The Trouble with Prizes and Translation

Prizes may be good for publishing, but are they good for all authors and translators?

If you love reading fiction by writers from around the globe, you are used to hearing about the big prizes that put international literature in the spotlight: the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Man Booker International, the Caine Prize, the Prix Goncourt, the German Book Prize, the Cervantes Prize, the Tanazaki Prize, and many others.

In fact, you might even have trouble keeping up with the variety of United States–based awards just for literature in translation, from the Best Translated Book Award (now eleven years old) to the National Book Award’s new Translated Literature category. It’s getting to be like following the Olympics, without all the fuss over new stadium construction. For one thing, winning books, like medal-bedecked Olympians, don’t get to the podium all by themselves. Winners need a team (and a coach and money) behind them. For another, we know that lots of great contenders don’t make it to the final round.

So what should we know about book prizes as we are reading the shortlisted candidates or hoping for a win for one of our favorite writers?

First of all, many of the biggest prizes aren’t simply a competition among books. With the exception of those giving awards for lifetime achievement, prize committees aren’t out scouring the shelves for great literature, they’re reviewing submitted books. Publishers, usually from the country where the prize is awarded, submit those books. The publishers actually do the first round of selection simply by choosing the prizes they will submit for, and then selecting books they think have a chance of winning.

If that sounds easy, think of the small presses weighing the cost of their time for the submission process, maybe even paying a submission fee, and shipping off multiple free copies (often presses have to supply a bound copy for each member of the prize committee) year after year. They may even have to commit to attend the award ceremony at their own expense, just to watch another publisher’s submission win the prize. A look at the 2017 finalists for the National Book Award shows, for example, a book by the small independent Graywolf Press alongside those from much larger Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Grand Central, a Hachette imprint, and Knopf Doubleday, itself a division of the international behemoth Penguin Random House. When you compare the financial and marketing resources these big publishers have behind them, it seems like a daunting David vs. Goliath competition for smaller presses to enter. Of course, it is worth all the trouble when you win.

Prizes, at least the biggest ones, help sell books. Many of them were created for just that purpose and the prize-givers are not shy about saying so, and why should they be? What’s the point of publishing great books if you can’t find an audience for them? Authors and editors all hope that a nomination or a prize will draw attention to work they’ve already committed enormous amounts of time and energy to bringing into print. Still, the contrast between the language of literary merit and that of cool business calculation can be jarring. The Man Booker foundation vaunts its previous winners of the Man Booker International Prize not for having written and translated the “best novel,” which is what the prize ostensibly rewards, but for having sold copies:

The 2016 prize was won by Korean author Han Kang and her translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian. The £50,000 prize was split equally between author and translator for the first time.

UK sales of The Vegetarian rose six-fold in the week after the prize was announced, rising to 900% of the pre-win weekly sale after three weeks. The effect of the prize on sales in Korea was stratospheric: the Korean edition of The Vegetarian had sold 20,000 copies in the decade following publication. Two weeks after the win the Korean publisher had had orders for almost half a million copies.

Is that now what everyone who creates a new prize, or submits a book, or who enthuses about a great book on the shortlist is hoping for? All the fans of literature in translation must be thrilled to see that supporting translation through prizes really works. The winning book found many new readers, first abroad and then at home.

These English-language prizes drew much of their inspiration, after all, from another place where prizes connect books to large audiences: France. There the prize landscape is crowded with over two hundred national awards. The most prestigious among them, the Goncourt, Femina, Médicis, Renaudot, and Interallié prizes are consistently linked to large increases in book sales for the winner. Goncourt winners range from Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir to Marguerite Duras and Patrick Chamoiseau, so it conveys tremendous prestige.

In 1968, Tom Maschler, then working for the publisher Jonathan Cape, was inspired not just by the Goncourt’s renown, but also by its commercial impact when he helped create the Booker Prize. The German Book Prize, created in 2005, also took its cue from the Goncourt, and it’s hard to imagine any publisher seeing the Goncourt’s sales impact and not longing for a chance at that lottery ticket. Winning a Goncourt means moving into bestseller territory, with an increase in sales in the range of 200–300,000 copies, while the Femina, Médicis, Renaudot, and Interallié can mean the difference between selling 10,000 copies and selling 100,000. To put that in perspective, a successful literary novel in the U.S. might sell 10–15,000 copies over several years, and if sales climbed to 25,000, it would be a stunning achievement.

Since the Goncourt’s spectacularly reliable sales boost seems to have inspired some influential imitators, it is worth examining this model prize more closely. As in most competitions, publishers submit the books, and it is a small subset of these publishers whose authors win the top prizes year after year. In fact, more than a third of all the winners of the Goncourt since 1903 were published by Gallimard, followed by those from the houses of Grasset, Seuil, and Albin Michel. The narrowness of the Goncourt world has even helped spur the creation of new French literary prizes. The Prix Femina, with its jury of women, was created in 1904, just a year after the Goncourt, as a reaction to the Goncourt’s all-male judges. A more recent category of the Goncourt is chosen by high school students, the Goncourt des lycéens. Still, if the Goncourt example primarily shows how prizes can boost sales, it raises troubling questions.

