First Harvest: The BTBA Long List

May 14, 2018

The past half-year I have had the honor of being a part of the jury choosing the Best Translated Book Award (for fiction), 2018. If you’ve never heard of it before, you might not necessarily view the category as self-explanatory, but actually it’s simple: books that were published in the US in the year 2017 and happen to be translated from another language were eligible. The nine members of the jury are a colorful lot, including writers, critics, bloggers, booksellers, and even translators. However, our task was not finding the best translation. After all, the criteria for judging the quality of translations is somewhat controversial. Instead, we aimed to find the best book – based solely on its own merits.

So after spending most of my free time in fall and winter reading book after book after book after book and letting loose rant and raves on our internal Slack chat, a couple weeks ago we finally voted on our picks for the long list. And what a varied list it is! Coming from 16 different countries (from France to Madagascar to Taiwan) and ten different languages, it is a great mix of tastes and themes. Although there is not quite parity when it comes to the gender of authors or translators, the list does seem slightly more balanced than many others I’ve come across.

Although I was certainly aware of certain trends in contemporary literature published in the US, there were many insights I gained by helping select the longlist and observing commonalities and divergences. First off, I was slightly surprised by the high number of short books. Without crunching the numbers for statistical accuracy, it seemed as if over half were at or under 200 pages and just a handful made it near the five hundred page mark. Another thing I didn’t quite expect was that the vast majority were translations of books that had originally been published within the past five-to-ten years. There are some outliers like Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant, Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, or Johannes Urzidil’s The Last Bell, on the whole, the new fiction we are reading is actually new-ish. Another thing that struck me was the very dark nature of many of the narratives and subjects, ranging from Kehlmann’s thriller to Hanna Krall’s tale of Holocaust survival or Christine Angot’s genre-bending taboo-breaker Incest that I wrote about and had difficulty finding words for. Finally, I simply have to note that Spanish and French literatures dominate the list. Naturally, this reflects the general picture of what kinds of translations are published in the US, but it also demonstrated the variety of countries and narratives reflected in the language. If you're talking about a translation on the longlist from the Spanish, you may be referring to a book from Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, or Columbia, but not from Spain. More thoughts to come when the short list is announced.

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