IFFP and BTBA – A Few Thoughts…

It’s been a fruitful time for literary lists and prizes of late, and the two prizes I’m most interested in have both finally revealed their contenders for this year’s main event.  The British version, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize revealed its choice of fifteen challengers (prematurely…) last Friday, while across the Atlantic, the Best Translated Book Award announced its own longlist consisting of twenty-five of the best a few days later 🙂

For reasons of both background (I’m English) and convenience (library availability and publisher contacts), my focus is on the IFFP, but when I look at the two lists, I can’t help but feel (and not for the first time) that the BTBA list is a much weightier, better-looking one – and I don’t think I’m alone in this.  The question, of course, is why…  I’ve been doing a bit of thinking over the past few days, trying to compare the relative natures of the two awards; consider this my attempt to unravel some of the reasons behind the contrasts in the two lists of books.

The first things to look at are the rules governing the two prizes, and there are some clear differences here affecting availability.  For one thing, the IFFP has a strict policy of submitting books by living authors, meaning that for those writers who have shuffled off this mortal coil, the BTBA is the only option.  This year, there are several works by deceased writers on the BTBA longlist, including Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Autobiography of a Corpse and Stig Sæterbakken’s Through the Night.  Obviously, they’re not going to be able to collect the prize money in person if they take home the prize, but is that a reason to exclude them?  Even if the IFFP’s reason for this is to avoid translations of old books overshadowing more contemporary fare, it smacks of (for want of a better word) overkill.

Another possible issue over in the UK is the effort and cost involved in submitting titles for the prize.  There are some quite detailed instructions on the number of review copies which need to be submitted, and this may be a factor in limiting the number of entries.  I came up with an imagined scenario in which a press entered three books, two of which made the longlist, with one progressing to the shortlist.  According to my calculations, the publishers would be up for 110 review copies (plus postage) for their troubles…

Back in the US, by contrast, things run on a relatively small scale.  There’s a handy list of e-mails and addresses on the Three Percent site, showing publishers where to send the books, which (as is most certainly not the case for the IFFP) can be e-copies.  In extreme situations, the publishers might not even need to send in a copy at all; if enough of the judges have already tried (and liked) a book, it could conceivably be sent straight to the longlist without a finger having been lifted by anyone at the publishing house…

But surely even that’s not enough to explain the discrepancy between the two lists?  Well, there are some other possible factors.  I’ve noticed a disturbing trend whereby successful novels in translation often move from the UK to the US, but not in the opposite direction.  While not many of them made the BTBA longlist, several books from last year’s IFFP longlist made their way to the States after originally coming out in Britain (examples include Travel(l)er of the Century, The Fall of the Stone City and The Detour/Ten White Geese).

However, the flow doesn’t seem quite as steady in the other direction.  Is there likely to be a British edition of the 2012 BTBA winner Stone upon Stone?  When will Mikhail Shiskin’s Maidenhair appear in British book shops?  Is there any chance of works like A True Novel or Blinding being picked up by a British publisher (and thus becoming eligible for the IFFP)?  I’m not sure…  Not being a part of the industry, I don’t really know what the reason for this is (in fact, I might have got this all wrong, and British publishers may be preparing to bring out some of these great books as we speak), but I suspect that territorial rights play a role here.  If any of you have any insights into this murkiest of areas, please let me know 🙂

More than any external reason though, it’s the whole ethos behind the prizes that perhaps explain the differences between the two longlists.  Even though the BTBA ends up with a much wider selection of books to choose from (and some of the judges have a good go at reading as many as humanly possible), I have a feeling that the nature of the organising body responsible means that the judges only have one goal – to choose the best piece of translated fiction published in English in the United States in the previous year.  It’s a prize which is fairly limited in scope, concentrating on the community of readers passionate about literature in translation, and while the prize money may come from Amazon, the rest of the effort comes across as something put together by a bunch of hard-working volunteers.

By contrast, the IFFP, organised by Booktrust (an independent British charity with some government funding) with The Independent newspaper hovering in the background in the role of an unofficial partner, appears to have more of an agenda.  This is a highly subjective view (so don’t sue me), but I feel that along with the goal of choosing the best work of translated fiction, the IFFP is attempting to promote translated fiction in general, meaning that a much more general-reader-friendly longlist is always on the cards.  The prize certainly has the aura of a semi-official, state-sanctioned push to promote translated literature to the masses…

In short, then, after close to a thousand words of idle speculation and guesswork, what it all boils down to is that in addition to having a wider range of books to choose from, owing to differences in rules, entry costs and titles published in the respective markets, the BTBA also has a slightly more high-brow approach to its task, meaning that for people like me, wanting to read the absolute best of what’s being written in other languages, their longlist is more likely to throw up intriguing books.  Perhaps the relative lack of prescription on the part of the organisers (which, unless I’m wrong, is just Chad Post and his minions) allows for a much more interesting selection of books. 

