The long-list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has never looked richer, or broader. Last week I and my fellow-judges - the writers David Constantine, Jennie Erdal and Ali Smith, and Kate Griffin from Arts Council England - met to select the 20 titles detailed below from a total entry of 86 submitted books. Our pick from a year's harvest of newly-translated works of fiction stretches in language from Turkish to Gikuyu to Norwegian; in setting, from the mountain villages of Tibet to a mysterious Greek island to the crumbling mansions of Havana; and in authorship, from a young French sensation to a Dutch-exiled Iranian refugee to a Portuguese Nobel literature laureate. In early March, we convene again to climb an even steeper mountain, and choose a shortlist of six for the £10,000 prize, which is divided equally between author and translator. The award, once again made possible by the superb support of Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger, will be announced at the start of May.
This score of tales adds up a magnificent double showcase. One side displays the protean art of fiction, as practised from Berlin (by Jenny Erpenbeck) to Buenos Aries (by Edgardo Cozarinsky). Power and its abuses come under cool, satirical scrutiny from Angola (José Eduardo Agualusa) to Albania (Ismail Kadare). Family stories bring joy and sorrow, comedy and tragedy, from Austria (Eva Menasse) to Iran (Kader Abdolah). Mysteries from the past demand solutions from the present in Cuba (Leonardo Padura) or Italy (Niccolò Ammaniti). Individuals face life-defining moments of crisis and discovery in Norway (Linn Ullmann) or Afghanistan (Atiq Rahimi). And this world in flux takes shape via fictional forms as vastly varied as the street-smart Parisian rap of Faïza Guène or the epic, and self-translated, African fable of Ngugi wa Thiong'o. With this list, an entire planet of fiction swings into view.
As for the other side of the showcase, it celebrates the precious art of the translators who convey these treasures. These are, without exception, powerful books carried into English on powerful shoulders. Uniquely among awards for international literature, the Independent prize gives equal honour both to the original author and his or her partner on the journey between languages. And translation in Britain needs every champion it can find.
The slow national calamity that is the collapse of language-learning in our schools unfolds under indifferent official eyes. Where, in the future, will we find successors to such virtuosi as Anthea Bell, David Bellos, Barbara Haveland and Margaret Jull Costa - all represented here? Yet UK (and US) literary culture can still enjoy the artistry of translators much better and bolder than its myopia deserves. Our long-list invites readers to taste their formidable skills, as well as those of the writers that they serve.
If this judging process uncovered an unusual wealth of talent in translation, one other event marked it out as a special year. This prize aims to reward fiction by writers alive at the time of the translation's publication. Without that provision, we might see the latest rendering of (say) War and Peace or Don Quixote triumph every time. Yet, on this occasion, the judges had to grapple with as compelling a case for a one-off change of rules as such a contest will ever meet. The hard case, as this great book's host of British fans will guess, involved Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française, beautifully translated by Sandra Smith and published to justified acclaim by Chatto & Windus last spring. Némirovsky died in Auschwitz after her deportation in 1942, but her stupendous novel of the fall of France and its aftermath lay undiscovered in a trunk for almost 60 years.
Suite Française, this masterwork reclaimed from the dead, came to haunt all our deliberations. We wish to honour it with a special commendation, but with far more warmth than such a chilly prize-day form of words suggests. But we decided in the end that the novel ought to stand, as its original language would put it, hors concours: above the battle, outside the competition and in a class of its own.
The Prix Renaudot in France tweaked its criteria so that Suite Française could win. We chose instead to remember and celebrate this extraordinary novel at every stage on the route towards this year's prize. So, if you haven't yet done so, read it: the Vintage paperback edition is imminent. And then treat yourself to some of these remarkable stories from a world just as full of mayhem and movement as when a Russian-born French novelist sat under a tree in Burgundy and captured forever the plight of the refugees who streamed out of embattled Paris in the lovely early summer of 1940.
INDEPENDENT FOREIGN FICTION PRIZE LONG-LIST
Kader Abdolah, My Father's Notebook (translated by Susan Massotty from Dutch; Canongate)
José Eduardo Agualusa, The Book of Chameleons (Daniel Hahn; Portuguese; Arcadia)
Niccolò Ammaniti, Steal You Away (Jonathan Hunt; Italian; Canongate)
Javier Cercas, The Speed of Light (Anne McLean; Spanish; Bloomsbury)
Edgardo Cozarinsky, The Moldavian Pimp (Nick Caistor; Spanish; Harvill Secker)
Per Olov Enquist, The Story of Blanche and Marie (Tiina Nunnally; Swedish; Harvill Secker)
Jenny Erpenbeck, The Old Child (Susan Bernofsky; German; Portobello)
Faïza Guène, Just Like Tomorrow (Sarah Adams; French; Chatto & Windus)
Vangelis Hatziyannidis, Four Walls (Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife; Greek; Marion Boyars)
Ismail Kadare, The Successor (David Bellos; French; Canongate)
Ma Jian, Stick out your Tongue (Flora Drew; Chinese; Chatto & Windus)
Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream (Margaret Jull Costa; Spanish; Chatto & Windus)
Eva Menasse, Vienna (Anthea Bell; German; Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Wizard of the Crow (the author; Gikuyu; Harvill Secker)
Leonardo Padura, Havana Black (Peter Bush; Spanish; Bitter Lemon)
Atiq Rahimi, A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear (Sarah Maguire & Yama Yari; Dari; Chatto & Windus)
José Saramago, Seeing (Margaret Jull Costa; Portuguese; Harvill Secker)
Elif Shafak, The Gaze (Brendan Freely; Turkish; Marion Boyars)
Dag Solstad, Shyness and Dignity (Sverre Lyngstad; Norwegian; Harvill Secker)
Linn Ullmann, Grace (Barbara Haveland; Norwegian; Picador)