Buddy reads, kipper sandwiches and 1984: Meeting the man who prompted me to read the world

Last Friday was a special day. Nearly seven years on from launching my quest to spend 2012 journeying through a book from every country, I had the chance to meet the man who gave me the idea to read the world.

His name is Jason and the concept of exploring international literature came out of an exchange we had in the comments section of a blog I used to write about women’s literature. Jason suggested I read Cloudstreet by the Australian writer Tim Winton and everything spiralled from there.

Over the intervening years, Jason and I have kept in touch, mostly through Facebook. When my first book, Reading the World (titled The World Between Two Covers in the US), came out, I sent him a copy as a thank you for his part in inspiring what turned out to be a life-changing project.

As Jason lives in Wyoming, US, and I live in the UK, however, there was never much prospect of us meeting… until last week. Jason was coming to London for Man Booker 50, a festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize. It was the perfect chance to say hello.

We met at the Sail Loft in Greenwich, on the banks of the River Thames. Jason was accompanied by his friend Ben, who took the photograph above (thanks Ben!) and is married to Ana, one of the volunteer translators who made it possible for me to read a book from São Tomé and Príncipe back in 2012.

Although we’d never met in person, the conversation flowed freely, centring around books. I was particularly interested to hear about Jason’s experience as a BookTuber – his channel is called Old Blue’s Chapter and Verse. Never having explored this world, I was fascinated to learn about some of its conventions. The concept of ‘buddy reads’, for example, struck me as very interesting – the idea is that two BookTubers read the same title simultaneously and post videos about their experiences.

When Jason revealed that he is engaged in a buddy read of 1984, the conversation took flight. All three of us turned out to be big admirers of George Orwell. It was amazing to hear how Jason was finding encountering the book as an adult when so many people, myself included, read it for the first time at school.

He reminded me quite how dark it is and said he was troubled by the idea of it being taught to children. In response, I suggested under-18s might actually be more comfortable with Big Brother’s dystopia than we would be: as most youngsters will be used to living with a degree of control and scrutiny, these ideas may not be as disturbing to them as they would be to independent adults.

From there, we moved on to taboos in books that readers fail to acknowledge. Jason gave the example of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, which he is surprised that many people seem to read without realising that it involves incest. We wondered if this is a sign that we readers unconsciously censor references to subjects that we find too upsetting.

The conversation wasn’t all book-based. There were a few culinary detours along the way. Jason tried his first scotch egg – with great success – and shared some wise advice on not assuming that things you like in isolation will work well together. He had learnt this too his cost some while before when he attempted to construct a kipper sandwich and found that the addition of mayonnaise to the fish produced one of the most disgusting things he’d ever tasted.

I’m sure we could have talked for hours, but Jason and Ben had an evening appointment with Hilary Mantel and Pat Barker. Unable to compete with such brilliance, I bade them goodbye, hoping it won’t be too long before our paths cross again.

Book of the month: Leonardo Padura

This book was a recommendation from two visitors to this blog. Suroor said it was ‘about the events leading up to Trotsky’s assasination’ and ‘about “corrupted utopias”: the Soviet Union, Cuba and Spain during the civil war,’ while CarolS told me that her book group had enjoyed Padura’s work, finding him a ‘superb conveyer of atmosphere’.

When I looked up Leonardo Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs, translated by  Anna Kushner, I found that it had garnered a sheaf of enthusiastic reviews and that the word ‘masterpiece’ had been liberally applied to it. This set alarm bells ringing for me. Could this novel really live up to such hype?

The fruit of many years of research, thinking, discussion and writing, The Man Who Loved Dogs makes no secret of its ambition. Centring around the assassination of  the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940, it sets out to explore how ideologies are built and betrayed, how wars are won and lost, and how history is manipulated to suit the interests of those in power. To do so, it moves between multiple perspectives – weaving together an account of Trotsky’s years in exile, the reflections of late-twentieth century Cuban writer Iván Cárdenas Maturell and the strange story of a frail man he meets walking two Russian wolfhounds on the beach.

