through the inaugural longlist titles.

There are several well-established American book awards recognizing translation, notably the Best Translated Book Award, the PEN Translation Prize, and the American Literary Translators Association’s National Translation Award. In addition, the National Book Critics Circle Awards consider translated works alongside those originally written in English (with several works in translation having won the award, including books by W. G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño for fiction, and Jorge Luis Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa for criticism). The announcement that the National Book Foundation would again be presenting a National Book Award for Translated Literature was nevertheless significant and welcome, promising further recognition of the importance of translation and an even bigger stage.

As a new category, rather than an entirely new prize, the NBA’s Translated Literature award extends an already very successful and well-known franchise and immediately benefits from people’s widespread familiarity with the brand. In terms of press and book-buyer attention, only the Pulitzers compete with the National Book Awards. The National Book Award imprimatur automatically makes this the most high-profile translation award in the United States.

The National Book Awards previously had a translation category, awarded from 1967 to 1983. The current version differs in two significant respects: it is limited to works of fiction and nonfiction (previously both poetry and drama were also considered) and to living authors. The latter condition makes for a fundamentally different award: whereas previously the award was dominated by classical works (of the twenty-three books awarded, only six were by living authors), this prerequisite ensures that, like the current award’s closest British equivalent, the Man Booker International Prize, the focus is on contemporary authors—a significant contrast to the other leading American translation prizes, which are all open to works by the deceased. The original award did set the bar high, however—its few modern fiction winners included Julio Cortázar’s classic, Hopscotch, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain, and Arno Schmidt’s oversized, experimental Evening Edged in Gold.

This initial longlist is a promising restart for this translation prize.

Earlier this month, the first longlist for the new Translated Literature award was announced. The ten titles—selected by judges Harold Augenbraum, Karen Maeda Allman, Sinan Antoon, Susan Bernofsky, and Álvaro Enrigue from 142 submissions of works published between December 1, 2017 and November 30, 2018—are:

Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya, translated by Anya Migdal from the Russian (Alfred A. Knopf/Penguin Random House)

The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq by Dunya Mikhail, translated by Dunya Mikhail and Max Weiss from the Arabic (New Directions Publishing)

Comemadre by Roque Larraquy, translated by Heather Cleary from the Spanish (Coffee House Press)

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover from the French (Europa Editions)

The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani from the Japanese (New Directions Publishing)

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish (Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House)

Love by Hanne Ørstavik, translated by Martin Aitken from the Norwegian (Archipelago Books)

One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan from the Tamil (Black Cat/Grove Atlantic)

Trick by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri from the Italian (Europa Editions)

Wait, Blink: A Perfect Picture of Inner Life by Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated by Kari Dickson from the Norwegian (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan Publishers)

What jumps out first is the impressive number of languages—nine, with Norwegian the only one represented more than once. While European languages dominate—as they invariably do: publishers just don’t publish enough works translated from other languages—Arabic, Tamil, and Japanese are also represented. Meanwhile, it’s almost a relief to see that French and Spanish, which so easily can overwhelm translated-literature prize longlists, don’t. German, that other major and much-translated-from language, is not represented. (It’s a matter of what could be considered, too: major translations from German this year—such as Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Sand, and two works by Wolfgang Hilbig—weren’t eligible.)

For the most part, prize-success abroad clearly did not influence the judges: the two most recent winners of the Prix Goncourt, France’s top book prize, fell short (2017 winner The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard, and 2016 winner The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani), as did the 2016 Prix Renaudot winner (the next biggest French literary prize), Yasmina Reza’s Babylon. Lutz Seiler’s German Book Prize-winning Kruso, Laura Lindstedt’s Finlandia Prize-winning Oneiron, and a popular winner of the Japanese Akutagawa Prize, Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, also failed to make the longlist.

