Founded in 2016, The Man Booker International Prize exists to spread fiction in translation to worldwide audience. The Man Booker Prize itself, established several decades earlier in 1969, “guarantees a worldwide readership” and an enormous spike in book sales; the international version aims to offer the same visibility to an international author whose work may otherwise remain lodged behind the language barrier—tragically inaccessible to the general populace. The Man Booker International Prize aims to change that.
Given the nature of the award, its winners are inherently diverse: drawn from throughout the world and writing in languages that may be less accessible to a Western audience. While some nominees are from Western Europe and South America, many are also from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Asia, regions whose languages are not taught as frequently in Western schools. The publicity surrounding this prestigious award typically grants its winner an international readership whose value cannot be understated—for instance, a novel written in Polish, a less widely-spoken language, may have an incredibly limited audience regardless of the quality of writing. Poland also has a lower population density than a larger country like China, further limiting the market of possible buyers.
This year in particular, the award’s diversity is more than a matter of geography. Women comprise eight of thirteen longlisted nominees, and all but two books are small press publications. In the age of self-publishing and indie bookstores—an age of increasing ability to shirk the confines of tradition—these nominations are deeply reflective of the increasingly diverse (and increasingly individualized!) nature of publishing. Of course, it’s a matter of geography as well—translated languages include Polish, Spanish, Korean, Arabic, French, German, Chinese, Swedish, and Dutch.
This year, the group of five judges is comprised entirely of women and people of color (though no women of color), each a respected academic or writer. The full list of nominees is now available; the shortlist is anticipated for April 9th. In the award’s tradition of respecting translation as an art form, both the author and translator will receive an even half of the £50,000 prize.
A fixture of the literary world since 1950, the National Book award honors the strongest writing in America. Qualifications necessary to win the award are simple: the book has to have been published no earlier than December 1st of the previous year, and the author must be a U.S. citizen by any possible means. Then there’s the most important rule of all—it has to be the best. Judges have now announced this year’s five winners across five categories.
Fiction: The Friend
Sigrid Nunez has always been a literary heavy-hitter. A winner of the Whiting Writer’s Award, Berlin Prize Fellowship, and the Rome Prize in literature, Nunez has also been a professor at a veritable collection of top institutions—Columbia, Princeton, and The New School. The Friendwas one of the most-anticipated releases of 2018, topping Buzzfeed, Bustle, BookRiot, and PopSugar’s lists.
Nonfiction: The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke
Jeffrey C. Stewart‘s groundbreaking biography chronicles the life and influence of black intellectual Alain Locke, the oft-cited originator of the Harlem Renaissance. Locke’s achievements are innumerable, but historians can list more than a few—he became the first black Rhodes Scholar in 1907, earned a PhD from Harvard University, and quickly became the philosophy chair at Howard University. As a member of the homosexual community, Locke also embraced the progressive and avant-garde.
His anthology The New Negro, a collection of poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction, remains a landmark historical work. Biographer Stewart is also an impressive character—a Yale PhD recipient currently serving as a professor at University of California at Santa Barbara. He has also taught at Harvard University and Howard University. Stewart’s The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke uses newly-available primary sources and oral interviews to pay tribute to one of history’s greatest minds. Stewart also draws attention to thinkers academia often neglects—the gay and gender-nonconforming activists of the Harlem Renaissance.
Justin Phillip Reed‘s collection, Indecency, is as intimate as it is confrontational. Reed blends the political and personal in his exploration of sexuality, masculinity, and the prison-industrial complex. A graduate of the top-10 MFA program at the Washington University in St. Louis, Reed considers “any kind of history—especially concerning Black folks—to always be on the edge of being obliterated” in cities like his own St. Louis, with ‘progress’ often dismantling already-thriving communities of color.
The first winner of the Book Award’s newest category of Translated Literature, American-born Margaret Mitsutani has been living in Japan since the late 1970s. Mitsutani won the National Book Award for her translation of Yoko Tadawa‘s The Emissary, a satirical depiction of an isolationist Japan in the aftermath of unspecified nuclear catastrophe. Tokyo is a radioactive no-man’s-land, and society moves to outer cities like Osaka and Hokkaido, where the robust elderly occupy all government positions—a clear commentary on Japan’s declining birthrate.
Japan’s sealed borders further serve to comment on the sweeping populist and nationalist movements of recent years. Critics describe Mitsutani’s translation as “playful, powerful, and wise.”
Young Adult People’s Literature: The Poet X
Winning a National Book Award for her debut novel is hardly Elizabeth Acevedo‘s only significant accomplishment. As a National Poetry Slam Champion, Acevedo clearly conveys her passion and expert knowledge in prizewinning novel The Poet X. Xiomara Batista is an anomaly in her Harlem community, born to seriously advanced-in-years parents who tout her birth as the kind of miracle their religious devotion incurs—the kind of miracle Xiomara has never believed in. When the rules of religion silence Xiomara, she uses slam poetry to regain her voice.
The novel has a true poet’s touch: it contains three sections of verse, all with Biblical titles juxtaposing the structure of religion with Xiomara’s disbelief. Acevedo says that her experience as an eighth-grade teacher inspired her to write the novel. One Latina student said of contemporary literature: “These books aren’t about us. [These characters] don’t look like us… they don’t walk through the world like us. These ain’t our books.” Now, Acevedo has created a book that is.
Featured Image Via Vulture.com / Images Via Amazon.com
Most scholars believe that The Odyssey was written near the end of the 8th century, though it wasn’t translated into English until the early 1600’s. It’s only taken sixty translations into English and another four hundred years for it to finally be translated by a woman.
