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Translating the list

Translating the list

This year's Man Booker dozen, the shortlist of 13 books nominated for the £50,000 Man Booker International Prize, has a wonderfully well-rounded look. One of the aims of the prize is to help correct the fact that, in this country, we read embarrassingly little foreign fiction. It is a mission statement that requires the long view but the very fact that several of the names on this year’s list have a familiar ring to them shows that headway is being made.

The best-known names are those of Ismail Kadare, David Grossman and Amos Oz (with his first novel in a decade), all writers with a long international pedigree – indeed Kadare was the inaugural winner of the Man Booker International in 2005. Meanwhile Yan Lianke, Alain Mabanckou and Mathias Enard are among the novelists with an established and growing presence. Yan and Mabanckou have both appeared on recent editions of the Man Booker International, in 2016 and 2015 respectively.

Ironically or defiantly perhaps, the 2017 list has a strongly European feel with only Yan Lianke from China and Samanta Schweblin from Argentina representing the distant reaches of the globe. The lack of any American names, however, is nothing to do with current political events but rather that US novelists are eligible for the Man Booker Prize itself. The spread by nationality is also nicely balanced – France and Israel have two nominees while nine other countries get one each (at a pinch England can even claim part of one – Wioletta Greg lives in Essex). For gender watchers, there are three women authors on the list but seven out of 14 translators (Roy Jacobsen required two translators). The prize money, of course, is divided between author and translator.

Harvill Secker, Chatto & Windus and the Maclehose Press are long-standing champions of foreign fiction (they share six nominations between them) but it is good to see other, smaller presses standing with them toe to toe. Notable among the specialist publishers are Fitzcarraldo Editions and Portobello Books with two nominations each. Such companies are positively evangelical about their books and indefatigable (and undaunted) in cheerleading, cajoling and imploring on behalf of their authors. It can be a life of knockbacks so the nominations are a reward for keeping the faith.

In announcing the longlist the chair of judges Nick Barley wisely didn't try and characterise the breadth of the stories he and Daniel Hahn, Elif Shafak, Chika Unigwe and Helen Mort had chosen. How could he? After all, there seems nothing to link tales of a courier of the heads of executed traitors in the Ottoman empire (Kadare), with a modern Babylon in China (Yan Lianke), the mental breakdown of an Israeli stand-up comedian (Grossman), life next to an American military base in Iceland (Jón Kalman Stefánsson) or a modern Robin Hood in the People's Republic of the Congo in the 1970s (Mabanckou).

There's not much that links the authors either. Mabanckou, for example, was born in 1966 in Congo but lives in Los Angeles and teaches literature at UCLA; Kadare was born in 1936 in Albania, sought political asylum in France in 1990 and now lives in Paris and Tirana; Stefan Hertmans is also an art historian who has taught at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent (oh, and for good measure at the Sorbonne, the Universities of Vienna, Berlin and Mexico City, and University College London); Greg meanwhile is primarily a poet and Swallowing Mercury is her debut novel and the first time she has been translated into English (Schweblin's Fever Dream is also the first of her works to make it into English); and so on. The writers' personal stories are novels in themselves.

Having whittled 126 submissions down to 13 the judges now have a month further to refine this embarrassment of riches and deliver a shortlist on 20 April. As one of panel, Helen Mort, has already said ‘There's going to be some really tough battles to be fought.’


The full 2017 longlist by Author, Translator, Title and Imprint, is as follows:

Mathias Enard (France), Charlotte Mandell, Compass (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Wioletta Greg (Poland), Eliza Marciniak, Swallowing Mercury (Portobello Books)

David Grossman (Israel), Jessica Cohen, A Horse Walks Into a Bar (Jonathan Cape)

Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), David McKay, War and Turpentine (Harvill Secker)

Roy Jacobsen (Norway), Don Bartlett, Don Shaw, The Unseen (Maclehose)

Ismail Kadare (Albania), John Hodgson, The Traitor's Niche (Harvill Secker)

Jon Kalman Stefansson (Iceland), Phil Roughton, Fish Have No Feet (Maclehose)

Yan Lianke (China), Carlos Rojas, The Explosion Chronicles (Chatto & Windus)

Alain Mabanckou (France), Helen Stevenson, Black Moses (Serpent's Tail)

Clemens Meyer (Germany), Katy Derbyshire, Bricks and Mortar (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Dorthe Nors (Denmark), Misha Hoekstra, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (Pushkin Press)

Amos Oz (Israel), Nicholas de Lange, Judas (Chatto & Windus)

Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), Megan McDowell, Fever Dream (Oneworld)