by Eva Baltasar
Translated by Julia Sanches
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Today, April 18, 2023, the shortlist for the International Booker Prize 2023 was announced by the Chair of judges, Leïla Slimani, at an event held at the London Book Fair and livestreamed to readers around the world.
The International Booker Prize – the world’s most significant award for a single work of fiction translated into English – is shared equally by the winning author and translator, in recognition of the latter’s vital contribution in taking the best literature beyond the borders of its original language. The prize is awarded annually for a novel or short story collection originally written in any language, translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland.
The shortlist of six novels includes works originating in six countries across four continents, and features:
Title, original language, author, author nationality, translator, translator nationality, UK Imprint.
The International Booker Prize exists not only to shine a light on the best fiction originally written in languages other than English, but also to emphasise why reading such fiction matters to us all. This year’s shortlistees all agree that we should be doing more to celebrate translated fiction. Maryse Condé says that ‘translation has always been treated like a poor cousin and needs to be recognised in the literary landscape’, while translator Frank Wynne says that ‘literature in translation is the most powerful way of fostering empathy, of nurturing curiosity, of developing an understanding not only of others, but of ourselves.’ Eva Baltasar adds: ‘The fact that translation can take literature outside the borders of its original language is a gift. Translation moves treasures from one place to another, expanding our heritage, leaving no one the poorer.’
Data compiled by Nielsen for the Booker Prize Foundation shows that, in the UK, readers of translated fiction are significantly younger than readers of fiction overall. Under 35s now account for almost half of all the UK’s translated fiction purchases: the largest group, 25 to 34-year-olds, purchased almost a quarter (24.9%) of all translated fiction in 2022; 13 to 24-year-olds bought a further 17.3%, bringing the total proportion of translated fiction bought by readers under the age of 35 to 48.2%. By comparison, the biggest demographic group for fiction in general is made up of readers aged 60 to 84.
The proportion of younger readers of translated fiction is also growing: that 24.9% of translated fiction bought by 25 to 34-year-olds in 2002 is up from 21% in 2021. The proportion of older readers (aged 60 to 84) of translated fiction fell from 20.9% in 2021 to 13.2% in 2022. In addition, 48% of translated fiction buyers in the UK are male, compared with only 32% of fiction buyers overall.
The shortlist was chosen by the International Booker Prize 2023 judges from a longlist of 13 titles announced in March, which was selected from 134 books published in the UK or Ireland between May 1, 2022 and April 30, 2023 and submitted to the prize by publishers.
This year’s judging panel includes Leïla Slimani (Chair), prize-winning French-Moroccan novelist; Uilleam Blacker, one of Britain’s leading literary translators from Ukrainian; Tan Twan Eng, the Booker-shortlisted Malaysian novelist; Parul Sehgal, staff writer and critic at the New Yorker; and Frederick Studemann, Literary Editor of the Financial Times.
The winner of the International Booker Prize 2023 will be announced at a ceremony at Sky Garden in London on Tuesday May 23. The winners’ £50,000 prize purse will be divided equally between the author and translator. Authors and translators of each of the six shortlisted books will receive a prize of £5,000 at the ceremony: £2,500 for the author and £2,500 for the translator (or divided equally between multiple translators).
‘I think I speak for the whole jury when I say that I am proud of this list. I think it’s a very cool, very sexy list. We wanted each book to feel like an astonishment and to stand on its own.
‘These books are all bold, subversive, nicely perverse. There is something sneaky about a lot of them. I also feel that these are sensual books, where the question of the body is important. What is it like to have a body? How do you write about the experience of the body? These are not abstract or theoretical books, but on the contrary, very grounded books, about people, places, moments. All these authors also question the narrative and what it means to write a novel today.
‘What is extraordinary about literature is that when a novel is successful, it works for anyone, anywhere. There’s something really magical about storytelling. And we have had the joy of experiencing this by reading the books on this list. We have been caught up in these stories, dazzled, fascinated and it is these emotions that we want to share. I’m very happy to offer this list to readers – a list of remarkable variety, where they will find poetry, fantasy, eroticism and metaphysics.’
I think it’s a very cool, very sexy list… These books are all bold, subversive, nicely perverse.
‘Just under half the translated fiction sold in Britain is bought by people under 35, according to new research conducted by Nielsen for the Booker Prize Foundation. This is an astonishing statistic, and is part of a far wider cultural trend in which more and more films, TV series and music originating in languages other than English have become part of the global mainstream. Young people are curious, adventurous and engaged – and have a very porous sense of national borders. This presents an enormous opportunity that no publisher or bookseller of fiction in translation should ignore. We look forward to seeing this exciting shortlist, expertly chosen by the judges, reaching the hands of readers – young and old – around the world.’
