Inter Alia #4: International Prizewinners and the Business of Translation

May 15, 2008 | 5 books mentioned 5 4 min read

[Editor’s Note: To plug a hole in the Inter Alia series, we’ve numbered this one out of order.]

I know next to nothing about the translation business, except that it is vital to my reading habits. And so, earlier this week, I posted a little survey of international awards for fiction, along with the unobjectionable (I think) suggestion that more foreign-language prize-winners should be translated into English. I had been surprised at how difficult it was merely to find English-language information on, for example, The Austrian Grand Prize for East European Literature, and part of my intention was to put the “wisdom of crowds” to work for me, via reader comments and blog reactions. And, lo! The Complete Review and The Guardian’s book blog obliged. From the former, (which seems in possession of much better intel than I am) I learned that the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize may have been a weak proxy for the cream of German-language literature. I also learned, in a pleasant surprise, that my “translation quotients” apparently “do seem to reflect general translation-trends.” I thought I’d follow up today with a few interpretive gambits.

First: literary awards are a notoriously subjective indicator of literary value (with apologies to fans of James A. Michener’s Pulitzer-winning fiction.) Nor is a foreign book’s publication in the U.S. or U.K. a measure of its greatness. The absence of translations of Tanizaki Prize-winners should not be taken as a reflection on the prestige of the prize, the health of Japanese literature, or even the level of American interest in Japanese writers. (Witness the runaway success – not to mention the genius – of Haruki Murakami.) And again, given the relative paucity of information, my “Prizewinners: The International Edition” feature may have been looking at some of the wrong awards.

However, in aggregate, it does constitute an interesting snapshot of the business of translation. Romance languages seem to predominate. Is this because these are the languages Americans tend to learn in school – leading to a surfeit of translators? Or because of our long-standing cultural ties to Western Europe?

The picture shifts a bit when we consider writers whose non-prize-winning novels are the ones that have been translated into English, and when we look at prizes given for a body of work. Writers who have been canonized in, say, the Netherlands are a sure bet for translation into English. But the single-book prize can be a testament to what’s vital and urgent in a literary tradition. It’s the difference between Philip Roth and, say, Edward P. Jones. And a healthy culture of translation will make sure that Edward P. Jones gets read in other languages now, rather than in 40 years. The Rómulo Gallegos had this effect for Bolaño; the Alfred Döblin Prize, for Katja Lang-Müller… well, not so much.

Indeed, a translation gap for the historic period 1995 – 2005 seems particularly glaring when we look at Germany. With the exception of Ingo Schulze (whose monumental New Lives will appear from Knopf this fall), few of the Döblin winners have had any of their work at all translated into English. Does this mean that American publishers are doing a crappy job translating German novels, or that American readers have little appetite for them, or that I did a crappy job educating myself about contemporary German literature? (A friend who used to work at publisher Berlin Verlag suggested calculating TQs for the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, the Leipzig Book Fair Prize, Aspekte Literaturpreis, and the Berliner Literaturpreis der Stiftung Preußische Seehandlung.) Rather, I think it suggests that having a clearer awards consensus can make it easier for readers like me to find out about new books, and can help push publishers off the fence. Already, the creation of the Booker-esque German Book Prize in 2005 has proven a boon to German-language translation. Since being shortlisted in 2006, Sasa Stanisic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, to name one example, has been published in about a billion countries.

covercover[It bears mentioning at this point, inter alia, that there is a lot of wonderful contemporary Chinese, Arabic, Slavic, Hebrew, Setswana, etc. literature that slipped through the cracks of my survey. (I’m currently reading the Hungarian Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies and Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun.) I had hoped to create a more truly International edition of “The Prizewinners,” but the criteria outlined in my original post prevented it. Literature is, of course, irremediably tangled with history, and it came to seem, as I looked at the various prizes, that they were closely linked (as language is) with nationalism. This made it difficult, in particular, to construct a proxy for African literature, or to compare specific traditions within Africa with specific European traditions. Nigerian authors are eligible for the Booker, while Egyptians would compete for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The existing pan-African literary awards seem to represent such a diversity of languages, and such a plurality of markets, that it was difficult to find any one award to focus on. The cultural traditions of Communist China remain opaque to a monoglot like myself, and while the Nordic Council’s Literary Prize seemed comparable to the Booker or the Pulitzer, none of the winning books has been translated into English.]

Ultimately, it seems to me that the “problem” of translation is, like many of the “problems” of the literary marketplace, a problem of money. Translating the second and third parts of Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance, for example, will require two or three years’ pay for the great translator Joachim Neugroschel. A more well-publicized award field, with more prominent awards for foreign markets, might give publishers and foreign funding agencies the “hook” they need to make deeper investments in translation. (And might yield even greater sales for presses like New Directions, Dalkey Archive, Archipelago, NYRB and Open Letter, who have already made heroic commitments to publishing translations.) The mainstream media “hype machine” has a role to play here. As do blogs.* Which gives me an idea… who wants to figure out how many of our own Anglo-English Prizewinners have been translated into Russian?

*(whose job would be easier if Blogger would make it simpler to use diacritical marks in posts; sorry, no stresicas, Sasa!)

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. Actually, the Nordic Council's Literary Prize has a decent TQ for your timeframe: Sjón's Skugga-Baldur (2005) just came out (as The Blue Fox) and Jan Kjærstad's Opdageren (2001) is due out this fall (as The Discoverer) — both admittedly only in the UK. But Lars Saabye Christensen's Halvbroren (2002) — The Half Brother — got a decent amount of attention both in the US and UK.

  2. We're publishing The Discoverer next year in the US—it looks like August 2009 right now. Barbara Haveland is about halfway through the translation, from what I understand.

  3. Once again, Literary Saloon, takk. I think I was looking for "Saabye Christensen" in the LoC catalog – as if it were Garcia Marquez rather than, say, Risk Hallberg. I'll be sure to check this one out.

  4. 1. The Goethe Institute offers a number of prizes for translation of German works into English, including a new one for contemporary German fiction.

    2. Could the lack of Russian books in translation be due to copyright/royalty issues still lingering from the Communist era?

    3. Japanese fiction can be found in abundance in the graphic novels section of most bookstore chains and in the larger independent bookstores (Del Rey says that within one year of launching its manga division in 1994 they'd put a million copies into print.) How many of the "most decorated" of these are available in English? Have any achieved distinction equivalent to the Pulitzer won by Art Spiegelman's "Maus", which would qualify them for your list?

    You've raised a great point – why aren't more prize-winning books in other languages translated into English? Considering the availability of (pulp fiction) manga and paucity of literary winners from Japan, it's easy to point to economics as a bigger factor than cultural familiarity for determining what gets translated.

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