Interviews with the International Booker Prize 2023 longlistees
The authors and translators longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023 tell us how it feels to be nominated and why we should celebrate translated fiction
We asked this year’s longlisted authors and translators to explain why, in their personal view, reading fiction translated from another language matters so much
Read the full interviews here
Translation is a kind of safeguard of the teeming biodiversity of literature. Celebrating translated literature means celebrating alterity, diversity and abundance, and celebrating our own calling into question, the better to reinvent ourselves. Let us imagine for a few seconds a world where we can only read books written in our own language; a world where the only literary universes at our disposal come from inside our own languages, our own relationship to the world. It would undoubtedly be very limited and restrictive.
I suppose literature in general needs all the celebration it can get, but boosting translated books in particular sustains a market for publishers doing high-risk ambassadorial work and readers curious about how people in other places make sense of their world and imagine alternatives, for better and worse. The more we read across borders, the more complex our notion of universality gets, and that’s as important now as it’s ever been.
Literature is art, it is human creation, and this makes it universal. The fact that translation can take literature outside the borders of its original language is a gift, and I believe gifts shouldn’t be ignored, that they come with an obligation. Celebrating translated fiction means celebrating the human capacity for courage and domestication: that we can take a work, mount it like a horse, and send it anywhere in the world as a messenger. Thanks to translation, the message is able to travel and not lose its way, to reach its destination and not be misunderstood; translation moves treasures from one place to another, expanding our heritage, leaving no one the poorer.
Because, in the words of the brilliant Jeremy Tiang, my comrade on this longlist: ‘Perhaps if the dominant anglophone culture actually acknowledged itself to be part of the world, rather than treating “world literature” as a spice rack to save itself from total blandness, more than three per cent of books published in the United States would be in translation?’ I believe the figure in the UK is closer to 6%, but the point stands.
This world has been built on a succession of fictions. Capitalism, colonisation, war, nations, borders, justice, economy, etc. Everything is absolutely fiction. A fiction that has lasted for centuries, has had an enormous cost in human lives, in tragedies, in violence, in the destruction of nature… No theoretical or rhetorical arsenal can defeat a fiction. Only another fiction can do that. This is the great mistake of the Ancients who did not understand this. It is only by offering new, strong fictions that we can influence the mad race that is leading the world towards so much injustice and violence. Your role is essential in opening the door to these fictions that come from places that we would benefit from hearing from very loudly and much more often… they have a different fiction to offer the world.
Since the dawn of language, human beings have told stories so that they can share their thoughts, their experience, their history, their culture. To my mind, 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. The history of literature written in English (or indeed any language) bears the mark of all the translations that have fed into the rushing torrent of voices that make up our world. How much poorer would we be without The Iliad, The Tale of Genji, without Don Quixote, without the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, the nightmare worlds of Kafka, the fever dreams of Bora Chung, the harrowing power and warmth of the novels of Mani Shankar Mukherjee. Literature, like music, expands to accommodate a multitude of voices, and celebrating those voices, those stories is, to me, the essence of what it means to be human.
If translators hadn’t undertaken that labour, I would have been someone who’d never had the opportunity to read Hemingway or Conan Doyle. It’s terrible to even contemplate
Because reading fiction from abroad, but in your own language, is a meeting with experiences, environments and cultures that are different from your own, but still you met them in a way that is familiar, in your own language. It’s a win-win-experience.
I have not read Thomas Bernhard in German, but when I read his furious novels about his childhood in Salzburg as an illegitimate child, I feel very close to him. It must be because the Norwegian translation by Sverre Dahl is so good. I have not read Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu in French either, even though I have lived I France for more than two years. I’m not terribly interested in the life of Parisian bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 19th century, nevertheless I get lost in this novel – in a good way – and it must be because the Norwegian translation by the eminent Anne-Lisa Amadou is so fantastic and deserving of praise.
I mention these two male authors because, although I have had many and long love affairs with men, I have never come as close to a real man as I think I have with these two foreign authors.
Translated fiction can show us that we are ultimately all connected. A Norwegian writer writing about parent-child relationships can reach across divides and remind us of shared experiences of the human condition. Is Mother Dead has been widely read in Norway, but Norwegian is spoken by only five million people. Celebrating translated fiction gives this book, and others like it, a springboard to a much wider readership.