Some of the year’s other most talked-about eligible titles and authors also do not appear, including Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Six (or, for that matter, several other titles by the prolific Norwegian), Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore, and works by Ismail Kadare and Nobel laureates Mario Vargas Llosa and Patrick Modiano. Quite a few of the leading independent publishers of translations are represented—though AmazonCrossing and Dalkey Archive Press, who year in and year out publish the most works in translation, are not; neither are any university presses.

It is noteworthy that a majority (seven of ten) of the longlist titles are by women, especially given that female authors continue to be significantly underrepresented in translation.

Although the Translated Literature award is open to works of both fiction and nonfiction, this initial longlist is very one-sided, with only a single work of nonfiction included. This presumably is also a reflection of what was submitted, and of a general tendency to focus on fiction when considering prose in translation, but it is regrettable. The other major American translation awards already limit themselves to fiction (and poetry), and there’s considerably less public awareness of nonfiction in translation, aside from the occasional surprise blockbuster (such as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century). It will be interesting to see whether there will be a shift toward greater balance between fiction and nonfiction in future years.

It is noteworthy that a majority (seven of ten) of the longlist titles are by women, especially given that female authors continue to be significantly underrepresented in translation. Meytal Radzinski notes on her Biblibio blog: “The base rate of translation of books by women writers has hovered around 30% for several years now,” and the Translation Database at Publishers Weekly currently lists, for 2018, 54 works of nonfiction authored by men and only 23 by women, and 225 works of fiction by men, compared to 132 by women; combined, only 36% of works are by women. (The database list isn’t complete and differs from the National Book Award-eligibility requirements in some respects—it includes dead authors, for example—but the ratio presumably roughly holds regardless.) It is here that the new version of the National Book Award differs most from the old incarnation: awarded to 23 books between 1967 and 1983, that translation prize shockingly only twice went to books written by women.

This year’s longlist is a mix of authors who have already had several works translated—with Tolstaya and Tawada the best-established in English—and newcomers, though it seems fair to say that none of the authors have had a previous breakout work in English. (Tolstaya’s The Slynx and Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear come closest.) Unusually, it’s probably one of the translators who has the greatest name recognition—Jhumpa Lahiri, translator of Tricks.

If there is any title that can be considered a frontrunner, it has to be Flights. It is a standout on this list in several ways. Listed as a novel, it is a loosely structured collection that includes both the essayistic and fictional. (Just how hard it is to define is suggested by Amazon’s confusion: as I write this, it is the top-selling title in their General Poland Travel Guides category.) This one did win a leading national literary prize—the Polish Nike Award, in 2008—and Jennifer Croft’s translation already won this year’s Man Booker International Prize, the leading translated book prize in the UK. Its creative form and its theme of travel, in all its forms, are certainly appealing. It also happens to be the most substantial book in the running lengthwise, on a list that tends to the medium- and small-sized, though at just over four hundred pages, it is still in a perfectly reasonable range. (The latest Knausgaard comes in at over 1,100 pages, and the new Murakami at around 700.)

The longlist titles are also all creative in their presentation, from the clever Henry James-foundation underlying Tricks to the rapid shifts of Wait, Blink and the two parts of Comemadre, which are a century apart in time.

The one work of nonfiction on the longlist is Dunya Mikhail’s topical The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq. Published by New Directions, this account of the rescue of Yazidi women from Daesh (ISIS) is a more personal, and “literary,” work than the majority of nonfiction—including, for example, more documentary-style work, such as Åsne Seierstad’s similarly topical Two Sisters, which didn’t make the longlist. This is perhaps indicative of what the judges were looking for (or publishers were willing to submit). Still, given the impressive variety of creative nonfiction that was eligible, the judges must have thought particularly highly of The Beekeeper to single it out. The Beekeeper is also the one longlist title in which the author is also the translator of the book—or cotranslator, in this case, with Max Weiss.

