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The Best Novels in Translation: The 2024 International Booker Prize Shortlist

recommended by Eleanor Wachtel

Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Michael Hofmann


by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Michael Hofmann


Every year, the judges for the International Booker Prize read dozens of novels newly translated into English before compiling their shortlist of the very best. We spoke to the Canadian broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel—who chaired this year's jury—about the six books they've selected in 2024: from a slim, elliptical Swedish novel about contemporary relationships to a multi-generational epic set in 20th-century Korea.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Michael Hofmann


by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Michael Hofmann


What were you and your fellow judges looking for when you drew up the 2024 shortlist for the International Booker Prize, an award for the finest work of that has been translated into English over the previous year?

We were looking for the best book but we didn’t have specific criteria. It’s quite intuitive, and the shortlist reflects the different judges’ sensibilities. My fellow juror, William Kentridge, said that what he looks for is to “be complicit in the making of the meaning of the book,” which is very evocative—but also very broad.

It’s also a chance to learn about emerging and established writers who are admired in their home countries. This is something I’ve been aware of for some time; I come from 33 years of interviewing international writers, so that has affected my appreciation of the power of translation to open borders in the imagination. Because that’s something that was invisible to me beforehand.

When I was in university, I would read fiction in translation—Kafka or Dostoevsky or Flaubert, or whomever—and was not even aware that I was reading a translation. It’s astonishing to realise that for so long, translators have been taken for granted. It has taken prestigious prizes like this one to jolt readers’ consciousnesses, and to make them aware of the talent and sensitivity required for the task.

For me, the International Booker Prize provides an ideal opportunity. What we, the jury, hoped to find were books that we could recommend to English-speaking readers. To say, here, we’ve scoured the world and we’ve brought back these gifts.

How many books did you have to read to come to this shortlist?

149. It’s the most that the International Booker has ever had for consideration.

How did you cope?

I would say that we went a little crazy. That’s not my formal answer. One thing that I really appreciate about this prize, and this is true of the International Booker and what I call the ‘regular’ Booker—

Which is, for our readers, the annual Booker Prize for novels originally written in English.

—is that every judge is expected to read every book. There is no pre-screening, there is no dividing books among the judges, no filter before we engage with them. The judges do all have very different sensibilities and bring different things to the table. But one of the very pleasant surprises of the process was how often I thought I was going to be the only one who loved a particular book—perhaps it’s really out there—then we would come to a meeting and one or two others would have it on their list of books to go forward. So it’s a complicated process, but one that I think ultimately works.

Let’s look at the shortlisted novels, one by one. Perhaps we could start with Not a River by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott. Would you give us a flavour of it?

Let me put it into context. Selva Almada is an established, influential Argentinian writer who is compared to Flannery O’Conner, even William Faulkner. She’s published ten books, including novels, poetry, and short story collections. Not a River is part of a loose trilogy. It’s elegant, concise—less than 100 pages—and tense.

It’s about three friends who go fishing in a remote part of Argentina and are haunted by memories of a tragic accident that occured years earlier. There’s an atmosphere of foreboding amidst the growing antagonism of the locals towards these men, who are regarded as intruders. As one of my fellow jurors pointed out, despite or maybe because of its title, Not a River moves like water, in currents. Dreams and time overlap, which shifts and shapes the stories and memories of the fishermen.

The island where they set up camp is lush with jungle and heat and mosquitoes and ominously calm, dark waters. This sense of danger and foreboding is very strong. It pulses with its own desires and angers. Alongside this, there’s an almost mythic manta ray, a fish that seems to provoke the local people and has meaning for these men marred by grief.

Silva Almada has said that she wanted to write Not a River because it’s part of her own story. The novel is inspired by the territory where she was born and raised, and by the people who inhabit that land and are, as she says, marginalised by government policies that condemn them to poverty, and to a lack of education and healthcare. It’s her tribute to the land and its people.

Perhaps it shares some ground with Itamar Vieira Junior’s Crooked Plow? This is a Brazilian novel, translated from the original Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz.

Yes, it does share some things, but other aspects are significantly different. This is Vieira Junior’s first novel. He has published a collection of stories, and has since come out with a second novel. He comes to this from an academic background; he has a PhD in ethnic and African Studies. His doctoral research focused on the ongoing struggles of the quilombolas, the African-Brazilian communities organised by escaped slaves and their descendants.

Crooked Plow is set in the Bahia region of Brazil, where approximately a third of enslaved Africans were sent during the height of the slave trade. It’s a remote part of Brazil. Not a River is set in a remote part of Argentina. It does deal with similar kinds of poverty and violence. But there’s a significant difference in that Crooked Plow is also inflected by racial history.

Crooked Plow is one of two books on our shortlist that have extraordinary openings. This one has a powerful, mysterious beginning. It’s about two sisters who discover their grandmother’s hidden knife and accidentally cut their tongues with it. One sister is cut badly, the other’s tongue is severed. These are injuries that bind them together emotionally, although they bear their scars in different ways.