The novel is as weighty as its subject matter. At 576 pages, it is on its way to rivalling the classics of Russian literature for girth. The similarities don’t end there: the book’s expansive scope recalls the sweeping arcs of the works of Tolstoy, and like Tolstoy, Leonardo Padura capitalises on the richness that such long-form storytelling affords, taking time to establish motivations, personality shifts and moments of crisis that are all the more devastating for their extended build-up.

The drawn-out description of the radicalisation and indoctrination of Ramón Mercader, for example, and the painstaking delineation of the days leading up to his assassination of Trotsky are exceptionally powerful. The same goes for the detailed depictions of Trotsky’s sufferings and the struggles of many secondary characters, chief among them Mercader’s flinty mother, Caridad, and Maturell’s brother, who pays a heavy price for openly acknowledging his homosexual relationship at a time when this is still illegal in Cuba.

Through these haunting, engrossing episodes, which immerse us in the feelings and thoughts of those living them, we see how ‘the decisions of history can come in through the window of some lives and destroy them from the inside’.

The history in question, however, is somewhat different to that with which many English speakers will probably be familiar. As I discovered repeatedly during my quest to read the world, one of the mind-expanding things about literature from elsewhere is its tendency to portray familiar stories from unfamiliar angles, revealing aspects of well-known events that we may not previously have appreciated.

Here, we see the coming and unfolding of the second world war not from the familiar vantage points of London or Washington, but from the Soviet Union and Spain. The devastating implications of the pact between Stalin and Hitler – which, among other things, led to the suicide of numerous Communists imprisoned under Franco – leap from the page far more vigorously than they do from many anglophone history books.

In addition, Padura lays bare a mindset that many readers in Western capitalist countries may never have penetrated before. Through the discussions between Mercader and his mentor, he reveals what drives those who sacrifice their lives and identities for an idea:

‘I’m just one person , so very small, in the fight for a dream. A person and a name are nothing […] : a man can be relegated, substituted. The individual is not an unrepeatable unit but rather a concept that is added to and makes up a mass that is real. But man as an individual isn’t sacred and, as such, is expendable. […] The dream is what matters, not the man, and even less the name.’

This is a truly fascinating novel. To get through it takes commitment: even speedy readers will have it in their lives for the best part of a week. Yet, when I finished it I found myself wishing it had been longer – I wanted more of the hardships of life in late-twentieth century Cuba, as glimpsed through the eyes of Maturell, and I wished Padura had turned his talents to conjuring the thoughts of Trotsky’s nemesis, Stalin, who is a sinister, shadowy absence at the heart of this excellent book.

The term masterpiece is often used and seldom merited. It is justified in this case.

The Man Who Loved Dogs (El hombre que amaba a los perros) by Leonardo Padura, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013)

Picture: ‘Trotsky’s Gravesite’ by verifex on flickr.com

New TEDx talk: what I learned reading a book from every country

Earlier this month, I was honoured to be one of the speakers at TEDx Hanoi. Taking place at the city’s United Nations International School, the day-long event presented a fascinating collection of talks around the theme ‘Toward a Global Community’.

While Professor Kourosh Kayvani, founder of Aurecon’s Design Academy and mastermind behind the technicalities of Wembley stadium in the UK and the flagship football venue in Doha, reflected on the potential of engineering to solve problems, environmental activist Huong Le spoke about #SaveSonDoong, her campaign to protect the world’s largest cave from insensitive commercial development. There were also talks on career advice, architecture and the role that history can play in helping us live wisely – this last presentation was given by former diplomat Madame Ninh, a very inspiring person and prominent figure in Vietnam, who was constantly surrounded by young women eager to learn from her.

There were also several great presentations and performances from school students, among them Minh Quan Do, an aspiring poet and poetry translator, and South Korean yo-yo player, Hyunjoon Choi. And for those keen to do more than simply sit and listen, there were improv comedy workshops and self-defence classes in the breaks, as well as the opportunity to take a virtual tour of the majestic Son Doong, about which Huong Le spoke so powerfully.

For me, the event was special for three reasons. Not only did it give me chance to visit a new country and meet some fascinating people, but it also allowed me to reflect on what reading the world has taught me six years on from my original quest. This was exciting as there have been so many interesting things that have happened since the project, so it was wonderful to have the opportunity to share some of the more recent insights I have gained from interactions around stories from elsewhere.

