On the Perpetually Strange 147-strong IMPAC Longlist, Only Arabic Novel is al-Aswany’s ‘Automobile Club’

Literary translators who work with English are generally happy for any and all attention to translated literature. So the IMPAC Prize — which asks librarians from predominantly Western and Australian libraries to nominate submissions, and presents an international-seeming very-long longlist — should be a boon to translating:

alaswanyAnd indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone reading the 2010 winner — Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer — and being disappointed.

There are great books on 2016’s 147-title longlist, many of them translations. This year, there are an impressive 43 titles translated from world languages. Yet only three of those were translated from non-European languages: Alaa al-Aswany’s Automobile Club, translated by Russell Harris (Arabic); Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind, translated by Ekin Oklap (Turkish); and the only true outlier: Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, translated by Srinath Perur (Kannada).

If this represents an Olympics of world literature, all Arab countries getting together to post up Alaa al-Aswany’s Automobile Club as the very best of Arab letters would be a rather strange outcome. In Arabic literary circles, Al-Aswany is generally referred to as a competent popular writer, not a literary craftsman. But al-Aswany’s book was suggested not by any Arab nominating body (which, goodness knows, might also suggest something strange), but by the Los Angeles Public Library system, which also nominated Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, translated from the French by John Cullen, and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. However, even if I don’t agree with all their choices, it’s fantastic that they made the effort to include literature in translation.

Equally strange is the presence of Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra’s The African Equation, translated from French by Howard Curtis. While Khadra’s Inspector Loeb novels are worth longlisting, The African Equation is not. As in other years, from the listed nominations, it’s not quite clear if libraries think they’re meant to nominate something that was popular with their readers, which is fair enough, or something that represents the best of world literature.

Arabic literature aside, it’s a serious disappointment not to find serious Bangla, Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, and Russian novels here, as well as novels from sub-Saharan Africa. The absence of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 particularly smarts.