“To me, reading is a necessary enlargement of human experience which would otherwise be confined to one perspective or one life”

The story follows the two sisters with alternating voices through the cruelties of life on the plantation as subsistence farmers in Brazil’s poorest region, their marriages, the deaths of their husbands—one was a violent alcoholic, the other a union organiser who is shot. It’s told from the point of view of the girls, very close to the ground, with details about daily life, ceremonies, their father, the healer. And then it pulls back, shifting to more of an overview of what’s happening, with descriptions of the brutality of slavery, the political struggle, family.

There’s something timeless in it. I was almost startled when a character goes off on a motorcycle, because you just feel you are in another world. Crooked Plow is a vivid tale which won many of the major literary awards in Brazil and became a bestseller. It offers a unique window into a world where the legacy of resistance and the fight for land rights weave through the personal and collective narratives of its characters. At the same time, it also reflects the global struggle for environmental preservation, social justice, and cultural identity.

This is why I love the International Booker Prize so much. Your longlists and shortlists draw our attention, in the Anglophone world, to books that we might otherwise miss, but which have been a phenomenon in their home territory. Perhaps we could talk next about Hwang Sok-yong’s Mater 2-10? It’s billed as an epic, multi-generational tale. Tell us more.

Yes, it’s a big, ambitious novel by one of Korea’s most established writers. Hwang Sok-yong, at 81, is the oldest author on our shortlist. Mater 2-10 is his ninth book to be translated into English. It’s also the third year running that there has been a Korean book on the shortlist. He himself was longlisted in 2019 and has been awarded Korea’s highest literary prizes.

He’s very political and socially committed. Back in 1993, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for an unauthorised trip to North Korea to promote exchange between artists of the two Koreas. He was released on special pardon after five years when a new president was elected.

Mater 2-10 refers to a locomotive that was captured during the Korean War by the South Korean army as they advanced north. In 1950, the American army destroyed it to keep it out of enemy hands. Then, in the early 2000s, it was restored and became an icon of the Korean War, and the division of the country. As Hwang Sok-yong puts it in his author’s note: “Like a mummy in a tomb, Mater 2-10 has been chemically preserved and turned into a commemorative fossil of the age of division.”

It’s an epic story, as you said. It threads together three generations of railroad workers over a century of Korean history, a complicated national history of occupation and freedom, alongside the political struggles of the working class.

The terrific opening I was referring to is where we meet a laid-off railroad worker staging a protest on top of a 16-storey factory chimney. It’s like something out of Italo Calvino—The Baron in the Trees, you know? He’s up there for what turns out to be more than a year, during which time there are flashbacks to his ancestors, and the sort of hallucinatory conversations he has. It gives us, the readers, a sense of Korea’s 20th-century history, with a focus on stories of oppression during the Japanese colonial period from 1910 to 1945, revolving around two of his relatives—his grandfather and his great uncle—who come to represent opposing responses to occupation: resistance or collaboration.

Hwang Sok-yong says his aim was to plug a gap in Korean fiction, which typically reduces industrial workers to historical specks of dust.

You mentioned the global successes of Korean fiction in recent years. I wonder, given your unusually broad perspective on world literature at the moment, would you say that any particular language group or country groups have come to the fore?

The Booker Foundation did a survey of British readers, and found that the highest percentage of translated books are Japanese. This is not something I’ve noticed, personally. Certainly, South Korea punches above its weight in almost every respect—not only in terms of literature, but in film, music, television, and culture more generally. It’s quite extraordinary.

There are other areas as well. It’s difficult to generalise in terms of Latin America, because there are more than thirty countries, but this year we did have strong Latin American representation, with four titles on the longlist.

The next novel on the 2024 shortlist for the International Booker Prize is What I’d Rather Not Think About by Jente Posthuma, translated from the original Dutch by Sarah Timmer Harvey.

This is Posthuma’s second novel, her first to be translated into English. To give you a thumbnail description, it’s about a young woman whose twin brother—45 minutes her senior—is suicidal. She has to deal with his death at 35. It’s written in short sketches. It’s smart, well-observed, powerful, very controlled. It has lots of substance despite what on the surface appears to be a slim narrative. Without being showy, it’s impressively accomplished.

What I’d Rather Not Think About is a deeply moving story, an exploration of grief through the surviving twin’s efforts to understand and come to terms with the loss of her brother, examining the profound complexities of familial bonds. She loved her twin, but she’s angry with him for abandoning her. In these brief, precise vignettes, the sister looks back on their childhood and describes their adult lives, how her brother tried to find happiness. She navigates this with sensitivity, formal inventiveness, and real authenticity, creating a narrative that is both insightful and tender.

This tragedy is inflected with unexpected humour and offers a multifaceted look at the search for meaning in the aftermath of suicide. As one of my fellow jurors put it, this book is viscerally true about how grief works. At the same time, she makes you feel there is more hope than there is, because of the wit and how the story is written—in fragments, which enables Posthuma to capture so many different angles on their relationship. When one of these sketches is very sad, the next might catapult you into another place or time. She says: “I thought about all the love we have inside us, and how only a shred of that reaches the people we care about.” I think that captures the kind of poignancy, but also the resilience.

