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Literature Award

Silke Bartlick / hwMay 2, 2013

The International Literature Award honors outstanding contributions to literary diversity, as well as the work done by translators. DW talked to jury member and literary critic Claudia Kramatschek.

The spines of the six books nominated for the International Literature Award 2013.
Image: DW/R. Otte

DW: For the International Literature Award 2013, 136 titles translated from 27 languages written by authors from over 50 different countries were submitted. Which six books have made it onto the shortlist?

Six very different books. This is my third year on the jury and every year it's the case that when the results are in, you look at the titles and ask yourself whether there is any common denominator.

"Der Symmetrielehrer" (The Teacher of Symmetry) by Andrei Bitov is an artistic, artificial novel which references a swathe of assorted, loosely interwoven novels on the theme of life versus literature.

Teju Cole is, I think, one of the most promising Afro-American authors. Though that raises the question, is his book "Open City" even an Afro-American or an American or an African novel at all? It's a post-9/11 novel that actually deals with identity and forcefully questions discourse on identity and in doing so touches on a very important, current, trans-cultural issue.

Valeria Luiselli's "Die Schwerlosen" (The Weightless) is a light and airy novel, set in New York and Mexico, about a woman in the present who wants to write a novel but who isn't getting anywhere with it. Then the book jumps back in time to the New York of the 1920s and 30s and takes up the story and the diary of an existing Mexican author. She blends those two periods, narrative layers and existences into one another little by little. A debut, I think, from an author we'll surely be hearing more from.

Zakhar Prilepin, the author of "Sankya," is what you'd have to call the enfant terrible of Russian literature, a very controversial figure. We also debated it at length: He's half clown, half agit-propagandist. The novel deals with the National Bolshevists in Russia, revealing a very current, but also very unfamiliar and maybe also a rather unpleasant side of Russia which we should also be aware of. That's why we decided to include this very strong literary voice and will perhaps have to live with the accusation of political incorrectness.

Jean Rolin's "Einen toten Hund ihm nach" (A Dead Dog after Him) is a collection of reportages. But that word is probably already falsely applied, because this novel lives, so to speak, in the spirit of the nouveau roman, describing everything in great detail, but at the same time blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

And last but not least "Hand Me Down World," a novel by the New Zealander Lloyd Jones that deals with a very current theme, namely the story of a black woman who comes to Berlin. She is searching for her child who was stolen from her. But the fate of this woman - and this is formally something very interesting what Lloyd does here - is narrated from different perspectives and at differing intervals by those who accompany this woman on her journey from Africa to Berlin.

In a way you have read yourself around the world. Did you get the impression that there are particular regions or even continents which are producing particularly strong literature at the moment?

That's a really difficult question to answer. We once again have many titles from English-speaking areas on the shortlist. And that is naturally representative. But does it represent quality? Or is it simply a reflection of market dominance? For example this year we have, I think, just one Chinese author among the entrants. That's actually quite odd. China is a very literary country. We had one Indian author. What about the subcontinent? We had Arabic entries, but then decided against them due to literary reservations. 

Eastern European literature is very strong. Not just this year, it was also the same last year. The question can't be answered so easily. The only thing that one can really say is that the most exciting voices of African literature are currently being written in America. That America, despite all the reservations one might have about Anglo-American dominance, that that country really has crystallized into a meeting point, no longer the melting pot, of a global generation of writers of trans-cultural heritage.

The jury members for the International Literature Award: Hans Christoph Buch, Claudia Kramatschek, Egon Ammann, Marie-Luise Knott, Ilma Rakusa, Kersten Knipp and Ricarda Otte
The jury: Hans Christoph Buch, Claudia Kramatschek, Egon Ammann, Marie-Luise Knott, Ilma Rakusa, Kersten Knipp and Ricarda OtteImage: HKW Berlin/Internationaler Literaturpreis

What criteria did you use to select the finalists on the shortlist?

First and foremost literary criteria. And that means above all, how good is the literary treatment of the subject matter? And then, how do form and content work together? We don't just want to say, oh, that's a great story and now here's the Arab world, so we'll take one from there. If the literary quality is lost, if we don't have the feeling that there is a strong literary voice that resonates from the first page to the last, then we have to say that it's a book that doesn't belong on the list.

The tone of all of these books is also the work of a translator, who will also receive part of the prize in the end. Are the translations checked in any way as to how close they are to the original? Or does the translation stand alone?

We read the German translation first. That has to convince us. But the jury is made up of people of different languages. We can all speak different languages and so can then check the original. But the most important thing for us is that the German version flows. How well does the text flow? How plausible is it? But we always check the original, especially when we have the feeling that something grates, rattles or crackles.

Do you know how easy it was for these books to come to the German market and find a German publisher?

Teju Cole was translated very quickly; "Der Symmetrielehrer" took four years. And the most controversial case is Zakhar Prilepin's "Sankya." That novel took six years to arrive on the German market, apparently due to the politically questionable, at least not entirely clear position of the author - whether or not he's just playing a sinister game with his apparent love of Stalin or whether he's actually deadly serious about it. Obviously there were publishing houses that didn't want to take the political risk by publishing the work.

What does the prize mean for the authors? Does it secure their long-term standing on the German book market?

We can say with pride and joy that above all, yes, judging by the success of the last two recipients of the prize, Mircea Catarescu and Michail Schischkin. Schischkin, a Russian author living in Switzerland, was very well known in Russia and really not very well known on the German book market. He was able to really make a name for himself with the prize. And Catarescu was someone who really only connoisseurs were aware of. And then he really made his mark on the market.

The winner of the International Literature Award will be announced on May 30, 2013. The author of the winning book will receive 25,000 euros, the translator 15,000 euros.