The following piece was written by Ángel Gurría-Quintana, a freelance journalist, editor and translator. He is a regular contributor to the books pages of the Financial Times. His writing has also appeared in The Observer, The Economist, Prospect, The Paris Review and Brick. Ángel lives in Cambridge, U.K.
This piece of his was commissioned for a major British weekly publication but, for editorial reasons, did not make it into print. It’s a really good piece, and I thought it would be of interest to all of you for a variety of reasons.
And in addition to the legit reasons for running this, it’s also fun to run this the same day that we put up our new podcast, which includes Tom dissing on Philip Roth, the recipient of this year’s Man Booker International Award. If you haven’t been keeping up with all the Man Booker debacles, check out this article. Otherwise you may never know that the Man Booker International Prize is “now the world’s premier literary trophy, superior in fact to the Nobel.” Yep, learning new things everyday.
The winner of the Man International Booker Prize 2011 will be announced in Sydney on May 18th. Though still a relative newcomer to the world of literary awards –it is only in its fourth edition—the £60,000 prize has already acquired some heft. Unlike the Man Booker, given yearly to an outstanding work of fiction by a British, Irish or Commonwealth author, this biennial gong aims to celebrate “one writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage.”
Its organisers hope that such a global remit might eventually make MIBP a rival to the prestigious Nobel. But is this aspiration compromised by the rule that the award is given to an author writing fiction in English, or whose work is “generally available” in English language translations?
Australian writer and publisher Carmen Callil, one of this year’s judges, admits that the translation requirement can undermine the prize’s claim to rewarding the best of world literature. “There are many writers who haven’t been translated and who are very important. But we agreed that, to be considered for our list, authors needed to have at least three books in translation.”
Callil and her fellow judges, American rare-book dealer Rick Gekowski and South African novelist Justin Cartwright, drew up a list of 13 nominees. It includes previous contenders like Scottish writer James Kelman (his second nomination) and American Philip Roth (his third) alongside less obvious choices such as British children’s author Philip Pullman.
Among the finalists are eight authors who write in English and five who don’t. Most noteworthy was the inclusion of two Chinese novelists: Wang Anyi, author of The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, and Su Tong, author of Wives and Concubines, on which the film “Raise the Red Lantern” was based.
Despite the refreshing nod to Chinese literature, and the nomination of contenders like Spain’s Juan Goytisolo, the odds seem to be stacked against non-Anglophone authors. The only non-English speaking novelist to have won the prize (and the extra £15,000 given to a translator of his choice) was Albania’s Ismail Kadare, who bagged the inaugural edition in 2005. That year’s jury included English, Argentine and Iranian judges. Every jury since has been predominantly Anglophone. All three of this year’s judges are native English speakers.
So are non-Anglophone writers handicapped by their dependence on English language translators? They might be, says Ms Callil. “Arabic novelists, for instance, have a tremendous disadvantage –they write in an overblown poetic style, too rich, better suited to French translation than to English.” Only one author writing in Arabic, Naguib Mahfouz, has ever been considered for the MIBP.
The appearance of two Chinese authors on this year’s list of finalists is surprising not least because of the particular challenges posed by Chinese literature in translation. Julia Lovell, a lecturer, translator and author of The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature, says that there are obstacles to the international success of Chinese literature. Some are stylistic: “Any national literature embodies its own set of ideas about language. Chinese literature has a different attitude to plot development, to sentimentality, to how jokes are set up. A Chinese text sometimes tolerates a use of repetition that doesn’t work in English.”
Other obstacles have to do with differing literary traditions. Modern Chinese authors often excel at writing short stories and novellas. But there is a growing pressure on them to produce novels. This often leads to sprawling works, not helped by what Ms Lovell calls a “confusion of editorial standards”.
Cultural critic John Carey, who chaired the jury of the IMBP in 2005, confesses that he found some cultural nuances insurmountable. “I was completely out of my depth with Japanese writers, for instance. It’s a whole different set of assumptions. You can’t get around that problem as a judge.”
Nicky Harman, a translator of Chinese fiction, non-fiction & poetry, does not think that such differences should necessarily obstruct a novel’s appreciation. “I believe that readers can get used to new ways of writing—after all, reading Tolstoy a hundred years ago must have been a new experience for Western readers. Good writing, well translated, will overcome cultural barriers.”
A more common complaint about Chinese literature in translation is that much of it is done by academic presses. “Contemporary Chinese texts often need some editing, but it isn’t always easy to do this if they’re published academically,” Ms Lovell says. Ms Callil goes further: “What is wrong with translations from the Chinese is that so many of them are written by American academics, in a jarring American English. I ignored it, but it is off-putting.”
This raises the question of what the judges are judging when they read foreign literature—the author or the translator? “Of course a translator can make a huge difference,” says Mr Carey. “A gifted and inventive translator is more likely to appeal to the judges.”
Ultimately, he believes, it boils down to the original text. “You can’t tell literary quality in translation if by quality you mean style. But if by literary quality you mean ideas—then yes. Words and images can be translated, but if a writer has non-trivial ideas, they shine through. The greatness of Mann, Flaubert or Dostoyevsky comes across in translation. This can be true for contemporary writers, too.”
It is a well known and often cited fact that only some 3% of all fiction published in the English-speaking world is translated from foreign languages. This is lamentable, especially when compared to the 30-40% of translated works published in some European countries. By drawing readers’ attentions to authors writing in Chinese, Italian, Spanish or French, the judges of the 2011 IMBP may be helping to redress that embarrassing imbalance—even if, in the end, they plump for a more familiar Anglophone writer.
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