On the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

"It's a scandal." My companion, a distinguished translator of British literature into Greek, sighed and shook his head as we walked one night last summer through the tangle of streets that make up the old walled citadel of Rhodes. Along with a dozen other European editors and publishers, I had come to the island as a guest of the Greek national translation centre, Ekemel. We were there to meet a group of eminent Greek writers, to learn about their work, and absorb the message that these leading voices from today's Greece deserved to be heard in other states and languages as well.

Which is where the scandal arises. My host, like his counterparts in several other countries, knows that the traffic in literary translation between Britain and his own land mostly flows in one direction only. U.K. publishers issue more than 110,000 new titles or editions every year. Of that vast total, scarcely three per cent consists of translations—a percentage comparable to that in the U.S. In countries of an equivalent size, such as Italy, the percentage of translated books can exceed that figure by a factor of ten or more. With smaller nations, such as Greece itself, the proportion will be even higher. Something alarming, and paradoxical, has happened to the British publishing scene over the past two decades. The culture as a whole has become cosmopolitan and international to an unprecedented degree. The roots and branches of British literature (especially fiction) now stretch across the globe, from China to the Caribbean. Yet this new globalized literature seems to reach British readers almost exclusively when written within the medium of English itself. Even when fine translated work exists, it all too often passes unnoticed and unhonored.

The problem is not insularity but a kind of Anglophone triumphalism. This attitude expects all the cultures of the world to be delivered to our doorstop already gift-wrapped into an English text. It shirks the excitement of encountering a mind, and an art, that first took shape within another langauge. It also shuns the bond of trust, and hope, involved in exposure to translation.

For an example, let's return to Greece. Millions (literally) of British readers have enjoyed the bewitching island romance of Louis de Bernières's wartime epic Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Turn to Greek novels of the same epoch and similar locations, and you confront a harsher, more painful but still immensely rewarding picture of national trauma and survival. Some of those Corelli fans would do well to discover (for example) The Daughter by Pavlos Matesis, available from Arcadia Books in a splendid English version by Fred A. Reed.

True, a succession of writers in translation have flourished in Britain over recent years, from Milan Kundera and Umberto Eco to Michel Houellebecq and Henning Mankell. Yet each one now seems to arrive as a solitary shooting star, not part of a larger constellation. In the past, regular responses to the stimulus of non-Anglophone literature did much to mold British fiction itself, all the way from George Eliot's reading of German free-thinkers to Salman Rushdie's reading of Latin American "magic realists." That continuity seems to have faded of late. As the cultural horizons of many British readers have broadened, the linguistic horizons of their publishers have, oddly, narrowed.

In its small way, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize aims to restore the prominence of translated fiction on the British scene. Worth £10,000 ($17,500), divided equally between the author and his or her translator, it counts as the most lucrative and wide-ranging translation prize in the world. Other notable awards honor achievement within particular languages: the Florio Prize for Italian translation, the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for German, among others. None takes as its remit new translations of living fiction writers from all languages. Sadly, we have to limit the prize to contemporary authors: the alternative would probably be an Olympian but rarefied battle between the latest versions of Tolstoy, Proust, Cervantes and so on.

Administered and financially supported by Arts Council England, the Independent prize assesses fiction issued by British publishers within one calendar year. It recruits a panel of judges chosen for their broad literary and linguistic expertise. Since its revival, in 2000, the award has gone to the Italian author Marta Morazzoni for The Alphonse Courrier Affair (translated by Emma Rose); to the German-born, but British-domiciled, W. G. Sebald for Austerlitz (translated by Anthea Bell); and, last year, to the Swedish Per Olov Enquist for The Visit of the Royal Physician (translated by Tiina Nunnally).

The prize seeks to encourage publishers to invest more effort and resources in translation and, above all, to open the eyes of readers to the wealth of foreign fiction that does already reach British shores. For the quality, both of original works and their English versions, regularly strikes the judges as deeply impressive, even if the quantity still leaves a lot to be desired. Inevitably, perhaps, the most widely-spoken European languages tend to predominate among the submissions. However, the last couple of years have seen strong showings by Arabic and Hebrew fiction, by Chinese and Japanese authors, and by writers in all the Nordic tongues. And merely to specify that a novel originated, say, in French may tell you little of its source and subject. The Francophone authors we considered this year hailed from China, Québec, the Caribbean and Africa, as well as from the Hexagone itself.

