The International Booker: a rich literary roadtrip


The International Booker: a rich literary roadtrip

MERCIA S BURGER shares her impressions of the six translated books that were shortlisted for this year's prize.


SINCE 2016, the International Booker Prize has been awarded to fiction translated from any language into English and published in the United Kingdom and/or Ireland. The prize money is shared by the author and translator. Quietly, it has become one of my favourite awards, a literary road trip into the unknown.

“Our shortlist opens onto vast geographies of the mind, often showing lives lived against the backdrop of history … interweaving the intimate and the political in radically original ways,” said this year's moderator, the Canadian writer and broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel.

Her statement about the intertwining of the private and political — a criterion shared by the other judges — was crucial when a winner was announced on May 21.

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The winner

Kairos (2021) by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from German by Michael Hofmann.

Kairos was exactly what the reviewers were looking for. They called it “beautiful and uncomfortable, personal and political", according to Wachtel.

It's a story about an affair between an older, married man, Hans, 53, who was in the Hitler Youth Brigade of Nazi Germany during his childhood, and a much younger woman, Katharina, 19, who grew up following East Germany's socialist principles. Their relationship proceeds like a mirror image of the bullying politics of the German Democratic Republic and the later ambivalence after the unification of Germany. “And whose job is it to go down into the underworld and tell the dead that they died for nothing?"

The world of East Germany in the Eighties interested me far more than the whole schemozzle of Hans and Katharina's flirtation. It felt at times as if Erpenbeck had to force her characters to make her metaphor work.

Kairos's translator, Hofmann, is a leading literary critic who also translated Franz Kafka. Hofmann acknowledges that translators must be egotistical, have the confidence to step away from the original text, and that he wanted to allow Erpenbeck to flow in English “rather than limping after the German".

Erpenbeck, who grew up in East Germany, is being mentioned in literary circles as a future Nobel laureate.

Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck was published by Granta and costs R268 at Exclusive Books.

Readers’ darling

The Details (2022) by Ia Genberg, translated from Swedish by Kira Josefsson.

In a fever dream, the protagonist recalls four important people in her life with whom she had deep, intense relationships. Through “details, rather than information", she creates an intimate character sketch of each. “That's all there is to the self, or the so-called ‘self': traces of people we rub up against."

An afternoon's reading, four chapters, 144 pages in hardcover, fast and to the point with nothing to dwell on. Probably about halfway you'll start gossiping along about lost loved ones and ex-friends who have turned against you. This nomination will appeal to a much larger readership than Booker followers of translated literature.

About her translator, Josefsson, Genberg says: “Translators and interpreters are living bridges; they should swim in gold and honey." For Josefsson, the key to her translation was an intense, emotional engagement with the text, as if she herself were the author.

The Details by Ia Genberg was published by Headline and costs R315 at Exclusive Books.

The title no one can remember

What I'd Rather Not Think About (2020) by Jente Posthuma, translated from Dutch by Sarah Timmer Harvey.

“My brother had gone and with him, all of my past." An unnamed protagonist is trying to come to terms with the appalling loss and trauma after the suicide of her twin.

Posthuma writes in brief, clinical notes about her life with her brother, a fragmented narrative with no chronology or structure. In between, her mind wanders to a variety of topics — the Twin Towers, Sylvia Plath, the Holocaust — loosely related to the theme. Mostly I was left with a sense of disorientation and wandering thoughts, more or less abandoned, as if there wasn't really a foothold in the text. I suspect that was probably the author's goal.

The translator, Harvey, says she found it difficult to maintain the rhythm and tone of the Dutch. She says Dutch uses commas far less than English, and she and the author had lengthy consultations on the placement of punctuation.

What I'd Rather Not Think About by Jente Posthuma was published by Scribe Us and costs R317 at Exclusive Books.

The book that almost won

Crooked Plow (2018) by Itamar Vieira Junior, translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz.

This book was a popular choice in the media and in Brazil, where it was a literary sensation and an event of national importance.

After slaves are freed in Brazil, some remain on the plantations where they remain exploited by wealthy owners, “the same slavery as before, but dressed up as freedom". This is the life of Brazil's forgotten quilombola community, Afro-Brazilians with their own rich culture, spiritual world and superstitions, Jarê leaders and encantados, and their gradual realisation that freedom means nothing if you don't do something with it.

Lorenz, who also translated Clarice Lispector, tried to maintain the flamboyance of the language. In between translation sessions, he worked for hours in his vegetable garden. “There is a powerful lesson here: to listen quietly to the earth. Or to a text."

Crooked Plow by Itamar Vieira Junior was published by Verso Books and costs R345 at Exclusive Books.

The other book that almost won

Not a River (2020) by Selva Almada, translated from Argentine Spanish by Annie McDermott.

Almada is a strong political-feminist voice who speaks loudly about the macho culture of Argentina.

The text begins with a typical fishing weekend where three men sulk, shoot a fish (yes, with a gun), become overconfident and make mischief. The storyline is, alas, fairly predictable, with all the necessary themes and gestures of toxic masculinity. Here, however, you read not just for the story but for the prose.

The dialogue is without quotation marks, there are no chapters, and sentences are broken in strange places “to bring her prose to the very brink of poetry", according to translator McDermott. The original text was written in an everyday working-class Spanish spoken in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, with specific rhythms and vivid, earthy speech patterns. Almost like a language on its own, says McDermott, that placed heavy demands on her as a translator.

Not a River by Selva Almada was published by Graywolf Press and costs R338 at Exclusive Books.

The Heavyweight

Mater 2-10 (2020) by Hwang Sok-yong, translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae.

This epic story set over three generations in Korea got the better of me — a history lesson presented stickily and repetitively, in stiff dialogue, with wandering spirits and characters that appear and disappear within a paragraph, never to be heard of again. I strongly suspect that everyone nods their heads and agrees it's a necessary contribution to world literature, but few are going to finish reading the book. It can't just be me?

Mater 2-10 by Hwang Sok-yong was published by Scribe Us and costs R632 at Exclusive Books.

Books with two authors

How gratifying that the International Booker Prize has also acknowledged translators since 2016. In fact, each translated text has two authors — the original author and the translator as author. For this reason, it is ironic (and shameful) that so many translated texts — even a few winners of the International Booker — do not include the translator's name on the cover. Perhaps because it may affect sales by reminding readers that the book was not originally written in English and is therefore culturally alien or a “difficult" read?

September 30 is International Translation Day, so here's an early toast to this year's translators, those who discovered and retold the universal language of each text, the keepers and light bearers who create not only new texts but also new readers.

♦ VWB ♦

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