Thanks to the organisers of TEDx Hanoi for a very inspiring day and a wonderful trip.

Picture by TEDxHanoi on flickr.com

Advice for world readers

One of my favourite things about this project is the way other people have taken it on and made it their own. Several times a week – and sometimes as much as every day – I hear from booklovers who have been inspired to launch their own international-reading ventures.

These can sometimes be very individual and specific – such as the Mexican students who gave away books in their town to promote reading or the horror fan keen to sample something of that genre from as many nations as possible. Usually, however, the messages come from people who, as I did back in 2011, have realised quite how narrow their reading has been and are keen to broaden their horizons by exploring stories from elsewhere.

Sometimes they just want to let me know what they are planning. Sometimes, they ask questions. And, though the questions can be very varied, the most common are these: What advice can I give people trying to read the world? How can you read so much so quickly? Where do you find books from nations with little or no published literature in English? What do you do if you can’t afford to buy books? Can I help?

Much as I’d love to be able to help with individual quests, time and money factors usually make this impossible. During my ‘Postcards from my Bookshelf’ project last year, in which I sent books to 12 strangers in celebration of the fifth anniversary of my quest, I received comments from more than 200 people keen to take part. It simply wouldn’t be possible for me to buy books for everyone.

However, there are a few tips and bits of information that I’ve learnt over the past six years that might be useful for would-be literary explorers. I’m putting them below. Please feel free to add your own advice in the comments.

  • Be curious and open to changing your ideas Reading the world requires you to let go of your assumptions about many things – from morality and history to what counts as a book in the first place. This can be challenging but also hugely rewarding. As far as possible, try to keep an open mind. In particular, when you find yourself reading something that feels difficult, remember that your reaction may reveal more about your own cultural conditioning and blind spots than about the book or country it comes from.
  • Make the quest your own Many of the people I hear from tell me that they’re using my list as a guide. It’s great to know that it’s useful and I hope that the Book of the month reviews help keep it fresh. However, there are so many amazing books out there and a huge amount has changed since I read the world in 2012. Thousands of brilliant new translations have been published, in some cases opening up the literature of countries that had nothing available in English during my quest. Meanwhile, other titles have gone out of print and are harder to find. So, although people are welcome to use my list, I would urge them to explore for themselves too. There are many great resources out there but three good places to start are English PEN’s World Bookshelf, Words Without Borders and Asymptote.
  • Go at your own pace You don’t have to read the world in a year. You don’t have to read it in ten years. It’s much better to go at a pace that you can sustain rather than to drive yourself frantic by trying to cram reading into every spare moment and turning it into a chore. Instead, find a window of time (even if it’s just 15 minutes a day) that you can dedicate to reading and stick to that. And if you find yourself wanting to spend more time reading as you go along – great!
  • Use libraries and other reading resources to read for free Reading can be expensive. Even with the generous book gifts I received from strangers, my original quest cost me several thousand pounds. This can be prohibitive, especially if you live in a part of the world where books are relatively expensive. There aren’t always easy solutions. However, where they exist, libraries can be a fabulous resource for bookworms. Not only do they make books freely available, but they will also often order in titles you request. For people in particularly difficult circumstances, there are charities such as Book Aid working to supply books. It may be worth researching what is available in your area and contacting the relevant organisations to see how international their offering is. Whatever you do, please avoid the temptation to resort to pirated versions of texts. The inequalities in the international publishing industry that mean that some literatures are much more widely read and translated than others will only be reinforced by this. It’s important that authors are paid for their work.
  • Be patient and use your initiative It’s very difficult when you come to a country that has no commercially available literature in English. What you do about this will depend on how much time and energy you have. During my quest (as you’ll see if you read the posts for the Comoros, Panama and São Tomé and Príncipe, to name a few), I resorted to all sorts  of outlandish things to try to source texts, including contacting charities, academics and students working in the region, and tracking translators down through social media. There is no magic solution to ticking off these countries. However, the good news is, it’s getting easier. Since my project, literature from several previously off-limits nations, including Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau, has been released in English. I’m hopeful it won’t be long before every UN-recognised nation has something available in the world’s most-published language. I’ll do my best to keep you informed. Watch this space!

