What advice would a seasoned observer of the British book market give to a publisher who, like some demented literary version of Mel Brooks in The Producers, wanted to release a novel that stood absolutely no chance of reaching the bestseller lists? Not a book with some faint glimmer of hope, mind you – but one doomed to hobble in among the stragglers? First, make sure that it's very long, complicated, sometimes eccentric and driven by a quixotic idealism. Second, guarantee that the author – little-known on these shores in any case – is safely dead. And last, make this cast-iron catastrophe a translation. Then retire to a bar and toast your fail-safe flop.
Surprise, surprise. Two such novels have bounced around the top of the fiction charts in Britain in the first weeks of 2009. Stieg Larsson's The Girl who Played with Fire actually reached number one; Roberto Bolano's 2666 came astonishingly close. Not for the first or last time, British readers shamed the kind of snob who can never credit them with more than the crudest of choices or the lowest of horizons. True, it may take a while before 20 per cent of the UK Top Ten again consists of blockbusters imported from beyond English. But, when it comes to fiction in translation, a climate of small ambition and meagre expectation can harden into a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need regular reminders that extraordinary books can jump all borders.
That belief has always underpinned the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which has now selected its long-list for 2009. The prize was re-created in its present form in 2001, in partnership with Arts Council England. With a total award of £10,000, divided equally – and almost uniquely – between the winning author and his or her translator, the Independent award remains the country's most valuable honour for contemporary literature in translation, a precious window on the world of fiction, and a rare boost for an under-valued art. We salute ACE and Champagne Taittinger for their support.
Open to all living authors (sorry, Larsson and Bolano fans) and to any translated work of fiction first published in the UK during 2008, this year's competition attracted a record 126 submissions from 44 imprints..
This year's judges – novelist and journalist Linda Grant, poet, editor and translator Fiona Sampson, founder-editor of the ReadySteadyBook site Mark Thwaite, Kate Griffin of ACE and myself – read works originally written in 25 languages. In the end, we had to reduce this vibrant crowd of global voices to a chorus of 16 (listed below). At the start of April, the 16 will shrink to a shortlist of six. The winner will be announced in mid-May. For the moment, all of these works deserve attention and applause. Every one took us on an enriching and distinctive voyage of discovery. Let some of them, at least, do the same for you.
Voyage of discovery: The long-list for the 2009 prize
'How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone' (translated from the German by Anthea Bell; Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
'The Director' (Swedish; Sarah Death; Portobello)
'Voiceover' (French; Sam Richard; Faber & Faber)
'The White King' (Hungarian; Paul Olchvary; Doubleday)
Thomas Glavinic, 'Night Work' (German; John Brownjohn; Canongate)
'A Blessed Child' (Norwegian; Sarah Death; Picador)
'The Siege' (Albanian via French; David Bellos; Canongate)
'Beijing Coma' (Chinese; Flora Drew; Chatto & Windus)
'Homesick' (Hebrew; Sondra Silverston; Chatto & Windus)
'The Diving Pool' (Japanese; Stephen Snyder; Harvill Secker)
'The Armies' (Spanish; Anne McLean; MacLehose Press)
'The Blue Fox' (Icelandic; Victoria Cribb; Telegram)
'Novel 11, Book 18' (Norwegian; Sverre Lyngstad; Harvill Secker)
Juan Gabriel Vasquez
'The Informers' (Spanish; Anne McLean; Bloomsbury)
'Friendly Fire' (Hebrew; Stuart Schoffman; Peter Halban)
Jose Eduardo Agualusa
'My Father's Wives' (Portuguese; Daniel Hahn; Arcadia Books)