The trouble with prizes and translation
(From Asymptote Journal. Link to the complete article given below)
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.