IFFP 2014: Some Thoughts

After what seems like years of anticipation, the official winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was awarded last night, in the presence of a host of literary stars (well, Stu, David and Jacqui were there, anyway).  The name that was eventually pulled out of the envelope was Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright – congratulations!

If I’m being honest, it’s not a result I would have predicted, but I am very happy for the publisher, Comma Press, for the publicity and praise they’re getting for their work in translating shorter fiction into English.  Boyd Tonkin, the chair of the IFFP panel, showed a couple of years back that he has a soft spot for the press with his infamous ‘double suicide’ quote (claiming that with translated fiction and short stories both a hard sell, doing both together was a rather foolhardy endeavour…).  I’ve reviewed several of their books, and I’d heartily recommend collections like Gyrðir Elíasson‘s Stone Tree and the collection of Chinese contemporary fiction, Shi Cheng (Ten Cities).  Oh, and Blasim’s book, of course 😉

In addition to the awarding of the main prize, the organisers also saw fit to laud another of my favourite presses.  Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, translated by Jamie Bulloch, was singled out for special praise, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thrilled to hear Peirene Press’ name mentioned on the night, even if it wasn’t quite the mention they were hoping for.  Well done to Meike and the team (including the flighty Nymph…) – sadly, though, the first female winner is at least another year away…

Of course, we in the Shadow Panel published our winner the day before the official announcement, our pick being Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels (translated by Philip Roughton, MacLehose Press).  The fact that our favourite wasn’t even shortlisted for the official prize shows how important it is to have someone keeping tabs on the professionals – you can’t always trust them to choose the best books 😉

A while back I expounded on this a little in my post on the differences between the IFFP and the American version, the Best Translated Book Award.  While the BTBA has its own issues (as the amount of fiction available in translation increases, its anyone-can-enter ethos is bound to come under pressure), I do feel that the American version is slightly more daring than the IFFP, with the writing prized more highly than any political concerns.

Sadly, I can’t pretend that that’s true over in the UK.  It’s an important event for translated fiction, but I can’t help scratching my head at times over some of the decisions they come up with.  It’s often hard not to feel that there’s a bit of an agenda there, meaning that some great books miss out while others (better fitting certain categories) seem to sneak in instead.  Still, let’s try to move on with grace – here’s looking ahead to 2015 😉

Before we leave 2014 behind though, there’s one more aspect of the prize I need to discuss, and that’s the work of the Shadow Panel.  Stu and I were back for our third go this year, but the other four members, Tony, David, Jacqui and Bellezza, were tackling the task for the first time.  Thanks to their efforts, this was easily the most successful and professional effort so far, with more opinions and reviews helping to balance out the views (in the past, Stu and I have had a disproportionate influence on some of the decisions).  Thanks again to everyone for all the hard work over the past three months – let’s hope everyone is able to go through it all again next year 🙂

10 thoughts on “IFFP 2014: Some Thoughts

  1. An excellent summary, Tony. It's been a great experience to participate and exchange thoughts on the books with you and other shadowers. It was lovely to meet Stu and David in the flesh yesterday afternoon, but I headed off to a different literary event yesterday evening – a reading from Andrés Neuman. And it was every bit as wonderful as you might expect from your own experience of meeting him!


  2. Thanks Tony (and the shadow panel). It has been really interesting to have followed all your reviews of the books mentioned for this prize. I haven't paid much attention to Translated Fiction but now am much more appreciative of it and will look out for it more. Have really enjoyed this whole thread of blog posts.


  3. I like how you say we need to keep our eye on the professionals, so to speak. And, it's hard for me not to feel there's most definitely a political agenda. I can't express my personal disappointment in the “official” judges' opinions. It was to such an extent that I had trouble finishing their short list; mu favorites were definitely not included.

    However, it was so wonderful to participate with the Shadow Jury. I respect each member's opinion implicitly, and am not the least surprised that we almost unanimously agreed on our (rightful) winner.


  4. Bellezza – I think that there's a danger of 'groupthink' with any kind of judging panel, and the prize is there to promote fiction in translation to the wider public. I suspect that leads to the judges' second-guessing what might go down well, which writers and books will work well as the new 'face' of translated fiction. Hopefully, we managed to avoid that trap as much as possible 🙂


  5. The shadow season series was gripping and I have to say got my attention much more than the official program, not just the brilliant reviews but the regular interactive conversation on twitter which made it so much more alive.

    Well done and look forward to following you all again next year and reading some great books in the meantime.


  6. Claire – Thanks 🙂 The aim of the whole exercise is to raise awareness, so it's good to hear that we're getting through to people. Let's hope next year is as successful!


  7. Hi Tony, just wanted to say that I love your blog and thank you for sharing all of your reviews with us! 🙂 I think the idea of a shadow jury is absolutely fascinating 🙂


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