Picture: ‘One last look at 2012. Happy New Year planet Earth!’ by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on flickr.com.

A new work from Turkmenistan

People often ask me about the unpublished manuscripts I encountered during my 2012 quest to read a book from every country in the world. Have they been picked up by publishers? Are they available for other literary explorers to read?

The answer is mixed – while some of the works, such as Juan David Morgan’s The Golden Horsehave appeared (albeit briefly) in English – several deserving books, chief among them Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s Ualalapi, remain off-limits to anglophone readers.*

Getting translated works published can be an uphill struggle, so I was very pleased when Glagoslav Publications took on The Tale of Aypi, the first novel ever to be translated from Turkmen into English. Its author, Ak Welsapar, kindly shared it with me in manuscript form during my project and it’s great that it’s now commercially available.

Late last year, I received more news from Welsapar. Glagoslav Publications were bringing out another book by him – a collection of short stories. Would I be prepared to write a foreword for it?

I accepted gladly and am delighted to announce that the collection, Death of the Snake Catcher, translated by Lois Kapila, Yossef Azemoun and Richard Govett, was published last month. Containing stories written during Welsapar’s time in his homeland and over the decades since his exile, the book is an intriguing insight into life in one of the most closed societies on Earth, as I attempted to explain in my foreword:

‘Although the stories may appear very diverse, a closer look reveals a number of common themes and tropes at work. The power of the unexplained is among the most prominent. As in The Tale of Aypi, a book that is haunted by the ghost of a girl who died some centuries before the story takes place, the uncanny has a strong influence. The ground shifts constantly beneath our feet, leaving us uncertain what to expect and what to trust.

[…]

‘In other stories, this sense of uncertainty spreads to engulf everyday objects. People cannot be trusted and neither can things. Even the most innocuous-seeming of occurrences – a love affair, two carts approaching a crossroad, a man writing at a desk – can turn treacherous and become the thing that destroys your life. As Jummi, the luckless team leader in “One of the Seven is a Scoundrel”, says, “these days one of your two eyes can become your enemy.”

‘For readers, these sudden shifts in significance are as instructive as they are unsettling. Faced with a reality that may never be quite what it seems, we find ourselves ill at ease. Like a citizen in a society overseen by a fickle dictator, or a writer working in the shadow of freedom of expression-limiting rules the specifics of which are left at the discretion of individual censors – as was the case in the Soviet era – we can never be sure what is safe. It is as though Welsapar writes us into the world he has left, letting us taste the bitterness of living in constant fear of recrimination for offences, or faults in interpretation, we may not even realise we have committed.

[…]

‘Yet, although the stories frequently tackle dark subject matter, there is a lightness to the writing that lifts it out of the gloom that might otherwise swamp these pages. We see it in the optimism of young lovers and in the determination of many of the characters to achieve the dignity of leading an independent existence – no matter how limited and basic that might be. What’s more, hopefulness pervades the title story, in which two mortal enemies – the snake catcher and his prey – meet and in so doing discover that they have made each other what they are. Although their identities are built at least partly on their mission to destroy one another, the story hints that the world might nevertheless be big enough to contain them both. As Welsapar explained when I asked him about the collection: “People should never forget that we are only part of a great life, a cosmos, and it does not become a person to take living space from other living creatures. Only the weak strive to destroy one another. The strong learn to coexist.”

‘For all the difficulties he and his characters face, the belief that a better reality is possible underpins Welsapar’s writing. Just as he continued to work in the face of what must have seemed like insurmountable obstacles when he was first blacklisted and forced to endure seeing his books destroyed, so the people he portrays retain faith that survival is its own reward and that tomorrow may bring better things. Even if “the most important thing, the secret thing, maybe, slips away as always, and remains unfathomable”, the effort to express what can be expressed and live what can be lived is worthwhile.

It is great to see this second work of fiction from the only Turkmen writer with a voice in English hitting the shelves. Congratulations to Ak Welsapar and to Glagoslav Publications for continuing to champion this author.

* Thanks to Catherine for alerting me to the fact that Ualalapi is now available, published by Tagus in 2017.

