Boyd Tonkin: The Independent prize brings a planet of stories back home


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The Independent Culture

My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know." In front of me lies, within its handsome pale blue-and-cream hard covers, Albert Camus's The Outsider (L'Etranger) in the new translation by Sandra Smith for Penguin Classics. I remember when I first met – or rather heard – the laconic, deadpan Meursault. Camus's inscrutable anti-hero reached me, as a greedily omnivorous teenage reader, via the battleship grey of a Penguin Modern Classics paperback bought in WH Smith.

That edition used Stuart Gilbert's first English translation from 1946, which begins: "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure." The original runs: "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas." A few simple words; a couple of punctuation points; a breath, here or there: immediately, the translator stands exposed as a kind of existential pilgrim in her or his own right, fated to choose, faced at every turn of a phrase with a fork in the road. Even omissions force the issue: what kind of man talks about "Mother", and what kind about "My mother"?

A few years later I would begin to appreciate the sweet agony of the translator's task. Back then, Camus's classic novella of absurdity in Algiers mattered to me as translated works of fiction will to most lay readers. They open precious windows onto other worlds, and into other minds, however much one cares about the glazier's art. Next year, again, I will share the happy burden of helping to judge the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize: this country's leading award for fiction in translation. With its £10,000 reward split 50/50, it honours equally the author who plants the landscape of words and the translator who lets us view it.

Created by this newspaper in 1990, refounded in 2000, the Independent's prize has not only flung open the windows of world fiction to British readers, but persuaded publishers large and small that they should be fitting extra panes into their lists. The past few victors have brought home the contest's truly global reach: this year, Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld from Israel (translated by Jeffrey M Green); in 2011, Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo from Peru (translated by Edith Grossman); in 2010, Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel from France (translated by John Cullen). Once more, the unflagging support of Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger will allow the prize to thrive, along with the administrative expertise of Booktrust.

In the end, however, the competition will as always turn on the judges and their fateful verdicts. This time, my fellow-jurors bring to the table the broadest imaginable spectrum of talent and skill. Translator Frank Wynne (who works from French and Spanish) won the Independent prize with his version of Frédéric Beigbeder's Windows on the World; his many other translations include Michel Houellebecq's Atomised, winner of the IMPAC award.

Elif Shafak is Turkey's most widely-read novelist (and a hugely popular columnist as well); a global bestseller with books such as The Bastard of Istanbul, The Forty Rules of Love and Honour; and a very rare example of a major author who writes in two languages (Turkish and English). Novelist, dramatist and critic Gabriel Josipovici, who for many years taught at Sussex University, has published 21 works of fiction (this year, Infinity: the story of a moment) and several highly influential critical studies - most recently, What Ever Happened to Modernism? Jean Boase-Beier, professor of literature and translation at the University of East Anglia, translates from German and edits the Visible Poets bilingual series for Arc.

Between now and spring 2013 we will read, think and argue our way through a year's literary harvest, trying to find the books whose English incarnations deliver great fiction and great translation in an equal balance. I can tell you nothing at all about the outcomes except that the long-list, shortlist and winner will richly reward your attention. Like Camus's Meursault, on his final night of stars and signs, it's time to look across every frontier and open ourselves to "the tender indifference of the world".

The Cloud that takes an age to cross an ocean

Asked to name an "unfilmable" novel, many discerning readers might opt for David Mitchell's multi-stranded, mind-stretching Cloud Atlas. Yet, thanks to co-directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, and a truly stellar cast (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant), it has become, by all accounts, an extraordinary piece of cinema. A shame, then, that this interpretation of a landmark British novel should open in the US this week, but in the UK only at the end of February 2013.

An end to dodges in the Duchy?

Will those killjoy Eurocrats call a halt to Amazon's tax-cutting, profit-boosting love-affair with Luxembourg? The online giant's registration in the Grand Duchy has boosted its income by reducing tax liabilities. Now, we learn, Amazon insists publishers supply it with e-books net of VAT at the UK rate (20 per cent) rather than of the much lower Luxembourg level (3 per cent). Yet Brussels has just announced that Luxembourg and France (which also levies a 3 per cent e-book rate) will be investigated for this "serious distortion of competition". Which sounds like a crackdown on a tax dodge, until you consider that the 3 per cent rate in the two rogue nations was meant to create a level playing-field between digital editions and printed books. If we did that here, it would mean zero-rating for e-books, as for print. And why would that be such a terrible thing?