2015 Jolley Short Story Prize and Literature in Translation at the Brisbane Writers Festival

2015 Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize – Awards Ceremony

Peter Rose, editor of the Australian Book Review, discussed the importance of the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize being open to international entrants and remarked on the high quality of the 1200 entries received in 2015.

Each of the shortlisted entrants read passages from their short stories:

  • Michelle Cahill (Aus) ‘Borges and I’
  • Harriet McKnight (Aus) ‘Crest’
  • Rob Magnuson Smith (UK/US) ‘The Elector of Nossnearly’

Michelle Cahill Borges and I     Harriet McKnight Crest     Rob Magnuson Smith The Elector of Nossnearly

While each was mesmerizing, the humour within ‘The Elector of Nossnearly’, which ultimately won Rob Magnuson Smith the $5000 Jolley Prize, resonated with me the most.

Rob Magnuson Smith’s début novel, The Gravedigger, appeared in 2010 after winning the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Award. His short fiction has been published most recently in The Clearing, The Literarian, and the Guardian. He has written many articles of investigative journalism for Playboy, where he is contributing editor. His second novel is Scorper (Granta Books, 2015). A graduate of University of East Anglia’s MA in Creative Writing and Bath Spa University’s PhD in Creative Writing, Rob is currently a lecturer at Exeter University and lives in Cornwall.

ABR September Fiction IssueThe supplementary prizes of $2000 and $1000 went to Michelle Cahill and Harriet McKnight respectively.

The 2015 Jolley Prize was judged by ABR Deputy Editor Amy Baillieu, poet and academic Sarah Holland-Batt, and author Paddy O’Reilly.

The title links above will take you to excerpts of each entry, and all three stories are published in full in the ABR September Fiction Issue.


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Translation: Transférer Konnichiha Übersetzung

Craig Munro, Sjon, Maggie Tiojakin, and Jonathan Galassi reflect on the elements of a good translation, on what is lost, and what is found.

Craig MunroCraig Munro is a writer and former publishing manager at UQP. During his long career, he has edited many of Australia’s finest writers. He was an adviser to the Literature Board of the Australia Council and the founding chair of the Queensland Writers’ Centre. Craig is currently the David Scott Mitchell Fellow at the State Library of NSW, working on a biography of literary critic and publisher A.G. Stephens, and a judge of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. His most recent book, Under Cover: adventures in the art of editing, is published by Scribe.

SjonBorn in Reykjavik in 1962, Sjón is a celebrated Icelandic author. He won the Nordic Council’s Literary Prize for his novel The Blue Fox (the equivalent of the Man Booker Prize) and the novel From The Mouth Of The Whale was shortlisted for both the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. His latest novel Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was was awarded the 2013 Icelandic Literary Prize. Sjón is the president of the Icelandic PEN Centre and former chairman of the board of Reykjavik, UNESCO city of Literature. His novels have been translated into thirty three languages. In 2001 he was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.

Maggie TiojakinMaggie Tiojakin is an Indonesian author, translator, scriptwriter and journalist. She is the author of several books, including Winter Dreams (Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2011). She is also the founder of Fiksi Lotus, an online journal of translated short stories. She lives in Jakarta and is currently working on her second novel, Grace.

Jonathan GalassiJonathan Galassi is the president and publisher of Farrar, Strous & Giroux and the author of three collections of poetry, as well as acclaimed translations of the Italian poets Eugenio Montale and Giacomo Leopardi. He lives in New York City. Muse is his debut novel.


The wealth and diversity of experience on this panel was clear to all.

Poetry is often regarded as the most challenging genre to translate. Craig asked Jonathan what is lost and what is gained when you set out to remake a poem from one language in another?

What happens in translation ideally with poetry is that you make a new poem that’s in your own language that draws from the emotion and the ideas, but also from the impetus and rhythm, the projecting force of the original poem.

Jonathan has felt most successful when he’s found some rhythmic equivalent to what was going on in the Italian poems.

He also spoke of the challenges of translating between languages with different size vocabularies. “If you are translating from Italian into English, English has a much bigger vocabulary. So sometimes terms in Italian seem vague, because they’re used for so many different things we would use, so it’s hard to figure out exactly what they’re saying. It’s the opposite from translating English into Italian, they have to squeeze a lot of terms into this smaller vocabulary.”

