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On May 16 the first winner of the new Man Booker International prize will be announced.

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on April 19, 2016

By Olivia Snaije

The venerable Man Booker Prize has gone through inevitable changes during its nearly 50-year-old existence. In 2005 the biennial Man Booker International prize was inaugurated for a work published in English from anywhere in the world. Last year it merged with what was the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize to evolve into an annual prize to be awarded for the first time this year to a book written in a foreign language, translated into English and published in Great Britain. This is not only good news for writers outside the Anglo-Saxon sphere but also for translators who so lovingly bring us these authors and their books. The £50,000 prize is to be shared equally between the author and the translator, moreover the six writers and their translators on the shortlist will each receive £1,000.

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In a packed event last night at the Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company, two of the five jury members, Boyd Tonkin and Daniel Medin, and the prize’s administrator, Fiametta Rocco, discussed just what this new prize was all about with Lucie Campos, of the French Institute in London.

One hundred and fifty five books were read, said Fiametta Rocco, then 12 or 13 were chosen for the long list, which was then narrowed down to 6 for the shortlist. The remaining books are being read once again before the winning book will be chosen and announced on May 16th. The five judges were picked from “all sorts of backgrounds…essentially what makes you come into this kind of work is being unbelievably passionate about books. A truly universal novel will hit anyone in the chest.”

Boyd Tonkin, a former judge with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and a vocal champion of translated literature said: “Translators are not the best rewarded or recognized so to have a prize such as this which gives them their due is outstanding,”

Two other judges are a translator and an editor of translated literature themselves; David Bellos, a Princeton academic known for his book on translation Is that a Fish in your Ear? and Daniel Medin, who was also a judge for the American Best Translated Book Award. Medin, who remarked in passing that in his experience as a judge in the US, because of regional interests, Latin American literature was well represented in the US, and said he had initially been concerned that there wouldn’t be enough geographical diversity in the books chosen because the prize is for books only published in the UK. Ultimately, however, the choice was well rounded: “I was pleased even if it was something that wasn’t calculated. We only saw the diversity come into view when we stepped away.”

Lucie Campos noted that authors on the short list were diverse in all senses—from Nobel-prize winning Orhan Pamuk or Elena Ferrante, whose Neopolitan novels have brought her international fame, to Korean author Han Kang’s first book translated into English. The translations range from contemporary books, to Brazilian author Raduan Nassar’s book published 38 years ago. There are books published by independent presses as well as traditional ones. There are erotic, poetic and more classical novels.

“Each book arrives before us as a single item. We don’t give any awards on the basis of their past achievement neither do we consider their past success or publishing history a handicap. Every book has to come to the prize as if it were freshly minted,” said Tonkin.

The judges and Rocco were asked if they had seen any trends emerging in today’s literature?

Medin said he had noticed that there were a “huge number of titles about migration. It seemed like it was important for writers from everywhere to address this issue in very different ways. So there was some topicality but it was unintentional, given the translation lag.”

Tonkin remarked that it was almost impossible to judge trends in one year’s production, but that in globalized fiction he saw a diversity of form. “The pleasure in this prize was that it constantly made you think about what a great novel is. Writers redefine and rewrite rules about how fiction should work. A novel can be a loose baggy monster, as Henry James said, or a cupped diamond.”

“I’ve sat through many meetings with the judges,” said Rocco. “I’ve never come across a shortlist where anyone could win—I really don’t know which book will win…”

Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.


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