There are books from sixteen different languages and twenty different countries on this year’s Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) longlist — including two from Nobel Prize winners (Elfriede Jelinek and Mo Yan) and two from authors named “Stig.” But the strangest of the bunch is certainly Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg, which BTBA judge M.A. Orthofer has called “the most important literary publication of a translation into English, in terms of literary history and our understanding of it, in years”:
Al-Shidyaq’s book, published in 1855, was not eligible for the UK’s translated-fiction prize — the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) — which announced its longlist March 7. For the IFFP, authors must be living, and al-Shidyaq unfortunately left this mortal coil more than a century ago.
However, the first two volumes of al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg first appeared in formidable English translation by Humphrey Davies in 2013, which makes Leg Over Leg — at least the first two volumes — eligible for the 2014 BTBA. Only the first volume made the 25-book longlist.
Neither of the Arabic titles that made the IFFP list (Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer and Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ) can be found on the BTBA. Blasim’s book wasn’t eligible for the BTBA, as it was published only in the UK. However, his The Corpse Exhibition, from Penguin, will be eligible for the 2014 BTBA.
The other Arab title on the BTBA list is from Moroccan novelist and painter Mahi Binebine. His Horses of God, translated from the French by Lulu Norman, made the long longlist.
Al-Shidyaq’s book certainly is different from most of the others on the playing field, although it should get a fair shake. At least two of the judges have already marked it as a significant work. Orthofer gave it a glowing review and Daniel Medin chose to run a section in The White Review.
Davies said about the playful, challenging book in a recent interview:
The formalism isn’t “empty,” the preoccupation with language isn’t “decadent,” the games have a purpose, and the ideas are often unexpected (given our preconceptions). It is well known, for example, (among the very small number of people who know anything, in this context) that he defended the rights of women to sexual gratification and promoted the idea that they were as intelligent, if not more so, as men, but did you know that he also questioned, in terms that sometimes seem astonishingly modern, male hegemony over language, our rights to freedom of thought, expression, and association, the equality of all races and colors, and human rights (he even uses that term) in general and that he may have been the first to do so in the modern Arab world? He even worried about the impact of population growth on the environment.
Finalists for both fiction and poetry will be announced on April 15, and the eventual winner/s will receive $20,000. You can read more about the prize at the Three Percent website.
The full BTBA longlist:
- The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa; tr. Jeffrey Gray
- Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky; tr. Joanne Turnbull
- Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu; tr. Sean Cotter
- City of Angels Or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf; tr. Damion Searls
- Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot; tr. Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis
- The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol; tr. Alex Zucker
- The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente; tr. Katherine Silver
- The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff; tr. Paul Vincent
- Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek; tr. Damion Searls
- Horses of God by Mahi Binebine; tr. Lulu Norman
- In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina; tr. Edith Grossman
- The Infatuations by Javier Marías; tr. Margaret Jull Costa
- Leg Over Leg, Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq; tr. Humphrey Davies
- The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal; tr. Nick Caistor
- My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard; tr. Don Bartlett
- Red Grass by Boris Vian; tr. Paul Knobloch
- Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan; tr. Howard Goldblatt
- Seiobo There Below by Krasznahorkai László; tr. Ottilie Mulzet
- Sleet by Stig Dagerman; tr. Steven Hartman
- The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante; tr. Ann Goldstein
- Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom; tr. Dalya Bilu
- Through the Night by Stig Sæterbakken; tr. Seán Kinsella
- Tirza by Arnon Grunberg; tr. Sam Garrett
- A True Novel by Mizumura Minae; tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter
- The Whispering Muse by Sjón; tr. Victoria Cribb