Picture: ‘Golden statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi, first president of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat‘ by David Stanley on flickr.com

Book of the month: Basma Abdel Aziz

An editor once told me that she worked on the basis that a reader has to hear about a book five times before he or she will buy it. April’s Book of the month is a neat demonstration of her theory.

In the two years since Elisabeth Jaquette’s translation of Egyptian writer Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue came out, the book has flashed repeatedly on my radar. It cropped up in several articles about underrated books by women. Marcia Lynx Qualey, tireless champion of Arabic literature, made much of it on her excellent blog. When it made the shortlist for the inaugural TA First Translation Prize, I finally cracked and bought a copy.

The novel centres around Yehya, a man wounded in a political uprising in an unnamed state. Forced to join the static queue at the Gate – the sinister, faceless institution that has assumed power in the wake of the Disgraceful Events – Yehya, his friend Nagy and lover Amani must pit themselves against the system in order to stand a chance of obtaining the operation that will save his life. As they do so, they encounter a host of other characters, including a school teacher barred from practising for allowing a subversive essay to be read in class and a man petitioning for compensation on behalf of a cousin killed in the service of the state, and witness the slow disintegration of society in the face of an increasingly intransigent regime.

Like its author, who is nicknamed ‘the rebel’ in her home country, the novel is unashamedly political. Its ideas lie close to the surface and, although the state in which it is set is unnamed, readers cannot fail to miss the references to the Arab Spring. Whether she is portraying the way that legislation can become weaponised to weaken and even kill citizens by making it impossible for them to obtain the things necessary for their survival, or showing how seemingly innocuous objects such as mobile phones can be used against their owners, Aziz writes with insight and wry humour. The best passages reveal the human toll that such inhuman policies exact. The following is a good example:

‘Everyone was on equal ground. But they all had the same look about them, the same lethargy. Now they were even all starting to think the same way. […] The queue was like a magnet. It drew people toward it, then held them captive as individuals and in their little groups, and it stripped them of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them.’

For obvious reasons, the novel has been compared to works by George Orwell and Franz Kafka and like those books (and the political theatre of Bertolt Brecht), it has a distant, no-man’s-land quality, as though it has tapped into a universal nightmare. Many of the lesser characters remain nameless and are identified only by their clothing or physical characteristics, and the descriptions of the city are mostly stark and spare.

However, a humanity throbs at the heart of Aziz’s writing, indicating a possibility for redemption that other such works sometimes lack. In the face of the cruelty of the state, the friendship between the central characters and the connections between the secondary figures who support and encourage one another to endure the endless waiting persist and even strengthen. Although they may be powerless to ameliorate their material circumstances, individuals in the queue retain control over the expression of their humanity. If not exactly heartening, this observation adds subtlety and depth to the writing. The same is true of the sections that reveal how queue life is liberating in some ways for a number of the characters – particularly the women – because it enables them to break free of social mores and become more assertive.

The book is not always an easy read. Like the queue itself, the plot remains static for long periods before jerking forward suddenly. Occasionally the narrative gets bogged down in logistics and abstractions that are hard to follow – mimicking, perhaps, the legal documents and pronouncements that stymie so many of the characters’ lives. Its abrupt shifts in perspective are sometimes disconcerting and its prose is occasionally simple to the point of being bald.

On the whole, though, the novel is too important for any of this to matter. In capturing a specific moment and using it to express universal truths about freedom and identity, it joins the ranks of great stories that endure across the generations. In twenty years’ time, when the Arab Spring has faded from many memories, readers will still be hearing about this book frequently enough to keep picking it up.

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Melville House, 2016)

Picture: ‘Once Bank Misr Reopened in February People Queued For Hours To Collect Their Money’ by Alisdare Hickson on Flickr.com.

Book of the month: Robert Seethaler

Book titles containing the word ‘life’ can often be deceptive. Hanya Yanagihara’s award-winning A Little Life, for example – which you might expect to be rather modest in length – tips the scales at 737 pages.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that bestselling Austrian author Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins, skews the other way. Played out in a mere 161 sides, this slip of a novel weighs little. However, as I discovered a few weeks back, it leaves a lasting impression.

