August 12, 2015

Literatures of Worlds: August 2015

Literatures of Worlds

August 2015

Man Booker devours the IFFP

Big news from the world of international literary prizes: the International Foreign Fiction Prize has merged with the Man Booker International Prize. The new prize will bear the Booker name - and combine the money from both, adding up to £50,000 for the winning title, to be divided equally between author and translator. But in terms of the prize rules, it’s basically a continuation of the IFFP: awarded for a title, rather than for a lifetime achievement, and annually rather than every two years. Rather than the ‘evolution of the Man Book International Prize’ as it’s being publicised by Booker, this change is effectively a rebranding and takeover of—and large cash injection for—the IFFP, while the Man Booker International Prize no longer exists in its old form: a biennial award for a writer’s oeuvre.

So—is this good news, or bad? One good thing is that the Booker brand is well-known, and has plenty of marketing resources to publicise the prize. It’s quite likely that the new prize will attract a lot more attention than either the IFFP or the old Man Booker International Prize has done in the past. This might have the effect of encouraging works in translation to be read more widely, which is always welcome.

But it’s also a reduction in the number of prizes available, and in the diversity of types of prize. On the Three Percent podcast, Chad Post and Tom Reberge talk about their reservations about the change from a prize for an author’s life work, to one for an individual book:

(Chad) It’s unfortunate because people with an individual book, you can get fucked over. Like, the Shishkin book, Maidenhair, could have won the award any number of years, but it was up against [László Krasznahorkai]’s Satantango in the particular year it came out, whereas he could have been honoured for his body of work. But now they’ve eliminated that…

(Tom) The only lifetime achievement out there is the Nobel, and that’s only for authors advanced in their careers…it’d be nice to have something that recognises writers in the middle of the careers, rather than only in the twilight of their careers…I dislike the focus on this year, this calendar year…

They go on to discuss the fact that a prize for a book tends to generate more of a sales buzz around the winner than a prize for an author’s ouevre. The commercial aspect is especially troubling in the context of the Man Booker’s new stewardship of the prize. Despite the good publicity that has greeted the increase in diversity of authorship in the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize (the main one, not the international one), with a greater number of non-white authors and a lower proportion of writers with ‘established reputations in western letters’, another kind of diversity is on the wane. Diversity of writers is one matter; diversity of literature itself is a related question, but not an identical one. And the Booker is not exactly known for its boldness of selection in terms of literary form or mode of narrative.

At The Conversation blog, Stevie Marsden describes how the rules governing selections for the Booker have been changed to tilt the odds even more steeply in favour of publishing houses whose back catalogues contain previous winners - and thus, towards the larger ones:

I can understand why Man Booker would want to try and restrict the number of entries it receives to control the number of books the judges are expected to read. In practice, though, the new system is hugely problematic because the backlist of longlisted publishers in the past five years has been dominated by the conglomerates…Year on year, Penguin Random House has seen a growth in the number of its longlisted entries being shortlisted each year, going from having no shortlisted titles in 2012 to the five out of six books in the 2014 shortlist. The relationship was further cemented with the (surprisingly quiet) announcement earlier this month that Emmanuel Roman, chief executive of Man Group, the lead sponsor of the prize, joined Penguin Random House’s board of directors. For those who believe that awards need to be scrupulously fair, it did not exactly send out a good message.

Conflicts of interest, narrowing of the selection pool, entrenchment of the status quo ante. As far as I know, these rules won’t apply to the international prize, but that’s beside the point: the people and the corporate culture that set those rules have now taken over the IFFP.

However it shakes out, it’s hard to see how these developments can end up encouraging risk-taking and innovation in literature, without which there is little point in awarding prizes. The market has already rewarded the big publishers: literary prizes represent a different kind of reward, based on regimes of value other than the commercial. The smaller publishing houses often publish the most daring and ground-breaking titles. An organisation that actively and explicitly works to marginalise them in favour of the big publishing houses tends to reduce the space for literary innovation. So I’m awaiting the first instalment of this newly combined prize next year with a degree of scepticism.

