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The Best Fiction in Translation: The 2020 International Booker Prize

recommended by Ted Hodgkinson

The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat, and Other Stories from the North by ed. Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson

From the interviewee

The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat, and Other Stories from the North
by ed. Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson

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Broaden your reading horizons. Much of the most exciting, playful and inventive new fiction can be read in translation, says Ted Hodgkinson, chair of the judging panel for the 2020 International Booker Prize. Here he talks us through their shortlist of six novels.

Interview by Cal Flyn

The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat, and Other Stories from the North by ed. Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson

From the interviewee

The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat, and Other Stories from the North
by ed. Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson

Read
Buy all books

You’re the chair of the International Booker Prize judging panel for 2020. Has it been a vintage year for fiction in translation?

Yes, absolutely. Since October last year we have read our way through a tower of 124 books. I don’t think there is another prize in the world that gives you that kind of depth and range. My fellow judges and I read everything, there’s no sifting or whittling done in advance. So we really do get a comprehensive picture of everything being published in translation into English in a given year.

Standing back from the experience now, it is really striking how bold and farsighted publishers are being, especially independents. Of course, we would have liked to have seen more submissions from parts of the world that aren’t as widely translated yet. But I think, on the whole, it was a really strong and varied range of submissions. You see these clusters from particular cultural quarters that previously haven’t been as accessible to English readers and that makes me enormously appreciative of the creativity and commitment at play behind each book. The tide is gradually turning on the infamously low percentages of translated fiction published in the UK — reflecting a growing appetite and curiosity and the publishing scene is rising to meet it. There were so many more books, just outside our longlist, deserving of a wider recognition and readership, but the competition was fierce.

That’s great to hear. What do you look for in translated fiction – and is that different to what you look for in un-translated fiction?

I’m largely looking for the same things I always look for when I read fiction: compulsive stories, haunting characters, a finely tuned voice that makes me see the world afresh. But with translated fiction, there are several added dimensions. With translated fiction, I’m conscious of the choices a translator is making to evoke a distinctive authorial sensibility in English. If the translation is flat or filled with pedestrian phrasing, it creates a distance between me and the world of the novel. But on the other hand, an artful translation can capture the strangeness and singularity of a text in English and make you feel like you’re encountering it with no distance between you and the world being conjured. In other words, a great translation can collapse the distance between the original text and the reader, and by extension, the distance between cultures. That’s no small feat.

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Whether the novel is a torrential flow or language or pared back and restrained, with translated fiction I’m attuned to how the translator channels the stylistic decisions into another language and culture, which has its own rhythms and resonances. A single well deployed piece of punctuation can create a different intonation or emphasis, so a fine translator can calibrate your ear to the inflections and nuances that make a character come to life. A good translation captures the idiosyncrasies of the original novel without being slavishly literal. It enters into the creative spirit of the author’s vision. There’s often a need for a translator to be inventive, particularly when it comes to carrying humour or double meanings over into a different cultural context. It’s a fine balance in which the translator has to find not just like-for-like correlations of meaning, but echoes that give you the feel and texture of the author’s imaginative world. Of course, the ultimate thing is that there is a fluency and a flow to it, and that you feel that there is an alignment between what the translator is trying to do and the novel itself. Each of the six novels on our shortlist achieves this sense of alignment, and gives you the sense that this translation is a unique invention created to faultlessly carry the novel from one culture to another.

One of the reasons I was particularly delighted to chair the International Booker Prize is that it recognises what an intricate and creative act translation truly is.

One more general question, before we get onto the shortlist. Do you take into account the critical reception of the original books? Or do you have to consider the translation as a standalone work?

In a couple of instances my fellow judges had read the books in the original language, and perhaps had even reviewed them themselves, but on the whole we didn’t seek out secondary critical responses, we were focused on forming our own impressions and rigorously discussing our readings as a collective. We judged each book as an individual work of literature, without recourse to the critical reception it received. We weren’t taking into consideration the author’s back catalogue or their career as a whole. It was really just the book in front of us we were considering. I was hugely fortunate to have a world class panel of readers, writers and translators sharing this epic endeavour with me.

Thank you. Let’s discuss each of the shortlisted books in turn, starting with Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. Might you give us a sense of what the book is about and why you, as a judging panel, admired it?

Gladly. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is set in the decade following the Iranian Revolution in 1979. It’s narrated by a ghost, a dead character who floats above the scene, a 13-year-old girl whose family are forced to leave their home in Tehran. There is this sense of the living and the dead mingling in this novel, that the relationship between the two worlds is quite porous. The dead and living move amongst each other.