The only story-collection on the longlist is Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya, which lives up to its title yet also grounds itself in the personal and autobiographical, beginning with the opening words of the first story in which Tolstaya introduces herself (and her literary lineage) with: “My grandfather Aleksey Tolstoy, a famous Russian writer.” Bridging Soviet and Russian eras, it offers a welcome reemergence in English of a leading Russian author who last appeared in translation over a decade ago.

The Tolstaya and Mikhail aside, the longlist is novel-dominated. While the reach of the list doesn’t quite extend to the most popular translated genre titles—no Nordic noir (though Hanne Ørstavik’s Love is a dark, unsettling night-tale), no thrillers, not even the concluding volume in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books” quartet, The Labyrinth of the Spirits. However, the list does push some genre boundaries with Tawada’s dystopian vision of a Japanese future and Roque Larraquy’s disconcerting yet comic transcendence-exploring Comemadre.

Procreation difficulties figure prominently in several of the novels, including as the central struggle of the couple in Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman—the only title on the longlist not yet available (it is due out early October)—and in Tawada’s vision of a Japan dominated by the very old (the book is published in Britain as The Last Children of Tokyo). Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental is a larger story of growing up in two different cultures, Persian and French, but also has a framing story of the narrator dealing with IVF treatment.

Several of the novels center on cross-generational family relationships and are dominated by just a pair of characters: in Trick, a grandfather struggles to care for a willful four-year-old, while The Emissary features a near-ageless great-grandfather and fragile teen. Ørstavik’s Love moves back and forth between a mother and her young son, progressing on separate narrative tracks as the two keep missing each other.

Fiction in translation often opens up foreign cultures to us, and these books all do that. They are also more than merely local pictures and actively engage with cross-cultural issues in perspectives we are less likely to be familiar with, whether they are actually crossing borders—as in Flights and Disoriental—or navigating boundaries locally. The longlist titles are also all creative in their presentation, from the clever Henry James-foundation underlying Tricks to the rapid shifts of Wait, Blink and the two parts of Comemadre, which are a century apart in time.

Any spotlight on the still too-neglected corner of works in translation is certainly welcome. And the National Book Awards’s prize shines brightly.

There’s no doubt that the name recognition of the National Book Awards gives an enormous boost to these ten books and their authors and translators—and, one hopes, to literature in translation in general. While there’s much to like about the National Book Critics Circle Awards’s wholesale inclusiveness—best books are best books, translated or not—any spotlight on the still too-neglected corner of works in translation is certainly welcome. And the National Book Awards’s prize shines brightly. The immediacy of the award is surely also a positive: the longlist for the PEN Translation Prize will only be announced in December and the list for the Best Translated Book Award only next April, when the titles will already be competing with the new season’s translations for press and reader attention. The National Book Award longlist is definitely current, which is not insignificant in these short-attention-span times.

I don’t see the National Book Award for Translated Literature displacing the other translation prizes; I think they’ll all benefit from the attention given to this prize, and with it the renewed attention for literature in translation more generally. The Translated Literature award is also a useful additional point of comparison for the others, making for some friendly competition among these prizes whose slightly different eligibility requirements ensure, in any case, that each will continue to have a distinctive identity. Much as there certainly still isn’t enough literature in translation being published in the United States, there’s room for more prizes drawing attention to what is available.

This initial longlist is a promising restart for this translation prize—and perhaps (hopefully) an important new chapter and step for literature in translation in the US.


Read an interview with Lisa Lucas about the National Book Award for Translated Literature

Read an excerpt from Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental, translated by Tina Kover

Read a short story by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft

Read WWB’s review of Yoko Tawada’s The Emmissary (tr. Margaret Mitsutani)

Read WWB’s review of Gunnhild Øyehaug’s Wait, Blink: A Perfect Picture of Inner Life (tr. Kari Dickson)

Read work by NBA longlist writers and translators Heather Cleary, Dunya MikhailGunnhild ØyehaugKari DicksonDomenico Starnone, and Yoko Tawada

Published Sep 25, 2018   Copyright 2018 M.A. Orthofer

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