Interview

Arvida and the Best Translated Book Award

The winner of the 2016 Best Translated Book Award is set to be announced on May 4, and Quebec’s very own Arvida is very much in the running. Peter McCambridge sat down with P.T. Smith, one of the fiction jury’s nine members, to discuss Arvida‘s chances.


PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32P.T. Smith, ten works of fiction and six poetry collections remain in the running for this year’s Best Translated Book Awards following the announcement of the finalists on April 19. Here at Québec Reads our attention is obviously drawn to the finalist from Quebec: Donald Winkler’s translation of Arvida by Samuel Archibald, published by Biblioasis. Before I ask you a little more about that, a word or two about the Best Translated Book Awards in general. Is this the first year you’ve been involved as a judge?

The BTBA first gave out awards in 2008 for books published in 2007 but I’ve only been following it since 2012 or so. The winner that year, Stone Upon Stone, became a book I loved deeply. Since then, more than the winner, the lists, long or short, have been the way I’ve found wonderful books I otherwise completely missed during the year. As for landing the gig, I probably started that path by writing one of the “Why This Book Should Win” posts for Textile for the 2014 award and reviewing translated books in general. Honestly, I’ve a feeling the biggest factor was that the folks picking the committee know that I read a lot, and had already read many of the eligible books. I was also unemployed at the time, so you know, plenty of time on my hands, and maybe somebody thought I needed a productive way to spend that time.

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From listening to the always entertaining Three Percent podcast, I gather that the nine judges met to decide on the longlist of 25, with each judge having a wildcard pick of their own to add to the consensus picks. Given your interest in Quebec literature–you’ve reviewed Arvida for Québec Reads and written about translations from Quebec for the Three Percent blog in the past–I’m curious if Arvida was your wildcard pick. It seems a natural fit, especially given your appreciation of Le Quartanier, the publishing house in Montreal who originally published Arvida in French.

Arvida was not my wildcard! I do like people theorizing about the wildcards, though. Curious if someone can suss out what mine actually was. I do, however, love Quebec literature, so figured some people would pin me for Arvida. I did read it, and an in many ways similar Quebec collection, Atavisms, early on in the year and encouraged the other judges to pick them from their shelves, or given the number of books we received, from scattered, teetering piles.

The Quebec aspect is interesting, though. Throughout the year, topics of conversation included the merit of considering gender, origin language, country, class, etc. Those things are incredibly valuable, but as the selections came to the end, the short and longlists determined, I stopped weighing them so much, the literature itself being the main consideration. Yet part of me wanted Quebec included in that type of conversation. I mean, it’s a fascinating situation, a province of a country that speaks a different language from it, a province with its own culture, coming from the way it blends French roots with North American culture. It’s a thriving place and identity, half-hidden within a larger one. And inside it, there’s a literary boon. I want that boon to get attention, and it’s the type of thing the translation community could fall for, an independent literary style with roots in two different languages.

Le Quartanier is a huge force in this new blood of Quebec lit, but not the only one, and dammit, there’s so much I’m told about that I want to, need to, exist in English. Fortunately, publishers like Biblioasis, Book Thug, and Véhicule, are making the translations happen, with you throwing your hat into the ring too, Peter, with QC Fiction.

I was at a release party in Montreal recently, and the hardest part besides trying to extract a bribe from Archibald (his publisher was much more open to the idea) was dealing with my frustration after one of the authors read. I could hear the style of his words, hear the beauty of the rhythm, become enraptured by him, and I couldn’t understand a damn word of it, and never will unless it gets translated and published.

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I think it’s fair to say that Arvida was a (welcome) surprise on the longlist and then the shortlist. Were you surprised it made it?

I was. It came on late, but boy did it come on strong. I was sad that neither it nor Atavisms seemed to be getting much attention from judges, even though a couple had read Arvida and expressed appreciation. Eventually though, there was this moment where someone pointed out, ‘Hey, didn’t a bunch of us like Arvida, why aren’t we talking about it more?’

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But after making the shortlist, it seemed to have legs. What do you think makes this book so special and why do you think it managed to make it is a finalist?

Three things come to mind when I think about why Arvida stands out. For me, all three make it stand out to American readers, but its merit extends beyond that, and for all I know, these things stand out to Québécois too. First, it takes genre seriously in a way that even many authors who purport to do so, don’t. Too often, there’s a sense of ‘raising it up,’ using literary intelligence and style to make genre worthy. With Archibald, it’s more that his literary intelligence and style wouldn’t exist as they do, couldn’t express what they do, without genre.

Second, the short story collection in America seems at a weak point. It can easily appear that two types exist: the linked stories, or the totally assorted, nothing-to-do-with-each-other collections that authors wrote because they excel at short stories in some way, or put together in workshops, classes, or to gain publication steam in various journals. When someone is masterful at the form, the scattered collections are wonderful, and when the linked style pays off, it’s really fun, but far too many collections end up easily forgotten. Arvida is not linked, but when you read the whole book, boy do you make connections, do themes and ideas echo, repeat with variation. It’s something we don’t see enough of, and it’s done well.

Finally, as with much of Quebec literature, both new and old, it’s so of that place, Quebec. Some books are dislocated, whether intensely intentionally so, or as a byproduct of other interests, but so many Québécois books are about Quebec. They are about any number of other things, too, but without Quebec, without that place, they couldn’t exist with the nuance of perspective, without the quirks of mind that province gives its people.

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I always wonder about the name of these awards, by the way. The Best Translated Book Awards. Is the award for the best translation or for the best book in translation? Did part of the narrowing-down process involve sitting down and comparing Arvida and the other translations against the originals?

The BTBA is very much a book award. A book could be just terrible, god-awful, but have a fantastic, inspired translation, and it wouldn’t win. The book has to be special, along with the translation. I’m an embarrassed monoglot, so I did no comparing, but three of the judges are translators themselves, and they did that work when they could, with some of the other judges using whatever language skills they have. It works out to a nice balance of perspectives that way.

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Finally, it’s great to see a lesser-known book like Arvida get so much attention. It was in the running for the $100,000 Giller, Canada’s biggest fiction prize, in 2015. Maybe that helped raise its profile and help it onto the longlist. Do you think it’s in with a chance up against the likes of Lispector and Ferrante?

Of course it is. I don’t think there’s anything on the shortlist that is an easy elimination. All the attention to Arvida in English has been a long time coming, but it is deserving. Books like Archibald’s shouldn’t worry too much about the biggest heavy-hitters. One thing that fostered my affection for BTBA is that those big, obviously spectacular, immensely popular, books are often taken down by other, odder books, with their own way of winning the fight.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Read a short story from Arvida
PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Read our review