November 18, 2014

Bring back the National Book Award for Translation!


The National Book Awards were given out on Sunday in a very long ceremony.

Books in translation deserve this award!

In 1980, Julia Child won a National Book Award for Current Interest for a cookbook called Julia Child and More Company. Seven years earlier, George B. Schaller had won a National Book Award for Sciences, for The Serengeti Lion: A Study of Predator-Prey Relations. And thirty-six years before that, the National Book Award for Most Original Book was claimed by Carl Crow, for his book Four Hundred Million Customers: The Experiences—Some Happy, Some Sad, of an American Living in China, and What They Taught Him.

These books have one thing in common: they were all awarded prizes that no longer exist.

* * *

The National Book Awards are something of a stable entity: save for the introduction of the longlists in 2013, the awards have remained unchanged since the mid-1990s. This stability is surely key to the awards’ prestige: that one can receive the same prize won by Flannery O’Connor or William Carlos Williams or Ralph Ellison is significant in and of itself, and if the awards’ categories and definitions were always in flux, their impact would likely be more modest.

But not that long ago, flux was the norm. In 1980, the National Book Awards were replaced by The American Book Awards, which promised to bring the prizes to the masses. At the rebranded awards’ first ceremony (co-hosted by William F. Buckley), thirty-four prizes were given out in twenty-one categories. This was twenty-seven more prizes than had been given out the year before, and in most categories there were separate recipients for hardcover and paperback. Book design, cover design, and jacket design were all distinct categories.

The backlash against the new awards began before they were handed out. Many writers protested the shift toward Academy Awards-style voting and the profusion of new categories, and the ceremony itself was a bloated, mismanaged disaster. The following year, the American Book Awards lost their definite article (TABA reminded everyone of soda), and soon after, it began to shed categories. Craig Fehrman’s entertaining 2011 essay in the New York Times Book Review tells the whole sordid story, but perhaps more revealing is this line from the National Book Foundation’s official history on its website: “With its expanded scope, it soon became obvious that so many categories diffused the Awards’ impact.” True, perhaps, but it’s also a little tightly wound, which, of course, is precisely the point.

By the mid-eighties, nearly all of the American Book Awards’ categories had been thrown overboard. Everything that had been introduced in 1980 was gone—no more Current Interest, First Novel, or General Reference—and so were most of the categories that had been around before the American Book Awards had shaken things up: Biography and Autobiography, History, Contemporary Thought, Poetry, Children’s Literature (these last two would return), and Translation. The way to redress the excesses of the American Book Awards was to make the National Book Awards smaller and more modest than they’d ever been. In 1986, only two awards remained: Fiction and Nonfiction.

Any elite organization is likely to be protective of its history, especially after a painful period of self-correction. So it’s not surprising that the National Book Foundation would cast its experiment with a more populist format in a negative light. Still, it seems clear that in the mid-1980s, the National Book Awards streamlined too aggressively. Abandoning all but two (and later four) categories meant giving up a chance to evaluate a wider range of books, and thus abandoning the opportunity for relevance across a broader set of genres. There must surely be a difference between “diffusing the awards’ impact” and diminishing it altogether, just as there’s a middle ground between four and twenty-one categories.

* * * 

The United States has an absurdly large number and variety of book awards, most of which you (and I) have never heard of: state prizes, regional prizes, mid-career prizes, academic prizes. America’s book awards may not be as flashy as Britain’s, where everything from the Samuel Johnson Prize to the Baileys Prize gets massive media attention, but it’s an enormous landscape, if you know where to look.

But that’s the problem: not enough people know where to look—and even those that know usually aren’t looking. For all the spectacular diversity of these awards, their direct impact on book buyers tends to be minor. I’m sure that there are readers who seek out every winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and every honoree of the University of Georgia’s Lillian Smith Award (both fine awards!), but book prizes tend to have an insular reach. They mean something to many people, of course—just not, usually, to consumers.

But the National Book Awards are different. While their sales impact isn’t always huge, there’s no doubt that the awards get noticed. Other than the Pulitzers (which also honor journalism, music, drama, and commentary), the National Book Awards are probably the only awards that resonate with a large group of readers who have no professional affiliation with publishing or bookselling. The finalists are announced on national television or radio, and the winners receive significant media attention. The awards may not be as influential as the Booker, but they’re the closest thing we’ve got.

