The MBIP 2016 Winner is…

MBI2016 Logo RGB pinkWell, anyone with even a passing interest in fiction in translation will already have heard the news by now, but for those who may have been otherwise occupied over the past day or so, the Man Booker International Prize judges announced their winner last night (UK time) – and a popular one it was too.  This year’s prize, the first since the passing of the baton from Booktrust and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, went to Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith and published by Portobello Books: congratulations to all involved!

Han’s three-part story of a woman turning her back not only on meat, but also on family and society, was the early front-runner for the prize, and it came as no real surprise that it took out the award.  More of a shock, though, is the fact that our Shadow Panel (for the second time in a row) went for the same book as the official judges.  While I won’t say I told you so, my review of the book (published on the 5th of February, 2015) did end like this:

“And speaking of long waits, while the announcement of the longlist for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is just around the corner, I can’t help thinking that this is a book which has every chance of making the cut for the 2016 version.  Quite apart from the obvious merits of the book, it has all the features of a work which will catch the eye of a panel looking for something a little different from the norm…

…we’ll only have to wait about thirteen months to see if I’m right😉

Now if only I’d foreseen the introduction of the international Booker too…

Of course, Han Kang is a writer on the rise and has already avoided the fate of being a one-hit'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang (Review) wonder in translation.  Her follow-up work in English, Human Acts, is an excellent novel exploring the ripples of the South Korean government’s crack-down on protestors in the city of Gwangju in 1980; in fact, given that it was published before the cut-off date, I was a little surprised it didn’t also make the longlist.  Alas, as yet that’s all there is of her work in English (with the exception of the story Convalescence, translated by Jeon Seung-hee in Asia Publishers’ bilingual edition).  However, I did hear rumours that more is on the way…

…and those rumours should be pretty accurate seeing as they originated with the translator of The Vegetarian and Human Acts, Deborah Smith.  It seems incredible now, but Smith was virtually unknown as recently as a couple of years ago.  I remember hearing her discuss Korean literature on the That Other Word podcast with a certain Daniel Medin – whom you may know as one of this year’s MBIP judges.  Fast forward a couple of years, and Smith is now a prize-winning translator, working with presses in the UK and the US (watch out for future releases of books by Bae Suah in Smith’s translation, from Deep Vellum and Open Letter).  And if that wasn’t enough, she has also started her own press, Tilted Axis, to promote fiction from parts of the world we don’t hear enough from.  It’s safe to say that she is a very busy person…

While Smith and Han have deserved all the praise that’s come their way, I’d have to say that the other part of the team seems to have been a little overlooked.  For publisher Portobello Books, this is the second consecutive prize after Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (translated by Susan Bernofsky) took out the final IFFP last year, which surely deserves some congratulations.  Several of Erpenbeck’s books had already appeared in English, both in the US and the UK, so that win was perhaps less of a surprise, but this was the first book by Han, an unknown (in the Anglosphere) female Asian writer.  A potential risk?  Perhaps – if so, it certainly paid off.

Having commented on the winner, I’d also like to look at the prize itself to see if the Bookerisation of translated fiction in the UK has brought about any major shifts.  Early on, if I’m being completely honest, there didn’t seem to be much of a change with matters rolling quietly along as usual (in fact, up to the shortlist stage our Shadow Panel seemed to be promoting the prize more than anyone…).  However, from my viewpoint at least, there was a definite shift through the gears once the shortlist was announced.  Suddenly, social media was awash with comments and discussion, and this continued over the following month with podcasts and interviews coming thick and fast on the Man Booker site.  This ability to market the prize was one of the biggest potential advantages of the move to the brave new world, and I’d have to say that judging by the photos I saw of the shortlist and prize announcement evenings, everything is on a different level this year – very Bookerish.

