The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has introduced readers to the best of foreign contemporary fiction since it was founded in 1991, attracting more press interest every year. It acknowledges both the novelist and the translator equally, recognising the importance of the translator in bridging the gap between languages and cultures. This year’s long-list showcased writing from Africa, Asia and Europe and featured less frequently translated languages like Bengali.
Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger hosted this year’s award ceremony in the sumptuous art deco surroundings of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Philippe Claudel is the first French-language author to win the Prize with Brodeck’s Report since Frédéric Beigbeder (originally showcased in the anthology XCiTés: The Flamingo Book of New French Writing).
Foyles the bookshop held an event celebrating the short-list the evening before the award ceremony. Daniel Hahn, one of the judges of this year’s Prize, and grande dame of literary translation Anthea Bell, joined authors Julia Franck and Pietro Grossi.
Hahn who has translated three novels by Angolan novelist José Eduardo Agualusa – one of which won the 2007 Prize – kicked off the event by reading from Alain Mabanckou’s novel, Broken Glass. A disgraced alcoholic school teacher with a love of French language and literature observes the comings and goings in a run down bar in Brazzaville. His commentary is truculent and hilarious. The writing pushes language to the limits. Translator Helen Stevenson has managed to reproduce it in English so that the book is faithful and readable. Hahn pointed out that to pull off such a feat, the writer-translator relationship must be underpinned by trust. He said it is also important for the author to realise that some things have to change in English in order for the translation to work, since to be slavishly faithful is dangerous. When Hahn blogged about his fourth translation in progress, Agualusa read it “over his shoulder” as he went, unbeknownst to him!
Pietro Grossi then read from Fists which has just won one of the most prestigious Italian literary awards, the Campiello Europa Prize, for best work translated from Italian into English (both UK and US). A trilogy of novellas,Fists is about three young men on the cusp of adulthood. In true Hemingway form, Grossi wanted to write about a man’s world as he is from a family of over seventy-five people, largely women. When asked about genre, Grossi said that, for him, writing a short story is instinctive and just comes out, whereas a novel is like architecture and you have to work and work at it, like a game of chess. When Anthea Bell remarked that, “A translation teaches a writer to write his own books,” Grossi agreed. He has translated into Italian which helped him learn how to write.
Two of the short-listed titles, both with love, or lack of it, at their core, were translated by Anthea Bell. One of the authors was present: Julia Franck spoke of her father being abandoned on a station platform by his mother as a little boy, and how he died when she was seventeen so they were never close. Why was this intelligent, shy, sensitive man abandoned so cold-heartedly? This forms the nucleus of her novel The Blind Side Of The Heart which won the German Book Prize. It covers the first half of the twentieth century in Germany, with both world wars and the Weimar Republic in between. The other title, The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami, similarly covers a long period – some seventy-five years of the last century. Structured like a mosaic, it is a tale of feuding clans with a Romeo and Juliet couple at its heart, set against the violent background of Syrian politics and history. Schami spent years working on it after he went into exile in the early ‘70s. Bell pointed out that, “Many Middle Eastern political exiles end up in Francophone countries and start writing in French which, I guess, is what would have happened to Rafik if he, like his protagonist, at first aimed to go to France. As it was, he ended up in Germany. Writers with acquired German have a wider vocabulary than native Germans – it is noticeable when translating.”
Having had my eyes opened on to other worlds and other lives, I went on to do some more armchair travelling by way of Moro in Clerkenwell. Michael Jacobs celebrated Granta’s publication of his latest book, Andes, by cooking a feast of dishes from the seven countries that extend over the Andes mountains. Good food and good books. What is better than that?