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A spotlight on the 2020 International Booker Prize shortlist announcement

A spotlight on the 2020 International Booker Prize shortlist announcement

The 2020 shortlist:

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Farsi-Iran), translated by Anonymous, published by Europa Editions

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Spanish-Argentina), translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh, published by Charco Press

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (Germany-German), translated by Ross Benjamin, published by Quercus

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Spanish-Mexico), translated by Sophie Hughes, Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese-Japan), translated by Stephen Snyder, published by Harvill Secker

The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Dutch-Netherlands), translated by Michele Hutchison, published by Faber & Faber

 

The locked-down International Booker Prize judges have been using their enforced isolation to good effect. Not for them sitting around and searching for amusing dog videos on YouTube or taking up knitting or baking, but rather noses very firmly wedged in their longlist of 13 international novels. Now, noses safely extracted, they have come up with a shortlist of six – a task that must have seemed impossible as they surveyed the pile of 124 submitted novels a few months back.

Those five judges, Ted Hodgkinson, Head of Literature and Spoken Word at Southbank Centre; Lucie Campos, director of the Villa Gillet, France's centre for international writing; Man Booker International Prize-winning translator and writer Jennifer Croft; Booker Prize longlisted author Valeria Luiselli and writer, poet, musician and 2012 Man Booker Prize shortlistee Jeet Thayil, can now breathe out and survey the tidy pile of books in front of them.

That trimmed stack nevertheless offers a global perspective of fiction today. The books have been translated from five languages (Spanish appears twice, once with a Mexican inflection and once with an Argentinian twang) and have emerged from both North and South America, the Middle East, South-East Asia and Europe. Stick a pin in a globe and there’s high-quality writing not so very far away.

The range of topics is as broad as the geography. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is narrated by a ghost in post-revolutionary Iran; The Adventures of China Iron tells the story of two women looking for freedom on the pampas of late 19th-century Argentina; Tyll describes the picaresque adventures of a slightly sinister prankster during Europe’s Thirty Years War; Hurricane Season describes hardscrabble and sometimes violent lives in rural Mexico; The Memory Police is a disturbing dystopian tale about the necessity and fragility of remembering; while The Discomfort of Evening centres on the dark fantasies of a 10-year-old girl.

If there are links between the novels they lie in re-workings of national histories and myths and in explorations of traumas. They do so, however, in highly individual ways. As Ted Hodgkinson, chair of judges, put it: “Our shortlist transcends this unprecedented moment, immersing us in expansively imagined lives that hold enduring fascination.” Part of that fascination, he acknowledged, was down to the skill of the novels’ translators as well as their authors: “Whether capturing a deftly imagined dystopia or incandescent flows of language, these are tremendous feats of translation, which in these isolating times, represent the pinnacle of an art-form rooted in dialogue.” Indeed, as a footnote, for one of those translators, Sophie Hughes, it is a second appearance on the shortlist (her first was last year with Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder).

From its inception, part of the prize’s aim has been to reward translators. Without their skill, how else could the bantering tone of a German itinerant juggler be caught, or the unfolding pain of a Dutch family as a child dies, or the internal monologues and grapplings of a Japanese novelist as memory proves both slippery and dangerous? How else could such enormous themes as intellectual freedom, sexual identity, political unrest, and loss be made to merge seamlessly with the personal imperatives of love, family, friendship and emotion? The best novels always blend the personal with wider themes of society or history but so much can be lost in the telling, nuances missed, layered words mislaid, that without the right translator the novelist’s work can be rendered bland and trite.

This is why the £50,000 International Booker Prize is split equally between novelist and translator. Even writing, usually cast as a solitary pursuit, can be collaborative. 

Thanks to the global circumstances, this is the first time either The International Booker Prize or The Booker Prize shortlist has been announced digitally. Literature, of course, has a centuries-old history of adaptation and survival so while it is a shame this year’s shortlist couldn’t be revealed in front of the selected authors, translators and publishers in person, their books will nevertheless still go out into a world that needs them with “Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize” emblazoned on their covers.