The Best Translated Book Award

Book covers of BTBA finalistsIt’s always silly to declare a single book to be the “best,” but it’s often productive (and fun) to consider the idea. It’s all the more so when the process involves a diverse range of writers and their writing that actually represents parts of the world we Anglophones don’t usually hear about.

That’s what the Best Translated Book Award, first conferred in 2008, sets out to do. It was the brainchild of the good folk at Three Percent, an online forum dedicated to international literature, and it comes with a $10,000 prize, split equally between the author and the translator of the winning book. Any full-length fiction written in a language other than English that gets published for the first time in the U.S. during the prior calendar year is eligible. There were over 500 such titles that appeared in 2014, which is both a big pile to sort through and a drop in the bucket when compared to the tens of thousands of American books made available in the same time frame.

The number of translations is growing every year, though, mostly thanks to people at small presses who see the value of listening to the conversation that the majority of the globe is trying to have with us. The ten finalists below are the books that had the most to say and said it best.

  • The Author and Me by Eric Chevillard (translated by Jordan Stump): A comic monologue in which the narrator, who is definitely not the author, let’s make that perfectly clear so there’s no misunderstanding, expresses his loathing for cauliflower gratin, which exceeds his distaste for murder. (France)
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney): The debut novel by a young, globe-trotting author, it braids together the experiences of a new mother in Mexico City, a poetry-obsessed translator in Harlem, and a dying writer in Philadelphia. (Mexico)
  • Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires by Julio Cortázar (translated by David Kurnick): A mixed-media masterpiece that includes comics and charts, facts and fiction, and uses them all to indict the excesses of contemporary capitalism. (Argentina)
  • Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal (translated by Stacey Knecht): A novel filled with gorgeous, corkscrewing sentences that depict an elderly woman’s experiences in a castle-turned-old-age-home. (Czech Republic)
  • La Grande by Juan José Saer (translated by Steve Dolph): The final work from one of South America’s most legendary writers, it touches on politics, artistic beliefs, illicit love affairs, and everything else that makes up life. (Argentina)
  • The Last Lover by Can Xue (translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen): A surreal journey through a symoblic dreamscape, this is perhaps the most experimental of the finalists and perhaps also the most brilliant. (China)
  • Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov (translated by Katherine Dovlatov): The autobiographical account of a charmingly roguish writer who can’t get published at home but can’t bring himself to emigrate. (Russia)
  • Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile (translated by Margaret Jull Costa): The first book available in English from a recently departed short story master who has earned comparisons with Chekhov and Mansfield. (Spain)
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein): The third installment in an already-acclaimed tetralogy that’s at once an exploration of female friendship and a sweeping social history of Naples in the 20th century. (Italy)
  • The Woman Who Borrowed Memories by Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella): A collection of short fiction from a previous BTBA winner who’s best known for creating the Moomins. (Finland)

It’s an eclectic bunch without a clear favorite, which just means that every book on the list is equally worth your time. The winner will be announced on May 27th at BookExpo America, so there’s still time to place your bets.

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