IMG_5384If the framework of the prize (including the prize money) was beefed up, however, the same couldn’t really be said when it came to the judging.  While you can’t really fault the final decision, there was a definite sense that (in a manner which suggests the judges were paying homage to the IFFP) readability and marketability were definitely seen as advantages in the choice of books at all stages.  There was nothing terrible there (although a few of our Shadow Judges might beg to differ…), yet the shortlist, especially, felt overwhelmingly ‘nice and safe’.  Many of the spikier, or more complex, longlisters failed to make the cut (e.g. Death by Water, Ladivine, Tram 83), and there must have been a few red faces when the American Best Translated Book Award was taken out a few weeks ago by Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman) – an excellent book from local favourites And Other Stories.  At which point I’d like to point out that the omission of Spanish-language literature was one of the biggest criticisms we levelled at the MBIP longlist 😉

Still, my overall impression of this year’s prize is fairly positive, and it’s certainly succeeded in creating a buzz around translated literature (with the recent news of good sales in the field certainly helping).  I’ll be back next year with my shadowy colleagues to see the start of another new era – Boyd Tonkin, longtime head of the IFFP/MBIP panel is putting his red pen away and making way for another chief judge.  Will this herald a new direction for the prize?  Who knows – but it’ll be fun to find out 🙂

10 thoughts on “The MBIP 2016 Winner is…

  1. The Man Booker publicity machine certainly did it’s work – a friend who lives in India and my mother in rural Norfolk, neither of whom is at all into literary fiction, let alone translated literary fiction, both mailed me this morning because they’d seen the news.

    Indeed it worked a bit too well given the Daily Telegraph announced the winner before the winner themselves found out.

    Still hoping one of your shadow panel is tapped for the next Chair of judges.


  2. Think you are a little harsh on the judges. They were the ones that picked the “spikier, or more complex, longlisters” in the first place.

    if I compare the MBI longlist to the BTBA shortlist (comparable lengths) on balance I actually prefer the former, certainly I found more exceptional books that I wouldn’t otherwise have read.

    I’d agree the MBI shortlist was then an odd selection from that but e.g. a General Theory of Oblivion also beat out Tram 83 for the BTBA longlist to take one example.


    1. Paul – I doubt any of us will be receiving that honour- and if it does happen, it certainly won’t be me 😉

      Perhaps I am being a little harsh on the judges, but I certainly feel that there were a few comfort picks on the shortlist. As for the comparison of the two lists, I have to say that while the BTBA picked a good winner, their shortlist was also less adventurous that you might have expected. Is everyone playing it safe, or are we just becoming more experimental? 😉


      1. “Is everyone playing it safe, or are we just becoming more experimental?” -probably a bit of both. One genuine issue is that there is only one translated fiction award in UK and one in US, so it’s trying to do several things at once. If the aim of the prize is to promote translated fiction then that is rather different to promoting innovation in translated fiction.

        Whereas, taking the UK scene, as well as the Booker we have the more mainstream Costa and, my favourite, the far more experimental Goldsmiths for English-language originals, to cater for three different aims.


        1. Just for the record, there is not one award for translated fiction in the US but three. In addition to the BTBA, there is also the PEN Translation Prize, given by the PEN American Center, and the National Translation Award, given by the American Literary Translators Association.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes – thanks for the reminder – think they tend to get overlooked in the blogosphere not just by me.

            The great thing about both is their focus on the translator themselves as the recipient of the prize, so e.g. this year’s PEN included Oliver Ready’s excellent retranslation of Crime and Punishment (not eligible for the BTBA as a retranslation, or MBI as author is dead) and was given to Katherine Dodson for Lispector’s Complete Stories – which is a book I felt fitted better with the PEN than the BTBA.

            and the winners list for both really is a who’s who of translators (including, if memory serves me, your good self for the National Translation Award?).


  3. thanks for this in-depth post. As a literary translator myself, it is so hopeful, to know the translator was unknown up to recently. I also read that she almost checked every word in the dictionary while she was working. Even though I translate into a very common and much easier pair (EN–>FR), it is still good to see that’s some days it’s best to do that when the need is felt


    1. Emma – Yep, it’s all about what comes out at the other end, not how perfectly you understand the original first time…


      1. Interesting question as to how much fluency in the source language is required.

        For example, ideally a translator needs to know what literary effects are inherent in the source language, so could reasonably be translated away, and which are deliberate by the author and need to be preserved ideally in translation. That was one of Milan Kundera’s many pet peeves.

        And what’s your view on retranslation via an intermediate language. That – alongside dreaded PDFs, prizes which change sponsor and hence name and official websites that don’t announce prize winners before the press do – is a pet peeve of Michael O at The Complete Review.

        And of course the inaugural winner of the Man Booker International in its original form was indeed an author whose books in English are almost entirely retranslations.


Every comment left on my blog helps a fairy find its wings, so please be generous - do it for the fairies.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.