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Just how global is the 2019 Man Booker International Prize longlist of translated fiction?

  • Published at 02:23 pm March 19th, 2019
Man booker longlist 2019
Man Booker International Prize 2019 longlist | Photo: YouTube/The Man Booker Prize

It’s not so much the individual hits and misses as the fact that large parts of the world are not represented. Are translated books from those areas so poor?

A week before the 2019 Man Booker International Prize longlist was made public, The Guardian reported on March 6 that, on the brink of Brexit, “translated fiction enjoys sales boom as UK readers flock to European authors.” This research, commissioned by the MBI Prize from Nielson Bookscan, reveals that overall sales of translated fiction in the UK were up last year by 5.5% (the highest-ever since Nielsen first tracking this in 2001) – and that in these 18 years, sales had risen “steadily.”

It seems UK consumers are “overwhelmingly” reading fiction in translation from Europe, particularly translated from French (17% of the total volume). “Strong sellers over the last year include Lullaby,” the article added, “which racked up sales of almost 100,000 copies.” Interestingly, though, Leïla Slimani’s story of a nanny who murders her charges did not feature on the longlist for the prize that year. Nor is her first novel, Adèle, recently translated into English, on this year’s longlist.

Born in 2005 to complement the Booker proper, so to speak, with a prize for international literature, the Man Booker International Prize has, since 2016, been an annual award for a single book translated into English (replacing the earlier biennial career-style award, and merging with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), and published in the UK and Ireland, where the £50,000 pot is split between the author and translator for the winning title.

The international “Booker Dozen” of 13, in running for the 2019 edition of the MBI was announced on March 13, and selected by a panel of five, featuring Bethany Hughes (author and broadcaster), Maureen Freely (translator and chair of English PEN), Angie Hobbs (professor and philosopher), Elnathan John (novelist and satirist), and Pankaj Mishra (novelist and essayist). The shortlist of six will be announced on April 9, and the winner on May 21.

Hughes, the chair of judges, said that this was a year “when writers plundered the archive, personal and political.” In her comments, Freely spoke about the thematic preoccupations pulsing at the heart of the longlisted books: “We had this almost spooky attention to rumblings on behalf of a natural world that seems ready to fight back, this environmental disaster moment,” she said. “Also we saw the underside of immigration, and we often saw younger generations grappling with the political legacies of their parents, unable to shake them off.”

Surprises in the selection

A total of 108 books were on the table. Initial social media reactions to the longlist ranged from “surprising” to “disappointing.” Members of the MBI shadow panel for this year, including Vivek Tejuja (book blogger and writer) and Barbara Halla (editor-at-large, Asymptote), were both slightly taken aback at first, but agreed that it’s a promising and exciting list after all. I asked them to name longlisted titles they’re celebrating and those that didn’t make the cut.

Tejuja said he was rooting for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Deadby Olga Tokarczuk – who won in 2018 for Jennifer Croft’s translation of her novel Flights – translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (OneWorld). As for Halla, she was pleased to see two of her favorites, Hwang Sok-yung’s At Dusk, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (Scribe), and Annie Ernaux’s The Years, translated from the French by Alison Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions).

Both were deeply disappointed that Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Granta) was not deemed deserving – and this seems to be the opinion of an overwhelming majority. Julián Fuks’s Resistance (translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn) was another – and indeed, the absence of any Charco Press title on a longlist that showcases several works of South American literature is somewhat confusing.

While Halla was sad to see Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker lose out – especially because it “would have fitted in very well with the rest of the experimental longlist” – its publisher And Other Stories did win its place with another Spanish-language title, Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, translated by Sophie Hughes.

Hits and misses

What does the data reveal? Eight of the 13 nominated authors are women, while 11 of the 13 nominated publishers are small presses. And nine languages (including three non-European languages: Arabic, Korean, and Chinese) from 12 countries on three continents make up this longlist. In terms of genre, alongside Schweblin’s short story collection sits Mazen Maarouf’s Jokes for the Gunmen, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Granta). Ernaux’s memoir The Years was first published in France as a novel (and therefore considered eligible).

The MBI Prize rules state that both novels and short story collections are permitted entry, unlike those of its Booker sibling, but for some reason, short stories have previously been on the periphery. It’s positive to see them prized and judged on par. As for “autobiographical” works, before Annie Ernaux’s The Years on a longlist, there was Han Kang’s The White Book – and it’s encouraging to see the Prize take more and more “risks” with what are sometimes too stringent genre classifications.

