Man Booker International shortlist dominated by female authors and translators

Six-book shortlist includes last year’s winner Olga Tokarczuk, Annie Ernaux and Juan Gabriel Vásquez

In an unprecedented gender split, women have dominated the 2019 Man Booker International shortlist, with five female authors and an all-female cast of translators up for the £50,000 prize.

Whittled down from 108 books in 25 languages to six books in five languages – Arabic, French, Spanish, German and Polish – the prestigious award for fiction in translation, split equally between author and translator, has never had so many women shortlisted.

Female authors have been systematically underrepresented in translation; in 2016 a survey by the University of Rochester, for example, found that only 29% of all books translated to English over the previous decade were originally written by women.

Chair of judges, historian Bettany Hughes, said the dominance of women and independents was “neither political nor strategic” and a “happy byproduct” of “very ungendered discussions”.

“From the first meeting we had a real, philosophical, ethical discussion about why we read the way we do,” she said. “When a particular voice appealed to us, we asked ourselves if it appealed just because it was familiar. When a book seemed difficult, we explored if that said more about us than the book. That might be why we’ve ended up with this list, because we were completed unswayed by the idea of there being a canon of work we had to defer to.”

Last year’s winner, Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, is up for the prize again for her novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, this year joined by a different translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Tokarczuk’s winning novel, Flights, saw sales jump 692% in the month following the announcement and is now on its 10th printing.

Olga Tokarczuk, nominated for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
Olga Tokarczuk, nominated for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Acclaimed French author Annie Ernaux is nominated for her autobiographical narrative, The Years. Described by the judges as a “much-needed riposte to the ever-narrowing trajectory of auto-fiction”, its eligibility for a fiction prize has been debated, with Ernaux herself telling the Observer on Sunday that she was “surprised” to be nominated.

Hughes said that the judges had “heated conversations” about its eligibility, but settled on the idea that “fiction in the international sense is much broader, particularly in France. The Years is enriching our idea of what fiction can do. I even went back to the proto-Indo-European etymology of fiction to understand what it means at the beginning of civilisation and it means to make or create – so we’re okay.”

The sole male author is Colombia’s Juan Gabriel Vásquez, nominated for The Shape of the Ruins, a “clever, labyrinthine, thoroughly enjoyable historical novel” exploring the nature of two real political murders in Bogotá in 1914 and 1948.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez is the sole male author on the shortlist.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez is the sole male author on the shortlist. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

Also up for the prize is German author Marion Poschmann for her novel The Pine Islands, translated by Jen Calleja, a darkly comic novel about an academic who embarks on a pilgrimage to see the moon rise over the Matsushima islands in Japan.

Chilean author Alia Trabucco Zerán is nominated for her debut The Remainder, translated by Sophie Hughes, about three twentysomethings attempting to escape the political shadow of Chile’s past military dictatorship. And Omani author Jokha Alharthi, whose book Celestial Bodies, translated by Marilyn Booth and published by tiny Edinburgh independent Sandstone Press, follows the modernisation of Oman through the eyes of three sisters.

Hughes said the books on the shortlist were all about the “re-embracing of the power of memory and the value of interrogating the past; asking big platonic, socratic questions about the nature of peace and happiness; and a lot of dead bodies, for these are all confrontations of mortality”.

In March, book sales monitor Nielsen said that translated fiction sales were at their highest in the UK since it began to track them in 2001.

Man Booker International prize 2019 shortlist

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (Oman), translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth (Sandstone Press)

The Years by Annie Ernaux (France), translated by Alison Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (Germany), translated by Jen Calleja (Serpent’s Tail)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia), translated from Spanish by Anne McLean (MacLehose Press, Quercus)

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán (Chile), translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes (And Other Stories)


Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

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