The Best Fiction Books

The Best Novels in Translation: the 2019 Booker International Prize

recommended by Bettany Hughes

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth

Winner of the 2019 International Booker Prize

Celestial Bodies
by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth


Bettany Hughes, author of Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities and chair of this year's Booker International Prize judging panel, talks us through the six books they have shortlisted for the title of best novel in translation.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth

Winner of the 2019 International Booker Prize

Celestial Bodies
by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth


You are the chair of the 2019 Booker International Prize, so you’re in a great position to say: has it been a strong year for fiction in translation?

Yes, I think it has. The enormous variety of books that we are seeing is really interesting—it was fantastic to be exposed to some of the new experimental writing from China, for instance. And I know that Nielsen statistics show that it’s been a very strong year in terms of sales of translated fiction. Publishers are having the confidence to back—and benefit from—work that originates beyond the English language. That trend really seems to be on an upward curve.

What are you, as a judging panel, looking for?

Well, there’s a simple brief: it just has be ‘the finest book,’ which is wonderfully flexible and elastic as a steer. We were very clear from our very first meeting that there were a couple of things that we wanted to do. Firstly, we wanted to be reading the books virtually blind—so we weren’t thinking about them in terms of big names or big-name publishers, judging the work within the canon of an author’s work. We were almost saying: if we could have this without a cover, without knowing the name of the author and publisher, that would be even better. We were trying to be very first-principal about how we read.

We were also interrogating the reason things appealed to us. So, if there was something that we were finding harder immediately to engage with, we asked ourselves whether that was in fact our weakness and the book’s strength. We were trying to read, as far as possible, from an internationalist perspective. That was a guiding ethical principle, when we sat down to judge.

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I think this was helped by the fact that we had a brilliantly diverse range of attitudes to reading. Angie Hobbs is a philosopher, Pankaj Mishra is an essayist and historian, Elnathan John an ex-lawyer and a satirist, Maureen Freely a translator and author herself. I’m a historian and broadcaster. So we were coming at it from quite different backgrounds and life experiences, and I think that probably helps.

People commented that both the longlist and the shortlist were very vivifying. An exciting range of books. And I think that probably, inevitably, every judging year is in part a reflection of the panel and their opinions. But I hope our explicitly open-minded approach is why it’s quite a varied list.

It sounds like it’s been a very interesting intellectual exercise, given the work you’ve done in analysing your own responses. How many books did you consider in total and how did you whittle them down?

108. I was very rigorous about us—all of us—having to read, closely, every single sentence of every page, and twice over in the case of the shortlist. As a panel of writers, we all know the blood, sweat and tears that goes into every single thought, word choice and line, so it’s just paying respect to the authors and translators to read very carefully what they’ve written.

So it was hard to whittle it down—we were quite a generous panel, I think, in that we often had 45 books on the table that we really didn’t want to lose—we kept arguing books back on as options for both the longlist and the shortlist. We were very, very sad to see some of those that didn’t make it through to the two lists go.

Obviously you can’t read all of these books in one sitting; you read them in batches of 25 to 35. But we were very careful, as well, about going right the way back to looking at books from the earlier batches so that we were comparing each within the whole body of the 108. I think that helped. A couple definitely came back in to both the long list and the short list from that re-read. So we’ve now read some of the books three times and we’re just about to read the shortlist for the fourth time.

Fantastic. Shall we discuss the shortlisted books one by one? Let’s start with last year’s winner, Olga Tokarczuk. So she won the prize with Flights last year. This year she’s back with what she has described as ‘a classic murder mystery,’ which has been translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Could you tell me a little bit about the new book, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead?

Well, it’s interesting that she calls it a classic murder mystery, because we did have some classic murder mysteries in front of us of the 108 to judge and this really stood out because of its differences. It is a murder mystery, and therefore it rattles along, but it’s also a philosophical contemplation on man’s relationship with the natural world, and our relationships to those that we deem to be marginal—at the edge of society—and how we react to them. So it’s incredibly saturated with thought throughout.

The title is taken from lines of William Blake and there are passages throughout where characters celebrate Blake’s ideas and philosophies. So it’s incredibly rich, and it’s really transportive, both metaphysically and physically. You feel like you’re inhabiting the spaces and landscapes that are being described. We didn’t know what to expect, and we were all absolutely blown away by it.

“Tokarczuk doesn’t seem to care about seducing the reader. She’s not using cheap tricks”

We loved the fact that sometimes Tokarczuk doesn’t seem to care about seducing the reader. She’s not using cheap tricks to get the reader on board. And despite its rather bleak title, there’s a lot of humour in there. So yes, it’s a fantastically rich book.

A highbrow murder mystery! Wonderful.

Absolutely. In the judges’ comment, we talked about Drive Your Plow as being an indictment of humanity in its casual corruption of the natural world. So it’s very of the moment.

