The winner of the inaugural EBRD Literature Prize will be announced on Tuesday, April 10 in London. Launched by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in partnership with the British Council and the London Book Fair, the prize aims to promote literature from emerging economies where the bank invests—from Morocco to Mongolia, from Estonia to Egypt—to champion the variety of arts and history in those countries, as well as to celebrate the art of translation. The novels submitted had to be published in translation by a UK publisher in the eighteen months prior to November 15, 2017, and the prize of €20,000 will be divided equally between the author and the translator.
We spoke with Rosie Goldsmith, who chaired the jury, about the experience of judging the inaugural award, the unique characteristics of the works submitted, and the qualities shared by the three finalists: Burhan Sönmez with Istanbul Istanbul, translated from the Turkish by Ümit Hussein; Daša Drndic with Belladonna, translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth; and Boris Akunin with All the World’s a Stage, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What types of work does the EBRD Literature Prize promote and what sets it apart from existing awards and prizes?
Rosie Goldsmith (RG): The EBRD prize is unique because of the diversity of countries represented—the EBRD itself is based in so many countries that it can reach out to each of its countries of operation and encourage them to submit. Where else will Central Asian countries compete with Albania and Morocco and Greece? Also, the judges—Peter Frankopan, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Lucy Hannah, and me—have been selected for their truly international backgrounds and experience. This is a completely noncommercial cultural enterprise with the sole aim of encouraging more publishers to participate in the English-language market and to get more people reading them.
Also this is a prize for novels, which raises the question of what defines the novel? Perhaps this was our greatest task, as each country has a very different understanding of what constitutes a novel. Presented as we were with very many different “genres of novels,” I feel that we were defining a new more capacious novel genre. For example, is Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights a novel or a necklace of thematically linked essays? We were not judging “Like with Like” because the novel form does not sit comfortably in some literary traditions. So there are several “linked stories” on offer, and several sprawling books with unfamiliar names and structures which I can imagine more as being read aloud. Basically this is a storytelling prize and storytelling in all these different parts of the world comes in different forms.
Image: The twelve books longlisted for the EBRD Literature Prize. Courtesy of the EBRD.
WWB: Were there any themes that you noticed across the submissions you received?
RG: We received primarily historical memoirs and autobiographical narratives, many of them from the former Eastern Bloc, the Baltics and Balkans. These were memoirs of childhood, as though the mature adults today—often living in countries of exile not their own—are recalling a lost time, their lost childhoods under Communism when things seemed kinder and more innocent, in spite of the poverty and restrictions. There seemed to be a desire to capture the memories before they were lost. But the sheer volume of these memoirs made it difficult for them to stand out. When they did, it was because of the language and insight—as with Wioletta Greg and Tea Tulic. We read many novels about rites of passage and the difficulty of transitional countries, and many novels that followed several generations of women and stories that empowered women.
And there were many stories of war and trauma – so common—and experiences that we don’t hear enough about. I felt especially humbled to receive novels from Lebanon and Armenia and to know that we are hearing these stories often for the first time in English, knowing how much work goes into translating and publishing books from these countries. We wished that we didn’t have to judge and compare but could rather read them solely on their own merits.
Basically this is a storytelling prize and storytelling in all these different parts of the world comes in different forms.
WWB: As chair of the jury, were there particular criteria—aesthetic or content-wise—that you were considering as you reviewed titles? Are there qualities that the shortlisted, longlisted, and finalist titles shared that made them stand out or that made them feel particularly vital for our present moment?
RG: We felt very strongly that as judges of such a global prize that we are gatekeepers to the English-speaking world. It was not difficult to choose as we had so many discussions—I was a strict judge and made sure we did read and discuss everything—and we all had a very strong feel for what we considered good novel writing. Our criteria were strong from the outset.
As this was a new prize, I had thought hard about what we should be doing and why: our longlist of twelve books (twelve authors, twelve translators), announced in January, included titles that were each judged by us unanimously to represent the ideals of the EBRD Prize as “a window on the world”—in other words, to be an excellent read; to exhibit great craft and competence; and to reflect the culture, creativity, and concerns of the country of origin while also speaking to something universal, such as grief or love.
The three finalists are triumphs of storytelling. For the winner, I wrote in the book’s margin: “Such good writing and insight that it hurts. Such depth and humanity. Simplicity. Fantastic characters too. Universal relevance. Profound, crafted, a novel that matters.”
Image: The three finalists for the EBRD Literature Prize. Courtesy of the EBRD.
Rosie Goldsmith is an award-winning journalist specializing in arts and current affairs in the UK and abroad. During her twenty years at the BBC she traveled the world and presented the flagship BBC series Front Row and Crossing Continents. Today she combines arts journalism with chairing and running events and festivals in Britain and overseas and works closely with many leading cultural organizations. Known in the UK as a champion of international literature, translation, and language learning, she promotes them whenever she can. She is also Director of the European Literature Network, Chair of the Judges for the EBRD Literature Prize, and editor of the Riveter magazine.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) was set up in 1991 after the fall of the Berlin Wall to meet the challenge of an extraordinary moment in Europe’s history: the collapse of Communism. It is a multilateral bank with almost seventy shareholders and promotes the development of the private sector and entrepreneurial initiatives in thirty-seven economies across three continents. The EBRD Literature Prize is a project of the Bank’s Community Initiative.
Read an excerpt from Burhan Sönmez’s Istanbul Istanbul, translated by Ümit Hussein