Adania Shibli’s ‘Minor Detail’, Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, Makes Booker Longlist

Booker International organizers announced 2021’s longlist Tuesday morning. Unsurprisingly, Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, translated from the Arabic by Lissie Jaquette, was on the 13-book list:

This year’s judges considered 125 prose works in English translation. In a prepared statement, judging chair Lucy Hughes-Hallett noted a theme that ran among the books they read: migration.

In a year when we could scarcely leave our own houses, we judges have been crossing continents, transported by our reading. Every book we’ve read is unique. However a theme does emerge – migration, the pain of it, but also the fruitful interconnectedness of the modern world.

Not all writers stay in their native countries. Many do, and write wonderful fiction about their hometowns. But our longlist includes a Czech/Polish author’s vision of a drug-fuelled Swedish underworld, a Dutch author from Chile writing in Spanish about German and Danish scientists, and a Senegalese author writing from France about Africans fighting in a European war.

This year’s judging panel also included Aida Edemariam, Neel Mukherjee, Olivette Otele, and George Szirtes.

They said, of Minor Detail: “The first part of this devastatingly powerful book gives a laconic account of a shocking crime.  In the second, decades later, a woman sets out to comprehend that crime. Set in disputed ground, this austerely beautiful novel focuses on one incident in the Palestine/Israeli conflict and casts light on ethnic conflicts, and ethnic cleansing, everywhere.”

Organizers of the £50,000 prize, which is split evenly between author and translator, will announce a shortlist April 22 and a winner on June 2.

Last year, Jaquette said of Minor Detail, over email: “I was immediately taken by the novel upon reading it. Adania is an impressive prose stylist, and her precision is astounding, though this of course brings another level of difficulty to the translation process. As a translator, I was very keen to work on a book that was so tightly crafted, because it required me to dedicate the same effort as a translator, and pay even closer attention to what Adania was doing and how. The subject matter certainly does have its difficult aspects, but there’s a sense of compulsion from each narrator (albeit different for each one) that I think also brings great momentum to the storytelling.”

This book unfolds in two parts. The first the story of an Israeli officer and group of soldiers in the Negev Desert in 1949, who come across a group of Bedouin, shoot most of them, and take the surviving young woman back to their camp. The officer has been stung by a scorpion, but somehow, even as his body is riven with pain, refuses to acknowledge it. The second is the story of a Palestinian “amateur sleuth,” as J.M. Coetzee calls her; a young woman in our times, with no apparent skill for detective work, who insists on bumbling around, trying to find out what happened to the Bedouin woman who was held against her will, raped, and eventually killed by the officer and his men in the first section.

Jaquette noted that, on the surface, “the two parts of the book operate completely independently of each other: they’re set decades apart, and they each follow a different central character, neither of whom is aware of the other in any personal way.” Yet she found them linked through all sorts of different echoes:

Tone is so essential to the effect that Adania creates in this novel, and there was certainly a challenge in recreating two very different tones for two different characters in English. But perhaps my greatest challenge as a translator was recreating what links those two separate parts of the novel: the echos between them. These appear in subtle ways: a spider, a dog barking, a shiver. But, as each echo amplifies the next, the overall effect is incredible. The way Adania lays these two narratives over one another is so powerful; history is right there, yet inaccessible. As a translator, it was sometimes challenging to keep track of all these echoes, and to find one single word that would work in multiple instances. For example, I might have translated ‘lather’ in one instance, and ‘soap suds’ in another, but to play by the rules of the novel, I had to pick one word that would work equally well in both instances. In the end, I think these echoes create a nearly-invisible architecture beneath the book, more felt that seen.

There are two excerpts from the novella online. One is from the opening of the novellaat Fitzcarraldo. The second appeared at The Arts Desk; it’s from slightly later in the first section.

The complete longlist:

I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant Chen Zeping, Yale University Press

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Mocschovakis, Pushkin Press

The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway, Peirene Press

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, Granta Books

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin Press

The Perfect Nine: The Epic Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author, VINTAGE, Harvill Secker

The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, Lolli Editions

Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from Dutch by David Doherty, World Editions

An Inventory of Losses
 by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith, Quercus, MacLehose Press

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, Fitzcarraldo Editions

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale, Fitzcarraldo Editions

Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley, And Other Stories

The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Pan Macmillan, Picador