Category Archives: Warwick Prize for Women in Translation

Life through a furry lens: Yoko Tawada, Memoirs of a Polar Bear

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2016)

Three generations of polar bears talk about their lives in this offbeat gem, winner of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2017. At first I was a bit nonplussed when I was given this book as a gift: animal narrators are one of those quirks that usually make a novel fall into the “not my thing” category (although, as I mentioned in a previous post, I am trying to challenge my own perceptions about what is or is not “my thing”). Irrational dismissal of articulate polar bears aside, it’s hard to argue with the multiple positive reviews on the jacket cover: “enchanting”, “profound”, “beautiful”, “magnificent”, “exquisite” and “beguiling” are just some of the accolades bestowed on Memoirs of a Polar Bear, and I can’t say it doesn’t merit this proliferation of appreciative adjectives. From the self-reflective memoirist grandmother who narrates the first part, on to her dancing circus performer daughter whose life is chronicled by her trainer in the second section, and finally to the baby polar bear whose first months are recounted in the final part, Yoko Tawada steps outside human narration to better observe human nature.

Image from portobellobooks.com

Though Tawada is a prestigious writer in both Japan and Germany (she was born in Tokyo but moved to Germany in her twenties, and writes in both Japanese and German), Memoirs of a Polar Bear was the first of her novels to be published in the United Kingdom (she has since  published Last Children of Tokyo, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani). Tawada’s translator from German, Susan Bernofsky, was also the translator of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (another Portobello Books jewel), and if you read my review of that then you’ll know how much I admire Bernofsky. I have not yet read a single Portobello book that I haven’t enjoyed, and I hope that when Granta Books shutters the Portobello imprint next year, the magnificent women in translation catalogue continues to grow. Neither Portobello nor Bernofsky disappoint here; Bernofksy’s prose in her translation of Memoirs of a Polar Bear is just beautiful. There were sections that I read over and over, so that their beauty could sink in fully (“Suddenly a thought struck me like a stone: I can never see him again. Of course it was perfectly possible that I’d never have been able to see him again even if he’d remained alive. But I would have gone on thinking now and then: Maybe I’ll see him again after all. This ‘maybe’ is what human beings call hope. My ‘maybe’ was dead.”) There is no unnecessary flourish or embellishment: the prose is lyrical but not florid, poetic but not melodramatic. In a novel of 250 pages, there were only two words that struck me as imperfect; it is truly a remarkable feat to translate so much with such beauty.

The polar bear protagonists are shown in all their humanity, while never losing the characteristics that make them bears.  The humans are observed close-up, their smells giving away their feelings and their body language belying their intentions: as it turns out, the polar bears are able to observe the human characters more accurately than any homo sapiens narrator could. It is through the eyes of animals that the complexity of human relationships and historical progress are brought to light: from the restrictions of the Communist regime to concerns about climate change, human history and characteristics are observed and questioned, without ever moralising or turning to propaganda. The three bears – the unnamed exiled memoirist of the first section, her daughter Tosca, and Tosca’s son Knut – are as flawed and as fallible as the humans they seek to understand, but their characterisation and narration is close to divine.

The most remarkable section of this book, in my opinion, was the final one (about a bear cub and his beloved zookeeper). As far as I can tell, this is where the writing process might have started: Knut is the real-life bear born in Berlin Zoo in 2006, whose progress was recorded in minute detail and who captured hearts worldwide while he was a cub. The relationship between Knut and his keeper Matthias moved me deeply and had me thinking about the story long after I had closed the book: the bond is described from Knut’s point of view, and he understands Matthias to be a parent to him, a person who is Knut’s whole universe and who protects him from any threats or danger. Reading this attachment through the child’s eyes was a moving experience for me, and the pivotal moment when we realise that the third-person narrative voice was actually Knut’s all along is one of great beauty. Knut’s reaction when Matthias has to be kept from him for his own safety is heartbreaking; Tawada is  skilled at observing seemingly small incidents and the magnitude of their impact on an individual (furred or not). The boundaries between human and animal, reality and fiction, love and ownership, individual and collective experience are all blurred, erased, moved, and re-drawn, and for a book I thought would be “not my thing”, Memoirs of a Polar Bear was memorable for all the right reasons. I am glad and grateful to have had the opportunity to read it, and I can only urge you to do the same (if you haven’t already).

The second Warwick Prize for Women in Translation will be awarded TONIGHT, Tuesday 13th November, in a ceremony starting at 6.30pm BST. I’m so sad that I can’t be there, but shall be following it closely on social media – you can see the shortlist here!

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation: 2018 longlist announced

On Monday this week, the longlist was announced for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. This is the second year of the prize, which was set up by the University of Warwick (UK) in 2017 to “address the gender imbalance in translated literature and to increase the number of international women’s voices accessible by a British and Irish readership”. It’s a welcome addition to the Warwick Prize for Writing, highlighting the importance of promoting literature from other cultures/ languages, and of offering greater possibilities and publicity to women writers.

