Six books, six languages, two former winners and a bonanza for independent publishers: the Man Booker International Prize – the UK’s most prestigious prize for translated fiction – has announced its 2018 shortlist. Whittled down from a longlist of 13 titles spanning the globe, the six titles to make the cut are translated from Arabic, French, Hungarian, Korean, Spanish and Polish.
This year’s nominations have been selected by a panel of five judges, chaired by novelist Lisa Appignanesi with fellow writers Hari Kunzru and Helen Oyeyemi alongside poet and translator Michael Hofmann and journalist Tim Martin. The shortlist includes Han Kang and Deborah Smith – who won the prize in 2016 for The Vegetarian – and László Krasznahorkai – who won the prize in its former iteration in 2015 – when it was awarded for an achievement in fiction evident in a body of work.
The winner of the 2018 prize will be announced on May 22 at a formal dinner at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London – and the £50,000 prize will be divided equally between the author and the translator of the winning book.
The Booker Prize Foundation has rejigged the flagship award in recent years. An awful lot of handwringing has been devoted to the decision to include US authors as contenders for the “main” award, The Man Booker Prize. But very little attention has been paid to the decision to overhaul the group’s international prize. Originally introduced in 2005, the Man Booker International Prize was intended as a global-facing sister award – with a twist. The original version of the International prize was a biennial award honouring an entire body of work by a living writer of any nationality and in any language (as long as their work was available in English).
The original format was a noble pursuit, but the Man Booker International was inevitably overshadowed on the global literary stage by the Nobel Prize for Literature. As of 2016, the Man Booker International Prize now awards a single book – but one that has been originally written in a language other than English, then subsequently translated and published in the UK.
The International Prize’s unique selling point is the emphasis on collaboration between author and translator, even down to sharing the prize money. The focus on collaboration is what makes the International Prize, for me, a truly exciting event in the literary awards calendar.
Focus on translation
Arguably, the change has been for the better but the comparative lack of attention on the international award is still indicative of mainstream publishing’s general disinterest in translated fiction – bar the occasional bestselling “Scandi Noir” and international phenomenon such as Italy’s Elena Ferrante, of course, the latter shortlisted for the prize in 2016, along with translator Ann Goldstein.
Although we shouldn’t be tempted to see the commercial popularity of Jo Nesbø and the relative success of Ferrante as a sea change in translated fiction’s fortunes in UK publishing, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press suggests that “there’s definitely greater and wider awareness of fiction in translation as a result of such successes”, pointing to the new format of the Man Booker International Prize as “doing a great deal to raise the profile of such books”.
The role of independent publishers in supporting translated literature is not lost on the judges for the International Prize: announcing the longlist earlier this year, Appignanesi declared: “I think we have to raise our hats to independent publishers. It does cost money to translate, it’s harder to publish, harder to sell.”
The International Prize has even had a direct impact on the range of translated literature available in the UK: Kang and Smith’s inaugural win in 2016 for The Vegetarian meant that Smith had extra funds for her non-profit small press, Tilted Axis – which is “on a mission to shake up contemporary international literature”.
Translated fiction may be a small part of the British reading diet but it is one that is steadily growing. In 2015, The Bookseller reported that translated fiction only accounted for 1.5% overall and 3.5% of published literary fiction. Yet translated fiction provided 5% of total fiction sales in 2015.
Only time will tell if the appetite for translated fiction in the UK can continue. In the meantime, let’s toast the shortlisted authors and translators. If you’ve yet to enjoy translated fiction, this year’s shortlist is a good place to expand your global reading life.
This year’s list for the “leading prize for quality fiction in English” includes three debut novelists, as well as previously shortlisted and winning authors. Being shortlisted can lead to a dramatic increase in sales. The winner, announced in October, can also look forward to a £50,000 prize as well as joining a canon which includes Iris Murdoch, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood.
Awards such as the Man Booker can offer a shortcut to the classics of the future, readily assigned by a panel of people regarded as experts in the field. And for some readers, choosing books from an official selection like the Man Booker shortlist makes it easier to know that what they are reading is deemed “acceptable” by the literary elite.
This is not to say that’s the only reason people enjoy poring over such shortlists. But let’s not pretend that what other people think of what we read isn’t important to many of us. For some, this could even mean going so far as to disguise a guilty pleasure by reading it on an e-reader – making it impossible to judge a book (or the reader) by its cover.
Despite reading often being seen as something people do in a room of one’s own, in recent years there has been a big rise in the number of book groups and reading clubs, emphasising the social experience reading can bring.
The success of what researchers have called “mass reading events”, like those led by Oprah Winfrey or Richard and Judy, are testament to the power not only of recommendations from people whose opinions we value, but also of feeling that we’re reading the same things as lots of others.
Book groups have long fulfilled this social function of reading for their many members. Over a cup of tea or glass of wine, people share their thoughts about a book they have read (or at least intend to read), debate its merits and its flaws, and collectively explore what it means to them.
More recently, the proliferation of online book groups has also allowed space for readers to interact over their reading from further afield, often focused on specific genres, or with choices influenced or curated by celebrities or vloggers.
Through my own experience of being part of a community reading group, I have also seen how the act of reading itself is something that brings people together.
Shared reading groups have grown in popularity across the country in recent years. They have been an integral part of the work of the Liverpool based charity, The Reader, which promotes the benefits of reading across different communities. In a range of venues including libraries, health centres, schools, and care homes, members of a shared reading group join together to listen to a story or a poem being read aloud, reading along with a copy of the text if they want to. Members join groups for lots of different reasons – not least because of the impact reading can have on well-being.
Not only do the members of a shared reading group physically meet to listen to the reading, but they also come together through talking about the story or the poem, listening and responding to each other’s interpretations, and working collaboratively to explore what it means to them.
These types of shared experiences are a powerful reminder that the meanings we make from a text are different every time it is read. In this way, reading groups bring people together in the active sharing of interpretation.
Those shared readings which are made in the moment sit alongside the “expert” readings of critics and judges as part of the richness of what literature represents to different people. And no doubt as the nights draw in, armed with a new shortlist of titles to get stuck into, reading groups up and down the country will be coming together to read and to work at making meanings of their own.