In Translation

The National Book Award for Translated Literature

Tara Cheesman

Staff Writer

Tara Cheesman reads books. Sometimes she writes about the books she reads. It's all a bit arbitrary. Most of this reading and writing happens in a small brick house in the Pennsylvania city where she lives with her husband, two dogs and an ever-expanding library of books translated from languages she doesn’t speak or understand. She's currently considering getting a tortoise, because tortoises seem like good company. When not reading, writing or tending to her extensive collection of wooden pencils, Tara spends her time exploring cities in search of bookshops and art exhibits. She was a panelist at the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Since 2009 she’s written the blog BookSexy Review. You can find her on Twitter @BookSexyReview. (Please feel free to tweet her your opinions on both books and pencils).

3/14/18 Update: Some exciting news for small presses, translated literature and readers. The National Book Award has updated their submission requirements and greatly reduced the financial burden for small, independent publishers – creating a fair and equal chance for every book to win, regardless of the size and resources of the press standing behind it. They’ve not only changed the amount the publisher is expected to contribute towards the promotional campaign, which is now tied to the press’s income and operates on a sliding scale, but tickets for the awards ceremony will be offered at a discount to small, nonprofit and university presses. And, while authors and translators are still required to attend the ceremony, the National Book Award Foundation will provide travel support for Finalists in the Translated Literature category.

Today’s lesson? Don’t doubt Lisa Lucas.


The National Book Award announced the National Book Award for Translated Literature at the end of January and parts of Twitter got angry…as parts of Twitter always do. Most of that anger was directed and stoked by an unfortunate New York Times article which, among its many problems and oversights, glossed over the fact that the National Book Award was actually re-launching its translation category. For sixteen years, between 1967 and 1984, the award existed and twenty-six writers were honored. Of those twenty-six writers (for those attempting to follow the math—it was split six times), twenty received the award posthumously. Yusunari Kawabati, who won in 1971, died the following year.

Which was a flaw in the original National Book Award for Translation: instead of celebrating contemporary literature from around the world, it focused on new translations of old classics. Virgil, Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, The Confessions of Lady Nijo were all past, and predictable, winners. The revamped award solves this problem by requiring both the writer and translator be breathing in order for a book to be eligible.

And yet, even while fixing one problem the NBA has created another. “Translations” is already a broad category, one manufactured out of necessity and/or convenience. I’m currently a fiction judge for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award. Every book in translation, provided it’s a work of fiction and was first published in the United States in 2017, is eligible—which means I’ve read books from every continent, translated from multiple source languages, both novels and short stories, covering every genre category imaginable. In April we’ll be releasing a twenty-five book long list, followed by a shortlist in May. Like all prize lists, it will always be a bit subjective, because how do you established a common judging criteria for books whose only common features are that they 1.) are fiction and 2.) were originally written in any language other than English? The National Book Award has made this task even more daunting—opening their award to both fiction and non-fiction books.

There are also possible and significant monetary barriers to entry, which I imagine will mostly effect the small presses who have always been on the cutting edge of publishing translations. There is a $135 entry fee per book. The publisher must agree to contribute an additional $3,000.00 toward a media campaign if one of their books becomes a finalist for The National Book Award. The author must attend the awards ceremony if his or her book is a finalist, and the publisher is required to pay all travel and accommodation costs. They also have to pay for those little National Book Award stickers that go on the books. It can all add up fairly quickly.

Other literary translation prizes exist in the United States. The National Book Award for Translation joins at least two* other major translation prizes in the U.S. There is the PEN Translation Prize, which has been presented jointly by the PEN American Center and The Book-of-the-Month Club since 1963. The PEN prize also has a submission fee, $75, but the publisher can request that the fee be waived if the publisher’s sales do not reach a certain threshold. The Best Translated Book Award, which I mentioned above, has no submission fees. It was created in 2008 by Three Percent, the online literary magazine and blog of Open Letter Books, which in turn is the University of Rochester’s translation press, and is underwritten by Amazon. Neither of these prizes has the name recognition of The National Book Award, but they have both been instrumental in bringing attention to books in translation.

If we expand this ecosystem of literary prizes to across the Atlantic, still focusing on English translations, we should mention that from 1990 to 2015, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was awarded in the UK. It merged with the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Prior to the merger, the Man Booker International Prize was awarded to an author rather than an individual book, with little attention given to the translator (despite there being a second award for translation, in which the winning author could choose a translator of his work to give the prize to). And last year the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development launched a literary prize for “literature from emerging economies” which splits the twenty thousand euros prize money equally between the author and translator.

My point is: prizes for books in translation exist and new prizes are popping up all the time.  And they’re all competing for limited media resources and public interest. The hope of the people who create and administer these prizes is always that they will bring attention to translated literature. Their purpose is to specifically to help those books and voices, which, in a publishing landscape dominated by the Big 5, need every bit of help they can get to be heard.

Which is why I can’t help wondering if it entirely makes sense to include translations as a category in the National Book Award. I understand what they are trying to do and the message they mean to send. And I particularly admire Executive Director Lisa Lucas and the direction she’s taking the Foundation in. But is this the best way to do that? For example, will the cost of entering (let alone winning) a National Book Award form a barrier to entry for small publishers with limited budgets? Will this category get the attention it deserves or, like poetry, be overshadowed by the fanfare for the more established prizes? And, by including both fiction and non-fiction in the category, are they painting with too broad a brush?

Among the many things the NYT article failed to mention was the active international community of writers, translators, independent publishers, booksellers, bloggers, and reviewers who have worked hard to raise the status and visibility of translated literature long before “going Global” was a thing. Now that all the hard work has been put in, the National Book Award is riding the media wave of a trend it did very little to bring into existence (and, it could be argued, a cause it abandoned long ago). It’s hard to know whether or not another new prize will help or hurt that cause. Whether it will help make translations more popular or draw attention away from existing prizes which, by focusing entirely on translations, have the potential to make a bigger impact.

*ALTA, The American Literary Translation Association, also has it’s own prize, which is avidly followed by those who follow these things.