Thank you. The fifth book on the shortlist is Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos. Could you walk us through it?

Sure. Erpenbeck was born in the former East Germany, or GDR. That’s the context to this novel. As an aside, I’ve been following and admiring her work for almost a decade, and interviewed her about her two earlier novels, The End of Days and Visitation. Her last book Go, Went, Gone was longlisted for the International Booker in 2018.

Kairos feels different in certain ways, especially in its parallels with Erpenbeck’s life, at least in terms of timeframe, but not necessarily the relationship at the centre of the novel. It’s an expertly written book about the entanglement of personal and national transformations, set in the tumult of 1980s and 1990s Berlin, during the dying years of East Germany.

The title is a Greek word, translating to something like ‘the right moment.’

The story unfolds around a disturbing affair between a 19-year-old student and a 53-year-old married writer in East Berlin. Initially there is intense attraction. They both love music and art. He is a kind of mentor to her. They meet in secret, it’s very dramatic. It starts with love and passion, but it’s at least as much about power, art and culture—a different kind of obsession. The discussions of music, poetry and theatre take place alongside the political upheavals. It’s a novel about the weight of history, how it impinges on our lives.

What makes it so unusual is that it is both beautiful and uncomfortable. I don’t remember having quite this precise combination of feelings in response to a novel, at least not recently. She invites you to make the connection between these generation-defining political developments and this devastating, even brutal relationship, questioning the nature of destiny and agency. It’s emotional and personal. It starts with optimism and trust, then unravels so badly.

I think that might bring us to the final book on the 2024 International Booker Prize shortlist: The Details by the Swedish writer Ia Genberg, translated by Kira Josefsson.

Genberg was another discovery for me, although The Details was a bestseller in Sweden. As you were saying earlier, this prize gives us a chance to discover books that have been recognised and applauded in their home countries, but which we might not necessarily know of. It won Sweden’s top fiction award, the August Prize, and has been translated into 29 languages.

This is a slim, elliptical novel, a portrait of four relationships that seduced me from the start. There’s something about the tone, the intimacy… As Edgar Allan Poe put it: melancholy, beauty, loss—what is more poetic? Then she throws in a slew of literary references, mediating the world through books, reflections on life, relationships, our contemporary experience of connection and isolation. The way she uses language! This is another book I kept wanting to quote from.

Her translator says in an end note that the book was an unexpected sensation. It’s a quiet book, comprising chronicles of mostly ordinary people. But, and I’m quoting here, “that quiet holds a grace that vaults the sum total of quotidian moments into something more expansive.” She has a remarkably sharp eye for these four characters and their relationships—one is a female former lover, another with a roommate, with a hurricane ex-boyfriend, then the narrator’s traumatised mother. Using, as she says, details rather than information, she gives us not simply the residue of life presented in a combination of letters, but an evocation of contemporary Stockholm, a moving portrait of her narrator.

Judging the International Booker Prize is obviously quite an all-consuming process. Has it changed the way you think about fiction or the art of translation?

I’ve always looked to fiction as a way to inhabit other worlds and other sensibilities. Translations expand and deepen those worlds and create an international community of readers.

To me, reading is a necessary enlargement of human experience which would otherwise be confined to one perspective or one life. Novels carry us to places where we might never set foot. They connect us to new sensations and memories, different worlds.

Our shortlist opens onto these vast geographies of the mind, re-examines events of the past, enters new regions of emotion. It shows lives lived against the backdrop of history, or—more precisely—the interweaving of the intimate and the political in radically original ways.

So I don’t know if it has changed how I view any of this, but it’s given me an even bigger appreciation of what is on offer. And certainly it has been a wonderful opportunity, with these 149 books, to become more aware of what is going on around the world in terms of writing and translation.

I urge everyone to read the longlisted books too. It was a tough process, going from 13 to six, as it will be moving from six to one. So I exhort your readers to look at the longlist.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

May 20, 2024

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Eleanor Wachtel

Eleanor Wachtel

Eleanor Wachtel has earned a reputation as one of the world’s best literary interviewers through more than 30 years hosting Writers & Company on CBC Radio. Five books of her interviews have been published, including The Best of Writers & Company. She also co-founded and hosted Wachtel on the Arts and the Toronto International Film Festival's popular Books on Film series for more than a decade. Wachtel has earned numerous accolades for her contributions to Canadian cultural life: nine honorary degrees and Officer of the Order of Canada.

Eleanor Wachtel

Eleanor Wachtel

Eleanor Wachtel has earned a reputation as one of the world’s best literary interviewers through more than 30 years hosting Writers & Company on CBC Radio. Five books of her interviews have been published, including The Best of Writers & Company. She also co-founded and hosted Wachtel on the Arts and the Toronto International Film Festival's popular Books on Film series for more than a decade. Wachtel has earned numerous accolades for her contributions to Canadian cultural life: nine honorary degrees and Officer of the Order of Canada.