Shall we discuss Celestial Bodies next? This is by the Omani author Jokha al-Harthi and translated by the Oxford don Marilyn Booth.

Yes, Celestial Bodies is a story of Oman, of worlds moving from a slave culture to a culture of skyscrapers. It focuses in on the story of three sisters and the way they each tangle (or not) with love. One of the things we loved about it is that it just was beautifully pieced together as a narrative and as an experience—almost like a kind of jigsaw puzzle or a mosaic, rather than as something more traditionally linear. And we thought it was really vital to, in a sense, lift the veil on a world that we don’t often hear about.

It has a great energy to it because it comes from a time when both globally and locally there’s a shift. There’s an old world order that’s beginning to collapse, and a new world order that’s arriving. And it has a beautiful, poetic translation.

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We’ve got to remember that this is a prize for the translators as well as for the authors. It’s a really, really beautiful, translation. And it’s a light touch on a very complicated history. Lots of lines in it that are immediately memorable. There’s one which is one of the characters says: “We get to know ourselves better in new, strange places.” And that felt like a kind of beautiful maxim for the prize itself.

I love that. I also love that the book was published in English by a tiny Scottish publisher, Sandstone Press.


I suppose fiction in translation must offer a good opportunity for these small presses—to publish books that are known to have been successful overseas but that may have flown under the radar in the Anglophone world. They could find themselves with a hit on their hands.

I really hope that these books all become bestsellers as a result of being shortlisted. Absolutely. And, yeah, that’s right. Hopefully it will do both: both help those smaller presses, and also stimulate the larger publishing houses to realise the popularity and value of translated fiction.

Perhaps we could turn ourselves to Annie Ernaux’s The Years. This has been a bit of a talking point since your shortlist was released. It’s described as a ‘collective memoir,’ or a work of experimental autobiography. How does it qualify for this prize for fiction?

We had long discussions about this. Firstly, it’s fundamental to say that it was accepted by the administrators of the prize because it is published under both fiction and non-fiction categories, so it was considered eligible. We then had a really interesting, philosophical conversation about what fiction is and what it means. We were debating this ethically and linguistically and philosophically. At one point I found myself inspired to go back to the Proto-Indo-European roots of the word ‘fiction,’ looking back to when civilization itself starts, 6,000 or so years ago and beyond. It comes from a root that means ‘to shape or to form’ as well as ‘to feign.’

And neuroscientists are understanding that memory is incredibly important to imagination—we can’t imagine a new idea unless we access an experience or a memory of some kind—so actually the boundary between memory and imagination is much more porous than we realised previously, physiologically.

“The boundary between memory and imagination is much more porous that we realised”

So we thought that, actually, there’s a lot in this work that is obviously autofiction. And there’s so much imagination in there—that that’s why we were happy. It’s eligible, we were happy to engage with it as a work of literature, and I think that it’s one of those books that enriches your idea of what literature can do. It’s a really brilliant work. The rhythm of both the ideas in play and the words is incredibly seductive.

Again there are some lines from it that are very pertinent to our discussion, about whether people think it’s okay to be there on a literature prize. Ernaux says: “The web,” as in the World Wide Web, “was the royal road for remembrance.” It’s this notion of what you do with memory. It discusses an incredibly important 60 years, and is a very important record of the female experience across those six decades.

These are the years from the author’s birth in 1940 to the early 2000s. The translator, Alison Strayer, described it as a “sweeping, kaleidoscopic work.”

Totally. As a historian I recognize the importance of the period it deals with. The collapse of old powers and the emergence of new ones, of new ways of thinking. I think it does an extraordinary job as a record of the shared experience over those years. It’s also hugely, hugely enjoyable.

Thank you. Let’s move onto The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, translated from the German by Jen Calleja. It follows two men forming an unlikely alliance as they retrace a journey made by the Japanese poet, Basho.

It’s super quirky, this. A comic confrontation with mortality. It’s about a man who’s an expert in beards in films—a journeyman academic who thinks that his wife has been unfaithful to him, dreams it, and so takes off to Tokyo to find himself. There he meets somebody who’s trying to commit suicide, and together they travel to try to find the best location for this suicide.

So it’s unexpected, the narrative, but makes a delightful book. Exquisitely written and exquisitely translated. One of the things that we really love about judging this prize is that because you have an author and a translator, you almost have double the energy there. I imagine it like a social dance. When you have a couple dancing, it’s kind of beautiful to watch. Both bring something to that dance. And this is one of those books where you really feel that; it really adds to the experience.

That’s an interesting way of characterising it. I’ve always thought of the art of translation as a function of the creative challenge formed by constraint. So: one must find the original, and be true to that. But then you must also bring something beautiful of your own to it.

That’s right. I think there’s a sort of idea that translators can either choose to just be mirrors of the work or to be activists, and actively engage and kind of improve, as in add to the work.

