2013 Best Translated Book Award: Fiction Update
OK, now that ALTA is over and the new catalog doesn’t come out for two months, I have a bit of time to concentrate on this year’s Best Translated Book Awards. Over the next couple weeks I’ll be posting information about the fiction and poetry panelists, along with an updated list of all translations published in the U.S. this year. Also might highlight some of the books I think will be favorites, announce official dates for the announcements of the longlist, shortlist, and winners, etc.
(And at some point we’ll figure out how to update the official BTBA website. With E.J. gone to Berlin, we’re still getting a handle on some of these logistical things.)
First up, I wanted to provide a general update about the fiction award.
Just to recap for everyone’s benefit, here are the general rules for this competition:
- There’s no fee for entering books into this competition;
- As with the NBCC Awards, every “original” (more on that below) translation published in 2012 and distributed in the U.S. is eligible;
- Books published previously in the UK, but NOT distributed in America until 2012 ARE eligible;
- Books published by UK presses that HAVE U.S. distribution ARE eligible;
- “Original translations” are translations of books that HAVE NEVER been translated into English before. For example, a new translation of Kafka’s The Trial is INELIGIBLE because The Trial was already available to American readers in an English translation;
- Authors need not be living, and don’t have to attend the awards ceremony;
- The award is given to the best book in the best translation. We consider these two qualities to be inseparable. In other words, a great book with a shitty translation won’t win, and a shitty book that was spectacularly translated won’t win.
Right now, the nine judges are reading their way through all the books they’ve received this year, but to make everything easier on them, presses that want to ensure that their books are being considered for the award should send copies to
A certain press that will remain unnamed (but published more translations that any other over the past couple years, and probably receives more funding for “marketing” from foreign agencies than everyone else in the States combined . . . speculate as you will) recently expressed some dismay about the perceived “cost” of giving away “free books” to this many panelists, especially since they “haven’t won” the award in the past.
Before explaining why I think this is not just stupid, but damaging to book culture as a whole and a slap in the face to the translators this press claims to be concerned about, I want to reiterate that presses are welcome to submit PDF versions of the books to all of the panelists. It’s not preferred, but if a press is concerned about the costs of shipping their product to ten of the most adamant supporters of literature in translation in the United States, then they can save a few bucks and just email them
Now onto the rant: The “logic” behind “demurring” from sending books to the BTBA judges is totally insane. These are ten of the most supportive readers of international literature in the country—many of whom already receive this press’s books. (Sidenote: If a press has already sent a book to one of these reviewers, they don’t need to resend it. And feel free to email and check in before sending a duplicate.) If these reviewers and bookseller’s AREN’T already receiving this press’s books, where are they sending them? Have they decided that reading copies are an unnecessary expense?
As a publisher myself, I can say that the LEAST you can do for one of your books is send copies to readers who are likely to review or recommend these books. It’s not like there’s a ton of huge media outlets for experimental fiction in translation—presses depend on readers like these judges to help spread the word about their titles.
To claim that sending out ten review copies would “leave a smoking hole” in one’s budget is kind of absurd. What is the actual cost of this? In terms of cost accounting, the books themselves are valueless—the printing is a sunk cost, that’s already paid for, and copies that haven’t sold have no intrinsic value until a reader wants to buy them. So basically, the cost is about $20 for shipping these books by media mail to the ten panelists, and maybe an extra $10 for packaging materials. To get this straight, this press’s marketing budget can’t absorb $30 per title to ensure that these titles get serious consideration for one of the most prestigious awards for international literature? An award that would result in their author & translator receiving $5,000 apiece?
This is an award that was designed to benefit all of the translators and international authors whose books are published here in the States, and which tend to be underpromoted and overlooked. Our goal is to highlight the best books in translation as a way of creating a sort of “crib sheet” for readers out there looking to explore the world of literature outside of our linguistic boundaries. And I think we’ve done a damn good job of doing this. Looking back at the shortlisted titles, I’m impressed by just how awesome this collection of books is. And as relatively small as this might be in comparison to awards like the NBCC, NBA, Nobel Prize, I think it’s fantastic that the translators of these books get some recognition for the work that they’ve done. And it they win the $5,000, that’s even better.
The translation field is one that can be pretty lonely and disconnected, and can often leave you feeling unappreciated on the whole. It’s important that everyone involved in this—particularly publishers who are making their living off of the work of underpaid translators—do whatever they can to help raise the awareness of the great books that came out last year, and the people who made these possible. As cheesy as it sounds, I truly believe that every non-profit (or for profit) who has titles eligible for this award should put aside their differences to help make this award as impactful as it can be. It’s a step in the right direction for literature in translation, and to try and undermine it because of personal grudges or “marketing budgets” is small and pathetic.