It’s a novel that is situated at a febrile fault line in Iranian culture, between the period previous to the revolution, a period in which this family, at least, lived a relatively peaceful life. And then the immediate turmoil and bloodshed and violence of the revolution and then the subsequent regime. It’s a book, for all of that violence and turbulence, which is touched by the sense of possibility and magic.

Azar’s writing has sometimes been compared to the magical realists of Latin America, and there are some interesting comparisons there. But I think perhaps the deeper root of this book is the relationship that is has with Persian and Middle Eastern storytelling traditions, including One Thousand and One Nights and Persian mythology, particularly the figure of the jin and the whole wonderful, fantastical tradition of spirits that move amongst the living, and play tricks on the living, and have a kind of impish fun with their mortal counterparts.

“There is this sense of the living and the dead mingling; that the relationship between the two worlds is porous”

This is a book that has immense range. It requires, I think, immense precision to pull off a novel like this. Azar is clearly a really masterful and exacting writer because there is this very effervescent style, which is full of magic, but it’s also historically rooted fiction which chronicles this hugely important transitional moment in Iranian culture. It manages to not shy away from the violence of that world, yet fills you with a kind of wonder at the richness of this culture and the tenderness in this sort of a ghostly family.

We all were so moved by it and found it just an extraordinary immersion in an historic moment, which situated us in a place where you could look back right into the depths of Iranian and Persian and Middle Eastern culture, and look right up to the present and see how that big shift around the revolution has continued to play out.

The translator of this book has elected to remain anonymous. Do you know the reason why?

I know probably as much as you do about that. I can only really speculate, but I believe they still live in Iran and there are some aspects to the book which are critical of the violence of the revolution. This is a book that doesn’t pull any punches from representing that flashpoint in Iranian history with real exactitude. Certainly, there’s nothing been said publicly by the translator. So we just have to respect that.

In terms of our judgment of the book, we thought that the translator did an exceptional job in terms of capturing the different registers that Azar is working within: the mythic, the interior domestic scenes she conjures, the very stark and brutal scenes of violence and war. It’s a translation that has a kind of fleet-footedness and obedience, but it’s also occasionally just extremely arresting and shocking in places. So, whoever the translator is, they’ve done a marvellous job.

Fantastic. The second shortlisted title is Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s The Adventures of China Iron, which was translated into English by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre.

When I was speaking a moment ago about appreciating the challenges posed to translators, this is a book that we thought would be a very challenging prospect for a translator –translators, in fact. They have really done something remarkable with this book.

This is a novel set in 1872. We are in the Pampas grass of Argentina. China is a young woman who is eking out an existence and trying to make ends meet. She has a fairly deadbeat husband who is conscripted, and she finds herself on a kind of odyssey through the landscape. She befriends someone called Liz who has come from Scotland, and they have a friendship which blossoms on this very strange voyage. Along the way, they discuss notions of nationhood and empire. Liz is somewhat enamoured with the British Empire, and speaks rapturously about it at points, and they reflect on that in relation to Argentina in the midst of all of this beautiful landscape that they’re travelling through.

This is a novel that very deliberately echoes and subverts a foundational text of Argentina: a gaucho epic called Martín Fierro, which is essentially a novel-in-verse, a ballad narrated by a gaucho who is a kind of wandering minstrel, very much a masculine figure who is out there in the elements, telling the story of the pain and the suffering of Argentinians – mainly of men – with a sort of buoyant swagger. Cabezón Cámara is very deliberately invoking that tradition, subverting it, querying it, making it something new. Things which are very monolithically masculine in the original, in this novel are multiple, feminine or queer. They are rendered in much less swaggeringly male terms. There is this blossoming, loving relationship between the two women. It’s also a critique of national myth-making and of the stories which nations tell about themselves and the ways in which the mythologizing of nationhood is a devious project.

“It’s a critique of national myth-making and the ways in which the mythologizing of nationhood is a devious project”

It’s a novel that has a lot of really incisive and subversive funny things to say about masculinity, about nationality, about empire building. And it does it in such an inventive and innovative way. This is a book that has a really playful sense of literary past. It’s taking this gaucho tradition and reconfiguring it into something really contemporary. It’s also something that works without having any of those cultural reference points. It is just a really engaging saga, a road trip. It’s a really joyful book as well.

Just to say, about the translators: Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre have done an absolutely superb job on this, because the translation manages to have a sense of all of that playfulness, that sense of engaging with the literary tradition of the gaucho epic. They’ve channelled all of that and retained its vitality, its vigour, its nimbleness. They’ve also managed to make it occasionally very moving and reflective. It’s a really fine work of artistry. A couple of the panel who had read the original in Spanish, and read the translation, remarked on the fact that what a really exceptional work of translation this is.