Yes, I recently spoke to the novelist Dee Lestari about an Indonesian title whose English translator had caused quite a stir in how much liberty he had taken with the source text.

That’s why it’s so central to have a translator on the panel who has understanding of nuances of that work.

Absolutely. Is must be difficult to judge translations if you don’t speak the language that the work was written in originally?

Inevitably, yes. We had books in 25 languages submitted for the prize, so we’d have to be a fairly extraordinary panel to speak all 25 of those! But I’m sure that’s the case and those are our limitations, but then what you have to do is then you have to inhabit the space as a reader; you have to try to use your own imagination to imagine the world that the author is trying to communicate. And feel if that’s both a fluid and a supple and a secure place that the translator has put you in to access that original work. Without exception, all of the shortlisted books—the translations—are wonderful works in and of themselves.

Let’s move on to our fifth book, The Shape of the Ruins by the Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated from Spanish byAnne McLean. Perhaps you could tell me a little about that?

Hugely ambitious: 500-odd pages, but my goodness, it rattled along. You really hurtle through the narrative. Again, there are moments here where both fiction and non-fiction graze—because the writer himself appears as the writer within the narrative, but it’s one of those books that really pounds your mind with every sentence. There’s beautiful rhythmic prose—again, an acute and lyrical translation—and it really unpacks how we unpack evidence about the story of the world.

The fundamental thing is it’s based in Colombia and looks at a very turbulent recent political history there over the last 50 or 60 years. And it interrogates the conspiracy theories that arise from politics and from the understanding of politics today. So it felt incredibly relevant too: the power of populism and why we become the stories that we tell about ourselves and tell about others.

The newspapers picked up on the fact that Juan is the only man on the Man Booker International shortlist this year. Would you like to say anything about gender balance?

Yeah, it’s really fascinating because there were very un-gendered conversations that we had about the works. It certainly was not a political or strategic move to have, as you say, five out of six authors women and all the translators women. It might be a by-product of the approach that I described before—a determination that we have to be really honest with ourselves about why we love a book, why it speaks to us. Are we being too particular? We’re reading for a huge number of people who we want to pick up and enjoy these books.

“A recent study noted that only 26% of all translated fiction was written by women”

So I think it was the way that we read, actually, rather than, as I said, it being any kind of mechanistic or strategic approach. But it’s interesting that that’s what’s happened. I think it’s really good news, because I know that there was a recent study that noted that only 26% of all translated fiction was written by women, so it’s fantastic that we’ve got all women represented here. Hopefully that’s a comment on the state of the business, rather than on our choices, the fact that there’s so many women being represented as translators.

Finally, we come to The Remainder, written by Alia Trabucco Zerán and translated by Sophie Hughes.

A story from Chile, mainly Santiago. It’s highly original, very political, with a totally wonderful use of words. The words are perfectly turned. It’s one of those books where the skill of the wordsmithery tumbles you into new stories, into shared experiences. Again, a very, very lyrical translation as well.

The subject was fairly morbid—the moving of a corpse across national boundaries. It says something about the age we live in that the dead—often in car boots as a result of civil war or political conflict or oppression—appeared a number of times in a number of the books submitted.

“The skill of the wordsmithery tumbles you into new stories”

Fascinating that this was crowd-funded. There was an acuity, an overwhelming freshness that saturated every page. It appealed to us as a panel because it looked at historical memory, how we remember what’s happened to us, and how we respond to the memories that we inherit. It’s fundamentally about how children and the next generation try to escape shadows of all kinds, particularly political activism. So yeah, a lovely surprise of a work.

Just to draw our discussion to a close, might we brood for a moment on the role of the translator once more? What makes a good translator—and do they receive sufficient credit for the work they do?

I think it’s fantastic that our prize honours translators, both in a pecuniary sense and in terms of the plaudits—that they’re given in an equal way to the authors. That’s a really great thing.

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Translators have a very important job; they’re often working as kind of scouts. It’s quite often the translators who bring works to publishers, so they are very active within the industry.

My overarching historical and philosophical approach to life is that, as a social species, we’re lucky enough to be the inheritors and recipients of so many different minds, and the workings of so many different minds, and the hopes and fears and ideas and ideals and inspirations of others. The fact that that’s played out so acutely in a translated work seems to be, in a way, a very good metaphor for how we should live our lives.

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Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

June 10, 2019

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Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes is an award-winning historian, author, and broadcaster. She is the author of numerous books, including Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore; The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for The Good Life – a New York Times bestseller – and Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities –  a Sunday Times bestseller. She is a Research Fellow at Kings College London and a Professor of History at the New College of the Humanities.

Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes is an award-winning historian, author, and broadcaster. She is the author of numerous books, including Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore; The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for The Good Life – a New York Times bestseller – and Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities –  a Sunday Times bestseller. She is a Research Fellow at Kings College London and a Professor of History at the New College of the Humanities.