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Lots in translation

As the winner of the International Booker Prize is due to be announced today, ASH Smyth talks to poet, translator and judge on this year’s panel, George Szirtes

Originally something of a mini-Nobel, from its inception in 2005 until 2015 the International Booker Prize was awarded every two years, to any living author (sic) whose work was at least generally available in English, in honour of their “overall contribution to fiction on the world stage”. Winners included Philip Roth, Lydia Davis, Alice Munro, Chinua Achebe, Ismail Kadare, and László Krasznahorkai – of whom more later.

Since 2016, the award has been given annually to a single book translated into English (and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland), with a £50,000 prize shared equally between the author and translator.

Having started, sometime last year, with 125 books originating in at least a dozen languages (even the longlist still contained a spread of European ones, plus Arabic, Chinese, Georgian and Gikuyu), the 2021 shortlist comprises the author-and-translator pairs of:

David Diop/Anna Moschovakis – At Night All Blood is Black (orig. French; Pushkin Press)

Mariana Enríquez/Megan McDowell – The Dangers of Smoking in Bed (orig. Spanish; Granta Books)

Olga Ravn/Martin Aitken – The Employees (orig. Danish; Lolli Editions)

Maria Stepanova/Sasha Dugdale – In Memory of Memory (orig. Russian; Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Éric Vuillard/Mark Polizzotti – The War of the Poor (orig. French; Pan Macmillan, Picador)

Benjamín Labatut/Adrian Nathan West – When We Cease to Understand the World (orig. Spanish; Pushkin Press)

– the last of which I had already found – to my delight, if also (I admit) surprise – on the shelves of the Falklands Islands’ Christie Community Library.

George Szirtes is one of the five judges of this year’s International Booker Prize. He is also an award-winning writer, across almost the entire range of genres, as well as a translator, publisher, lecturer, and avid Norwich City fan. His debut book, The Slant Door, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and he has also won the TS Eliot Prize, the Déry Prize for Translation, the James Tait Black Prize for Biography, and a slew of awards and fellowships from England to the USA, Romania to China.

My first encounter with Szirtes’ work was, fittingly, his translation of Ágnes Nemes Nagy’s The Night of Akhenaton, which an ex-girlfriend gave me when I was a young and insufficiently-aspiring Egyptologist – a niche point of contact, one might feel, even by the standards of translated literature. Since he and I are Facebook Friends (we’ve never met), I thought I’d put to him some questions I had on the International Booker judging process – a chance to see inside the mechanisms of a major prize.

A S H Smyth: Do you do a lot of prize judging? And did your involvement with the IBP come as a result of your own (prize-winning) translation work?  Am I right in thinking the one thing you’re not – or not yet – is a novelist…?

George Szirtes: I have done a fair amount of prize judging in my time, despite my own reservations about prizes (and winning some myself). These prizes were generally in the field of poetry, at various levels from local to international. I was on the jury of the Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004 but other than that I have not judged fiction at all chiefly because I hadn’t written any fiction myself.

I had however translated several novels from the Hungarian, and went on to translate three novels and several shorter pieces by László Krasznahorkai, for which I then shared the translators’ credit when he won the 2015 International Booker Prize for Satantango (the prize was yet not divided half-and-half at that stage). I imagine it was on that basis that I was invited to join the panel for this year. I had my doubts about accepting, but was persuaded that, since this was a prize for translated books, I might be just about qualified.

AS: In terms of your personal history you obviously also have some international credentials. Is this a deliberate theme across the whole panel of judges?

GS: My fellow judges this year were an Ethiopian-Canadian writer and journalist [Aida Edemariam], a Cameroonian-French historian [Olivette Otele], and an Indian English-language novelist and writer [Neel Mukherjee] – all chaired by a British cultural historian, biographer and novelist [Lucy Hughes-Hallett]. I was there as a Hungarian-born English-language poet and translator. So I think we could be described as having some international background, yes!

AS: Would you talk us briefly through the timeline, from submissions to the judging process? What’s the submissions scenario? Can the IBP select whatever it fancies? Can you, personally, as a judge introduce things for consideration?

GS: None of us could introduce books on our own account, and, as I understand it, the IBP does not select at all, and makes no judgement regarding eligibility apart from UK publication dates. Publishers submitted books published between the relevant dates (a couple of the 125 books submitted changed their dates and were withdrawn, though we’d already read them), and the books were numbered according to the date received.

The books that looked the strongest at any time remained strong candidates to the end

Chaired by Lucy, we looked to read numbers 1-15 in the first month; but under pressure of time and quantity we quickly amended that to 25 books per month, meeting once a month on Zoom, ready to go through each book one-by-one. Anything particularly liked by even one member of the jury was carried forward to the next meeting. Each meeting we dropped some books, and so it went on until we established the longlist, at which point we re-read for the next meeting to decide the shortlist, then re-read those for the last meeting, to decide the winner.