Both the books we’ve discussed so far are books that play on the literary traditions of their native countries. Do you think that translated fiction is more challenging to appreciate or to enjoy, given the cultural references we – as outsiders – may miss?

I don’t think it is. There are a number of these books that draw on the myth kitty of their various cultures. But that doesn’t mean you need to know it in advance. I had not read much about Fierro before I read The Adventures of China Iron. These are all books that would still engage a reader if they don’t have those reference points. I think it just adds another layer to it if you’re interested to find out more.

Above all, these are all books that resonate on a universal human level. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is really a human story about a family broken apart by war and trying to piece itself back together. The Adventures of China Iron is a story about love and friendship and growing up and throwing off the ideas of an older generation. These books open up layers of understanding with other cultures, and they do it through human stories that we can all relate to.

The third shortlisted book is Tyll, by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the German by Ross Benjamin.

This is another one that draws on national myths. Set in Germany at the start of the Thirty Years War, it’s a novel that reanimates a figure from German mythology called Tyll who is a trickster, mischief-maker, puckish, impish character who is really a lord of chaos. He sits somewhere between a court jester and a joker sort of figure – a Germanic joker, if you like. Tyll observes a series of courtly intrigues and stories that happen in this period in Germany.

This a book about a period of European history which was riven by the plague and pestilence. So there’s a very deep historical resonance between this book and the present. For all of that, it is an incredibly funny book. It is a book that brings you this a playful, wicked avatar and takes you through this really bloody and dark period in German history. Almost on every page there is a moment of courtly pomposity and hypocrisy and backstabbing and skulduggery; it’s a really, really hilarious, rich comedy that takes you right into the dark heart of the plague-era Germany. So, if you like your comedies dark, this is the book for you.

“If you like your comedies dark, this is the book for you”

Ross Benjamin has done a really fantastic job. The translation has a kind of steadiness and precision, but also he can absolutely keep pace with the humour and the jokes and – despite its subject matter, despite the violence, the darkness – it, again, is an extremely joyful reading experience.

Daniel Kehlmann is an absolutely masterful writer. Tyll, this figure, is really an ideal subject for a writer of his impishness and humour and play. He’s a very fine conjuror of historical moment as well. It feels true to the period without being an antiqued or theme park version of history, which can sometimes be the case. So: original, gritty and real and yet, you get the sense of mordant comic joy to it as well.

Brilliant. Speaking of our present predicament, I understand your deliberations have been affected by coronavirus containment measures. How did judging work this year?

When we started this, we had the great luxury of seeing each other in person every month. We came together across great distances. Obviously, when this whole situation began to unfold, we had to change that, we had to move our meetings online. For the first time in the history of the Booker Prizes, the shortlist meetings all took place via video link.

We had some technical issues to begin with. Our furthest points, I believe, were Bangalore and Los Angeles, and there were many in between as well. So we had a lot of challenges in terms of time difference and technology. But there is such strong communal spirit and rapport between us as judges that we have built up over six months of intensive reading together that we had a really strong connection – and the conversation was just as intricate and nuanced and satisfying as ever, I think.

We spent over six hours deliberating over the shortlist one call.

Six hours!

I think that must be my video call record. Maybe we are the current record holders for the longest video call in the world. But it was a really, really rich discussion. I think one of things we, as a panel, are really proud of is that we really listen very attentively to each other. Of course, everyone on the panel is a really superb reader with really deep cultural understanding. But they are also readers who are open to being persuaded, and respect each other’s views enough to keep an open mind about a book. I think that’s a really wonderful quality. We’ve always tried to make sure that if one of us feels really passionately about a book – and perhaps it’s a book that someone else isn’t as keen on – we try as much as possible to really consider that properly.

“We spent over six hours deliberating over the shortlist one call”

That’s meant that our decisions have all felt very collective, and that this is a list that we can all truly be very proud of. That’s said a lot by panels, I know, but it’s true. We’ve also encouraged each other to be bold in these choices: to pick books which are not at all conventional, which playfully challenge perceived narratives and upend things. So I think that that all worked fine despite the technological challenges.

It’s also worth saying that we weren’t exactly looking for books which chimed with the current crisis, but rather books which transcended this unprecedented moment. That stood the test of time, even now. Books which continued to speak to us across the divide of then and now. Yes, there are some striking comparisons in some instances, such as the history of a plague-ridden Europe evoked in Tyll, but as timely as they are, we also believe these are books of enduring meaning.

That’s a beautiful thing. Let’s talk about the next work of translated fiction on the list, which is Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season.

