Against the overwhelmingly bleak landscape of world news, this year seems to have been a remarkably successful one for world literature. Despite the Nobel Prize for Literature going to an Anglophone American lyricist, major literary headlines were made by authors like Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard, who are known to their readers primarily in translation. Prizes like the Man Booker International and the FT’s Emerging Voices Award also brought other writers, like Han Kang and Eka Kurniawan, to new, international prominence. In the UK, the Guardian reported in May 2016 that sales of translated fiction had nearly doubled since January 2001, even as the wider fiction market shrank, and that translated literary titles, in particular, were outperforming books written in English.
These trends were, perhaps, less of a surprise to translators. Many have spoken of their craft as a practice of linguistic, political, and imaginative resistance, a means of striking a defiantly cosmopolitan note in the face of widespread conservatism. After all, translation affirms – paradoxically – that our differences are here to stay, but that mutual understanding is nonetheless possible. In David Shook’s words, it is the translator’s task to champion ‘both the daunting opaqueness and the searing clarity’ of language. At this point in history, it may be because the world seems to be turning inwards that writers, translators, and readers are turning to texts which have crossed borders: linguistic, cultural, or otherwise.
Drawn partly by these ideals, and partly out of personal curiosity, I too clambered aboard the proverbial bandwagon. In early 2016, I joined the team at Asymptote (a dynamic journal of world literature) as an executive assistant, and was swiftly introduced to the hours of painstaking work required to commission, publish, review, and promote each piece of literature in translation. At around the same time, I started seeking out discussions and readings of translated literature, and was lucky to find a packed calendar of them in Oxford’s colleges and cafes. Later in the year, I translated my first poems, and received unexpected praise from unlikely quarters; I also found, in the process, a lively community of translators who had few qualms about taking another confused newcomer under their wing.
I found myself, in late November, attending a panel discussion on ‘The Politics of Prizing Translation’, which promised to answer some of these questions. It was hard to imagine a more qualified panel for the question at hand: Professor Adriana Jacobs, who led the discussion, had previously judged the National Translation Award and the Risa Domb/Porjes Translation Prize, while her co-panellist, Professor Elleke Boehmer, is Director of The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH) and a former judge of the Man Booker International Prize. The two professors were joined by Deborah Smith, winner of this year’s Man Booker International for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, a poetry judge for the 2016 Best Translated Book Awards, and founder of Tilted Axis Press – a non-profit dedicated to publishing literature translated from Asian languages.
Jacobs began by presenting her reflections on translation prizes in general, and her own experience as a judge. In her view, although such prizes brought their predominantly non-Anglophone winners the critical ‘gift of translatability’ (often by nudging reluctant publishers into supporting work from outside their own linguistic worlds), they also bought into the ‘celebrity-driven dynamic of a wider cultural market’, privileging particular tastes and undervaluing others. In addition, prizes for published work risked concentrating attention on texts which had already cleared the barriers to print, diverting resources from the frequently unpaid work of publishers, translators, and advocates, and obscuring the heavily grant-dependent nature of new translation projects. As a judge, she herself had struggled with the burden of cultural advocacy: the disproportionate power of a prize to boost sales (or seed new projects) seemed to carry the corresponding obligation to recognize work from under-represented languages, regions, or communities. To quote Carmen Callil, who quit as judge of the Man Booker International in 2011 after her colleagues chose to award the £60,000 prize to American novelist Philip Roth, judges have a responsibility to ‘search out and value other voices’.
Many of Jacobs’ observations resonated with Boehmer. As a judge of the Man Booker International in 2015, she was highly conscious of the prize’s ‘signalling effect’: after months of deliberation, the panel included only two Anglophone writers on the shortlist, Amitav Ghosh and Fanny Howe, and awarded the top honour to Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai. That year, she recalled, the panel was led by Marina Warner, who repeatedly urged her colleagues to ‘sidestep commercial influences’ and choose an author – from any language – whose whole body of work succeeded in the ‘poignant rendering of a particular world’. However, new rules were subsequently introduced for this year’s prize which limited consideration to a single translated book, published within the previous year, and nominated by its publisher. Though these guidelines ‘gave a structure and system’ to what had previously confronted each judging panel as ‘an embarrassment of riches’, one could not help but conclude (as Boehmer did) that something about the flexible and multi-dimensional process had also been lost.
Finally, as a publisher herself, Smith brought an intriguing counterpoint to the discussion. While critics might see publishers as introducing commercial distortions to the literary scene, she argued, behind-the-scenes decisions on selecting and supporting translations were often more complex. The impetus to push something ‘different’ had to be squared with pragmatic considerations of what might emerge as a ‘prize book’, especially given that prize-winners in translation would form many Anglophone readers’ first impressions of a whole country or culture. Smith recounted her own surprise when The Vegetarian was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker: Human Acts, another novel by Han Kang that she translated, had also been eligible, and its magisterial treatment of national trauma (along with the fact that it had been a bestseller in South Korea) seemed – at the time – to make it a more likely pick. Beyond the qualities of individual texts, it was also challenging for publishers and translators alike to reconcile the contours of non-Anglophone traditions to Western institutions like the Man Booker, and an English-oriented translation market. Many UK publishers, for instance, would ‘prefer to wait for a novel’ from another language: but in Asian literatures especially, short fiction is accorded the greatest prestige.
Through their comments and anecdotes, all three panellists offered fresh viewpoints on the risks, rewards, and responsibilities of translation. They unearthed yet more questions, of course, than answers – but I’m beginning to sense that it’s in the very nature of translation to open up new tensions and possibilities. In one of many light-hearted moments during the discussion, the panellists concurred that the winning translation in any judging process was, more often than not, the product of a compromise between the opposing tastes of exhausted (albeit experienced) judges. At other times, it was possible for one judge to make a convincing case for a relatively progressive, under-appreciated, or experimental translation, and consequently sway their colleagues away from less adventurous options.
Much of the beauty in the project of translation, taken as a whole, resides in this: beyond essential qualities – fluency, fidelity, and the capacity to stand alone in the receiving language – there is no unifying standard for what makes a ‘perfect’ translation. The practice demands that readers remain open to differences of tone and interpretation, and allow themselves to be carried along by the capacity of one language to remake what is ultimately only apprehended imperfectly in another. And outside of the choices made by agents, publishers, journals, and judges, part of the burden falls on the reader to ‘search out and value other voices’. These are expectations which go against the tide that today’s readers will find themselves in. They are also why we have every reason to hope that world literature will continue to thrive in 2017.
Theophilus Kwek was placed Second in the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation 2016, and is Chief Executive Assistant at Asymptote. He is currently pursuing a MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, and serves as Features Editor at the Oxford Culture Review.