AS: No doubt decisions are made with the one official voice. But in your own view, were there months and rounds of genuinely whittling away at nominees – or would you have said it was obvious early on which books/authors were in the running for the long- or shortlist, or even for the prize itself?

GS: I’m sure we all had our individual and collective ideas of what books seemed particularly good at the time of each meeting; but since we were reading specific books for specific meetings in a specific order, it was always possible that even better books might come along later. There were a few cases when, even at first reading, a book looked likely to figure near the end. But the longlist and shortlist meetings ensured that we looked back at all those we had chosen throughout the period. In general, the books that looked the strongest at any time remained strong candidates to the end, even though there was some shifting between them. We were constantly aware that some very fine books had to be dropped as we approached the end of the process.

AS: Are judges reimbursed for what is presumably an enormous time-commitment? Are you a fast reader? Would you be reading a lot of international/translated fiction anyway?

GS: Judges do get reimbursed and, considering that we were reading 25 books per month through most of the process, it was certainly a huge time-commitment. I am reasonably fast but this was as fast as I have ever read. (I might have read as fast at the time of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004 but I am pretty sure we had fewer books to choose from then.)

I have read a fair amount of translated fiction over the years, but nowhere near as much in such a short period. I am primarily a reader of poetry, and poetry demands a different way of reading. In retrospect, though, and at several points during the process, I was very glad to be have let myself in for the task. There were some marvellous books there.

AS: What do you do if you’re already a big fan of Author X’s work (or indeed Translator X)? With the sorts of judges needed/desired for a translated fiction prize, that must happen…? Are you expected, on or off the record, to state any strong literary allegiances, let alone business/professional ones?

GS: I had read some of the authors before but very few compared to the numbers in the submission. There were, I should say, to my regret and surprise, no books at all translated from the Hungarian. But there were, on the other hand, big prize-winning authors with multi-prize-winning translators from a very wide range of languages. There was just one book that I had already read and for which I had written a brief, very enthusiastic commendation. That was declared – and was perfectly evident anyway as it was printed in the book.

Only two of the judges were themselves novelists, and I was not one of them. Some were more thoroughly read in fiction than I was. Nothing was stated at the start, but it turned out that our standards and hopes were readily compatible, and literary allegiances in terms of context and style were generally shared. The whole thing was a surprisingly generous and convivial process, and the discussions were extraordinarily thorough. Certain consistent elements did emerge out of them… but readers can discover those for themselves in the long- and shortlists.

AS: The quite emphatic focus of the IBP is translation and indeed translators. From either inside or outside the “industry”, have you noticed an increased presence of translated writing in the British market, a wider spread of literatures coming in, or even simply a healthier financial viability for such things? It seems to me that foreign-language novels have had more visibility in the last 10-15 years… but perhaps that’s just me.

There were cases where the issue of translation arose as distinct from the whole book

GS: I do think there is more translated writing in the UK now, and that translators are more highly respected. Up till the late 20th century there were books in which the translator wasn’t even named – or, if named, in very small print. For the most part, translators were (or certainly felt like they were) low-paid drudges. I think the figure for translated books in the British market was about 3% at one time. In 2019, according to The Bookseller, 5.63% of fiction was translated. The International Booker, as you yourself point out, shares the prize evenly between author and translator. That was not the case even in 2015. There are now more translated books from more languages from more parts of the world, as well as top publishers who specialise in translations.

AS: Given that the prize is split between the novelist and the translator, how likely is it that the panel might find itself stuck in debates about one novel being the best novel, per se, but another translation altogether, separately, meriting the laurels? How easy is that to look past? How many of the judges have second (or more) languages, like yourself? Do you agree on rules/guidelines for these sorts of things from the start of the process?

GS: None of us was capable of judging the quality of translation in every case, or indeed in most cases. There are just too many languages and we don’t speak them all. We all have some ear for consistency and quality of language, and that is what we chiefly relied on. There were cases where the issue of translation arose as distinct from the whole book – but they were generally instances, rather than determining.

This or that judge might have known a given book in the original language but that was rare. Had there been a Hungarian book I might have been able to speak from specialised knowledge; but there wasn’t. More generally, there might have been an instance where one might exclaim that, surely, the book was better than the translation suggests – but that too was rare. There are some very fine, quite virtuosic translators around.