Recently published & of note

The latest issue of the pan-European journal Trafika Europe is subtitled ‘Armenian Rhapsody’. As well as prose and poetry from Armenia (in translation), there’s a sci-fi story from the Ukrainian writer Taras Antyovych and work from the Italian poet Vincenzo Bagnoli. I liked what I read, but I must admit I didn’t get very far, despite the fine quality of the material - I just find the ‘virtual book’ format (complete with skeuomorphic flipping pages) difficult to stomach. Hopefully they will print up copies, or at least offer a PDF or ebook, soon. My impression, when I interviewed them for 3:AM magazine a couple of months ago, was that Trafika Europe deserves a wider readership, and this issue (ghastly format aside) reinforces that.

The New York Times Sunday Book Review has commissioned a set of ‘visual works of literary criticism’. Five artists created works in various media (painting, digital, collage, mixed media) ‘paying homage to the inspiration they’ve found in’ five books - novels, philosophy, memoir. I’m not sure if these pieces qualify as criticism sensu stricto, but it’s an intriguing exercise in ekphrasis - some of the pieces are beautiful.

The Paris Review has posted up an interview with the Lithuanian-Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, recorded in 1993, to coincide with their summer edition, which focusses on translation (Miłosz was also an acclaimed translator into Polish). The issue features interviews with translators—two instalments of ‘The Art of Translation’, in the style of their famous and long-running ‘The Art of Fiction’ interview series—and a number of translated stories, poems and excerpts. Odd, then, that neither their online table of contents nor the teasers for the pieces included in the issue show the names of the translators. Not even in small print. I assume they’re mentioned in the issue itself—I’ve ordered a copy, but it hasn’t yet arrived in the post for me to check. But that’s not really good enough, especially for an issue purporting to celebrate translation.

One of the pieces excerpted in the Paris Review is Michel Houellebecq’s latest work Submission (one assumes this is Lorin Stein’s translation, out in October in the USA), which was already controversial before its publication in the original French. Houellebecq has previously made a series of pronouncements on the subject of Islam, ranging from the graceless to the hateful; pre-publication, with only the promotional material to go on, there was a widespread assumption that his novel, about the conversion of France to Islamic rule, would take the form of a crude Islamophobic dystopia. It appears, however, from the reviews (there’s a roundup as well as M. A. Orthofer’s own take at his essential blog The Complete Review) that Houellebecq’s actual target is what he sees as the moral vacuum at the heart of western secularism; which makes sense, when one considers the brutal cynicism of his best-known novel, Atomised. ‘What the novel is not is a dystopia about Muslim invasion,’ Arifa Akbar writes in the Independent. ‘Its fear and doubt is angled at the end-point of France's Enlightenment values.’

European culture may be bankrupt, according to Houellebecq, but no one has told the Culture Programme of the European Union, which awarded its seventh Prize for Literature this year. I say seventh, but each year there are eleven or twelve winners, chosen from their respective countries, which are rotated from a membership, currently thirty-seven but fluctuating between each three-year cycle. It’s a typically byzantine arrangement, and most bizarrely of all, no attempt is made to pick an overall winner among this year’s dozen. Perhaps the mandarins in Brussels were too concerned to avoid ruffling nationalist sensibilities to allow competition between writers of different states. (If one can judge purely by the excerpts in the winners’ anthology, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Norwegian writer Ida Hegazi Høyer should have been overall winner for Forgive Me, translated by Diane Oatley.)

Links; in brief

Fredric Jameson in typically precise and austere form on William Gibson’s Neuromancer, extracted from his latest book, The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms. Public Books.

A range of views on the responsibilities of the critic and the difficulty of honest criticism in a relatively small literary scene. The Irish Times.

An entertainingly caustic tirade by the critic Rainer Moritz against literary bandwagons in general and that of Rainald Goetz in particular. European Literature Network.

The changing rôle of English and Bengali as literary languages.

The Zona Nouă poetry festival in Transylvania. The Quietus.

On post-national Europe: Ulrike Guérot and Robert Menasse in Eurozine, and Antonio Negri in the Guardian.


The longlists for the National Translation Awards, awarded every year by the American Literary Translators Association, have been announced: twelve books each for poetry and prose. The majority of the entries are contemporary works, but there are some new translations of classics: Marian Schwartz’ version of Anna Karenina and a collection of Ovid’s love poetry translated by Julia Dyson Hejduk. The winners of this year’s Best Translated Book Award (Can Xue’s The Last Lover, trans. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen) and International Foreign Fiction Prize (Susan Bernofsky’s fluid and compelling translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days) both feature on the longlist. Cesar Aira’s Conversations (trans. Katherine Silver) is also on the list; I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds characteristically offbeat.