Prizes may be good for publishing, but are they equally good for all authors and translators? In practice, a prize seemingly open to all good writing may in reality be moderated by gatekeepers—not only those on the prize committee but also the few bit publishers who have sway. When critics think about inclusion, they usually point to the winning authors: how many women, how many people of color, and so on. Discussions of inclusion rarely focus on publishers. And given the concentration of literary publishing among a few giant publishing firms, that’s worrying. If you pay attention to the submission guidelines for the Man Booker, for instance, it turns out that the rules favor the giants of publishing who can submit books from all of their small imprints. Stevie Marsden noted: “Of the seventy-five books longlisted between 2010 and 2015, twenty-three came from imprints from Penguin and Random House.” Surely, we don’t think that a handful of editors, mainly in New York, just happen to select the very best books every time.

But if longlists and shortlists get readers excited about new books, and particularly about books from outside of their own borders, maybe we shouldn’t worry so much. Publishing is not based on fairness, and as readers presumably enjoy the prize-winning novels they buy, shouldn’t we just celebrate the winners and enjoy the fun? Well, if readers want to hear voices from around the globe and discover books unlike what they’ve read before, they shouldn’t be so quick to join the party.

First, prestigious national prizes bring the kind of recognition that helps convince publishers to take a chance on a translation. If a book cannot win a prize at home, it hurts its chances of being translated and thus recognized internationally. Of course, the decision to publish a translation depends on many factors, not just prizes. Still, for books that aren’t selling lots of copies with a major publisher already, prizes carry weight. American publishers of translated literature who do not know much about writers from a particular country can at least see who won a prize. But what if the gatekeepers for national prizes aren’t the best judges of what readers in other countries want? What about dissenting voices, writers whose opinions and style get them pegged as troublemakers or oddballs at home? And what if our literary arts need an infusion of a different style, a different perspective, a different voice?

The author and translator Tim Parks has argued that novelists who don’t write in English—he cites European and Japanese examples—are now writing dull, featureless prose in order to have a better chance at being translated. Global literature, he asserts, is becoming more uniform and less interesting:

What seems doomed to disappear, or at least to risk neglect, is the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture, the sort of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really lives.

Parks may be right that many successful translated works have little sense of place and even less literary inventiveness. The only real surprise here is that it’s European writers who are feeling the pressure to seek approval from gatekeepers in another country and write novels with universal appeal, something that has been demanded of African writers for decades. But it makes more sense to locate the source of the problem not in the prose, as Parks does, but in the market. Parks worries that “in the global literary market there will be no place” for writers with local perspectives and distinctive voices. But there is no reason to suppose the actual number of unique literary voices will diminish. The market for literature is not literature; art is long and life is short, and shelf-life is even shorter. Too many prizes focus on the short term, the book that fits a category—why can’t the “best book” be a mystery or sci-fi?—, the book we can read and digest quickly. Reading along with the Man Booker longlist, or even following the Nobel Prize’s narrow recommendations, carries the risk of missing out on stranger, more puzzling, more difficult, and, perhaps, more interesting work.

That leads to a bigger question about access: who gets translated in the first place? Getting translated means getting access to the international stage and to prizes, and translation often depends on funding from national cultural organizations. According to the Translation Database maintained by Chad Post, managing editor of Three Percent, for the years 2008–2018, French dominates (1260 translations), followed at a distance by Spanish (868), then German (864). Japanese (290) is still far ahead of Chinese (227), and the three most-spoken languages of India: Hindi (10), Bengali (24), and Marathi (3) don’t exceed the total for Catalan (43) or come anything near the share of Icelandic (60). When most translated novels come from a few nations and languages, and the prizes keep our attention fixed on the same places, many books are shut out. How do you compete for attention without the powerful machinery of marketing and publicity employed by nations with well-financed prizes, a global network of cultural institutions, and a flourishing literary marketplace? In sporting competitions, we can accept that seventy-three nations have never won an Olympic medal. Maybe they’re just too small to have many athletes or do not have the resources to finance the best training facilities. We should not be so ready to overlook the great literature of nations who can’t or will not sponsor awards and promote their greatest artists.

What should readers do? For a start, look behind the prizes and think about whether they aim to create the kind of literary world you want to live in. Is it diverse, full of wild women and firebrands, alongside the smooth stylists? Does it celebrate great writing no matter who publishes or promotes it? The prize for African writing given out by Brittle Paper is a terrific model of accessibility: anyone can nominate and there are no fees. The Best Translated Book Award is a model of literary variety and transparency as the extensive long list allows the committee to highlight a larger number of titles for curious readers. Apart from following more diverse literary awards, you can also take the effort to get to know the small, independent publishers who take risks with translated novels (or ask your favorite indie bookstore for their recommendations) and start noticing where their books show up. Why read along with a prize committee that shuns them? Check out literary journals (yes, like Asymptote) that welcome writers from around the globe and don’t charge submission fees but are still smart and selective. There are also lots of exciting voices to be heard at World Literature Today and Words without Borders, just to name a few.

We should celebrate the best writers and yes, there should be prizes that support their work and put them in the spotlight. But we also need to look beyond the big prizes and see who isn’t even invited to the competition.

Maria Snyder is a translator of French and German, and specialist in the history of books and their readers.


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