The Tanzanian’s Ad Abdulrazak Gurnah like the Nobel Prize in Literature 2021 brought back an old frustration, which has become almost annual. Four of the last 10 laureates had no works published in Brazil.
That was the case of the American poet Louise Glück last year, and also the Belarusian Svetlana Alexiévitch (2015), the Chinese Mo Yan (2012) and the Swedish Tomas Tranströmer
(2011). Many of the other winners from this period were also not easy to find.
Although known in Brazil, the Austrian Peter Handke was out of fashion, with only two books in his catalogue. And the author announced along with him, the Polish Olga Tokarczuk, had only one: “Os vagantes”, published here in 2015 by Tinta Negra.
The Nobel heated up the market – and so should Gurnah’s work. A month later, Yet published Tokarczuk’s “On the bones of the dead”, and Estação Liberdade released “Essay on the jukebox” and “Essay on the mushrooms”, by Handke.
Sometimes readers have to wait longer to read a Nobel Prize in Portuguese. In 2012 and 2014, few Brazilians knew the Chinese poet Mo Yan and the Belarusian writer and journalist Svetlana Aleksiévitch, both published later by Companhia das Letras. When she took the award, in 2013, Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro already had a handful of titles in Brazil, both by Companhia das Letras and by Biblioteca Azul (Globo Livros), but it was still far from being a commercial success. Most of the books by Frenchman Patrick Modiano had already been published in Brazil, but were out of print when he was awarded in 2014.
— The most obvious names, which end up being the ones that have books published here, have been overlooked by the award — argues Livia Vianna, executive editor of Record. — This same year, one of our authors, Maryse Condé, whose book “Eu, Tituba” already has a large audience in Brazil, was in pools all over the world and that was not the case. Like Margaret Atwood and Murakami, both with huge readerships in Brazil, they are always among the likely, but never among the winners, which have basically been surprises.
Livia cites as examples of the unpredictable choices the victory of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, in 2016, and last year’s double award:
— The names chosen have been so peculiar that they are authors of an almost always restricted audience. If it is restricted even abroad, it means that the author is hardly ever published here.
The scarcity also has to do with some characteristics of the Brazilian publishing market. One is the preference for publishing authors who write in English or are successful in English-speaking markets such as the United States and the United Kingdom. Even authors already released by English and American publishers are facing difficulties in conquering the Brazilian market, writing in languages for which there are not so many qualified translators around here, such as Polish and Chinese. Mo Yan, for example, was only published in the country by Companhia das Letras after the award. In 2018, the Swedish Tranströmer was edited by Âyiné.
— In the case of many languages, such as Polish, Russian, etc., it is inevitable that you only know a certain author after he passes through the filter of the English-language publishing industry. Or even when the author “happens” in hegemonic cultures, such as the USA, Germany or France — explains Leandro Sarmatz, editor of However, citing the less obvious choices of the Swedish Academy. — She often gives the award precisely to important authors that she deems deserving of a wider audience, whether for literary reasons or not. Thus, names that were not so much on the radar gain a global dimension. Which is good in many cases, just think about what happened in recent years with Svetlana and Olga.
‘Not that terrible’
For Otavio Marques da Costa, publisher of Companhia das Letras, the relatively small size of the Brazilian readership helps to explain why some writers still do not have books in Portuguese when they receive the Nobel. However, he temporizes: the shortage of recent Nobels here is no greater than in other countries.
— Brazil is not in such a terrible position. English-speaking markets are less interested in the translation of fiction and poetry than Germany or Italy, for example,” he says.
The fact that the Swedish Academy, in recent years, has not awarded authors who were well placed on the betting lists, also prevents publishers from guaranteeing readers the books of the newly nominated. Perhaps in an attempt to reaffirm its independence, the Swedish Academy, despite appeals from the public, has avoided rewarding names linked to identity guidelines and sometimes even privileged writers praised by critics but almost forgotten.
— Handke, for example, is an author who was widely published in Brazil in his heyday, in the 1980s, but he was not at the crest of the wave, neither here nor elsewhere — says Marques da Costa.
On the contrary. The award for the Austrian, whose literary talent is unanimous, was the target of much criticism for having been a notorious supporter of the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, accused of crimes against humanity.