A Most Unusual Journey – The 2015 Shadow IFFP

By Tony Malone

iffp2015logoThree years ago, Stu Allen (of Winstonsdad’s Blog fame) brought together a group of literature lovers to shadow the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and I was lucky enough to be a part of that inaugural venture.  Moving forward to 2015, Stu and I are the only members of the group still involved with the event, but that’s not to say that things have slowed down.  In fact, this year saw our biggest and best effort yet, with eleven bloggers from around the world making up the 2015 IFFP Shadow Panel.

In addition to three other judges from last year’s event (Bellezza, David Hebblethwaite and Tony Messenger), this year’s group included six newcomers: Chelsea McGill, Grant Rintoul, Clare Rowland, Julianne Pachico, Emma Cazabonne and Joe Schreiber).  With a panel based in Australia, India, the UK, the USA and Canada, we felt confident that this would be our most comprehensive effort yet and were ready to cope with anything the ‘real’ judges could throw at us.

Of course, that was before we had seen the official longlist…  While there were some predictable and well-known choices among the fifteen titles selected, several had us scratching our heads.  In addition, as always, there were several notable omissions.  There was no place for writers like Andrés Neuman or Elena Ferrante on the list, and even a former winner (Per Petterson) failed to make the cut.

The biggest surprise, though, both for our group and among the wider blogosphere, was the absence of one of my favourite books of 2014, Mathias Énard’s Zone (translated by Charlotte Mandell).  As more and more people queried its omission, Chairman Stu decided to do what we had considered in previous years, but had never quite got around to – it was time to call in a title to see if the rest of the Shadow Panel would share our views.

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The Shadow IFFP Panel’s winner.

With only a matter of weeks to decide on a top six, making our way through the titles we hadn’t read (and, for most of us, that was the majority of the books) was a daunting task, but we managed to cover enough of them to make an informed judgement as to which ones should make our shortlist (which only had two titles in common with the selection of the professionals…).  After that, we had a leisurely wait until the day of the announcement, which we spent rereading, reflecting and discussing the merits of the various shortlisted titles.  Finally, after a voting process that put Eurovision to shame (and, coincidentally enough, began on the day they were singing their hearts out in the final in Vienna), we came up with our winner (Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, translated by Susan Bernofsky) – and very proud of it we are too.

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Which is all well and good, but the real beauty of any endeavour like the Shadow IFFP lies in the journey, not the destination, and this year’s judging was certainly an interesting ride.  One of the reasons for expanding the panel was to open ourselves up to new opinions and different biases; in previous years, especially with Stu and myself often having very similar opinions on books, our voices carried a disproportionate weight.

This was certainly not the case in 2015.  With eleven judges, and a much wider range in terms of age, gender, background and reading preferences, the panel’s views on the longlisted titles were never quite as clear-cut or homogenous as in previous years.  For every glowing review, there was a frown of dismissal; each enthusiastic write-up was inevitably followed up with a comment that wasn’t quite as full of praise.  In the process, books which in previous years might have stood a better chance of progressing fell by the wayside – all for the greater good.

While we certainly enjoyed the cut and thrust of the discussions, the general feeling once the dust had settled was one of disappointment – not at how events had unfolded, but at the relatively ‘safe’ nature of the longlist chosen.  Several of the Shadow judges expressed dissatisfaction with the Eurocentric focus of the selection, and with five books in German on the list (only one of which received any great love from our panel), there was a general consensus that including a wider geographical range would have been to the advantage of all concerned.

This year also (coincidentally) saw the announcement of the winner of the American IFFP equivalent, the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), on the same day as the IFFP trophy was handed out, and several of our judges felt that any comparison between the two lists could only be to the detriment of the British selection.  The BTBA list was seen to be more experimental and daring – certainly not adjectives you would use to describe many of the IFFP books…

Bloodlinesbannerhed-cover-ra_2791613aStill, despite our reservations, most of the judges agreed that participating in the Shadow Panel was a positive experience.  In addition to the sense of community created over the course of the past few months (and it’s a long process from longlist speculation to the prize announcement), there was the joy of discovering new books, works which had somehow slipped beneath our collective radar.  Tomas Bannerhed’s The Ravens (translated by Sarah Death) and Marcello Fois’ Bloodlines (translated by Silvester Mazzarella), two books which failed to make the official shortlist but both made the Shadow Panel’s cut, were singled out for particular praise, unexpected discoveries which made the whole endeavour worthwhile.

So, after all the blood, sweat and tears (and ink), will we be doing it again next year?  Well, with our winner matching the choice of the real panel, IFFP 2015 finished off on a positive note, and I, for one, am a lot happier this year than I usually am at this point.  While everyone enjoyed the experience, several of the judges have expressed doubt as to whether they’ll be back next year to give it another go.  This, however, is one area where Stu and I can draw on our experience.  Rest assured, by February next year, when the speculation starts to build, we’re convinced that most of our fellow Shadow jurors will be itching to get judging once again…

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Tony Malone (on behalf of the 2015 Shadow IFFP Panel). Tony is based in Melbourne and blogs at Tony’s Reading List.

David Hebblethwaite went to the 2015 IFFP Award Ceremony – read more here.

You may be interested to know that Silvester Mazzarella, mentioned above,  wrote an article about translating Boel Westin’s biography of Tove Jansson in the very first issue of Shiny New Books.

Click through to buy books mentioned via our affiliate link with The Book Depository (with free P&P nearly worldwide):
The End of Days – Jenny Erpenbeck;  The Ravens – Tomas Bannerhed;  Bloodlines – Marcello Fois.

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