The premise is simple: the narrative presents the life of Andreas Egger, a manual worker living in the Austrian Alps over the course of much of the twentieth century. Told largely chronologically, with occasional flashes forward and backwards to illuminate particular events, it reveals the joys and losses that shape an individual who is, on the surface at least, unremarkable.

In the absence of the grabby hook so often required to sell books to big English-language publishers these days, it falls to Seethaler’s writing (and Collins’s translation) to make the novel stand out. This they do in spades. Although it gets off to an uneven start, seeming to pitch us into the realm of the uncanny with its portrayal of Egger’s weird encounter with his reclusive goatherd neighbour, the narrative quickly assumes a serenity as majestic and awe-inspiring as the mountains among which it is set.

There is a lovely reticence to the work. For the most part, the story is conveyed in plain words with the occasional detail, such as the peening anvil used to dispatch a wounded dog, keeping the story grounded. Against this spare linguistic backdrop, occasional descriptive flourishes peep out like edelweiss blooms: the priest whose cassock flaps ‘around his body like the dishevelled plumage of a jackdaw’; the shell-fire blossoming ‘like blazing flowers over the mountain crests’.

There is also humour. In particular, a wry tone suffuses the portrayal of many of the hardships of Egger’s early life, almost as though it has been filtered through the gossip of relatives and neighbours. Take this description of the death of Egger’s mother: ‘she had led an irresponsible life, for which God had recently punished her with consumption and summoned her to his bosom.’ The distance and lightness at work here give the central character a complexity and dignity where another author might have been tempted to make him simply pitiable.

Seethaler’s confidence in allowing tiny observations to bear the weight of great events, gives the novel its power. There are moments of supreme beauty – Egger’s proposal to his sweetheart Marie is one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever read. Meanwhile the losses that besiege the protagonist are rendered almost unbearable by what is left unsaid, allowing the author to exploit dramatic irony to its fullest as we watch Egger stumble to confront tragedies for which he never quite finds the words.

In many ways, A Whole Life is a marketing department’s nightmare. A man lives and then he dies. On the face of it, there is nothing to set this story apart. But in the hands of a writer like Seethaler, that is precisely what makes it special.

A Whole Life (Ein ganzes Leben) by Robert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins (Picador, 2015)

Happy Boekenweek!

You might not have noticed that it’s Boekenweek, but if you visit the Netherlands in the next few days it definitely won’t pass you by. Since 1932, this annual ten-day celebration of all things bookish has been one of the highlights of the Dutch literary calendar.

In addition to a range of events, promotions and parties, the extravaganza launches a written work. This Boekenweeksgeschenk (Book week gift) is given out in bookshops whenever someone buys a Dutch-language title and to people joining libraries. Published by the Collectieve Propaganda van het Nederlandse Boek (Collective Promotion for the Dutch Book), these texts are usually written by famous homegrown authors, although this is not always the case – the 2001 offering came from British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie.

This year’s title is by Belgian-born Griet Op de Beeck. Sadly, being on the wrong side of the North Sea, I can’t easily get my hands on a copy – and I would struggle if I did, as my Dutch leaves more than a little to be desired.

As a result, I was delighted to receive a Boekenweek gift that I could more readily enjoy. Netherlands-founded publisher World Editions has been sending out packages of three of the Dutch novels on its list to mark the occasion. These comprise Esther Gerritsen’s Craving, a funny and arresting exploration of a difficult mother-daughter relationship told in the shadow of terminal illness; Renate Dorrestein’s The Darkness that Divides Us, an account of the way a murder sends shockwaves across a childhood; and Jaap Robben’s You Have Me to Love.

I can particularly recommend the last on the list: chilly, strange and quirky, it tells the story of a boy living with his reclusive mother on a remote island in the aftermath of his father’s disappearance into the sea. It also chimes neatly with the 2018 Boekenweek theme of ‘Nature’.

What’s more, the good folk at World Editions obviously appreciate that reading is hungry work, as they kindly included some Dutch treats of another kind: Stroopwafels. Never having tried these caramel-filled delights before, I’ve discovered that they are almost as moreish as the books. Oh dear…

How do you judge translations?

