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Letting in foreigners

15th April 2015 - Daniel Hahn


International IMPAC Dublin Literary AwardDaniel Hahn is a writer and translator, from Portuguese, Spanish and French. He is the current Chair of the Society of Authors and serves on the comittee for English PEN's Writers in Translation Committee, and as well being a trustee of a number literary organisations and formerly Chair of the Translators Association and national programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. His translation of The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa saw the two of them share the 2007 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

 

This year he is one of the judges for the 20th International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, whose shortlist has been announced today. This prize, the richest single-book literary award in the world, is unusual in the English-speaking world for admitting fiction in translation. Here Daniel offers some insight into how the shortlist was chosen and wonders why so few other awards are willing to consider fiction in translation.

 

 

One of the things that marks out the IMPAC Dublin Award, whose shortlist my fellow judges and I have announced today, is that it treats English-language books and translated-into-English books on an exactly equal footing. The longlist (an altogether alarming 142 titles) comprised about two-thirds English-language originals from right across the Anglosphere and a third English translations of foreign work. They are all treated equally, and considered on exactly the same terms. This approach seems right to me, and to tell the truth, I don’t really understand why it’s so uncommon; and yet all the biggest UK prizes, even those that make a claim to an increasing internationalism, ignore the great novels that great translators are writing in English, presumably suspicious of some impurity in their linguistic origins. Some of the best English-language novels I’ve read in recent years may have come from Ali Smith, David Mitchell, or Colm Tóibín, but they’ve also come from Javier-Marias-&-Margaret-Jull-Costa, or Jenny-Erpenbeck-&-Susan-Bernofsky, or Javier-Cercas-&-Anne-McLean; but most Anglophone book prizes bar these latter titles entry, and the judges never get to consider them. The IMPAC Dublin Award knows better.

 

Horses of GodThe books on our international shortlist have little respect for boundaries. They include two novels by Australian novelists, one of them (Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites) set in early nineteenth-century Iceland, the other (Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North) set partly on the Burma railway. We have two Americans: Alice McDermott, the author of Someone, about Irish Americans in Brooklyn; and Roxana Robinson, whose Sparta introduces Conrad, just back from a tour of duty in Iraq. Colum McCann, a previous winner of this prize, is Irish, but his shortlisted novel this year, TransAtlantic, has an American slant; while Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah is similarly footloose, shuttling between the US and her native Nigeria. In K, Bernardo Kucinski and his translator Sue Branford together bring to life a Polish immigrant to Brazil; French novelist Andreï Makine, with translator Geoffrey Strachan, takes us to Russia, the land of the writer’s birth, in his Brief Loves that Live Forever; while in Horses of God, Moroccan writer Mahi Binebine and his British translator Lulu Norman tell a story that does stay tidily contained within Morocco, but boldly spans both sides of the grave. Finally Jim Crace’s Harvest, set in a small English village, completes the shortlist. With the exception, I suppose, of McDermott and Crace, both of which range in time more than space, these are not exactly books that stay put.

 

Their wonderfully various origins, settings and traditions apart, what these fine books have in common is that they are all novels written in English. In some cases, by an English-language novelist, in others they’re written by a skilled translator following a map laid out by a novelist in another language. These latter examples are strange, collaborative, hybrid things, but they’re ultimately great pieces of English-language fiction-writing, just like the others on the list – it’s just that the process of getting to an English incarnation required an extra step, and an extra writer to carry it along. We have chosen ten superb books, which between them owe their existence to thirteen superb writers.

 

I’m not going to comment on the judging process and the conversations we had to get this far, except to say one thing: even though there were some 40 translated works on our longlist, we haven’t been discussing the art of translation, or the work of translators. Not at all. Which I think is just as it should be. We have discussed 142 English-language novels, and just reminded ourselves once our list was done that some of them were authored by more than one hand.

 

That’s how readers read, after all, surely? I don’t think I read translations differently from non-translations. I don’t read Swedish crime differently from Scottish crime, or Dutch literary fiction differently from Canadian literary fiction. And indeed we translators depend on that – I’m a translator myself, and I know my English-language work will compete in the same marketplace as novels by British writers, and I want my readers to consume my words in just the same way – we all know there’s been some mediation between original and reader (that would be me), but during the process of reading we obligingly collude in the pretence that there is none. I don’t want my readers to think my book is quite good 'for a translation', I want the writing in it to be every bit as sparkly and muscular and paced and voice and just thrummingly, cracklingly alive as the very best that any English-language novelist could produce.

 

Our shortlist – hard-fought, as these things are – is our selection of the ten best books we read of the 142 titles nominated. They are all available to English-language readers, and every one demonstrates supreme skill from its writer(s); in some cases, the book has only ever had a life in English, in others, the first drafts towards this English translation happened in a different language, and only the latter drafts shifted into the language in which we’ve been reading it. So what? I don’t think translations are, fundamentally, a different category of thing. I don’t think they need special treatment, or particular expertise to read and enjoy or appraise them, and I love the inclusiveness of the IMPAC for allowing them to be taken seriously just like everybody else, and for getting past the assumption that somehow the translated stuff doesn’t belong with proper English-language writing. A work of translation-into-English is a work of writing in English. Naturally, it may be good, and it may be terrible. The only thing that distinguishes the ones that weren’t originally drafted in the same language they’ve ended up in, is that their first and last drafts will usually have come from different pens. I’m not sure why so many UK prizes refuse to understand this, but I wish they would; they ought be proud to celebrate the very best novels in English, regardless of any unusual linguistic origins, just like the IMPAC is.

 

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