By Alice Reynolds and Lucy Clark
On 18 April 2023, the International Booker Prize shortlist was announced. This important event in the year for translated works of fiction celebrates both inspiring authors from around the world and the vital work of translators. The winner, announced this year on 23 May, will receive £50,000 which is divided equally between the author and the translator (or between multiple translators). Yet even the longlist speaks to the important themes in writing this year and gives a platform to original writing and translation talent.
This year’s shortlist of six books is very exciting. Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey; Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches; Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated by Chi-Young Kim; The Gospel According to the New World by Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox; Standing Heavy by GauZ’, translated by Frank Wynne; Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel.
It boasts more representation than years before as each of the six books on the shortlist originated in a different country – Bulgaria, Côte d’Ivoire, France, Mexico, South Korea and Spain which together span four continents. The translators too represent five countries – Brazil, Ireland, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States. Moreover, two of the novels have been translated from Bulgarian and Catalan for the first time.
The judging panel is also star-studded in the translated works industry. It is chaired by the prize-winning French-Moroccan novelist, Leïla Slimani. Other judges include Uilleam Blacker, one of Britain’s leading literary translators from Ukrainian; Tan Twan Eng, the Booker-shortlisted Malaysian novelist; Parul Sehgal, staff writer and critic at the New Yorker; and Frederick Studemann, Literary Editor of the Financial Times.
Leïla Slimani, Chair of the International Booker Prize 2023 judges, highlights the importance of bringing the list to readers. She believes “what is extraordinary about literature is that when a novel is successful, it works with anyone, anywhere.” She says she’s “very happy to offer this list to readers – a list of remarkable variety, where they will find poetry, fantasy, eroticism and metaphysics.” Like always, the books, authors and translators the prize celebrates offer readers a window onto the world from global viewpoints and the opportunity to experience the lives of people from different cultures.
So too, Fiammetta Rocco, Administrator of the International Booker Prize, speaks of the trends in translated fiction. She adds that interestingly “just under half the translated fiction sold in Britain is bought by people under 35.” She holds this as “part of a far wider cultural trend in which more and more films, TV series and music originating in languages other than English have become part of the global mainstream.” This shows a positive and promising future for translated books.
Boulder is both the title of this book and the nickname given to the central character (and narrator), encapsulating the solitude that seemingly defines the female protagonist. However, while working on a merchant ship, Boulder meets Samsa and they fall instantly in lust. Tension arises between the couple following a move to Reykjavík where Samsa is eager to establish a life and family by having a baby, yet Boulder is less keen but still unable to say no. Boulder is therefore confronted with the decision of choosing love or freedom.
Through the characters of Boulder and Samsa, Baltasar depicts a modern love story that “slices open the dilemmas of exchanging independence for intimacy.” Boulder presents queer love, desire and sexuality through the narrator’s unique voice and the contradictions and limitations of motherhood. As Baltasar put it “loneliness can be hard, but it also frees you up.”
Time Shelter tells the story of Gaustine who opens a “clinic for the past” in which different decades are recreated on each floor in minute detail with the aim of treating Alzheimer’s sufferers. However, as the clinic grows in popularity, those in good health increasingly seek out the clinic in order to escape the horrors of the present day and find comfort in the past. Yet the dangers of dwelling in the past become apparent when the idea is hijacked by politicians across Europe and soon “referendums on the past” are held to decide what particular past a country’s future will look like.
“The idea of going from the clinics of the past, which deal with patients’/residents’ private pasts, to European referendums on the past was the basic framework for the plot from the outset” says Gospodinov. Written between the Brexit referendum and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this book reveals the possible “weaponisation of nostalgia” that is in fact taken advantage of in present day. It is in this way that Gospodinov is able to shock the reader as they come to recognise that the funny and absurd future in this novel is in fact rather frighteningly close to home.