Best Translated Book Award Longlist: Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s ‘Montecore’

As you might imagine, I was a bit disappointed by the 2012 “Best Translated Book Award” fiction longlist, which boasts 25 books that should represent the “best of translated fiction” available in the U.S.

Last year, there was one book translated from the Arabic (Adania Shibli’s Touch, by Paula Haydar). This year, there were none.

I am not surprised that Shibli’s 2011 book, We Are All Equally Far from Love, is not on the longlist. It is a book that doesn’t give of its significance easily, and if you’re reading dozens of books for an award, it might easily slip through the cracks. (My review forthcoming in KRO.) There were other good, difficult books translated from the Arabic (A Muslim Suicide by Bensalem Himmich) that I’m not surprised aren’t there.

However, I would have liked to see Hassouna Mosbahi’s masterful A Tunisian Tale on the longlist, translated by Max Weiss (my review forthcoming in the Egypt Independent), and Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights, trans. Samah Selim. But both books came out in a rush in December of 2011, and AUC Press was in and out of their offices at least (twice?) in that month. So perhaps the BTBA folks didn’t get copies.

In any case, it isn’t like a Naguib Mahfouz award or an International Prize for Arabic Fiction, where the judges read the same 60 or 80 or 100 titles. Over twitter, BTBA judge Michael Orthofer told me, “No public list, but we tried to makes sure each title was looked at by at least 1 of the 11 judges; think we did reasonably well.”

He added, “Didn’t get some of the books (always an issue); personally: figure I rev’d ca 1/3rd, read half, looked at 2/3rds of eligible books.”

As for the books that are on the BTBA list, Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone (translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston) was one I very much enjoyed. The excellent Johnston has two translations on the longlist: I look forward to reading his translation of In Red by Magdalena Tulli.

The only book on the list by a (known) Arab is Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Montecore, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

Montecore is a fun, young book about growing up Arab (specifically, Tunisian) in Sweden. It certainly must have presented a challenge for Willson-Broyles, peppered as it is with what must be “bad” Arabized Swedish, as well as examinations of Swedish-language cliches. A long section titled “KHEMIRI’S (& KADIR’S) RULES OF GRAMMAR” is full of “mnemonic rules” for learning Swedish, as well as attempts to pin down what Swedes are like via their language. In the English, it’s difficult to say we’ve learned much either about Swedes or about the Arabs who are trying to grasp them.

Montecore is definitely a fun, young book, but not as strong as A Tunisian Tale, for instance. I don’t expect to see it on the BTBA shortlist. And isA 2012 will provide a lot of award-worthy fodder for the BTBA.

More on Khemiri:

Why Jonas Hassen Khemiri Didn’t Translate His Own ‘Invasion!’

The English section of Khemiri’s website.

And also:

The whole list.