AS: Ultimately, there are two Spanish and two French books in the “final” six. Also, two from one press, and one from a publishing house which has won very recently. To what extent is it possible to push those sorts of stats out of your mind, when long- or shortlisting? You mentioned the absence of Hungarian books; but how far do you want to manipulate a “range”?

GS: Bear in mind that, of the two books in French, one was by a Senegalese author writing about a Senegalese experience; and of the two Spanish ones, one was Argentinian and the other Chilean. We paid no attention at all to who published the books, though we were incidentally pleased to see a marvellous Danish book from an independent press founded in 2018. It was, of course, interesting to see what languages were often or rarely translated from; but we read whatever was sent to us, and that was it. If a publisher happens to have published two of the finest books, more credit to them: we weren’t going to dismiss one for the sake of it. I don’t think publishers’ names were ever really an issue. Also, bear in mind the speed at which we had to read!

AS: Perhaps a wearily-inevitable question; but has there been any particular added Covid-year “relevance” to international literature? Any suggestion that readers are more interested in places they can, for the time being, generally not get to? Even more so than is usually the case with literature, is the IBP bringing “over there” over here? The brilliant Labatut mad-scientists book in the Falklands, for instance…

GS: The books we read contained an enormous variety of concerns, some of which were bound to overlap with the concerns of books originally written and published in the UK, and some offered entirely fresh perspectives. I don’t think there were any books specifically about exotic places, but there were a number of excellent books (very much including the Labatut) where the notion of fiction was being examined and extended into various fascinating – and, to our minds, exciting – hinterlands.

Apart from subject matter and cultural setting, I suspect it is in the approach to what constitutes fiction, and where its boundaries lie, that we might have found greater variety than if we had read only books published in the UK. The sense of those boundaries and what their expansion liberates in terms of different sensibilities and different voices – different angles to or on the world – should be welcome, and increase the appetite for more. How far that appetite or need is related to our experience of Covid, though, is hard to say.

AS: I suspect you might have similar thoughts regarding post-Brexit Britain, and the importance of hearing from international voices?

GS: Well, that depends on who is doing the reading, and how widely they read. My guess is that relatively few constant readers of international literature will have voted for Brexit. But that is just a guess.

AS: You’ve just returned from the Brighton Festival – a real-live festival! Were you there on behalf of the IBP? How tempting was it to discuss the prize and/or the winner (I’m assuming there already is a winner)? Is there a risk of accidental blurtings? Or goading from lit. journalists, etc.? Anyone try to winkle any secrets out of you?

GS: Actually, it was never mentioned at Brighton. I wasn’t there for the IBP, but simply as a writer with at least two different cultural “contexts”. But yes, there is a winner, to be announced in just a few days.

AS: And no-one’s tried to ask you who it’s going to be? Or any of the other judges? I can’t believe that doesn’t happen. Don’t Ladbrokes even give odds on lit. prizes, these days?

GS: I must say, people have been amazingly tactful (even while impatient!) – at least with me. I don’t know about the other judges. As to betting, some twenty years ago I was on a fellowship in Ireland when a book by a friend appeared on the Booker shortlist. I thought it would be supportive of me to put some money on it, so I went into a Dublin betting shop and asked if I could lay a bet on the outcome of the Booker. “Where do they run that?” he asked.

AS: In the changing circumstances, will the awards ceremony be “live” – or even “in real life”? Will you be attending? And does the event (in whatever form) still hold much excitement, given that you know who’s won already?

GS: Alas, no ceremony, no banquet, and only virtual champagne. Lucy will speak for the judges and the process: the rest of us will not be seen. That’s Covid for you. We’ll be at home, and won’t meet anyone. IBP will look to organise a fine dinner for us in London as and when they can. I have to say our Booker people have been excellent. It’ll be very nice to meet them in person.

AS: What’s next for you? I imagine there’s a risk of fatigue at the end of a process quite as big as this. Do you have a backlog of poetry projects, teaching, or Norwich matches to catch up on, now you’ve regained your “freedom”?

GS: I have a new book of poems, Fresh Out of the Sky, coming out in October, and am working on some collaborations, one based on the Covid experience with an outstanding Singaporean poet, Alvin Pang. There is also slow and intermittent collaborative work on a piece of crime fiction in sonnets. And I have plans and some ready work on a couple of prose projects, one based on my father, the other on UK professional wrestling.

Otherwise, life continues to be interesting – albeit, yes, somewhat slowed by the IBP reading. I teach the odd session here and there, but retired from salaried teaching at the end of 2013. And it has been a glorious season for Norwich City, most of which we could view on screen, but not at Carrow Road. For the coming season we all hope to be back in the stadium – and this time in the Premier League!

The 2021 International Booker Prize will be announced on Wednesday 2 June, online. 

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