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Lisa Lucas on the National Book Award for Translated Literature

By Words Without Borders

The National Book Foundation recently announced the addition of a National Book Award for Translated Literature. Joining the awards in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature, this fifth award will honor a work of fiction or nonfiction that has been translated into English and published in the US.

We spoke with Lisa Lucas, executive director at the National Book Foundation, about the establishment of the new award and the importance of celebrating literature in translation and promoting a broader readership for it.


Words Without Borders (WWB): This is the first time the National Book Foundation has added an award in two decades. How did the decision to establish the National Book Award for Translated Literature come about?

Lisa Lucas (LL): The National Book Awards have been around since 1950. It will be our sixty-ninth National Book Awards this year, and the awards have gone through all sorts of different iterations over the course of the years. If you look back, we gave out a translated literature prize for sixteen years—from 1967 to 1983. But we contracted in the late eighties and went back to two categories, fiction and nonfiction, and then slowly brought back in poetry and then young people’s literature and now translation.

But the way that it all came together was not under an institutional banner—it was the American Book Publishers Council and the American Booksellers Association that started this as an industry award that was designed to garner attention to sell books. Then in the late eighties we became a nonprofit organization. We became an institution. We were formalized. And I think that has given us an opportunity to not just say, “Oh, we might sell more books if we do this,” or “This might be really popular and people are going to be really excited about it,” but to actually look strategically at how you can make an impact on the support and celebration and defense of great literature. And that’s an inexact art. But when you look at the four categories—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people’s literature—what’s missing is the rest of the world. 

If we believe strongly that translated work should be read and we believe strongly in the expansion of the American audience for books, how in the world could we ignore that?

As a country we’re having so many conversations about immigration, about the world at large, about understanding one another. And there’s also the conversation that people in the translation community continue to have about the fact that three percent of work is translated in our market. We are obviously in a position politically and socially where it’s important for us to understand not only ourselves but the whole world. And we are culturally without the tools that we need to best understand that world. The National Book Foundation is an organization that is about the celebration of the best books in America and about expanding the audience for them. We want to connect readers and books. And so if we believe strongly that translated work should be read and we believe strongly in the expansion of the American audience for books, how in the world could we ignore that?


WWB: In addition to inspiring greater interest in translated literature in general, this award might also (as it does in other categories) bring national coverage to excellent translated works that perhaps aren’t getting as much notice. To that end, is the National Book Foundation planning to do direct outreach to the translation community and publishers of works in translation to encourage a broad pool of nominees?

LL: Absolutely. Just like in all of our categories, we want to see books from all over the country.  We want to see books from all different types of publishers, large and small. We want judges who are great readers and who are open to all kinds of work. And I think that making sure that we have those connections and that we are a part of that conversation is really important. It’s been really nice to hear from people we know in the translation community that people are excited about the award. We know a lot of people, but we don’t know everyone, and we’re excited to get to know and to collaborate with more people in the translation community who are doing this work.

Because there’s a lot of great work that’s already happening, and I think that that’s important to say as this award is announced. We hope that with the attention the award is getting, all boats rise. And we certainly don’t want to feel like we’ve swooped in and said, “We just decided to do this translated literature award because it seems trendy.” We want to actually help move the needle on the visibility of translated literature.


WWB: The National Book Foundation runs programming year round to promote reading culture. You often appear at book fairs, schools, and universities in conversation with award winners; and young readers receive books by and work with authors through the BookUp program. Will the NBF also create programming to promote the finalists and winners of this new award?

LL: Absolutely. We do all these programs—and we’ll be doing more programs—around the country to create new opportunities for people to connect with books. Because an award isn’t enough. You can give the National Book Award to whichever author wins it. But you still have to do the work of getting people to contextualize what that book is and why it’s interesting for a community to read. And I think that’s the same with translated literature as it is with young people’s literature and nonfiction and fiction and poetry. We live in a world where people’s default isn’t to just read books. We know we have work to do in terms of developing the audience in all of these categories, none of which is more important than the other. This is a fifth and permanent prize, and so all the work that we do around young people’s literature, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, we’ll also be doing around translation.

And that creates partnership opportunities—it’s really exciting to think about how we can work and collaborate with the translation community beyond the actual submission process and awarding of honors. We’re learning from the other organizations and prizes that are out there. We’re learning from the conversations that are happening at places like Words Without Borders. We’re learning from everyone.

I think the more really thoughtful avenues that we can provide for the celebration and support of literature in translation, the more people may have an opportunity to connect with that literature.

WWB: The evaluation process for translated works involves its own unique complexities. To what extent might the National Book Foundation be taking cues from existing awards for translated literature in the selection of jurors, the review process, etc.?

LL: Well, the way our panels of judges work is that we pick writers and literary experts to judge the awards, but we do not give everybody a way through. We don’t say to the fiction panel, “This is what you’re looking for. This is what good National Book Award winners look like.” We don’t do any of that. We give them our basic guidelines—the things that make something eligible. We give them conflict of interest stuff. We let them know all of the logistics. And then they come up with a way through. Because we trust our judges. So will the people that are part of the panel be well-suited to coming up with a way through? Absolutely. It’s actually a very fun panel assembly process because you can pick a writer who’s a great reader, you can pick a translator, you can pick a bookseller—a whole variety of people who can have a conversation from different angles, which gets you to something really interesting. We have booksellers and critics and all sorts of folks on each of the panels.

And we’re sitting alongside other great translation awards that have been doing this work for a really long time, like the Best Translated Book Award—Chad Post has been running that prize for more than ten years. We’re also different from the other awards, however, just as we’re different from the Pulitzer, and I think the more really thoughtful avenues that we can provide for the celebration and support of literature in translation, the more people may have an opportunity to connect with that literature. So I’m excited about joining the already existing landscape and figuring out how, together, we can make even more noise.


WWB: As executive director of the National Book Foundation, you’ve been a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusivity in publishing, and for inspiring the next generations of readers. How is establishing this award for translation connected to those goals? 

LL: This is a country full of so many different kinds of people from so many different places. I think that translated literature helps us to be connected to the world as it really is, rather than our living some sort of siloed existence where we don’t acknowledge the rest of the world. I think that’s important in general. But it’s especially important for young people—so many of their parents are from other places, so many people from other countries have made their home here. And when they go into a bookstore, there should be something that reflects back their experience, that acknowledges them. And that acknowledges we are interested in that experience, that we are interested in the whole world. That it’s not just “America First.” It’s actually “Everywhere First.” The broader our literature is, the more the myriad of human experiences that can be reflected back through literature are made available to people, the better our options are, the more we will learn about ourselves and others, and the more equitable the landscape is.


Lisa Lucas is the executive director of the National Book Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, she served as the publisher of Guernica, a nonprofit online magazine focusing on writing that explores the intersection of art and politics with an international and diverse focus. Prior to that, she served as director of education at the Tribeca Film Institute, on the development team at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and as a consultant for the Sundance Institute, San Francisco Film Society, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and ReelWorks Teen Filmmaking. Lucas also serves on the literary council of the Brooklyn Book Festival. Find her on Twitter at @likaluca

Published Feb 6, 2018   Copyright 2018 Words Without Borders

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