Another aspect that sets the MBI apart from the Booker proper is the entry fee – there is none in the case of the former. (The Man Booker Prize has been called out for the manner in which it is structured, whereby mainstream publishers who have the financial bandwidth to submit more titles for consideration automatically have higher chances of appearing on longlists – elbowing out smaller presses along the way.) This shows in the overwhelmingly strong presence of small presses on the list.

Last year’s winner Fitzcarraldo Editions returns with two books in the running: Tokarczuk’s and Ernaux’s, as have MacLehose Press’s Quercus imprint and Granta’s now-retired imprint Portobello Books. Interestingly, publishers Serpent’s Tail is advancing the publication of its longlisted title ,Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands, translated from the German by Jen Calleja. So is MacLehose Press with The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg, translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner.

Judge Maureen Freely said: “The really good independents have become the cultural talent scouts. Because as difficult as it is to keep a small house afloat, you can actually exercise some literary taste or personal taste in a way it is really, really difficult to do in mainstream houses.” She hopes this changes soon, since the sales for translated fiction are at an all-time high, partly due to the Prize. At this year’s London Book Fair (March 12-14), HarperCollins announced the launch of HarperVia, a new imprint for fiction in translation.

But are we reading the world?

Of course, longlists by their very nature are exclusionary. Deborah Smith, joint winner of the 2016 MBI with Han Kang for The Vegetarian, tweeted her response to the announcement. Listing and acknowledging all the plus points mentioned above, from inclusion along the lines of gender to genre and indie presses, she asked if this was “the most exciting MBI longlist yet.” She added: “At the same time, nothing from South Asia, SE Asia, Central Asia, most of Eastern Europe, the Caribbean. Which is a lot of the world. Not at all a complaint about the list or judging, just to say: let’s publish/ review/ promote/ read more, & better, of what’s out there.”

I could not agree with Smith more. For a prize that prides itself on its international identity, it sometimes falls short of its scope. The unintended consequence of this is that it creates, even if inadvertently, a hierarchy of languages celebrated and consecrated in the global literary marketplace. (This full picture was missing in the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist too, which was announced earlier in March, and which also showcased no South Asian writing on its 16-strong longlist.)

And while publicity material and the media tend to focus on the coverage of the MBI longlists year after year, making sweeping statements to the effect of “books from one end of the world to the other”, this is not in fact reflective of the countries charted. We are not reading internationally, wholly, from corner to corner and cover to cover, if (UK) readers mainly “flock to European authors,” as research on sales of translated fiction indicates. While prizes cannot, and should not, bear the blame and burden of what is clearly a larger publishing and gatekeeping problem, one that needs to be fixed from the back-end and from the ground up, we can certainly continue to ask more, demand more, of the prizes we look to – and not just for our annual reading lists.

The Longlist

  • Celestial Bodies, Jokha Alharthi (Arabic / Omani), translated by Marilyn Booth, Sandstone Press
  • Love In The New Millennium, Can Xue (Chinese / Chinese), translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Yale University Press
  • The Years, Annie Ernaux (French / French), translated by Alison L. Strayer, Fitzcarraldo Editions
  • At Dusk, Hwang Sok-yong (Korean / Korean), translated by Sora Kim-Russell, Scribe UK
  • Jokes For The Gunmen, Mazen Maarouf (Arabic / Icelandic and Palestinian), translated by Jonathan Wright, Granta, Portobello Books
  • Four Soldiers, Hubert Mingarelli (French / French), translated by Sam Taylor, Granta, Portobello Books
  • The Pine Islands, Marion Poschmann (German / German), translated by Jen Calleja, Profile Books, Serpent’s Tail
  • Mouthful Of Birds, Samanta Schweblin (Spanish / Argentine and Italian), translated by Megan McDowell, Oneworld
  • The Faculty Of Dreams, Sara Stridsberg (Swedish / Swedish), translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner, Quercus, MacLehose Press
  • Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, Olga Tokarczuk (Polish / Polish), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions
  • The Shape Of The Ruins, Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Spanish / Colombian), translated by Anne McLean, Quercus, MacLehose Press
  • The Death Of Murat Idrissi, Tommy Wieringa (Dutch / Dutch), translated by Sam Garrett (Scribe UK)
  • The Remainder, Alia Trabucco Zeran (Spanish / Chilean), translated by Sophie Hughes, (And Other Stories) 

This article was first published in Scroll.in