This Is the Best Translated Book of 2016 — and It Beat Elena Ferrante

It was a loaded shortlist at this year’s Best Translated Book Award, one that featured translated fiction from Elena Ferrante (The Story of the Lost Child), Clarice Lispector (Complete Stories), and Valeria Luiselli (The Story of My Teeth), to name just a few of the prize’s more serious contenders. But in a big surprise, it was Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, that won the award. The poetry prize went to Angélica Freitas’s Rilke Shake, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan.

signs

It’s surprising, too, that nine years of Spanish-language-oriented longlists had yet to produce a Spanish-language winner, at least until this year. Herrera, Dillman, Freitas, and Kaplan will take home $5,000 prizes courtesy of the Amazon Literary Partnership program. In its ten years, it was announced on Wednesday, the partnership has given out more than $100,000 for the Best Translated Book Awards.

On the reasoning behind the fiction selection, BTBA judge Jason Grunebaum applauded the quality of Dillman’s translation. “Translator Lisa Dillman has crafted a dazzling voice in English for Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World,” Grunebaum said, calling the novel “a transformative tale of a young woman’s trip on foot from Mexico to the U.S. to deliver a package and find a brother.

“This novel of real pathos and unexpected displacement in self, place, and language achieves a near perfect artistic convergence of translator and author, while giving readers an urgent account from today’s wall-building world.”

In our review of Herrera’s novel, published last year, we praised its unforgettable protagonist, the Atlas-like Makina, whose attempt to cross the Mexico/US border forms much of its plot:

Along the way, Makina meets a procession of figures, a dozen Virgils — crime lords, a coyote named Chucho, even a corpse — who usher her almost ceremoniously toward the border. And the nearer she is to the border, the more intensified the violence, literal and poetic, becomes. This accounts, too, for the novel’s noirish, hybridized prose and its strange-but-spare poetic interpolations, such as when Makina “verses” instead of exits or leaves a place. Not only does it feel as if she is transversing a terrain; it also implies…that the novel contains no exit.

On April 12, in defense of the novel that would upset Ferrante and Lispector for the prize, Stephen Sparks praises both its timeliness and its reliance on mythology. “A story like this already has a certain weight borrowed from the contemporary situation on the Mexico-US border,” Sparks writes, “but Herrera ballasts his novel with myth, a decision that imbues the work with an almost vertiginous depth that resounds with echoes of the ancient past.”

The publisher of Signs Preceding the End of the World, And Other Stories, will also publish Dillman’s translation of Herrera’s second novel, The Transmigration of Bodies, in July of this year.

With the judge’s selection of Rilke Shake, the L.A.-based Phoneme Media becomes the first publisher to win the poetry prize in consecutive years. Last year the publisher won the award for Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong.

In a press announcement, BTBA judge Tess Lewis commended Freitas’ collection and Kaplan’s translation, noting “[Kaplan] has done the grant and Freitas’ poems justice, capturing the many shifts in tone in and between the lines, from playful to wry to sardonic to pathetic, even sentimental, to deadpan and back to playful, sometimes within a single poem. For all of Freitas’ lyric clowning, it’s clear she takes poetry too seriously not to dismantle it and use it to her own purposes.”