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The Best of Translated Fiction in 2021: International Booker Prize

December 4th 2021

Of the exciting shortlist for the 2021 International Booker Prize, the award this year went to French Senegalese author David Diop, and Greek American translator, Anna Moschovakis for Diop’s originally French novel, At Night All Blood is Black. The novel in its original language had already won a myriad of awards in France and Europe and so in some ways the International Booker win should have come as no surprise. The difference of course for the Booker award is that it is also an award for the translator.

The international Booker prize was announced in June 2004 as an offshoot of the Booker Prize. Open to texts written in any language that have been translated into English, the intention of the prize is to increase appreciation of literature from across the globe.

Despite sharing a name and funding body, the International Booker tends to slip by with relatively little press, whilst the Booker dominates media from longlist to announcement. The International Booker is however my favourite of the two, drawing attention to works that I might otherwise never come across, or may fall quickly out of print in the UK, as translated literature often struggles to maintain a foothold in UK markets.

There are many preconceptions about what should be expected of a translated text. A common (mis)conception is that the translator should translate the original word for word. However, often a technically accurate translation fails to actually communicate the essence of the text. Dr Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English, wrote a fascinating series of tweets examining the way in which previous translators had chosen to ‘import misogynistic language when it isn’t there in the Greek’ to a particular scene in the Odyssey.

Deborah Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian, winner of the 2016 International Booker Prize, came under huge fire for the perceived ‘errors’ in translation despite the translation being a major success in the UK; and the wildly popular global smash hit Squid Game, has also been critiqued for inaccurate translation in the English subtitles which fluent Korean speakers argue undermine the brilliance of the script writing. Translation can be understood to be a complicated and polarising subject and a ‘good’ translation is an entirely subjective accolade.

David Diop was born in Paris in 1966 to a French mother and a Sengelese father, spending his childhood in Senegal, but returning to study in France, where he also now resides and works, as a lecturer at the University of Pau.

Diop’s dual cultural heritage is a strong influence on both his academic and fictional work. He teaches 18th century literature, and his first academic book focused on travellers accounts of Africa in the 17th and 18th century. At Night All Blood is Black focuses on the inner world of a Tirailleurs Sénégalais. Tirailleurs Sénégalais were soldiers taken from French colonies to fight in the First World War. The colonial trope of African savagery was lent on heavily in the 20th century by the French government to garner fear of Black troops amongst the German soldiers. The French government presented the African soldiers as savages for propaganda purposes, presenting them as perfect warriors due to being immune to the stress of war and having little regard for their own lives and therefore being willing to hunt the German enemy relentlessly.

The real core of the book engages with ideas of madness and war, and delves deeply into the assumptions made and the carefully curated representation of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French national consciousness. Diop engages with the trope of the merciless tirailleurs sénégalais, in the context of a shell shocked soldier, suffering in the wake of witnessing the brutal demise of a childhood friend. The title of the original text is ‘Frère d'âme’ which literally translates to 'Soul brother' or ‘Brothers in arms’. Frère d'âme’ shares the name of a project founded by Rachid Bouchareb and Pascal Blanchard intended to rewrite French history to acknowledge the role of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, which has been conveniently wiped from national memory.

To return to the theme of translation so important to the Booker prize, it is worth examining the role of translation and language within Diop’s novel. Tirailleurs sénégalais were taught a reduced form of French on the grounds that their language was deemed underdeveloped and inferior, and therefore they would only be able to understand a version of French that was also underdeveloped. Diop’s text was originally written in French, a colonial language, but the intention in the French is to communicate that the narrating character is in fact thinking in Wolof, the protagonist's native language The frustration of this limitation extending from within the text to the reader.

Translation is a thorny problem in many areas of debate, but it is a particularly difficult issue in the context of postcolonial authors, so Diop’s presentation of a character thinking in a language different to the one being written, is a brilliant authorial decision to communicate the entrapment of colonial languages and the limitations of working through translation. The English translation is therefore only another layer in the multi-facteted translation theme.

A complicated and layered novel that the Lovemyread team has described as ‘hypnotic’ it is one of our top November, picks, and can be bought from our shop here. If from this beginning you fall in love with translated fiction then the International Booker shortlists are an excellent place to start.

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