Independent Foreign Fiction Prize: This year's shortlist spans a world of great writing

It took some hard pounding and tough talking, but we got there in the end. The six novels featured on this page make up the shortlist for the 2011 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. They will compete for the £10,000 award, divided equally (and uniquely) between author and translator. The winner will be announced on 26 May. Between now and then, readers should treat themselves to a richly rewarding diet of the best of the best in global fiction.

Our half-dozen contenders not only span a rainbow of subjects, styles and genres. They showcase the translator's art at its most subtle and forceful. Every one of the 15 works on the long-list kept vocal and persuasive champions on the judging panel (made up of Harriett Gilbert, MJ Hyland, Catriona Kelly, Neel Mukherjee and myself). Each judge saw novels that they valued perish in the flames of debate. Those that survive have truly fireproof virtues.

Four works from Latin American writers appeared on the long-list; three still figure here. If the Southern Cone ever went away as a heartland and hotbed of excellence in modern fiction (which I doubt), it has returned in triumph. Yet this trio – Alberto Barrera Tyszka from Venezuela; Santiago Roncagliolo from Peru; Marcelo Figueras from Argentina - defies all generalisation. From hard-boiled political thriller to eerie family fable to child's-eye recollection of a risky adult world, they traverse an Andean range of forms. Almost half a century after the original "boom" of the 1960s began to reverberate around the literary world, it makes no more sense to issue glib edicts about the nature of the continent's fiction than it would for Europe or North America. Prosperity means complexity, in art as in life.

Joining them are two former winners of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Orhan Pamuk won the very first contest in 1990 for The White Castle. Since then, of course, many other juries have saluted him – not least the Swedish academicians who bestow the Nobel Prize in Literature. Now his romantic epic of Istanbul and its people competes again. Per Petterson from Norway, also a winner in 2006 for Out Stealing Horses, went on to take the IMPAC prize in Dublin and to entrance critics and readers in the US. His wistful story of a questing youth reaches the shortlist, as does the darkly lyrical vision of 20th-century history via a single house and its inhabitants by Jenny Erpenbeck: a fast-ascending star in German fiction.

This prize rewards the double-act of author and translator. In the other half of that equation, our shortlist is graced by some of the most talented practioners at work today. One of them, Edith Grossman, recently published her own robust, even combative, defence of her metier in a manifesto entitled Why Translation Matters (Yale, £10.99). Read it for a sinew-stiffening call to arms. Grossman will leave you in no doubt that a culture that neglects translation will starve for want of nourishment – yes, even one that speaks English. A cut-down, creolised version of our language may now help the world to do business. It does not (and no one language ever could) begin to tell us the full story behind the planet's other lives.

That's why translation matters. This shortlist delivers a sample of those stories, and those lives, in the most pleasurable of ways. For these books all speak fluent human. If you have the chance, and time, enjoy them all. Warm thanks again to Arts Council England, to Booktrust and to Champagne Taittinger for their support in making this prize happen, work, and thrive.

The shortlist 2011

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

A house in Brandenburg becomes the silent witness to a German century marked by ceaseless turmoil and tragedy. The land and its wildlifeendures, the buildings evolve, and the seasons revolve. But the human traffic through this lonely place, as one owner succeeds another, reveals all the disruptions of social change, political division, total war – and, above all, genocide. The beauties of the landscape and the terrors of history coincide in a haunted pastoral.

Translated by Susan Bernofsky from the German; published by Portobello Books

Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras

At the start of Argentina's "Dirty War" in the mid-1970s, a boy and his fear-stricken parents go on the run from their Buenos Aires home. But politics and persecution pass by the curious mind of "Harry", who loves board games and biology, astronomy and geography. As family ties fray and the clan moves hiding-places, our young hero pursues his quirky investigations into science and stories. Behind and between his words, darkness falls over his nation.

Translated by Frank Wynne from the Spanish; published by Atlantic Books

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Privileged playboy Kemal falls for poor shopgirl Füsun on the eve of his society wedding. His lingering obsession, and their stalled passion, matches the evolution of Istanbul as the beloved city strays from its traditions and embraces a gaudy modernity. Through cherished objects and the intense memories they enshrine, Kemal learns to keep faith with the person, and the place, he loves. Meanwhile the lives of their families, and their country, transforms irrevocably over time.

Translated by Maureen Freely from the Turkish; published by Faber & Faber

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

In 1989, as European history tilts on its axis and his own home life crumbles, Arvid learns of his mother's illness. He dives back though a journey of memory that leads him to re-imagine his working-class childhood and youth. As mother and son re-discover each other, he reviews the comradeship of his factory jobs and left-wing groups; the books, films and friends that meant so much. Vivid, intense, the physical world of Oslo endures as people and beliefs go missing.

Translated by Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson from the Norwegian; published by Harvill Secker

Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo

At Holy Week in 2000, the guerrilla violence of the "Shining Path" revolt seems to return to a small town in Peru. As Prosecutor Chacaltana struggles to make sense of a string of gory deaths, an unburied history of terror and counter-terror stalks the land again. Suspense rises as the agent of law and order finds himself beset, without and within, by horrors he can scarcely control. The past, and its cruel injustices, has not been laid to rest.

Translated by Edith Grossman from the Spanish; published by Atlantic Books

The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka

Thoughtful, dutiful Dr Miranda has to tell his father the fateful results of medical tests. Meanwhile, an apparently disturbed hypochondriac bombards his office with email pleas and threats. How do the country of the sick and the healthy connect, and what happens when we pass from one to another? As father and son take a holiday, the doctor's secretary has stories of her own to tell – as medicine, memory and fantasy join in a volatile mixture.

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa from the Spanish; published by MacLehose Press

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