The author said: ‘I wrote three Boulders. Three different novels with the same title and the same intention: portraying a boulder-like character. The first and second iterations were a struggle, the product of two and a half years of constant writing. But I wasn’t in love with those characters. I need to want to be with my characters, to love them through language.’
The judges said: ‘A very intense, poetic, sensual book about all kinds of appetites. A feverish exploration of desire, a vibrant love story between two women, lyrical and simmering, written with lucidity and great freedom of tone. An impressive work of translation.’
The author said: ‘Whale is my first novel. As I wrote it quite a long time ago, I was stunned that it was longlisted for the International Booker Prize this year, and that makes it all the more exciting. The publication of Whale changed my life, and it feels like it is still a propulsive force in my life.’
The judges said: ‘This book will fill you with awe. You’ve never read a plot like it: just read it, and be swept away by the sheer joy and energy of the storytelling. It reminded some of us of a seventies comedy show: Cheon Myeong-Kwan has built a believable story out of preposterous situations. The characters aren’t nice – but they’re irresistible. It’s a book to be swallowed by and to live inside for a while. And the ending is so moving it will have you in bits.’
The author said: ‘Because of my loss of vision, I had to dictate the text to a friend as well as my husband. This obliged me to write each chapter in my head. I was sensitive to sound and meaning because the writer is also a musician. The process was delicate and complex. I endeavoured to give to the person I was dictating to the version I had written out in my head.’
The judges said: ‘A joyful and optimistic book by a great storyteller, about the possibility of changing the world. Maryse Condé plays with our need to believe in a messiah, and retells one of the oldest stories with a lot of irony. It’s a deceptively simple novel full of wisdom, generosity of spirit and the writer’s palpable tenderness towards the world and her craft.’
The author said: ‘In order to write this book, I began by taking notes while I was on duty [as a security guard]. It’s a job where there’s nothing to do but watch. I immediately understood that this was ideal for observing without being seen. I was at the very heart of the absurdity of consumerist society.’
The judges said: ‘This book is about the anti-flâneurs: not the rich white men who roam the boulevards of Paris but poorly paid Black men whose jobs require them to stand still. As a security guard, the Ivorian protagonist of Standing Heavy is invisible but sees everything. Told in a fragmentary style – as if from different camera angles – this is the story of colonialism and consumerism, of the specifics of power, and of the hope of the sixties diminishing as society turns cynical and corrupt.’
The author said: ‘I come from a system that sold a “bright future” under communism. Now the stakes have shifted, and populists are selling a “bright past”. I know via my own skin that both cheques bounce, they are backed by nothing.’
The judges said: ‘The conceit – a time clinic – will make you want to burst out laughing, and it’s full of lines you’ll want to copy out. It’s an inventive novel with an unexpectedly cheeky tone to it. But it’s also a subversive masterclass in the absurdities of national identity: so relevant now. Part of a tradition of East Central Europe that includes Milan Kundera, Dubravka Ugrešić and Danilo Kiš, it’s a fresh staging of old questions: the danger of selective memory, the inheritance of trauma, and how nostalgia can take a grip on society and become a comfort blanket – or a cancer.’
The author said: ‘In the beginning, my intention was to write the story of my friend and her little daughter, which I’ve found incredibly inspiring, both terrible and beautiful at the same time. I wanted to show that it is possible to transform this painful experience into a meaningful one.’
The judges said: ‘The plot grabs you so organically it’s as though you’ve been abducted by reading – you feel like you live with these characters. At the end of the book you’ll want to call a friend and ask them to read it too, because none of it is black and white. In writing about how difficult it is to be a mother, Nettel balances empathy and cruelty, and deals brilliantly with all the moral complexity of maternity. The product of a deep wisdom, it’s honest, unsentimental and compassionate about the choices we think we’re making, and the choices that are foisted upon us.’
Shortlist readings, Southbank Centre
An evening of shortlist readings will be mediated by Merve Emre, Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and regular contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books on Thursday May 18, 7.30pm, Purcell Room, Southbank Centre.
The 2023 winners at the Hay Festival
The prize’s annual visit to the festival occurs at 4.00pm on Saturday May 27, when International Booker Prize judge and novelist Tan Twan Eng and Booker Prize Foundation Chief Executive Gaby Wood will be in conversation with the winning author and translator of the International Booker Prize 2023.
The winner can expect international recognition and a significant uplift in global sales. Last year’s winner, Tomb of Sand, written by Geetanjali Shree and translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, made history as the first novel translated from any South Asian language to be recognised by the International Booker Prize. The UK edition initially sold 473 copies in the first six months after publication, which increased to over 5,000 copies between the longlist announcement in February and the end of May 2022. In the nine months since its win on May 26 2022 it has sold a further 25,000 copies making it the publisher, Tilted Axis’s, biggest seller. Rights have been sold in a dozen languages and a US edition was recently published by HarperVia.