Cream of the Crop: The BTBA Fiction Short List and Winner

June 04, 2018

As already mentioned in a previous blog post, I had the honor of being part of the jury of nine that determined the winner of this year’s Best Translated Book Award in fiction. I’ve never been a part of a “real” (i.e. trial) jury, but one thing I learned is that it’s hard to get everyone to agree. The other member’s day jobs range from writer, to bookstore worker, to reviewer and translator. Everyone had strong opinions about the books, most of them positive. However, it was easier to agree which books weren’t necessarily in the very top than to agree what should win. Without revealing away too much or giving away the secret sauce, I’ll talk about a few that came close to winning and the one that did.

Marie NDiaye is a highly decorated French author, having won the Prix Femina in 2001, the Prix Goncourt in 2009, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Book International Prize. Despite being translated regularly and receiving positive reviews in the Anglophone press, NDiaye hasn’t quite become well-known. This might have to do with her being a POC and a woman and many of her figures are women, some of them struggling with the roles given to them in France. As a reader, I noted that this doesn’t necessarily make Nadia—the protagonist of My Heart Hemmed In—inherently sympathetic. Only after embarking on a journey to visit her nearly-estranged son does it become clear that Nadia is most likely of North African descent, which gives her bourgeois snobbery an added sheen of hypocrisy. Although the jury had mixed feelings about the protagonist and what it was all about, they all agreed that Jordan Stump’s translation was great and more people should read NDiaye.

Another top title was Remains of Life by Wu He, translated from the Chinese by Michael Berry. On the surface, it may seems to be typical historical fiction. Indeed, the central focus is the Musha incident, which took place in October 1930 in Taiwan under Japanese rule, and the subsequent, Japenese-led counter attack. On April 25, 1931, indigenous groups led by Japanese authorities beheading Seediq aborigines. Largely using stream of consciousness techniques, it carefully builds upon and circles around, dealing with the thoughts of a man contemplating an decisive historical event, his interaction while at the reservations investigating it, and the “remains of life” he is able find. Certainly not an easy read, but worth it.

The winner was announced on Thursday, May 31 as part of the New York Rights Fair. Thanks to grant funds from the Amazon Literary Partnership, the winning authors and translators each received $5,000 cash prizes. The winner for prose was The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Argentina, Open Letter Books). Because I don’t think I’d be able to put it better, I will simply quote the jury’s text:
“The Invented Part weaves together the intellectual, the emotional, and the aesthetic as one, resulting in an entertaining, playful, sorrowful, and joyful novel that shows there is new ground to be found in the novel, new structures to be built. To find those structures takes daring and the risks Fresán takes both narratively and stylistically pay off. This book is as generous as it is challenging, as nostalgic as it is hopeful. Rodrigo Fresán is a master, and Will Vanderhyden brings that mastery and all the nuance that comes with it into English. They are a perfectly matched pair, and The Invented Part is an astounding start to this trilogy.”

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