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Awards Recognize Excellence For Books in Translation

By David Varno

It's interesting, in the backstretch of the book awards season, to consider a book's merit in multiple phases. There's the book itself, as created by the author and chosen by the publisher, and then there's the translation, which gives the book new life and additional criteria for judgment. The second annual Best Translated Book Awards, which took place this year for the first time in public, according to organizer Chad Post (last year they were posted on his blog, Three Percent), were actually given to the books' publishers, not the translators, which suggests that the award choices were based on the merit of the original books themselves, and on the good faith of their publishers.

The ceremony was held at the Melville House bookstore last night in DUMBO, just after the temperature dropped significantly and the wind blew heavy up from the narrows. The reception carried on for almost two hours before any public addresses were made, and so the crowd was allowed to grow and drink and become familiar and excited. The threads of common interest and collaboration elevated the room beyond typical literary celebrations. Melville House publisher Dennis Loy Johnson was proud to point out in his introduction that the awards would be given in íthe nation's only all-independent bookstoreë—a status that he said has gone unchallenged since he gave the quote to PW Daily a little while before. He went on to explain how he felt it was the most proper setting for the recognition of books in translation, so often hidden each year from the major awards lists behind íthat lonely Graywolf title.ë Judges and nominators included editors, reviewers and booksellers at an international level, and Post enthusiastically stated that the public recognition of books in translation was an opportunity to do something positive for the market, and celebrate the work that is coming out rather than continue to bemoan the tiny amount of literature published in English translation.

Host Francisco Goldman's initial remarks echoed this, as he said that we're witnessing an era of heightened interest in translated books, and that it will be exciting to watch where it goes. He said it was interesting for him to host, because he's not exactly a translator, and that it made him relive an experience from earlier in his career, when he was asked by Playboy fiction editor Alice Turner to translate two Marquez stories. íThis was in that period between Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman,ë he said, "where there wasn't really a translator for Marquez, and they'd had somebody—who knows who it was—do the stories, and the result was so bad that they wondered if Marquez had simply lost his touch. But they were great stories.ë He went on to explain that he was successful because he simply copied the style of Rabassa, and admitted that had there not been a previous example of Marquez's text in English, he wouldn't have been able to pull it off. The point was simple: as publishers, editors, or readers, we are in debt to translators themselves.

Goldman furthered the casual discussion, fueled by lots of laughs and a few shout-outs, by reading a short note from translator and scholar Esther Allen, and then by reading from Borges's writings on the many translators of 1001 Nights. When he announced the finalists, the excitement grew intense. Most of the books were from independent presses. Black Widow and Ugly Duckling took half of the poetry list, while New Directions, Archipelago and New York Review Books represented most of the fiction choices (see complete list). The major titles were all from FSG, including 2666, the Mayakovsky book, and Polish poet Adam Zagajewski's collection. It was refreshing that the awards went to smaller indie titles (results posted last night on our Twitter), but the fact that the poetry winner, Takashi Hiraide's For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut (New Directions) had a print run of only 1,000 raises some questions. Poetry is already a hard sell, but still it's difficult to understand how such a well-deserving and accessible book, translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu, can't find more of a market before going to press. Is the problem its foreignness? Or because it's not the original text? Both?

The fiction winner was Tranquility, by Attila Bartis (Archipelago), translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein). Jeff Waxman's review of the novel for Three Percent praised Bartis's brave work of realism and noted the deeply realized protagonist.

When publisher Jill Schoolman excitedly accepted the trophy, she was happy to exalt that íwe put our translator's name on the COVER!ë

Published Feb 20, 2009   Copyright 2009 David Varno

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