Literary translators might like to know that the journal Transom, published online biannually, is open for submissions of prose translations. There doesn’t seem to be any information about payment on their website, though, which isn’t usually a good sign. Corinne McKay has posted some practical advice on translating books, and how the process differs from commercial translation, on her Thoughts on Translation blog. Words without Borders has an interview with Allison Markin Powell on translating from Japanese; she has some interesting things to say about terms for food and drink:

While not technically un-translatable, it was a challenge to decide whether to translate the names of the dishes or to leave them in their evocative Japanese and use contextual references to identify them. For instance, chrysanthemum greens sounded quite appealing, so I could easily translate that into English. But the simple sounding yudofu needs to be described as “boiled tofu eaten with soy sauce, chopped scallion, dried bonito shavings, and grated fresh ginger,” so I left that as yudofu, with the additional descriptive details appearing in surrounding sentences. And then there were the various connotations of changing seasons—like switching from hot saké to cold beer—and regional delicacies such as sweet ayu fish that their dining choices signify.

This applies more broadly to the whole endeavour of literary translation: words form their meaning within a cultural context, and can’t just be mapped directly onto their equivalents in a foreign language. There can even be challenges of this kind, to a lesser extent, within a single language - I’ve several times started to attempt Don Delillo’s Underworld and given up each time after a few pages, because all the baseball stuff is too bewilderingly foreign. In translation, of course, the difficulties are much greater. The more cultural distance between two languages, the more complex the task of translation becomes. This makes the notion of an ‘authentic’ translation an impossible ideal; even if one rendered every word as literally possible, to explain the full meaning of the words one would need to gloss so many of them that a single work would require many times more footnotes than text, bloating into an unreadable cultural encyclopaedia.

Yet even if total authenticity is impossible, concerns over inauthenticity aren’t going away. A recent article in China Daily praises the work of a new journal, Chinese Literature and Culture, which (the journalist Zhu Yuan suggests) seeks to redress the habit of refashioning translated works to suit the taste of its readership:

There are numerous literary journals in the English-speaking world, but those that specialize in the translation of Chinese literature—and contemporary Chinese literature in particular—are rare. Those few journals are dominated by Western scholars or businesspeople with their special tastes and a desire to cater to their readers often by rewriting Chinese works. It is a common practice instead of honoring them as pieces of serious literature that should not be altered at will.

One appreciates the sentiment; but how can there be any kind of translation that does not alter the original work? (These kinds of problems, incidentally, form the theme of the upcoming Translation Studies Research Symposium: ‘Untranslatability and Cultural Complexity’, to be held by Nida School of Translation Studies, at New York University on 25 September.)

Novelists themselves are increasingly conscious of the fact their work will be translated, according to Rebecca L. Walkowitz’s new book Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in the Age of World Literature, to be published this month by Columbia University Press (odd pricing, by the way: it appears you save one cent by choosing ebook over hardback). She argues that a new generation of novelists are writing the original texts with translation in mind. From the publisher’s description:

Born-translated novels include passages that appear to be written in different tongues, narrators who speak to foreign audiences, and other visual and formal techniques that treat translation as a medium rather than as an afterthought. These strategies challenge the global dominance of English, complicate ‘native’ readership, and protect creative works against misinterpretation as they circulate. They have also given rise to a new form of writing that confounds traditional models of literary history and political community.

There’s a lot to parse there. Writing with translation in mind seems a kind of preemptive homogenisation or smoothing-over of difference, rather than a challenge to dominant literary languages. But you can’t judge a book by its blurb. I’m looking forward to reading it.

I’ll end on a rather poignant story, as recounted on the blog of Allison M. Charette, who translates from French into English. She was translating one of Malagasy writer David Jaomanoro’s short stories, and wondering why Jaomanoro had stopped replying to her emails, when she learnt that he had suddenly died:

It's the strangest feeling to suddenly understand the lengthy silence, to know that your questions will never be answered, to try to mourn someone you never met and knew little about.

That’s all for this month. Please send tips, suggestions, corrections and comments to

1 August 2015