Feature Article

  • What makes a good Spanish book? Conversations from the NSB panel

    What makes a good Spanish book? Conversations from the NSB panel.

    Ruth Clarke

    Each year New Spanish Books brings together a panel of industry experts to select the best books published in Spanish in the last twelve months. The aim is to make these titles more visible to English-language publishers who could bring translations to their readers. So how does the panel narrow down the hundreds of submissions to a shortlist of the 15 ‘best’ books? It feels like a big responsibility, and this year’s selection process raised some very big questions: What is good? What is Spanish? And even, in one case, what is a book?

    The question of “what is a good book” could be the subject of an article all its own (indeed Daniel Hahn made a whole radio programme about it). Reflecting on this definition, Pulitzer Prize judge Michael Cunningham wrote, “Utter objectivity … is not only impossible when judging literature, it’s not exactly desirable. Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. … A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate”.

    So, we think we know what we’re looking for, but we can’t define it. And there’s another catch. The NSB process differs from most judging panels in that we haven’t actually read the books (even those of us who speak Spanish, just to keep things fair). We are entirely reliant on reader’s reports written by translators. Why translators? Because they’re the best readers. This isn’t just professional arrogance on my part, it’s a widely held opinion, and with good reason.

    Translators are often considered “the closest readers”, in the sense that our minds have developed a unique style of reading – at a macro- and micro-level with accompanying (often inadvertent) simultaneous translation – because the ‘how’ of the author’s writing is even more important than the ‘what’ when it comes to attempting to recreate a novel in another language. Of course we’re following the plot, but we always have a critical eye (and ear) on how this book is composed, how its rhythm, tone and character voices work together to push that plot along. If we share Christopher Booker’s theory that there are only seven stories in the world, and consider the number of books around, we can see that these subtle differences in ‘how’ are what makes each retelling of these stories unique. And perhaps therein lies the magic formula for a “good book”.

    A reader’s report is strictly speaking neither a review nor a recommendation, ideally it should be a good plot summary with a concise account of the book’s selling points, or lack thereof. What is the story? How is the writing? Can it be compared to authors we already know? Where would it fit in the UK market? Who are its readers? Does it ‘translate’? The translator is not only the closest reader, they are also ideally placed to make international author comparisons and offer useful information from a range of book markets.

    I’ve written my share of reader’s reports, but this was the first time I’d been on the other side and appreciated just how helpful they are to someone who doesn’t have access to the book. All the translators’ reports showed real insight into the texts and made a carefully studied case of each title’s pros and cons when it comes to the question of translation.

    Even with a ringing endorsement from a trusted reader, publishing translations is a risky and expensive business, and English-language publishers need all the help and incentives they can get to take a chance on a book they can’t read for themselves, one which comes at a higher cost, and is considered a harder sell to readers. The latter point is, of course, debatable. Readers are showing a much greater appetite for literature in translation – there are even statistics to prove it, with translations no longer languishing around the infamous 3% mark, but now making up 5.63% of UK fiction sales in according to the Nielsen study for 2018.

    What, then, makes a book worth taking this leap of faith? What is a good candidate for translation? (An entirely separate question from what makes a good translation, because, well, that way PhD madness lies.) What are we looking for in translated fiction? Does that differ if we are the translator, the publisher or the reader?

    From my experience of working with a collective of literary translators, with publishers, and now with the mixed panel at New Spanish Books, the answer, it seems, is no. This is not to say that we all like the same books, or that the NSB panel was unanimous in its ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes, but that we all get excited about the same sorts of things. About original voices, about new stories, about interesting formats, about the power of translation and storytelling to take us to places that would otherwise remain inaccessible. And that practical considerations kick in all too soon. Is the book too long, too short, too niche, too depressing? Is it too foreign? Or not foreign enough?

    I would like to put a word in here for the invaluable knowledge to be found in the heads of booksellers. They get unfiltered feedback from the people who are out there buying books, they know what people are asking for. A book’s journey into English is a lengthy one, with potential vetoes at every turn. All of this makes it even more important that the books we select for translation are feeding readers’ appetites. Booksellers have an underestimated role to play in the process of matching up what is on offer in one language with the demands of readers in another, in making the translation journey a smoother, more joined-up process, with more success in terms of sales.

    Besides the UK, there are New Spanish Books panels in Brazil, France, Germany, Japan, and the US. The different panels always make very different choices, which goes to show the importance of market factors in the target country. While what we’re looking for on a personal level might be quite similar, what we’re looking for on a commercial level is defined by factors outside of our own taste. Trends in publishing, in reading, current affairs, political events… although perhaps we’re all in need of cheering up just at the moment.

    The UK panel’s 2019 shortlist includes two short story collections, three women writers, books from and about Cuba, Galicia, Andalusia, Patagonia, one set very much in Madrid, one set in a world inhabited by humans who have turned into dogs, and one featuring some melodramatic seagulls. I’m not sure what that tell us about the UK market or the minds of the panel, but it certainly feels like an interesting and exciting mix of what was on offer in the submissions. I can’t wait to see this year’s shortlists from around the world and what they reveal about the markets there.

    Any NSB shortlist raises the inevitable question: what does this tell us about the Spanish market, about “the state of Spanish literature”? We are well placed in the UK to recognise that, just as we talk about “English literatures” in the plural, there are also “Spanish literatures”. There are 21 Spanish-speaking countries, each with their own literary traditions and book markets. Even with the recent resurgence in popularity of South American fiction (thanks to a new generation of talented writers like Argentina’s Samanta Schweblin and Ariana Harwicz, and Lina Meruane and Alia Trabucco Zerán from Chile), we are still missing out on writing from so much of a continent.

    Spain is the birthplace of Cervantes and with him the modern western novel; Latin America brought us Borges, García Márquez and a genre-changing literary boom. Spanish is a well-established literary language, still producing internationally renowned writers like Javier Cercas and Mario Vargas Llosa, along with others whose reputation in their own country has earned them an agent to represent their books in foreign markets. But what of the lesser known Spanish novelist?

    This is where the translator’s close and avid reading really comes into its own: translators know the big names, of course, but they also have an eye for great undiscovered and underappreciated talent. We often see literary translators acting as unofficial agents for writers they love, and as scouts for publishers who trust their taste and knowledge of what is being published in their working languages. This knowledge is often sourced from those invaluable booksellers, on research trips that mean visiting every bookshop in town. From endless conversations about books.

    The NSB panel may not have resolved any of literature’s big questions, but I certainly came away with one conclusion. The more we discuss what readers want and what translation is, and the more people from all areas of the book world we include in that discussion, the richer our collective knowledge will be and the better choices we will make. Long may the conversation continue!