The International Booker Prize is awarded annually for a single book translated into English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. It is the most prestigious prize of its kind. This year the shortlist of six was announced in April, and the prize will be announced and awarded at the end of August. The prize money, £50,000 ($62,000), is divided equally between the author and the translator
Estimates vary, but it’s probable that less than 5 percent of all books published in English in the United States this year will have been translated from some other language. The top three source-languages in recent years have been French, German, and Spanish, and that will almost certainly be the case this year, too. If books translated from those three languages are excluded, then the proportion will likely be less than 1 percent. During the past decade, the number of fictional works translated into English and published in the United States each year has rarely exceeded five hundred, while the total number written in English usually hovers around 50,000. That, too, yields a 1 percent ratio.
The upshot is that more than 95 percent of the words fiction readers in the United States read were composed in English. This is extreme insularity: we are, evidently, not much interested in fiction written in other languages. That’s a sad state of affairs, especially when standards of literary translation are as high as they are now, and when—in addition to the instructiveness for citizens of a declining world empire like the United States of reading fiction written in other languages and other places—there’s enormous pleasure to be had from it.
Reading the six novels on this year’s International Booker shortlist is at least a corrective to insularity. Two of them were written in Spanish, and one each in Dutch, Farsi, German, and Japanese. The worlds of these novels are still more varied: Iran in the 1980s and 1990s, following the revolution that replaced Reza Pahlavi with Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 (Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree); the Argentinean pampas of the nineteenth century (Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s The Adventures of China Iron); central Europe during the Thirty Years’ War (Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll); contemporary Mexico under narcoterrorism (Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season); an almost-no-place—perhaps an island off Japan—in an indeterminate time (Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police); and the rural Netherlands in the years spanning the turn of the millennium (Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening).
The writers are also at different stages of their careers. The two best established are Kehlmann and Ogawa, both of whom have published many novels, had several translated into English and other languages, and have received major literary awards in their home countries (Germany and Japan, respectively). Ogawa, in particular, has received most of Japan’s literary prizes. Of these two, Kehlmann is the better known in the Anglophone world: two of his plays have been performed in English in London, one of his novels has been filmed, and Tyll is in production as a series for Netflix. Cámara is widely read in Argentina and throughout Latin America. She writes in many genres (novel, novella, graphic novel, short story, essay), and China Iron is the second of her novels to be published in English. Azar, Melchor, and Rijneveld are less established; their shortlisted novels are their first to be translated into English.
Since the International Booker is a prize as much for translators (may their names be praised and their numbers multiply) as for authors, and since I’ve read these novels only in their English versions, they should be mentioned too. Without exception, the English of these books reads both beautifully and distinctively. A definite voice emerges from each, most clearly in the case of Michele Hutchinson’s rendering of Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, in which the first-person narrator is a girl from the ages of ten to twelve, and in the case of the anonymous translator’s fabulist-magical version of Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. Sophie Hughes’s torrential sentences in her translation of Melchor’s Hurricane Season, many of them several hundred words long, are a breathless delight. And Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh’s version of Cámara’s China Iron is a fluidly dreamy wonder, especially in its third act handling of the melding of Spanish and Guarani (an indigenous South American language). Stephen Snyder, in translating Ogawa’s Memory Police, and Ross Benjamin, in rendering Kehlmann’s Tyll, may have had fewer technical problems to deal with, and fewer idiosyncrasies of voice; but what each of them writes is no less a pleasure to read at the level of the sentence and the paragraph. Snyder’s The Memory Police, in particular, is in a dispassionate plain style of which Orwell would have approved.
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