By Oisin Harris, Bianca Fiore, Giulia Maggiori and Rex Cleaver
First launched in 2012, PEN Translates is a UK literary prize that focuses (unsurprisingly given its name) on translation. However, PEN Translates mission goes way beyond the mere awarding of the prize. Indeed, every year PEN Translates selects a range of projects for which it will pay up to 75% of the translation costs to encourage publishing houses to acquire more titles in translation. They may also finance 100% of a translation project if the publishing house is not big enough. Today we present you some of the titles shortlisted for the award.
Readers of non-Western literature are in for a treat since several texts from the Middle East and North Africa feature on the PEN Translates winning list.
Kurdistan +100 has been described as the first anthology of Kurdish science fiction. Ten contemporary Kurdish authors use speculative narratives to imagine a brighter reality for Kurds, covering topics such as human rights, freedom of speech and the environment.
The Djinn’s Apple by Algerian Djamila Morani (translated by Sawad Hussain) brings crime fiction from the Maghreb to the international attention it deserves, with a story that transports the reader to Abbasid Baghdad, where 12-year old Nardeen tries to uncover the secrets behind her family’s assassination. Morani’s gripping writing makes her reflection on justice especially appealing to a YA readership.
Samar Yazbek has long been in the spotlight for her work supporting women’s rights in Syria and her books won several international awards. Rima, the protagonist of The Blue Pen, translated from Arabic by Leri Price, is a memorable representation of the Syrian diaspora –
she is silent except for when she reads the Koran and The Little Prince, or when she screams in pain and can’t stop walking.
Europe provides the bulk of the PEN award’s victors this year, with a total of eight fantastic contributions arising from various countries.
Spanish writers are particularly well represented in 2021, achieving an impressive four individual wins. From Seville comes Elise Victoria’s debut novel, Oldladyvoice, translated by Charlotte Whittle. Over in Barcelona, Cristina Morales’ radical Easy Reading (translated by Kevin Dunn) is set to cause a stir upon its UK release by Jonathan Cape. Young Spaniards are not the only winners this year; translator Peter Bush is honoured for his translation of revered Catalan writer Rosa Maria Arquimbau’s novel, Forty Lost Years, while finally, bilingual writer Agnès Agboton’s collection of poems, Voices of the Two Shores, is translated by Lawrence Schimel, from both the Spanish and Agboton’s native Gun.
Over in Germany, another bilingual African writer and literary critic, Ijoma Mangold, achieved success with Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s translation of his biographical novel The Golden Crocodile. Nearby, the Czech novel Theta by Daniela Hodrová is translated by Elena Sokol and Véronique. Continuing east, the Belarusian writer Volha Hapeyeva’s poetry collection is translated by Annie Rutherford. Finally, Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp brings us another translation, this time being Russian writer Yulia Yakovleva’s novel Punishment of a Hunter.
With the complexities of Brexit putting further financial pressure on the UK and European publishing houses, the PEN awards are a much-needed source of support when it comes to translated European literature.
Fans of Latin American books rejoice as several texts from this continent have made the cut as Pen Translates winners.
Inexile by Sheyla Smanioto (translated by Sophie Lewis and Laura Garmeson) is a brutal Brazilian polyphonic novel. Shifting between dream and reality, it depicts the intergenerational saga of 4 female characters and their precarious existence in the harsh Brazilian Sertao. This is a novel about interwoven fates and the tribulations these women endure and do their best to escape from. A book in the vein of Jokha Alhathi’s Celestial Bodies or Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season. Male figures are peripheral here, but the inherited violence and toxicity of patriarchy permeates all aspects of these women’s lives, as they grow detached not only from their village but also from their own identities.
A Feminist Reading of Debt by Luci Cavallero and Veronica Gago (translated by Liz Mason-Deese) is an exploration of debt viewed through a feminist prism. The book examines debt’s relation to social reproduction and debt’s impact on women and the LGBQT+ community. The book’s authors envisage ways the spectre of debt can be resisted through frank examinations of women’s interaction with debt at work, in prison, domestic labour, agriculture, abortion and housing, so that through these insights, a means of resistance takes shape.
Rooftop by Fernanda Trias (translated by Annie McDermott) is a Uruguayan novel about one woman’s fight for her family’s survival as they become stranded on a rooftop. Written with hints of Kafkaesque humour, this is a story about freedom and a woman’s attempts to overcome fear, violence, motherhood and loss from a rooftop.
What else could we say? Each of these titles accompanies us on a journey around the world, opening the doors to cultures near and far. Maybe these texts will inspire us on our future travels, but for now, let's enjoy the journey into the world of literature in translation.