Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 17, 2020

2020 National Book Awards Longlist for Translated Literature

The 2020 National Book Awards Longlist for Translated Literature have been announced, and Iranian-Australian Shokoofeh Azar is in the running!

The following is from the press release on the NBA website.  I’ve quoted it in full because I like the way they have written it.  It’s not about the prize, it’s about the books and the way they summarise them makes me want to read them all.

The National Book Foundation today announced the Longlist for the 2020 National Book Award for Translated Literature, a fifth Awards category that was added in 2018. The Finalists in all five categories will be revealed on October 6.

Ten novels originally published in eight different languages comprise this year’s Translated Literature Longlist: Arabic, German, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Spanish, Swedish, and Tamil. One of the authors, Perumal Murugan, was Longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2018. The authors and translators on the list have been recognized by numerous international prizes, such as the International Man Booker Prize, the Stella Prize, [that’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree], the August Prize, the Akutagawak Prize, the German Book Prize, the Colombian Biblioteca de Narrativa Prize, and the Languages Festival Samanvay Bhasha Samman for writing in Indian languages.

Two titles focus on animals, though from different perspectives. Perumal Murugan returns to the National Book Awards Longlist with an animal protagonist in The Story of a Goat, translated from the Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman. Following the lifetime of Poonachi, a small black goat, Murugan’s novel is grounded in stark realism and evokes empathy for the struggles and instability its central figure endures. Set on Colombia’s Pacific coast, The Bitch by Pilar Quintana is a portrait of a woman wrestling with abandonment, love, and her need to nurture. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, the narrative follows the main character’s adoption of a dog that disappears into the jungle; when the dog returns, she nurses it to health but when it flees once more, there are brutal consequences.

Two novels reflect on violence and its effects on victims, society, and the future. Written by Adania Shibli and translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth JaquetteMinor Detail is split between two interrelated narratives, the latter half following a young woman’s search to discover more about the tragic murder of a Palestinian teenager in 1949, who died the day she was born. In Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, a witch’s murder is at the epicenter of the novel. Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes and shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize, Hurricane Season connects a series of narrators who guide the reader through their shared reality of pervasive violence.

The two debut novels on the list focus on the inner emotional life of their narrators. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo and translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang has sold over a million copies and has been translated into twelve languages, signaling the relatability of the everywoman main character, whose life of frustration and submission is recounted to the male psychiatrist her husband sends her to. Translated from the German by Anne PostenHigh as the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann explores the emotional life of an oil rig worker whose bunkmate fell into the sea and drowned, setting off a chain of events that force his reckoning with the exploitation of natural resources.

The two novels translated from the Swedish focus on families and complex webs of emotions. The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, is a study of loss that brings the myth of Athena to Sweden. Twelve-year-old Anna’s father is committed to a psychiatric hospital, and when the assimilation efforts with the foster family do not work out, she is institutionalized as well. Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s The Family Clause, translated by Alice Menzies, provides insight on one family across a span of only ten days, during which relationships change and memories are brought to the surface.

Two novels on the Longlist have ghost narrators. Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar is narrated by the ghost of Bahar, a thirteen-year-old girl. Brought to English from the Persian by an anonymous translator, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree centers the Islamic revolution and interweaves the conflict with the lives of a family and their place in a tumultuous world. In Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri and translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles, ghost narrator Kazu visits the park in which he last lived as a homeless man. As the book unfolds, the reader learns more about his earlier years and the ways in which Japan’s modernization pushed many to the margins of society, where they were subsequently ignored.

Publishers submitted a total of 130 books for the 2020 National Book Award for Translated Literature. The judges for Translated Literature are Dinaw Mengestu (Chair), Heather ClearyJohn DarnielleAnne Ishii, and Brad Johnson. Judge’s decisions are made independently of the National Book Foundation staff and Board of Directors and deliberations are strictly confidential. Winners in all categories will be announced live at the virtual National Book Awards Ceremony on November 18.

The only thing that bothers me a little, is that none of the small indie publishers that are preeminent in the world of translated fiction are on the list.  The big conglomerates are, but there’s nothing from Open letter, Pushkin Press, Glagoslav, Hispabooks, or Peirene Press, much less any of the Aussie indies increasingly bringing us translated fiction, i.e. Giramondo, Scribe and Text.  I’m guessing that the cost of entry may be a factor.


  1. Interesting that ‘The Discomfort of Evening’ is not on the list.


    • It may not have been entered… only 130 books were.


  2. I’m a little disappointed by the list, even though I love the books I’ve read (Greengage Tree, Hurricane Season & Kim Jiyoung). I think it’s just the lack of smaller press (excluding World Editions) that plays a part but also it feels like a safe list


    • I’m wondering if size has something to do with it too. With the exception of Glagoslav, Text and Scribe, most of the indie publishers I’ve listed publish small books, novellas and short stories pretending to be novellas. Maybe, in the longer-term interest of translated fiction, the judges want to promote novels that will appeal to a bigger market? We can only guess, the processes of LitAwards remain opaque!!


      • Maybe the NBA are just bad at picking a long list, I don’t think I’ve ever been impressed by their lists


        • The best source of info about what’s good to read is always, for me, the reviews of my trusted network of frank and fearless LitBloggers. Their reviews tell me enough about the book for me to know if it’s a book for me, they usually include a brief excerpt or two so that I know if I’ll like the style, they tag their posts so that I know whether to click open the review or not, and I know their tastes and where they intersect with mine.
          I remember back to the days when the mortgage was big and the library was my only source of books, and all I ever had was newspaper reviews of books that were not yet in the library so I couldn’t even reserve them. I’d learned to love great books through university but I had no one to guide me and I used to wander the stacks disconsolately, often taking home books that turned to be unsatisfactory and yearning for the kind of books I really wanted even though I didn’t know what they were.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting to see that the Greengage Tree had an anonymous translator. I wonder why they wanted anonymity. Agree with you about the refreshing way they announced the prize – they let the books themselves take centre stage instead of banging on about diversity like the Booker judges this week.


  4. That’s so interesting. In some ways, I wonder whether there *should* be a price of entry for a prize. Certainly that must knock out the smaller indies and doesn’t make for a balanced list…


    • I think it depends on the prize. Well-endowed prizes like the Booker should be entirely self-funded, but smaller outfits need the entry fees to fund the prize.
      LOL Perhaps also the cost of the entry fees helps to curtail being flooded with entries, these days with all sorts of slush being self-published, open slather could be a nightmare for the judges, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My Californian friend and correspondent has read Tokyo Ueno Station, and recommends it. I’m really keen to read it. I’m pleased to see it here – partly because it is one of the few you’ve listed that I’ve heard of!!


  6. You’ve done a fine job of making each of these sound intriguing and interesting. A few of them were already on my TBR and, like you, I’m grateful that public libraries (here, at least) are willing to buy and disperse these works in a way which was much less common even a decade ago.


    • Yes, that’s true. there is much better access to translated fiction these days.


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