This is a novel set in a rural Mexican village, and it opens with a very graphic, visceral scene: a body floating in a canal. We learn that this body belongs to a character called ‘The Witch,’ who is shrouded in layers of myth and misunderstanding and legend. She is variously a woman with supernatural powers, a prostitute, and a woman who is, in a sense, the keeper of community secrets. She is also the object of violence and machismo and misogyny. She is the point around which this incandescent novel swirls. Another key figure in the novel is her daughter who is referred to simply as ‘The Girl’. These women are really at the centre of this book, which moves centrifugally out towards a portrait of a whole community, and the ways in which violence and misogyny are concentrated on these bodies, on these women.

There’s an infernal pace to this. This is a book of “hellacious force,” a phrase I like from the book itself. It moves in these unbroken paragraphs: eight torrential paragraphs that flow through the book. The prose moves like the extreme weather system that the title suggests. Given how intense and uncompromising the style is – like a flow of flood water, it brings everything with it; it brings swearing, it brings bureaucratized language, it brings violent slang, it brings the intimacy of family life, all of these things come flooding through these paragraphs – for any translator, this would be such an enormous challenge because of the potential for that to become an undifferentiated mass of voices.

What Sophie Hughes has done superbly and with great flair and boldness, is to approximate the spirit of the original novel. She takes the incandescent spirit, this very controlled rage that the novel is wrestling with, and translates it in a way that mirrors that torrential flow, bringing with it all different kinds of Englishes with it. So it’s a book that has real bite, and it’s terse, but it also is very nimble as well.

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder, is very different, both in style and in content. 

Absolutely. In many ways it’s the diametric opposite. We were really struck by the fact that this book was originally written by Ogawa in 1994 and has only just now been translated and published in English. Despite being written decades ago, it really couldn’t feel more contemporary. It’s got this uncanny sense of relevance to the present. I mean, that’s often the case with books – an enduring resonance in books which are constructed masterfully and with great restraint. This is a book where restraint and precision are vital, not only to the voice but to the narrative and the story being told.

To give you a brief potted summary of what the story is about: it’s situated on an island off the coast of Japan. On the island, and anywhere in Japan more broadly, objects are policed. Objects can prompt memories. So, it could be a hat, a ribbon, even things like birds; things which are animate, living objects, and things which are inanimate, personal items, as it were. The reason they are policed is that there is a belief on the part of the state that these things can be subversive and can connect us to each other in very potent, powerful ways.

It’s a very deft dystopia. It’s a dystopia not interested in technology. There’s nothing particularly sci-fi about this book. This is a book about loss and about the ways in which we are diminished by the deprivation of our memories – that without those things we will lose our identity, our sense of self, our sense of childhood, our sense of culture, the things that connect us more broadly to each other.

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There’s a really beautiful scene where a character encounters a bird for the first time and doesn’t have the word for it, doesn’t know what a bird is, and has to try and find language for it. It’s a really beautiful scene because you’re encountering the strangeness of a bird almost for the first time. But for the character it’s also really unsettling and discombobulating, because they just don’t have the right language for it. So, it’s a novel about the power of naming, the power of language. And it’s written in this extremely restrained prose.

Ogawa is just absolutely masterful at this kind of restraint. And it’s also significant that the central figure in the book is a writer, and the relationship they have with their editor who is is being surveilled by the memory police and is increasingly in danger.

You asked earlier: Do people need to know the cultural significance and relevance? This is actually a book that, just purely on a universal, emotional level, is absolutely gripping, achingly sad. So beautiful. It resonates on such a profound level that perhaps it will just feel relevant and contemporary at any point in the future. I think it will be something that will last, and last, and last. The translation is as precise as Ogawa and, therefore, absolutely deserving of being on the shortlist.

Gorgeous. That brings us to the final book on the shortlist. Also a book about loss, but loss of a different kind. This is Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening.

I get tingles when I even think about this book. It’s absolutely extraordinary. Let me start with the story. This is about a family in rural Holland, narrated by a young girl who is living out her daily routine on the farm. She has a family who have the ritual of farming and of cows and of milking. ‘The discomfort of evening,’ the title phrase, is the point in the evening when cows start to low because they’re udders are full of milk. The detail in this book is just absolutely spellbinding. It makes you feel like being on a Dutch dairy farm is the most revelatory and fascinating place you could possibly be.

One of the central dynamics in the book – it’s quite early in the book, so I don’t think this is a spoiler – is that the young girl’s brother dies quite abruptly, and the night before he dies she says a little prayer to God – in the way that children sometimes do – to take away her brother instead of her rabbit. The next day he dies. The rest of the book she’s dealing with pangs of guilt, the feeling that she has caused his death. This is a secret she doesn’t share at all with anyone. It’s just this internalized guilt that she feels.