On Wednesday, I featured a graphic novel that had been shortlisted for a new literary prize as my Book of the month. Last night, the winner was announced. The inaugural TA First Translation Prize went to translator Bela Shayevich and editor Jacques Testard for the English edition of Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time.

Although all the shortlisted titles would have been worthy winners, the selection of Shayevich and Testard for this honour (in which the prize goes entirely to the people who brought the text into English and not to the original author) is great news. Belarusian Nobel laureate Alexievich’s work is as challenging as it is important (her Chernobyl Prayer was one of my #WITMonth picks back in 2016). It surely demands special skill to convey its polyphony, while maintaining a sense of cohesion.

It’s also great to see a literary prize that shifts the focus entirely onto the craft of recreating a narrative in another language. Too often, translators are overlooked when books from elsewhere are discussed. Indeed, several of the works I read during my 2012 round-the-world literary adventure, failed to mention the name of the person who had written the words in them.

Yet recognising what individual translators bring to – or even leave out of – a text is often impossible for those who only read the secondary version. Consequently, judging translations without referring to the original works requires an unusual approach, as prize-founder, writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn explained when I asked him to tell me a bit more about the thinking behind the TAFTP award:

‘Most translation prizes fall into one of two categories – either you’re really judging the translation as an act of translation (ie. with an eye to the process, what happens in the journey from the original to the new text, what the particular challenges, solutions, frictions might be), or you’re basically judging the new text as a stand-alone thing which just happens to have its origins in another language. This prize isn’t quite either of those.

‘I’ve judged what used to be called the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, where translations-into-English are appraised alongside books written in English; and in our meetings we barely mentioned the translation process at all. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Man Booker International were the same – you’re judging works of English, not discussing the “translation” aspect as a distinct thing; these are just English-language books which happen to have two authors, who – in the event of a win – will share the prize. (As a translator, I like being judged this way, incidentally.) Meanwhile, those prizes that look at the translation as a-thing-in-relation-to-an-actual-original (so have perhaps a different idea of what makes a translation great) need to be judged by a quite different process – you’re dependent either on judges being able/willing to read originals (single-language prizes, for example) or having a big team of multilingual assessors who can report on this aspect on the judges’ behalf. (Even this new little prize of mine had nearly twenty languages among the submissions. We judges have four between us.)

‘I’ve only once before judged a prize like the TAFTP, where the judges read only the translated books and yet it’s the translator and not the writer who gets the cheque – that was the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation. It’s a slightly tricky one, since we aren’t reading the originals, yet at the same time we’re absolutely rewarding the translator’s role rather than the book generally. Here the author doesn’t get a look-in at all; if we’re giving a prize for a translation, it should in theory be possible to reward an awe-inspiring translation of a mediocre book, above a good translation of a masterpiece… In practice, of course, it’s not always easy to avoid being swayed by things that are seductive manifestations of the writer’s skill; and nor is it always realistic to think that as readers we can accurately isolate different people’s contributions anyway. (We make assumptions about such things all the time without realising – when I read a fine novel in English, my assumption is that, basically, the author wrote a fine novel in English for which s/he should be rewarded, rather than that the author wrote a catastrophically awful novel, which some poor editor basically had to rewrite in order to make it functional…)

‘In other words, the whole thing’s a bit messy. But we talked about that in the judging meeting, too – one of the most fun bits of judging any prize, in my experience, is trying to work out what it is you’re all looking for, and whether there’s some way of articulating that. We certainly can’t pretend there’s a scientific measure. Maybe in the first instance it just comes down to whom you ask to judge, and whether, as in this case, they’re people whose instincts you trust, and who understand how translating and writing and editing work, even if articulating quality is harder to do in the abstract than just “you know it when you see it”.

