As the International Booker Prize 2023 shortlist is announced, we’ve pulled together the most interesting facts and trends that have emerged in this year’s selection

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

Publication date and time: Published

The International Booker Prize shines a light on the best works of literature originally written in languages other than English, now translated and published in the UK or Ireland. As this year’s shortlist is revealed, we take a closer look at the six remarkable books and the stories behind them; their common themes and their many differences. 

The titles shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023 are: 

Eva Baltasar

1. Works that span the entire globe 

Each of the six books on the shortlist originated in a different country – Bulgaria, Côte d’Ivoire, France, Mexico, South Korea and Spain; together they span four continents. The shortlisted translators represent five countries – Brazil, Ireland, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States. Two of the novels have been translated from languages which are represented on the International Booker Prize shortlist for the first time: Bulgarian and Catalan.  

2. More firsts – and lasts 

Two of the novels on the shortlist are the authors’ debuts: Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated by Chi-Young Kim; and Standing Heavy by GauZ’, translated by Frank Wynne. In both cases, the authors have written several works since. At the other end of the spectrum, The Gospel According to the New World by Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox is the author’s final book. ‘Winning would be a way of celebrating my […] final novel’, Condé, who is 89, told the Booker Prizes website, upon being longlisted. Condé is the oldest person ever to be nominated for the International Booker Prize and was previously shortlisted in 2015 for her entire body of work. The author, who has a degenerative neurological disorder that has resulted in a loss of vision, dictated The Gospel According to the New World to her partner and translator Philcox, who then translated it into English. They are the first wife-and-husband team ever nominated for the prize. 

Maryse Condé

3. Extremes of translation 

Whale was first published in Korean in 2004 – a year before the International Booker Prize was even established. Almost 20 years later, during which time it has been widely regarded as a modern classic in South Korea, the English translation of Cheon Myeong-kwan’s debut has found a whole new audience. ‘It has been so long, almost 20 years, since I wrote the book, that I have nearly forgotten about it,’ Cheon told the Korea Herald when longlisted. A much shorter translation process can be found in Time Shelter, which translator Angela Rodel began work on before Georgi Gospodinov had even finished writing the book in its original language, Bulgarian. Due to the success of Gospodinov’s previous work, drafts of the work-in-progress novel were such hot property that Rodel begin translating it before she even had the chance to read it in full. 

4. Novels that serve as societal spotlights 

Many of the books on the shortlist hold up a mirror to the societies within which they are set. Whale shines a light on the changes that Korea – and its women especially – has experienced in its rapid transition from pre-modern to post-modern society. Told through a satirical lens, Standing Heavy is a searingly witty deconstruction of French colonial legacies (and modern-day consumerism), a theme readers may also notice deep in the subtext of The Gospel According to the New World, which comments on the lasting effects of colonialism in the Caribbean. Time Shelter, described by our judges as ‘a subversive masterclass in the absurdities of national identity’, tackles the rise of populist movements around the world, warning of the dangers of selective memory, of weaponised nostalgia and of seeking refuge in the past. 

Cheon Myeong-kwan

5. The common thread of motherhood 

Two of the novels explore the nuances and challenges of modern motherhood while confronting patriarchal ideologies. Still Born, by Guadalupe Nettel and translated by Rosalind Harvey, is inspired by the experiences of the author’s friend and her daughter and explores the moral complexities of maternity. The novel addresses the challenges of those who are childless by choice through its two career-driven female protagonists, one of whom chooses to be sterilised, perhaps prematurely, while the other’s eventual pregnancy brings devastating complications. Eva Baltasar’s Boulder, translated by Julia Sanches and described by our judges as ‘a feverish exploration of desire’, leads with a lesbian relationship in which one partner chooses to have a child while the other remains ambivalent. The two novels show women reckoning with biology and their physicality, while suffocating under the emotional weight of their decisions. 

6. Six very different approaches to storytelling 

Although the books share a number of common themes – and while all are, in the words of chair of judges Leïla Slimani, ‘not abstract or theoretical books, but very grounded books, about people, places and moments’ – stylistically and tonally they couldn’t be more different. Boulder is a short, poetic and very sensual book about all kinds of appetites; while Standing Heavy’s blackly comic vignettes are presented in a fragmentary style – as if from different camera angles. In Whale, Cheon Myeong-Kwan’s storytelling is joyful and energetic; our judges said the author had ‘built a believable story out of preposterous situations’. Guadalupe Nettel’s moving and unflinching Still Born balances empathy and cruelty; it is ‘honest, unsentimental and compassionate about the choices we think we’re making, and the choices that are foisted upon us’, said our judges. Time Shelter is a high-concept novel of ideas, propelled by playful humour. While The Gospel According to the New World is joyful, optimistic and colourful, ‘a deceptively simple novel full of wisdom, generosity of spirit and the writer’s palpable tenderness towards the world and her craft,’ according to our judges.  

Guadalupe Nettel