Still, I could be wrong (it wouldn’t be the first time…).  Please feel free to agree with my claims, contradict me, or force amendments to my post (preferably not through legal action though – I’m always open to change).  Thoughts, anyone?  Comments below, please 😉

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24 thoughts on “IFFP and BTBA – A Few Thoughts…

  1. Wow, as an American I am amazed and delighted that “our” prize comes across as the more seriously literate one. This is so opposite of the usual book prizes, such as the comparison between your Booker and our National Book Award for fiction (which most serious readers don't even bother to read). Interesting background facts that you give too. Will keep these in mind as I attempt to familiarize myself with both lists. Read on!

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  2. Thanks for the explanation of how the IFFP is put together. I knew that there is a difference between lists because of where the books are published, but I wasn't aware of the costs to the publishers in having to provide so many copies.

    Thanks also for you and your group's reviews. Those will help me make my beg, borrow, buy, or by-pass decisions.

    Am currently slogging through the Knausgård, I can't seem to stick with it for long. Hope no one else is waiting for it 'cause I'll need to renew it.

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  3. I think you hit on some good points, Tony. For example – that the IFFP longlist is more “friendly” towards the general reader. The titles that make it onto the BTBA the list tend to be more esoteric, which I firmly believe reflects the tastes of the judges (and the people who selects them).

    But that's what makes having two prizes pretty fantastic. My reading tastes run through the entire spectrum – which I don't believe is the case with many of the self-identified readers who focus on translations. I enjoy the lighter stuff – for example Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano mystery series and more Nordic/Scandinavian Thrillers than I usually care to admit to. But I also love reading more challenging authors – such as Sjon.

    I've only read A True Novel from the BTBA longlist, but I have read Revenge and The Corpse Washer which made the IFFP list. Revenge I could easily see making the jump to the BTBA list… The Corpse Washer, no. Yet, I'm not sure that I completely agree with you that the BTBA has the better list. Or even the more substantial/ literary longlist. Because I did enjoy The Corpse Washer. And Revenge is easily one of my favorite books of 2013. So I'm happy that both books have had a chance to be in the spotlight.

    Oh, and one last thing… I believe the reason the BTBA allows posthumous novels is that the award also targets the translator, not just the author. I don't believe that's the case with the IFFP? That's just the impression I've gotten so, needless to say, it could be completely off.

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  4. Tara – These views are definitely coloured by my preferences, and I realise that not everyone will agree with my opinion here. For those who enjoy lighter works, the IFFP is more likely to have something that appeals.

    One thing I didn't stress enough in the post is that the IFFP has probably structured itself in this way deliberately, in order to reward UK-based publishers bringing out contemporary translated fiction. My post makes it sound as if Booktrust has somehow overlooked all these things, when in fact they've restricted entries on purpose, in a way.

    Stu made a good point on Twitter this morning, when he talked about IFFP books being more about social and political matters at times. I do think that the IFFP favours content and issues, while the BTBA is much more focused on the writing (again, others may disagree!).

    As for the translator question, no, I don't think that's right. The author and translator(s) share the prize in the UK, just as they do in the US 🙂

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  5. I feel it is a lot with issues books on IFFP ,I know this is something Boyd mentions a lot in his reviews so must be close to his heart ,but also rights for translations make different publishing dates ,the review copy issue makes it harder for non profits to enter .I also think judges the judges on BTBA are maybe more into the writing and promoting lit writing were as IFFP is trying to get the general public into reading books from round the world and this they do very well I said they produce posters bookmarks that get sent to most UK libraries .I like this about it as the more people read and buy translation the more gets translated !! stu

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  6. A few things.

    1. Across the Atlantic, or across the Pacific? (okay, that's enough silliness for now, moving on…)

    2. Your point about the availability flow is very interesting and ties into a general bewildering aspect of modern publishing. Today, it is obviously very easy for anyone in England to read a book published in the U.S. The reverse is equally true. I know of American bookstores which periodically sell British overstock editions, and I've definitely seen stores in Europe with an American title or two. Sites like the Book Depository make all books available just about everywhere. (including places that don't speak English at all, like my own humble home)

    So why should the country of publication even matter? Why are there separate publishing industries for the U.K. versus the U.S. versus Australia versus an English-published book from… I don't know, Israel? I've seen arguments for and against, but when it comes to award eligibility (especially for something like international literature), it seems awfully old-fashioned to go by country of publication as a measure of availability… especially when the actual translations that move across the ocean are the same.

    3. I think a major difference is in the publishers. The BTBA is much more small-publisher oriented, largely, I think, because of the camaraderie the indie publishers in the U.S. feel towards each other. Most years have several Open Letter titles, and there's often a very wide spread of publishers on the list. I'm by no means trying to imply that there's inappropriate behavior going on here or that indie publishers are somehow bad (because… no), more that I think the initial approach to the award in terms of who the judges are looking at is very different.