Winter Dreams by Maggie TiojokinMaggie Tiojakin described the difficulties of translating one of her own works, originally written in Bahasa Indonesian, into English. She said you end up re-writing yourself because, “you notice the flaws in the original version and you feel like you have this new opportunity to rewrite all those things that you feel could have gone better”. But in terms of language, she finds the expressions most difficult to translate as sometimes there’s just no equivalent – the key is to retain the soul.

In terms of intonation, in the Indonesian language we love to keep the phrases beautiful… and to keep the phrases going round and around without getting to the point, where in English it’s really hard to do that.

Craig asked Sjon how closely he worked with translator Victoria Cribb on his novels?

The Blue Fox by SjonSjon acknowledged that as both a reader and writer from Iceland he’s probably benefitted most from translations. He explained how compared to the works of other translators, Victoria Cribb’s translations really stood out to him, “how respectful she was, she got everything, the tone, the rhythm of the language – she recreated the work as I had done”.

And, because she’s so good Sjon gave her a lot of space – meeting only a few times during the process and just answering any questions she had along the way. He could tell by the questions she was asking that she was doing a great job. He tries to only skim the translated text — doesn’t want to go too deep and disturb the translator at work.

I was surprised to hear that all bar four of the translations of Sjon’s novels were created from the original Icelandic, rather than from the English translation.

Sjon emphasized that while Icelandic is a language only spoken by a few, it is not a ‘small’ language.

Maggie pointed out that despite our geographic proximity, there are no Australian books in bookstores in Indonesia, nor many Asian writers. Indonesians mainly read American writers in translation and to a lesser extent South American writers. The proportion of translated works in the Indonesian market is around 60-70%. This contrasted to Iceland where Sjon explained 50% or even less of the books sold these days are translations – “there are few people in Iceland but many of them are writers now”.

Galassi made the point that translations underpin more of our international cultures than we might realize…

…many of the biggest, most important cultural titles are translations.

Craig noted that writing styles can be passed on via translation too, such as the way the translated works of South American writers influenced Australian authors in the early 1970s. Sjon feels it’s valuable that different styles are absorbed into cultures and appropriated by writers in other countries in this way.

Maggie explained the relative newness and limitations of the official Indonesian language Bahasa (established in 1948), and the associated challenges of translating classic works such as those of Rudyard Kipling into it. Since Bahasa lacks the breadth of words writers want to use they incorporate words from other languages such as Javanese, or nowadays English, into their text. The younger generation of Indonesians are more interested in speaking English than speaking Bahasa.

English is almost a virus – Craig Munro

under-coverGalassi acknowledges that English has been imposed on the world for largely economic reasons, and we do need to be carful not lose the different cultural writing styles.

In his work as an editor, Craig has found that translating vernacular in prose is an almost intractable problem, while poetry dates less than prose fiction. Galassi agreed and believes great fiction titles need to be re-translated every generation or two so that the power of the translation doesn’t deteriorate.

Cultural and colloquial references are lost over time even with books in our own language. – Sjon

Maggie talked about the need to find a balance between accessibility and relevance for the younger generation, with the desire to represent the original tone and feel of classic works. Maggie explained that, “the younger generation in Indonesia don’t want to read old works if the language is too hard or too stiff,” and that what is popular in Indonesia right now is scholarship literature. The characters usually come from a small village, have no access to education but they have a dream for a better life, and then they get a scholarship. “It’s not a bad thing because it encourages people to study hard and take opportunities, there’s just a lot of books like that.”

The editing process is very sloppy unfortunately. I don’t say that because the editors are bad, but because right now there is a race between publishing houses to produce as many books as possible — so a lot of editors just end up proof-reading finished manuscripts.

None of the panelists liked footnotes in fiction – they feel writers need to trust that their readers will understand within context. According to Galassi, James Berger once famously said that “having a footnote at the bottom of a page is like going back to answer the doorbell on your wedding night”.

Sjon contrasted the newness of Bahasa Indonesian with the 1000 years heritage of writing in the Icelandic language, and how that gives him a great treasure to work from and dig into and work through. He makes the point that all languages are evolving and are in a state of flux, and that’s the beauty of it.

The only people that work in fixed languages are dictators.

Sjon’s earnest belief is that reading broadly has made him a better writer.

This was an enlightening discussion between a talented group of authors who have already in their own different ways shaped international literature, and will undoubtedly continue to do so.