It’s very important. Translating literature is critical work and if translators hadn’t undertaken that labour, I would have been someone who’d never had the opportunity to read Hemingway or Conan Doyle. It’s terrible to even contemplate.
I wouldn’t be who I am as a person or a translator without translated fiction. The ability to read fiction from around the globe honed my imagination and gave me a sense of where I belong in the world. It also taught me about the histories and cultures of places I have never been to. Translated fiction is a portal into other worlds.
Because translation has always been treated like a poor cousin and needs to be recognised in the literary landscape. The International Booker Prize is ‘the royal road to cross-cultural understanding and literary enrichment’, if I may quote from Mark Polizotti’s Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto.
Because translation is not getting the celebrations it merits. I have always thought that one day the Nobel Literature Prize should go to a translator.
Literature has to travel, and readers have to move out of their ‘home zone’ to greet some literary guests at their port of entry – the translation. These journeys result in enrichment for all concerned. Celebrating translated fiction promotes and supports these journeys.
I feel that translators need all the attention they can get. A good translation is truly a work of art in which the translator inevitably creates channels by which a different culture can be understood and appreciated.
Because the world is far too interesting a place for us to only care about what happens in its Anglophone regions.
We write to postpone the end of the world. And the end of the world is a very personal thing. It happens in different languages. Translation gives us the sense that we are working towards this postponement together
Let me put it simply. When we have ears and eyes (and a translation) for the story of the Other, when we hear and read it, they become a person like us. Storytelling generates empathy. It saves the world. Especially a world like the one we live in today. We write to postpone the end of the world. And the end of the world is a very personal thing. It happens in different languages. Translation gives us the sense that we are working towards this postponement together. It gives us the sense that in my Bulgarian story of sadness and anxiety, in someone else’s Peruvian story, for example, and in your English story, we are hurting in a very similar, human way. There is no other way to tame that pain and respond to it than to tell it. And the more languages we tell it in, the better.
There unfortunately seems to be a chauvinistic belief in the English-speaking world that translations are ‘second fiddle’, somehow less-than or less desirable than original works in English, relegated to the ‘translated fiction’ or ‘foreign movies’ section (although luckily I think this is changing). A major international prize like the International Booker challenges this shortsighted Anglo-centric assumption and demonstrates that we have a moral responsibility to hear voices from beyond our own comfort zone, to recognise that the lived experiences of people whose language is not English holds just as much insight into the human condition as our own literature does.
There is so much great literature around the world. Discovering new worlds via literature is important, discovering the immortal power of storytelling is important, discovering the magic of other languages is important, so we should celebrate translated fiction, always.
I don’t think translated fiction has any inherent value that un-translated fiction doesn’t have; reading it won’t make us better people or necessarily teach us anything about its settings. But if we’re celebrating fiction, why should we limit ourselves to work created only in one language? Why restrict our horizons when there’s a whole world out there? I like to imagine translation enabling a criss-crossing of ideas between writers and readers – and writers and other writers – around the globe. Perhaps the best comparison might be music: put simply, if Jamaican musicians hadn’t melded New Orleans-style rhythm & blues with mento and calypso (themselves composed of many influences), we wouldn’t have reggae and all its many offshoots. Translated fiction helps that cross-pollination to come about, helps keep literature vibrant.
The world is vast, and it would be such a pity if we only ever read fiction in the few languages we understand. Translated fiction is vital to encountering writing we would otherwise never know.
Because there is so much amazing literature being written in so many languages, and we would all be poorer for it if there weren’t so many amazing translators.
Stories are life! They both tell us about how others feel, and help us understand how we feel - and if we’re only looking at the feelings of those who speak our language, we’re limiting ourselves - both in the sense that we’re not learning about other ways of thinking, but also in the sense that we’re not seeing the things we have in common with others - the ways we might think similarly, despite being in a different place.
Because fiction is the most powerful vehicle of empathy that I know. More than journalism or anthropological studies, it allows us to connect beyond ideologies, and to enter into a space of intimacy with people from other nations. It makes us share their fears, their hopes, and their life experiences.
For the same reason it’s important to celebrate any fiction we think is worth reading – the separation of ’translated fiction’ from so-called ‘original fiction’ is a false and unhelpful one, I feel, both for authors and for readers (not to mention publishers!), and just generally for the health of the literary ecosystem, and we would all do well to just follow our interests and our obsessions, and read whatever book we feel drawn to, no matter where it comes from or which stage of the mediation process it happens to be at.