Emily Wilson, a professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, is that woman. The Odyssey has long been of interest to her. She first heard the story when she took on the role of Athena in a school play adapted from the story. When she was in high school, she started studying Greek and was able to read classical texts firsthand. Translating The Odyssey was a passion project for her long before she realized that she was the first woman to do so. In an interview with Bustle, she explained, “I wanted to do a translation that was going to have its own kind of music and have a regular meter, which most of the current translations don’t have.”
Image Via The Philadelphia Inquirer
Of course, that doesn’t mean that she didn’t take her role as the first woman to translate the text seriously. While The Odyssey primarily follows Odysseus, the story is full of female characters including goddesses, witches, princesses, slave girls, and even Odysseus’s own wife. According to Wilson, they don’t always put up with men’s double-standards. The goddess Calypso, for example, gets in trouble for keeping Odysseus as a lover, but Zeus gets away with this all the time, so Calypso calls him out on it. “I love that the poem is able to at least have that moment where a female character is totally powerful and totally able to say, ‘There’s a problem here, with how we’re doing this,'” Wilson said.
Image Via The Washington Post
Still, while some of the most powerful goddesses and monsters in the epic are female, Wilson did not shy away from including the inherent sexism from the original. Take, for instance, when Odysseus returns home and orders all the slave women who had sex with his wife’s suitors be killed. These women don’t personally pose a threat to Odysseus, but rather than let them live and unwittingly remind him of how he almost lost his wife and his kingdom, he wants them dead.
Wilson believes that as a female translator, she is more uncomfortable with the text than previous translators, but she appreciates this fact and hopes that readers will be equally uncomfortable with the inequalities presented in the book. According to Vox, she wanted to make these aspects of the story more visible instead of glossing over them. Ultimately, her translation is meant to be a reflection of how far we’ve progressed in the centuries since the original was written down, but also a reflection of how much things have stayed the same.
Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey is available now, and you can find it on Amazon here.
The Icelandic version of Bram Stoker’s famed novel Dracula was published only a couple of years after the original English version, however it was not until 2014 that it was discovered that it was not, in fact, the same book.
Makt Myrkranna, directly translating to Powers of Darkness, was translated very soon after the original English version was published in 1897. However, over 100 years later, it was discovered that Valdimar Ásmundsson’s ‘translation’ was rather different from Stoker’s.
Dutch author and historian Hans Corneel de Roos, who himself translated the text back into English, wrote for Lithub that “literary researcher Richard Dalby reported on the 1901 Icelandic edition and on its preface, apparently written specifically for it by Stoker himself.” This sparked interest in Powers of Darkness. While Dracula scholars had known about the Icelandic version since 1986, no one had translated it back into English, and, though Dalby’s report sparked interest, it was still assumed the text was merely an abridged version of Stoker’s original.
As de Roos worked on the translation, patterns emerged: many of the characters had different names, the text was shorter and had a different structure, and it was markedly sexier than the English version, he writes.
De Roos notes that actually, Powers of Darkness is better than the original.
Although Dracula received positive reviews in most newspapers of the day…the original novel can be tedious and meandering….Powers of Darkness, by contrast, is written in a concise, punchy style; each scene adds to the progress of the plot.
It seems insane that these drastic changes lay undiscovered in the Icelandic version until so recently, but upon publication of the English translation of Makt Myrkranna, a Swedish scholar revealed that there was actually an 1899 Swedish version of Makt Myrkranna, which had been serialized in the Swedish newspapers Dagen and Aftonbladet. However, as with the Icelandic version, no English speaking Dracula scholars had paid any attention to it, and therefore their extreme similarities were overlooked. Scholar Rickard Berghorn realized that this older Swedish version had an identical title Mörkrets Makter, and on further inspection, it was discovered that the Swedish text contained scenes that weren’t in Dracula or Makt Myrkranna. This is a lot for a Tuesday and is making my brain hurt.
2. Smilla’s Sense of Snow and Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow are the same book by Peter Høeg, however as the book was originally written in Danish, the titles vary due to different translations. A film adaptation starring Julia Ormond and Gabriel Byrne used the former title.
3. Northern Lights and The Golden Compass are the two titles for the first of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. A frankly awful film adaptation was made under the title The Golden Compass, which hugely simplified the plot and was, in my opinion, an affront to the books and all who love them.
4. The Lonely Girl and Girl With Green Eyes both refer to the second of Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls trilogy. When the first of the series was published in Ireland in 1960, it was banned for its frank depictions of female sexuality. Her family’s parish priest openly burned copies of the novel, which is credited with opening up the dialogue surrounding sexuality and women’s rights in Ireland at the time.
6.Little Bee and The Other Hand are the two titles given to Chris Cleave’s novel about a Nigerian asylum seeker and a British magazine editor. A film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman is in the works.
Via Amazon and Goodreads
7.Anne of Windy Willows and Anne of Windy Poplars are the British and North American/Canadian titles for the fourth book in Lucy Maude Montgomery’s beloved Anne of Green Gables series, in which Anne is a teacher and writing letters to her fiance Gilbert. You may remember Gilbert as the boy who called her ‘carrots’ when she first came to Avonlea. Young love.
Via Amazon and Goodreads
8.Down Under and In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson are the titles of his book about Australia. The phrase In a Sunburned Country is taken from the Australian poem My Country by Dorothea MacKellar.
9. Schindler’s Ark and Schindler’s List are the British and American titles of Thomas Keneally’s World War II novel, which was later adapted into the hugely successful Steven Spielberg film starring Liam Neeson.