    4. In general, I am less inclined to define anything as “better” as compared to “more accessible” for all sorts of reasons, because of all sorts of implications, and it's definitely true in this case. There's enough overlap in the two awards and enough of a difference out of sheer availability (which is influenced by far more factors than accessibility etc.) that I think that's too broad a claim to make. A lot of the books the BTBA has highlighted in the past aren't necessarily more highbrow (and certainly better) than those of the IFFP, even if they are less “mainstream”. But again, this ties into how to define highbrow-lowbrow, and that is an argument for a different day.

    5. The more limitations you have – from longlist size to submissions to any sort of criteria – the less diversity you'll get. Fewer chances, fewer risks I think. Here I agree that this is probably heavily influencing the differences between the two awards.

    Push comes to shove, we readers are lucky – we have two great awards singling out good books for us! It's really interesting to see the differences, and I'd love to hear more from each award organizer as to what they think the differences are (snobbishness aside, preferably!).

    Oh, and sorry for the megillah… I had lots of thoughts on the matter. 🙂

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  7. Stu – I'm not in the UK, so I don't see what Booktrust does to promote the prize – I can imagine that this is a big part of what they do. I'm almost tempted to add a post-script to this post, explaining that I know that the IFFP has made these decisions deliberately, not just to annoy people!

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  8. Biblibio – In all matters literary, my mind is still back in the UK 😉

    I think the key to understanding all this is to work out what the prizes are trying to do, and the IFFP has a much broader aim, albeit limited to the UK – to promote reading (in this case, of translated fiction). Trevor (Mookse) pointed out (rightly) that a publisher-centred prize might seem a little dubious, but once you try to include *everything*, you'll soon get to the limits of human reading endurance. What if 800 books are eligible? Do you read them all? All prizes are slightly artificial in their remit (I doubt most of the BTBA judges will have read even half of the 'eligible' books out there), so you have to draw a line somewhere.

    I'd love to see a prize pitting the best translated books of the year globally together, but that would be some logistical feat…

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  9. Why must all these lists come out at approximately the same time?! There's also the Bailey's Women's Fiction prize for which I'd like to read several titles, but surely won't have the time with my priority of the IFFP.

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  10. I tend to agree that the BTBA titles are superior to IFFP for the reasons you gave. One other reason I can think of is the larger number of judges in BTBA (9 vs 5) who were known champions of international literature and each of whom could nominate a book in the longlist on top of the collective top 16. There has to be a good combination of variety and selectivity from that group. One rule I don't like in BTBA (not sure if IFFP has this rule too) is disqualifying previously translated books from being considered for the prize. This may be understandable given the focus on new translations but excellent retranslations are in effect summarily ignored when they are (technically) “new” translations and sometimes markedly different in style and approach to the earlier translation/s.

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  11. Really interesting post. I wonder if the IFFP is particularly 'lightweight' this year? (That's just my impression, I haven't read all the books). Last year Trieste, Satantango, Dublinesque (among others) were challenging reads. It may be partly down to the judges.
    Obviously the UK will always have fewer books published than the US. It also doesn't have the range of university presses publishing in translation (the last one I can remember on the IFFP is Rivers of Babylon in 2008).
    I take your point about the cost – I'd never thought of that. I wonder if that explains why And Other Stories have never been listed.
    I like having the two prizes but I can't believe they're at the same time – surely that could be easily rectified.

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  12. Rise – True, although it would be unfair to dismiss the knowledge of the IFFP judges (and they are allowed to call books in for consideration). The point about the retranslations is a good one though – if the BTBA considers everything else, you'd think they'd be happy to accept those too.

    Although, it does seem a little unfair to pitch contemporary authors against Kafka, Tolstoy, Proust…

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  13. 1streading – I think there's always a mix, and that's what gives it its own style. It does seem though as if there's little there this year which is linguistically dense and challenging – lots of 'issue' books though.

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  14. Very interesting post and discussion. I haven't really read enough of either list yet to comment properly, but looking back at my initial reactions to the covers and descriptions, I can see that subconsciously I made decisions about which to reserve or buy based on a similar judgement to the one you offer. I rejected some IFFPs for seeming too romantic or lyrical for my taste, and some BTBAs for being too dense looking/sounding for me right now.

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  15. I don't think it's unfair at all. It's the translators who are pitted against each other. And new translators of K, T, and P have to prove their worth if they are to be considered for the prize. Similarly, translators of previously untranslated works (not always contemporary, actually) have to aspire to the quality of the great versions of K, T, and P. We shouldn't lower our expectations at all.

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  16. Rise – I don't agree completely. Yes, the translators are competing against each other, but you can't make something which is just a good contemporary book live up to something like 'Crime and Punishment', for example. I'd like to see a separate category for retranslations – if the money were there, we could have various weight classes 😉

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