For me, it remains a particular regret that virtually no non-Anglophone writers from the Indian Subcontinent find translators and publishers in Britain. Once again, Anglophone triumphalism dictates this absence. British publishers love to discover and promote fresh Indian talent: providing, of course, that the hot prospect in question writes solely in English.

For this year's award, I and my fellow judges had discarded the latest works by titans such as Günter Grass, Mario Vargas Llosa, and David Grossman even before a long-list of sixteen emerged. Now we have whittled down that selection into a shortlist of six. On April 19, we will announce the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for 2004. In the process of choosing a shortlist, many more tremendous novels were lost along the way. Casualties from the long-list included Turki Al-Hamad's brave account of adolescent rebellion in Saudi Arabia, Adama,; Lars Saabye Christensen's stupendous Norwegian family saga, The Half Brother; and Shan Sa's delicate love story set during the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, The Girl Who Played Go.

The six contenders to survive range in national origin from Argentina to Morocco, and in style from a historical epic to a hard-boiled thriller. In terms of the languages represented, Spanish has thrived this year: two of the novels come from Catalonia (although written in Castilian) and one from Argentina. Unusually for a literary award, the shortlist also features a multi-authored work, by the shadowy Italian quartet who go under the name of "Luther Blissett." Here is the short list in full:

Welcome to Paradise

Mahi Binebine, translated from the French by Lulu Norman

Granta, 181pp

In Tangier, six disparate would-be migrants from Africa meet the people-trafficker who offers them a risky illegal passage across the Straits of Gibraltar to a new life in Europe. A Francophone Moroccan writer, Binebine tells their varied stories and traces their fates with an empathy and clarity that scorns the political rhetoric of migration. Concrete, compassionate, full of sharp characters and memorable scenes, this novel dramatizes the humanity behind the headlines.

Q

Luther Blissett, translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside

Heinemann, 635pp

In 1530s Germany, an apocalyptic revolt led by radical Protestants ends in betrayal and slaughter. The revolutionaries relocate their utopian Kingdom of God, first in Munster, and then (after another bloodbath) go underground in the Low Countries. Meanwhile, a Papal spy from Rome shadows their every move, closing in for the coup that will vanquish subversive heresy for good. This multi-authored Italian epic of action and ideas out-Ecos Umberto himself in its bubbling brew of entertainment and erudition.

Soldiers of Salamis

Javier Cercas, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean

Bloomsbury, 224pp

A drifting journalist in modern Catalonia stumbles over an odd story from Spain's civil war: of a Francoist dandy who miraculously escaped a Barcelona firing squad to lead a charmed life under the dictatorship. This erratic quest leads to a gripping recreation of the last days of Republican rule, of the lucky aesthete's career, and then to a startling coda which uncovers a different tale of heroism. Cercas mounts a nuanced, funny and moving investigation into the myths and memories that shape the aftermath of war.

Lizard Tails

Juan Marsé, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

Harvill, 231pp

In late-1940s Barcelona, a family of vanquished Republicans struggles to survive in a period of tyranny, dread and regret. Narrated by the mother's as-yet-unborn second child, this lovingly crafted and eloquent novel slowly lets its readers see and grasp more than the characters ever can. Ordinary childhood fears and fads unfold against an abnormal backdrop of police surveillance, with the father a political fugitive, as a mood of defeat and despair grips the city. A sense of beauty and tenderness still takes root amid the ruins of love and hope.

Money to Burn

Ricardo Piglia, translated from the Spanish by Amanda Hopkinson

Granta, 209pp

Inspired by a notorious 1960s bank raid in Argentina, Piglia turns a hard-boiled heist yarn into a thrilling exploration of violence, crime and justice. After the blood-spattered bank job in Buenos Aires, the "Blond Gaucho" and his bandits flee to Montevideo, where the stage is set for a terrifying showdown. Piglia combines documentary techniques with a sophisticated grasp of the languages of law, media and psychology. The spirits of Borges and Tarantino blend in a novel that threads great verbal and intellectual subtleties through its sensational events.

Mrs. Sartoris

Elke Schmitter, translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway

Faber & Faber, 143pp

In repressed, provincial postwar Germany, a pretty, passive girl lurches from a broken romance with a local aristocrat into a stolid petty-bourgeois marriage. As brittle prosperity enriches and becalms her town, Margarethe later seeks a private liberation with a suave married lover. As their idyll collapses, her feral daughter drifts into bad company, and a shocking dénouement begins to take shape. Haunting, suspenseful, endowed with an unforgettable sense of time and place, Schmitter's novel starts gently but goes off like a bomb.