‘It’s sort of impossible to do, in some senses, but I did have two very wise fellow judges (a great translator and a great editor) to help me in the process. We had no way of knowing what the relationship of the translation is to the original, and yet there’s a lot we absolutely could tell. Did it work as a piece of English? How did the voices sound? If there were English jokes, were they funny? Etc. etc. We could get a sense, too, of whether a translator is having to do something particularly demanding. Our winning book is a dazzling piece of polyvocal English writing, and Bela Shayevich and her editor made the dazzling things happen in English. Of course, it’s possible that it’s a “bad” translation if the original is, say, a 64-page illustrated children’s book about a pony with lots of funny jokes – in which case, yes, this translation truly is an utter travesty (but I’d be surprised if that was the case); the new work would still be a masterpiece, of course, but then perhaps not a translation…’

As with so many things connected to international literature and cultural exchange, there are no easy answers to the question of how we ought to weigh translations. But that’s part of the fun.

Incidentally, if any Russian speakers know of a 64-page illustrated children’s book about a pony that’s been badly misrepresented in English, I’d love to hear more…

Picture from the Society of Authors website.

Book of the month: Tiphaine Rivière

In my previous post on book clubs, I mentioned that international literary prizes can often be a good source of reading suggestions. February’s Book of the month is a neat demonstration of that. Indeed, in this case a literary award encouraged me to discover not just an author I’d never read before, but a whole new genre.

Francesca Barrie’s translation of Tiphaine Rivière’s Carnets de thèse (Notes on a Thesis to you and me) is one of six books on the inaugural shortlist of the TA First Translation Prize. Set up and endowed by writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn, the annual award recognises outstanding debut translations published in the UK, with the first winner announced tomorrow (March 1).

The award is unusual in that, unlike most comparable honours, the original author of the book does not receive part of the prize money. Instead, the  credit goes entirely to the person who rewrote their words in English.

The presence of Notes on a Thesis on the shortlist marks the award out in another way too. It is rare to see a graphic novel in contention for a prize like this. Although the art form is taken very seriously in many parts of the globe, books that use pictures to tell stories tend not to get much attention from the English-speaking literary establishment. As a result, they don’t come onto the radars of many anglophone readers.

This was certainly true for me. Being a wordy person with relatively poor visual sense, I’ve never really ventured into the genre. Had it not been for the presence of Notes on a Thesis on the TAFTP shortlist, the work would almost certainly have passed me by.

However, when I looked it up, the premise struck me as irresistible. Told through the eyes of a young woman, Jeanne, who gets accepted to do a PhD in Paris, the book sets out to satirise the university system. Sparked off by a blog Rivière started after three years working on a thesis herself, it is, according to the blurb on the back, ‘a wickedly funny graphic novel about academic life, for anyone who’s ever missed a deadline.’

I snapped up a copy and took it with me to the University of Kent, where, in between seeing students (many of them working on PhDs) in my capacity as a Royal Literary Fund fellow, I quickly fell under the spell of Rivière’s craft.

‘Wickedly funny’ does not begin to cover it. This is a book that will have readers laughing out loud and rushing to share the jokes. The observations are precise and devastating. A range of killer characters comes to life in a handful of sentences – from the secretary with ‘a secret tactic: feigning gross incompetence to wear down her adversaries, until they eventually stop asking her to do anything at all’ to the PhD supervisor who prescribes reading the complete works of Schopenhauer as a way of getting rid of his charge.

One of the great joys of the book is the way Rivière’s illustrations not only portray but also advance the story. Take this series of ID card snapshots revealing the toll Jeanne’s thesis takes on her over the course of four years.

Or this spread capturing the experience of giving a paper and then waiting nervously for questions at the end.

The publisher’s decision to market Notes on a Thesis at the academic community is understandable, but people from all walks of life will find much to recognise and chuckle at here. Whether it’s the excruciating family Christmas where well-meaning relatives unwittingly rip apart your ambitions, or the irrational, middle-of-the-night heart-to-heart with the partner who has been forced to ride the roller-coaster of your dreams with you, the pages brim with telling and hilarious details.

Although books about writing are common, it is unusual to see the business of trying to put pen to paper captured in pictures. Notes on a Thesis is both a joy and a surprise, richly deserving of literary recognition even as it pokes fun at much of the paraphernalia associated with that world.

If this is an example of what graphic novels have to offer, I have got a lot to learn.

Notes on a Thesis (Carnets de thèse) by Tiphaine Rivière, translated from the French by Francesca Barrie (Jonathan Cape, 2016)