“Upgrading the status of translators, the prize upgrades the status of multilingualism. It also upgrades the status of translations. No longer merely derivations or adaptations of original works, translated editions will be assessed as works in their own right.”—Rebecca Walkowitz on the new Man Booker Prize for Translated Fiction
The following post is by Rebecca Walkowitz, author of Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature
Earlier this month, the organizers of the Man Booker International Prize announced that they are scrapping the old prize, recognizing the career of a single novelist working in any language, and launching a new prize for a single novel translated into English. So, next year, we’ll have the Man Booker Prize, which celebrates the best novel published in English and also written in English. And we’ll have the Man Booker International Prize, which celebrates the best novel published in English translated from another language. What are the consequences of this change?
The new International Prize is likely to increase the visibility of translated books. All but two of the past International Prize winners have been English-language novelists. That group is no longer eligible, so the Man Booker’s enormous publicity machine will be focused at least half the time on writers who work in other languages. Greater publicity for translated books, it is hoped, will lead to a greater number of readers for those books. Not simply celebrating excellent translations, the Man Booker organizers want to increase the number of foreign-language works contracted by UK publishers.
To be sure, the new Prize is a boon for “foreign” writers, by which they mean writers who use languages other than English. But the organizers also have local readers and local publishing houses in mind. They want English-language readers to have more translations to choose from because they believe that reading books from other languages will help British citizens compete with their more worldly European neighbors. In this sense, the new International Prize, for all its cosmopolitanism, also has nationalist motives: the education of English-only readers. Of course, it may be that reading novels in translation will lead some people to learn additional languages and to think about English as one language among many.
In my view, the new Prize is likely encourage that kind of thinking not because it rewards foreign books but because it rewards translators of foreign books. The prize money (£50,000) will be split evenly between authors and translators, who will share credit for the production of the translated work. Upgrading the status of translators, the prize upgrades the status of multilingualism. It also upgrades the status of translations. No longer merely derivations or adaptations of original works, translated editions will be assessed as works in their own right. Readers will be asked to notice (instead of forget) that the work they are reading was brought from another language.
Why would we want to recognize translations as literary works? For one thing, it allows us to consider that literary histories are multilingual histories and that a literary work can belong to more than one literary culture, sometimes at the same moment and sometimes at different moments. Histories of Anglophone literature should include works that are also part of other histories. The English novel has its source in many languages and has been adapted, translated, and incorporated into many additional languages. For this reason, many novelists and indeed some translators have sought to reject the distinction between translating and writing. We might think here of the various scales of multilingualism that operate in Junot Díaz’s fiction or of the English-to-English translation dramatized in Jamaica Kincaid’s work.
Keeping translations separate from originals, the Man Booker suggests that there are two kinds of English-language novels. There are the ones that begin in English. And then there are the ones that begin in another language and then move to English. Ontologically, this is not a meaningful distinction, as at least one other commentator has noted. Put another way, for the reader, there is no necessary difference between a translation into English and an original work in English. Both are made up of English words. Once they encounter Anglophone audiences, they do not lose their place in other literary cultures, but they become part of Anglophone literary culture as well.
A final question: from the perspective of production, what is “international” about a work produced in a language other than English? W.G. Sebald’s books were written in German while he was living in the UK. He may have been a foreign writer in some ways, having been born and raised in Germany, but surely he was a national writer, too. And this is true for many multilingual writers throughout the world, some of whom are migrants and some of whom have always used multiple languages in the same place. Distinguishing translations from originals, the Man Booker suggests that there is something “foreign” or “international” about a book that was written in a language other than English. If we are going to challenge the dominance of English, we have to begin by cultivating multilingualism at home and by learning about the multilingualism that operates within what appears to be monolingual fiction. That means learning more languages. It also means learning that translators play a role not only in novels that enter English but also in novels that leave English. Because they are written for translation as well as alongside translation, contemporary Anglophone fiction is international from the start. Reading books in translation can help us remember that.