Man Booker Prize

Celebration of translation: the Man Booker International Prize

On 16 May, Han Kang and her English translator Deborah Smith were announced the winners of the Man Booker International Prize for the book The Vegetarian. Originally written in Korean, The Vegetarian triumphed over an impressive shortlist featuring books by Orhan Pamuk, Elena Ferrante and Robert Seethaler.

Prize now focuses exclusively on translations

When the Man Booker International Prize was established in 2005, it still considered original English-language fiction, honoring renowned authors such as Philip Roth and Alice Munro. However, the award has been revamped this year to provide special recognition to works in translation, and is now granted to a single book in English translation annually. The reward money of GBP 50,000 is split equally between author and translator.

Literature in English translation often overlooked

Despite the fact that translation is crucial to both the dissemination and reception of world literature, it is a process that often remains unacknowledged. With only 2-3% of books published in the US and UK each year stemming from languages other than English (in contrast to much higher rates of translated fiction in other countries such as Germany and Poland), it’s easy to argue that both literary translation and the translators themselves have long been underappreciated.

However, all that seems to be changing. The Vegetarian is just the latest in a series of high-profile translations that have been dominating the literary scene in the past few years. From Susan Bernofsky’s recent translation of The Metamorphosis to Ann Goldstein’s acclaimed translations of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, translators are now garnering the kind of praise once only accorded to authors themselves.

Recognition for literary translators

Indeed, translators’ stories about how they arrived at a particular author or text are often as interesting as the stories they translate. Such is the case with Smith, who knew no language besides English until the age of 21 and yet decided to become a literary translator upon finishing her degree. She started learning Korean in 2010 based on the lack of Korean into English translators, and at 28 has founded a non-profit publishing house called Tilted Axis Press, which focuses on translated literature from Asia.

Ann Goldstein’s path towards translation is equally fascinating. An editor at The New Yorker, she began learning Italian in 1987 – in her late 30s – when the magazine recruited an Italian tutor to come to the office each week as part of an initiative to read Dante’s Divine Comedy in its original language. While Ferrante’s books have become wildly successful internationally, the author herself has decided to remain anonymous, making Goldstein the face behind bestsellers like My Brilliant Friend for English readers.

More languages, more readers

Smith’s publishing house and the critical success of The Vegetarian represent another important shift in literary translation: the publication of books from a broader range of source languages. While translation into English long focused on ‘core’ European languages such as German, French or Russian, this year’s longlist for the Man Booker International Prize included works from South Korea and Indonesia. Furthermore, a recent study shows that translated literature now sells better in the UK than books originally written in English. Given the current excitement about literary translation indicated by the Man Booker International Prize, large publishers should start to take notice of both foreign-language books and those that translate them.

Picture: The Express Tribune


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