Americans are debating their place in the world now more than ever and as we seek understanding we confront histories and ancient narratives with remarkably limited access to international sources written in a familiar language.
That in part may be because the American community of letters has no way of recognizing outstanding foreign literature that spans those cultures, and no way to confer celebrity on such risky subject matter published in the United States. Our top literature awards, the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, do not recognize works written by foreign authors or those published in translation. It is time to change this, for the benefit of all involved: for authors, publishers, translators and, above all, a public hungry to understand a complex world we cannot ignore.
Popularizing foreign subject matter before an American audience has little to do with content. Consider “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, a perpetual hang-glider on The New York Times Best-Seller List. “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nifisi was a sensation. Jhumpa Lahiri (a Pulitzer winner herself) remains popular as does Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” Clearly there is a market for foreign-themed literature.
But in this highly competitive arena, works in translation may gain critical distinction yet fail to break out into popular consciousness. The difference between these two classes of books is obvious. Hosseini, Lahiri and Nifisi write as fluent or native English speakers while foreign authors – the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk or the Egyptian writer Naguib Mafuz, for example – publish through translators. There is a qualitative difference lost in translation that has less to do with the complexities of interpretation than with it being a sort of hearsay. But more practically speaking, foreign writers trying to publish successfully in the United States simply bear the added burden of being labelled a translation. They are relegated to academic houses and niche prints, with limited promotion budgets and restricted distribution.
For translators the work is hard and limited to academics or those with great passion for foreign cultures and languages. The outcome of their labor is uncertain, as publishing houses are often more skeptical than the public. But we can make it easier to bring more authors and translators together with their audiences by raising their profile.
There is no better way to increase the prospects of a risky venture than the imprimatur of a major prize like the Pulitzer or the National Book Award. It is clear, for example, that the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to Orhan Pamuk widened interest in him personally and made translations of his entire corpus into English viable. But the American literature awards break open a market like no other.
A high-profile American award for books in English translation would raise the quality and quantity of translations, giving translators a great goal to aim for in taking on risky projects. And it would raise respect for the hard work of cultural interpretation for those who often live and work obscurely as bridges between civilizations.
The standing obstacle is that these awards go to American authors publishing in the United States. (In fact, the National Book Award had a citation for translations from 1967 through 1983 before radically scaling back its number of awards.) Obviously this is the primary obstruction for foreign writers seeking a higher American profile.
I would propose a new prize, awarded to a foreign work published in the United States by an American translator. To the usual literary standards I would add another: the quality of the translation. This would require more bilingual journalists and authors appointed to awards panels who are able to make the aesthetic judgment necessary of a work spanning different cultures.
All of this would fortify our intellectual culture, invigorate debate, and deepen understanding of parts of the world about which Americans are desperately curious. Reading headlines, hearing speeches or scanning policy tracts will never answer the fundamental questions about history, identity and culture that only literature can pose: Who are we? What is it like to be alive here and now? How are we different? How are we the same?
To avoid any conflict, I should indicate I do not intend to publish another translation. I spent four years attending a project important to me but which nonetheless had no certain outcome and consumed time and resources only to be passed over by trades and most academic houses due to one hurdle unrelated to content: It was a translation. My wife points out that it might have been easier to write my own book. She has a point, though certainly my own challenges and those of the book’s author are more than matched by unsung authors, editors and publishers every day around the world.
But the mission and the challenge of bringing quality literature from a foreign context to an American audience has never been greater. Fortunately, the established writers and editors who set our literary standards can make that mission more rewarding for everyone, by recognizing new works and understanding that need no longer be lost in translation.
James Snyder is a member of NATO’s International Staff and translator of “Justice in a Time of War,” a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal by the Swiss journalist Pierre Hazan.