Text by David Hebblethwaite
The Florence Hall at the London headquarters of RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architects) is a suitably grand space for awarding a literary prize, and it played host to this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize on Wednesday 27 May. Earlier that day, the shadow IFFP jury had announced its winner: Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. Julianne and David from the shadow jury went along to the ceremony, to find out if the ‘real’ judges were on the same page, or in an entirely different volume…
First to the stage was Diana Gerald, chief executive of Book Trust, the charity which has managed the IFFP since 2011. She highlighted that this was the 25th year of the Prize (though it’s not a continuous run – the IFFP was in abeyance between 1996 and 2000). Gerald was followed by Antonia Byatt – not the novelist, but Director of Literature at Arts Council England – who, amongst others, praised the skill of translators. Such recognition is built into the IFFP, which splits the prize money equally between author and translator.
Finally came the turn of Boyd Tonkin, the Independent journalist who has served as a judge on the IFFP every year since its revival in 2001. He began by commenting that the Prize was there to “celebrate the global republic of letters, where the only currency is imagination.” It’s a republic that, in English translation, has been growing steadily: Tonkin noted that, when the IFFP started in 1990, translated fiction was not especially popular in the UK; but gross numbers of literary translations have increased over the years. It’s still a small percentage, especially compared with many non-Anglophone markets, but it is good to hear that things are on the up.
On to the 2015 Prize itself: the judges – Hay Festival Americas director Cristina Fuentes La Roche; translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones; academic and translator Richard Mansell; novelist Helen Oyeyemi; and Tonkin – read 120 submissions translated from around 30 languages. They narrowed these down to a longlist of fifteen, and a final shortlist of six:
- By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories);
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (Harvill Secker);
- The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books);
- F by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway (Quercus);
- In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González, translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne (Pushkin Press);
- While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Pushkin Press).
Tonkin said that the judges were giving a special commendation to In the Beginning Was the Sea, then announced the winner of the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize as The End of Days. Erpenbeck and Bernofsky both gave fine speeches, highlighting the partnership that exists between them as author and translator.
This result is particularly notable because it makes Erpenbeck only the second female author to win in the IFFP’s history (the first was Marta Morazzoni in 2001). At a time when there is still a relative dearth of fiction by women appearing in English translation, Erpenbeck’s and Bernofsky’s win becomes all the more significant.
Not to mention, of course, that the official jury chose the same winner as the shadow jury – the first time this has happened in the four years of shadowing. The shadow jury is not about trying to second-guess the actual IFFP result, but it is about highlighting great books – and we’re pleased that we and the IFFP judges have done that in selecting The End of Days.
All in all, the IFFP ceremony was a very enjoyable event, and a fitting end to our two-and-a-half months of shadowing. Here’s to another year of excellent fiction in translation!