* * *

The purpose of book awards has been discussed, argued over, and litigated endlessly, and the debate is unlikely to stop as long as there are awards left to bestow, and books to bestow them on. Should prizes strive for critical unanimity and honor aging masters? Or should they bring attention to the young and the obscure, no matter how controversial the winner might be?

Even the most staid, conservative book award constitutes a kind of cultural activism—the older and more prestigious the award, the more consequential its selection. A major award is an act of canonization, and though in 2014, the idea of a canon seems atavistic, it’s surely the case that book club leaders, librarians, teachers, booksellers, and Big Reads coordinators often take their cues from big prizes. This seems unlikely to change—at least until the arrival of the glorious, horizontal self-publishing future Amazon and its acolytes are so keen to institute.

So with all this in mind, a proposal: the National Book Foundation should revive an award it should never have abandoned in the first place—an award that recognizes a category of books unusually sensitive to precisely this kind of recognition. Which is to say: bring back the National Book Award for Translation!

* * *

The National Book Award for Translation was first given out in 1967. That year, there were two winners: Gregory Rabassa, for his translation of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, and Willard Trask, for his translation of Casanova’s History of My Life. Over the next fifteen years, the prizes would be awarded to heroic translators such as Ralph Manheim, Helen R. Lane, and Richard Howard, in recognition of their work on books by writers as diverse in style as Céline, Paz, Baudelaire, and many others.

Did the Awards miss some big names and future classics? Undoubtedly. Were more radical books overlooked on behalf of canonical works by long-dead writers? Certainly. Was anything close to gender, racial, and/or ethnic parity among the winners achieved? Absolutely not. Yet taken together, the twenty-three awards given out between 1967 and 1983 offer a remarkable tribute to the craft of literary translation, and to the primacy of brilliant books whose only liability—such as it was—was their language of origin.

The prize was a model of award-as-activism: its administrators leveraged the National Book Awards’ clout in service of a category of literature that desperately needed popular attention and validation.

This is not to suggest that the National Book Awards deserve all of the credit for bringing these books, authors, and translators to a national audience. A book’s path to recognition is rarely straightforward, and its broader longevity depends on the long-term enthusiasm of an extraordinary variety of readers.

It’s also true that nothing is as important to the success of literature in translation as the publication of more literature in translation—hence the most infamous percentage in publishing: 3%. But upping this percentage isn’t enough. I’m not one to doubt readers’ inherent radicalism or open-mindedness (my job depends on believing in these very things!), but I’m confident that we won’t get far without an emphasis on promotion as robust as our emphasis on publication.

Anyone who cares about great literature should be invested in the greater prominence of what critic and novelist Christopher Beha has called “holy crap fiction,” to which I would add “holy crap nonfiction.” In a piece in Slate, Beha defined holy crap fiction as “Books that one doesn’t know how to read, books that challenge our ideas about what fiction is supposed to be doing, are more interesting to talk and think about.” Beha wasn’t talking about literature in translation, but he might as well have been. After all, some of the most unusual, ambitious, and audacious books to have appeared on American shelves in the last decade—or any decade—have been written in a language other than English. The next decade won’t be any different. We should support holy crap books and fight for their visibility, and this means fighting for the visibility of books from non-English-speaking countries.

A big award won’t unilaterally change our reading habits; nor will it restore us to an era when print runs for translated books could run to the hundreds of thousands. But writers, translators, and publishers of literature in translation deserve much more recognition than they receive. America has a number of outstanding awards for translated books, and translators themselves are fantastic advocates for their work—Susan Bernofsky’s blog Translationista is but one of many examples of this advocacy. But why shouldn’t this great and growing ecosystem include the nation’s most prestigious book award? If we care about the success of translated fiction and nonfiction, a major award must be one of the tools we have at our disposal.

That the award has a direct precedent should only make its reinstatement more self-evident. For all of the National Book Foundation’s anxieties about quantity diffusing the awards’ impact, the recent introduction of the longlists suggests that the Foundation isn’t opposed to casting a wider net. It’s time to cast it wider still. The mismatch between quality and recognition in the world of translated fiction and nonfiction is surely more extreme than in any category of literature, and while this category has a growing number of great advocates, it deserves to have them at the highest level. The National Book Award for Translation won’t solve the 3% problem, and it won’t singlehandedly redirect our literary affinities. But it’ll help.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.