The Granta blog

Ollie Brock

The Granta blog returns, for weekly posts from inside the literary world and notes on what we’re reading. This week, Ollie Brock on translated fiction, lists and lavender.

Adventures in translated fiction 1.0

This autumn’s catalogue of
New Spanish Books
is now online: a UK panel’s recommendations for translation from Spanish this season. What you don’t see on that page is the process for selecting them: a very enjoyable, quite over-caffienated sort of fumbling in the dark. A group of six from the literary world was comfortably installed around pastries and coffee at the cultural office of the Spanish embassy – with no fewer than 220 book summaries to sift through.

The secrets of an avant-garde chef, or Cortázar as graphic story? Will a romance set in the wake of the Madrid bombings work? Do we want another neo-Nazi drama?

How did we go from 220 of these to eleven?

And talk about publishers’ bumph. As a one-time intern who had to draft marketing copy for not just two but three books on fine watchmaking for one particular book fair, I can tell you that those 500-word summaries aren’t easy. But however good the copy-writing, after 220 repeats, your eyes are going to get crossed.

Readers’ reports were commissioned for a longlist of about thirty books – but that still put us at the remove of the books mostly being read for us, not by us, which is most definitely not the same thing. Still, it helps narrow things down when, after a thorough and faithful summary of the book, the first sentence of the ‘evaluation’ section calls the book ‘dreadful’. One down, twenty-nine to go.

So sift we did, and
’s the result.

(Best literary blogs in Spanish:
Papeles Perdidos
from the Babelia team at
El País;
La Tormenta en un vaso
for regular, meaty, meticulous posts;
El Boomerang
for its formidable list of contributors, including Sergio Ramírez and Patricio Pron.)

More lists, anyone?

There’s only one author in common between the New Spanish Books list and our Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, announced last week. Different criteria of course; different ballgames, really. But doesn’t it rather prove some of the value of these lists, when they disagree so much?

A harder task than filtering those 220 summaries will have been the 230+ translations of a single story that Briony Everroad and her team at Harvill Secker read through to find the winning entry in their first annual

, announced last month. (Winner Beth Fowler’s fluid, gripping rendering of the story is published here.) At an event to celebrate the prize, A S Byatt read from a long email chain with her German translator, an attempt to come up with a realistic name for an attractive German lady psychoanalyst working not long after Freud. Nicholas Shakespeare talked about the curious experience of your own book existing in a form in which you can’t read it. The only hiccup came when no-one in the audience could recall the verse form André Gide used for his translations of Shakespeare. Not a single hand went up – oh dear. As moderator Daniel Hahn remarked, the readers just aren’t what they used to be.

The third panel member was the doyenne of the literary translators, Margaret Jull Costa. Her first published translation was in Granta 10 (1983) – a short piece by Gabriel García Márquez called ‘Watching the rain in Galicia’. This was the magazine’s first travel issue, and the one that famously led the then editor Bill Buford to exclaim, ‘I finally fucking did it!’ He may have done, but he also left out one of his translator’s names, she told me – shortening her to a plainer ‘Magaret Costa’. This week as we’ve worked through the furious rounds of proofreading of the first issue of Granta to be
entirely in translation
, we’ve been keeping a close eye on those bylines.

(Best sites on translated and international fiction:
Three Per Cent
Words Without Borders
(run by the charity Booktrust))

What I’m reading

Festival & Co
, the biannual festival of Paris’s Shakespeare & Company bookshop held this summer, was a sumptuous affair. A champagne brand was the chief sponsor, and their presentation shtick was heaps and heaps of lavender buds – mostly in deep baskets that half-concealed the bottles of free bubbly. Sometimes you found yourself walking on a sort of carpet of them. They got in your shoes, and sometimes in your drink.

Another luxurious offering at the festival – this one thankfully not free – was
The Paris Magazine
. It has been relaunched from its early days, when George Whitman published three issues of what he called the ‘poor man’s Paris Review’. He declared himself possibly unfit for the task in his first editorial, stating that he would ‘gracefully resign if someone like Mary McCarthy would like to be its editor and financier.’ Its schedule was as whimsical as its founder, with three issues appearing between 1967 and 1989.

The new issue was edited by ex-Granta staffer Fatema Ahmed and published by Sylvia Whitman, George’s daughter, who now runs the bookshop.

Revived spontaneously for this festival, the magazine’s future is uncertain. But this issue alone is a paean to the power of that curious thing, the literary magazine. The contents page reads like the menu of a particularly bold literary fusion restaurant: Marie Ndiaye, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jeanette Winterson, Todd McEwen, Irène Némirovsky, Saadat Hasan Manto, Michel Houellebecq… The issue contains poetry (some of it in parallel translation), letters, short stories, columns, commentary and artwork (I challenge any literary bod out there to pass by uninterested). Carefully presented and introduced, it is far from a token to be passed around inside a literary clique: it genuinely seems a thoughtful gift to its readers. Well, a gift that you have to pay for; but if you’d drunk three issues’-worth of free champagne by that point, it seemed the least you could do.

Granta’s first Paris event was held at the Shakespeare & Co bookshop this summer, with C K Williams, Owen Sheers and Nathan Englander. An online version of the Paris Magazine, with previews of most of the articles and stories, is available

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