Books without borders

Boyd Tonkin introduces the shortlist for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and argues that we need talented translators more than ever
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The Independent Culture

£9.99 by Frédéric Beigbeder, trans. Adriana Hunter - Picador £9.99, 259pp £9.99 (plus £1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

£9.99 by Frédéric Beigbeder, trans. Adriana Hunter - Picador £9.99, 259pp £9.99 (plus £1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

Bad-boy novelist, critic and pundit in France, Frédéric Beigbeder drew on his own stint in a top agency for this shockingly hilarious satire of the adman's twisted world. Octave, demon king of the yogurt commercials, watches his cocaine-propelled, babe-adorned life spiral way out of control as he finds nothing succeeds like excess. Adriana Hunter smartly makes French slogans English as she re-locates the action to London, turning Octave's grossly Gallic foibles into the bizarrely British.

The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist trans. Tiina Nunnally - Harvill £16.99, 309pp £14.99 (plus £1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

In the 1760s, the sister of George III is married off into the deeply disturbed Danish royal family. Enquist, a leading Swedish author since the Sixties, sets the stage for a story of love and rebellion, faith and reason. Shackled to the troubled king Christian, Caroline Mathilde has an affair with the court doctor, Struensee. His secular ideals spark a revolution that enrages true believers and hurtles the pair towards the grim fate captured in Tiina Nunnally's edgy, energetic English.

The Snowflake Constant by Peter Stephan Jungk, trans. Michael Hofmann - Faber & Faber £10.99, 173pp £10.99 (plus £1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

Quirky, surprising, poignantly funny, this offbeat tale of a mathematician's mid-life crisis by a Californian-born German novelist veers off at many tangents to search for solid truth in an unstable world. Tigor from Trieste goes missing from his respectable academic life in the US, working backstage in a Paris theatre and then making a quixotic trek to Mount Ararat to explore the origins of humanity. Michael Hofmann's savoury prose reflects the enchanting oddity of Jungk's point of view.

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa trans. Edith Grossman - Faber & Faber £7.99, 475pp £7.99 (plus £1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

The Peruvian maestro returns to peak form in this breathtaking epic of the Trujillo dictatorship that transformed, and enslaved, the Dominican Republic in the 30 years up to 1961. Urania, the lawyer daughter of a Trujillo henchman, goes back home to recover her, and her country's, memory. Vargas Llosa packs three decades of cruelty and conflict into the story of the tyrant's assassination and its aftermath, in a hair-raising thriller rendered with verve by Edith Grossman.

The Cave by José Saramago trans. Margaret Jull Costa - Harvill £10.99, 294pp £10.99 (plus £1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

In his ninth decade, the Portuguese Nobel laureate stays one imaginative jump ahead of globalised modern life. Shifting between Platonic allegory and sci-fi dystopia, his novel plants the ageing, old-world potter Cipriano in the alien surroundings of the "Centre". Here, in Saramago's own brave new world, consumer culture becomes total control as real existence fades into the shadow of a shadow. Margaret Jull Costa weaves his famously mesmerising language into a singular, accessible English.

The Athenian Murders by José Carlos Somoza trans. Sonia Soto - Abacus £6.99, 314pp £6.99 (plus £1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

In Plato's Athens, Heracles Pontor (note those initials) investigates the death of a well-connected youth. In the present day, a scholar translates this rare text and enters his own, paranoid labyrinth of clues and suspicions. Born in Havana, based in Madrid, Somoza deploys crime-fiction conventions with immense panache, wrapping riddles around a cerebral mystery. Sonia Soto discreetly docks it with the stylistic world of the English-language whodunnit.

¿ You can admire British popular attitudes for many things, but hardly for their logic and consistency. Today, hardly anyone in this country (least of all the Government) appears to give a damn about learning other languages. Proposals to shave alien lingos away from the post-14 school curriculum have deepened a climate of decline and apathy. University departments languish as a nation of increasingly smug monoglots blithely assumes that the whole world must, and will, learn English sooner or later.

At the same time, these tongue-tied folk want to travel, work and reside abroad in unprecedented numbers. The very types who scorn the idea of spending any time grasping another language will decide that they really need to live in Umbria, Normandy or Andalucia. Or even further afield: in Sri Lanka last month, a taxi driver told me that three houses on his shortish street in the old colonial port of Galle had been snapped up by Brit buyers. Will this happy band (yes, I know I'm envious) be perfecting their colloquial Sinhala? Don't hold your breath. An unkind observer might suspect that the post-imperial British are dead keen to act as ubiquitous global-village idiots.

This thumping paradox – the monoglot cosmopolitanism of British culture – makes us acutely dependent on the skills of an unsung corps of interpreters, intermediaries and translators. At one end of this process stands the expat builder who knows exactly how to fix your plumbing supplies in Poitiers. At the other, an often-hidden squad of literary translators labour to bring readers the finest fiction from around the world.

Judging the excellent entries for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, I was hugely impressed again by the strength-in-depth of Anglophone translators. The number of jackpots – when a strong original novel results in a cracking translation – stays gratifyingly high. In the course of winnowing a shortlist of six (above) from a long-list of 16 books, the panel – who also included Professor Susan Bassnett, Amanda Hopkinson, Jack Mapanje and Ahdaf Soueif – had to discard several landmarks of the past season in fiction: among them, Linda Asher's version of Ignorance by Milan Kundera, and William Weaver's of Baudolino by Umberto Eco. There remain half-a-dozen immensely varied novels that go forward to compete for the £10,000 prize – split between author and translator – to be announced on 7 April. On our roster you'll find genres that stretch from period drama (Enquist) to political epic (Vargas Llosa); from literary whodunnit (Somoza) to yuppie satire (Beigbeder). In addition, we can vouch for the validity of the translations – a question that often bothers interested readers. The judging schedule involves the comparison of the English version of long-listed titles against the original by experts in the relevant language.

By default, and without much debate, the British have seemingly decided that they prefer to live, trade, relax and consume globally – but strictly within the confines of their own, dominant tongue. So we need talented translators more than ever. By great good fortune, we have many of them, based in this country and in North America. Read these great books and marvel at our luck.