“I get tingles when I even think about this book. It’s absolutely extraordinary”

So, it’s a book about a bodily awakening, about bodily dysfunction. But it’s also a book about the ties of family and how robust and how brittle they can become in extremis. Because it is written with such poetic precision and an almost hallucinatory level of detail, this is a book in which it feels as though language is being discovered for the first time. The narrator is discovering themselves, discovering words, discovering ways of describing the world. There is an extraordinary freshness to the prose. It feels as though you are absolutely in the dairy farm, in the bath, in bed with this person going to sleep. I think many of us on the panel had this extraordinary feeling that we were just completely immersed in this character’s life.

The translation is absolutely remarkable because this is a work of fiction that relies on the kind of strangeness and precision of perception of the narrator and also the author. It’s not at all conventional. It doesn’t have a conventional narrative style. So it requires immense flexibility and a virtuoso sense of playfulness to capture that in English. It’s just a fantastic book.

I find it so interesting that the description ‘playful’ has come up so many times. It seems to me that fiction in translation is felt to be a very worthy sort of genre, for serious literary types – not joyful, playful reading. Do you think there is a misapprehension? And, generally, should people try to make an effort to read more fiction in translation?

Actually, many of the books on the shortlist are immensely joyous and funny. One misapprehension is the idea that these books require extra effort to read, compared to books written in English. It’s almost the opposite. These are, I think, six of the most elating reading experiences I’ve had in years – out of books written in English or books in translation. I think elating is the word because they are affirming and enlivening, without glossing over the darker aspects of life, or rather precisely because they don’t.

When we’re all locked in our houses and isolated as we are now, these are books that give you a very deep kind of companionship. Sometimes it is a rough and raw kind of companionship, which shows you the gritty underbelly of life, but perhaps that kind of total intimacy is the very thing we’re missing most at the moment.

I love reading fiction written in English too of course, but it is striking how formally playful much of the writing beyond the Anglophone bubble is. There’s a sense that playfulness and being inventive with structure or voice is such a fundamental aspect of each of these six books, not just tacked on for literary effect. And that sense of invention is channeled into characters and stories that feel utterly compelling and leave a lasting impact. This sense of play can make a Dutch dairy farm a place of startling revelation, or can fill you with wonder at the Argentinean Pampas or a Japanese island in which the arrival of a bird is strange and new. What could be more joyful than seeing the world anew? Or feeling a pang of recognition by being immersed in a life far from your own?

A good translation makes it possible for you to enter these worlds without any profound cultural knowledge of the places that you’re going to, though you might acquire it as you go. What I love about that kind of reading experience is that the knowledge you acquire is on a human scale – it’s measured in terms of lives and relationships, rather than in the abstract, which I find always stays with me. A good translation enables that journey and renders you fluent in another culture. So rather than it being harder to read fiction in translation, a good translation is doing the legwork to spirit you into another world. The really wonderful thing is that you discover suddenly how much you have in common with someone in Revolutionary Iran or plague-era Germany, or wherever it may be, and it’s through the magical process of translation that it happens.

Interview by Cal Flyn

May 22, 2020

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Ted Hodgkinson

Ted Hodgkinson is a broadcaster, editor, critic, writer and the head of literature and spoken word at the Southbank Centre in London. Formerly online editor at Granta, his essays, interviews and reviews have appeared across a range of publications and websites, including the Times Literary Supplement, the Literary Review, the New Statesman, and the Spectator. He is a former British Council literature programmer for the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. He currently sits on the selection panel for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Fellowship, the EBRD Literature Prize 2019 for the best novel in translation and the 2019 Orwell Prize for political writing. He co-edited, with Icelandic author and poet Sjón, the first anthology of Nordic short stories in English, The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North (Pushkin Press, 2017).

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Ted Hodgkinson

Ted Hodgkinson is a broadcaster, editor, critic, writer and the head of literature and spoken word at the Southbank Centre in London. Formerly online editor at Granta, his essays, interviews and reviews have appeared across a range of publications and websites, including the Times Literary Supplement, the Literary Review, the New Statesman, and the Spectator. He is a former British Council literature programmer for the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. He currently sits on the selection panel for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Fellowship, the EBRD Literature Prize 2019 for the best novel in translation and the 2019 Orwell Prize for political writing. He co-edited, with Icelandic author and poet Sjón, the first anthology of Nordic short stories in English, The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North (Pushkin Press, 2017).