The winners of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation last year were Yoko Tawada and Susan Bernofsky, for Bernofsky’s stellar translation of Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Memoirs of a Polar Bear (surprised because usually I’d think that animal narrators are firmly “not my thing”, but you’ll see a review of it here before long, in which I’ll acknowledge how my own literary prejudices are collapsing!) and Bernofsky is an immensely accomplished translator. Memoirs of a Polar Bear was published by Portobello Books, whose women in translation catalogue I love almost unconditionally; I was sad to learn recently that as of 2019 Portobello will cease to exist, as the imprint will be shuttered by Granta Books. This might not be as dire as my slightly over-reactionary response led me to fear when I read the news: Granta has committed to no change in output, and still has a good record of publishing women in translation. So hopefully Portobello’s “identity” won’t be lost, though I shall miss the Portobello imprint and always feel a special connection with their list, since it was a Portobello book that kick-started this project. So, through my misty-eyed regret, I’m delighted to see that Portobello has two books longlisted for this year’s Warwick Prize for women in translation: Bernofsky features again with her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone (this has the potential to be a winning combination, since Erpenbeck and Bernofsky won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015 with the magnificent The End of Days). Also on the longlist is Han Kang’s incandescent The White Book, translated by Deborah Smith, and reviewed here last week; this is another winning team, Han and Smith having won the first Man Booker International prize in 2016 for Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian (also for Portobello Books). Unsurprisingly, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2018, is also on the longlist, and I may just eat my hat if it doesn’t make it to the shortlist with Jennifer Croft’s beautiful translation for Fitzcarraldo Editions. So these three are certainly going to be hard to topple, but the shortlist is by no means a given: other contenders are the Man Booker International shortlisted Vernon Subutex 1 (Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne for Maclehose Press), and Maclehose also have two more books on the longlist, Daša Drndič’s Belladonna, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, and Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained-Glass Window, translated by the inimitable Antonia Lloyd-Jones. That gives Maclehose the numerical advantage with the highest number of entries on the longlist; Portobello books, Fitzcarraldo Editions and Norvik Press each have two, and Istros Books, Pushkin Press, Clerkenwell Press, 4th Estate, Scribe Publications and Penguin each have one on the list.

It will come as no surprise to you that I’m delighted to see some of my favourite books of the past year on this list, but I’m also excited to see some I haven’t read yet, or hadn’t previously heard of. Most notably in terms of “ooh yes, I’ve been meaning to read that one”, I’ve heard many good things about Esther Kinsky’s River (translated by Iain Galbraith for Fitzcarraldo), and I have Fiona Graham’s translation of Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: When Now Begins (published by Scribe) waiting on my to-read pile.

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2018 longlist by country

There is a predominance of European writing on the longlist: apart from one book each from Argentina, Japan and South Korea, everything comes from Europe. I’ve geo-mapped the countries represented in the longlist to show this more clearly: the darker the colour, the more titles from that country. You can see that Germany features most prominently in burgundy with four entries, Croatia, Sweden and Poland are all well represented in red (two entries); the pale pink for the other countries on the longlist indicates one entry.

There is also a wide variety of genres represented: as well as the genre-defying “constellation novel” Flights, the incantatory The White Book, and a selection of novels, there are also, firstly, three short story collections: Judith Hermann’s Letti Park, translated by Margot Bettauer for the Clerkenwell Press, Yuko Tsushima’s “modern classic” Of Dogs and Walls, translated by Geraldine Harcourt for Penguin, and the first translation of a recently rediscovered writer (Jessica Sequeira’s translation of Sara Gallardo’s Land of Smoke for Pushkin Press). The short story genre is one I’m coming round to appreciating, after years of considering it “not my thing” (since that’s the second time I’ve used that phrase today, and on the subject of adjusting my parameters of what constitutes “not my thing”, I read a very interesting review this week in the LA Review of Books: V. Joshua Adams reviewed Mark Polizotti’s Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto and pointed out some of its flaws with the magnificent maxim that “there is something wrong with confusing your lack of interest in something with its lacking merit”. This is my new motto, and I am rapidly coming round to the merit of the short story genre!)

Also on the longlist for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation are a memoir by Katja Petrowskaja (Maybe Esther, translated by Shelley Frisch for 4th Estate), a piece of auto-fiction (Hair Everywhere, Tea Tulič’s account of three generations of women coming to terms with loss, translated by Coral Petkovich for Istros Books) a work of non-fiction (Bang by Dorrit Willumsen, translated by Marina Allemano for Norvik Press), and a new translation of the first female winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, (Selma Lagerlöff’s The Emperor of Portugallia, translated by Peter Graves for Norvik Press). This strikes me as a very diverse list – perhaps not in terms of geography, but certainly in terms of genre. On the subject of geographical/ cultural diversity, I’ve been doing similar geo-mapping for all women in translation texts published by independent UK publishing houses so far this year, and it’s fair to say that the longlist for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation is reasonably representative of the general spread; the main difference is that there is more coming from Latin America than is indicated by the longlist.

As for my partisan view on which one I hope will win, I have to preface it with the acknowledgement that I have not read them all. Regular blog readers will already know which ones I have read and loved, but I think I’m going to put my hand in the fire and come out and say it: I’m rooting for The White Book. Of those I’ve read, it was the one I reacted most emotionally to, and although it’s got some tough competition (even as I write this, a voice inside me is screaming “but what about Flights?!”, and no doubt you’ll all have your favourites too) but there was something about The White Book that made me respond to it with all of my senses and with my heart, and so, as is usually the case, I’m letting my heart decide. One thing’s for sure: the judges (Amanda Hopkinson, Boyd Tonkin and Susan Bassnett) have a tough decision to make. Congratulations to all the wonderful authors, translators and publishers on the longlist, and don’t forget to check the official website for the Warwick Prize for women in translation in early November to find out the shortlist!

For further information about the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, contact Dr Chantal Wright at the following email address: