The translation Oscars
Antonella da Messina's "Portrait of a Man" (1475), which graces the cover of Georges Perec's Portrait of a Man – Louvre/Peter Willi/Bridgeman Image
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
The community of literary translators had its own Oscars (or Baftas) last week. The Society of Authors brought together the winners and runners-up in several translation categories for an evening hosted (as it has been for the past three years) by Europe House in Central London. Annual prizes go for French translation (sponsored by the Institut Français), German (the Goethe-Institut) and Spanish (the Instituto Cervantes). Prizewinning translators from Arabic, meanwhile, have the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature to thank as well as the Ghobash family. The quartet were joined this year by translators from the Swedish (the Anglo-Swedish Literary Foundation) and Dutch (the Dutch Foundation for Literature). The Italian John Florio Prize returns next year. In past years there have also been prizes for translation from Greek, Hebrew and Portuguese.
Unlike at the Oscars, we don’t have an envelope-opening moment: the identities of the winners and runners-up are already known. The Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha kicked off proceedings by reading a passage from his novel The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, followed by Paul Starkey, who read from his prizewinning translation from the Arabic. The Chair of the judges Robin Ostle described the judging process as an “enriching experience” while calling Rakha’s 374-page novel “essentially untranslatable”; this made Starkey’s achievement all the more impressive.
In conveying apologies from her absent fellow French judge Andrew Hussey, Michèle Roberts read Hussey’s commendation of David Bellos’s version of Portrait of a Man by Georges Perec: “. . . Bellos is not only a match for Perec’s language but for the traps and snares of this ‘lost text’, now restored, which provides the final piece in the Perec jigsaw puzzle for his English-speaking readers”. Bellos was runner-up to Frank Wynne for his version of Boualem Sansal’s Harraga. Wynne read in both French and English.
Emily Jeremiah spoke of the exceptional quality of the translations from German that she and her co-judge Benedict Schofield had encountered and Schofield read from the German of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. Susan Bernofsky then read from her prizewinning translation.
Karin Altenberg, in the course of stressing the importance of translation from the Swedish, revealed that the (triennial) Bernard Shaw Prize was so called because Shaw, on receiving his Nobel Prize, handed the money to the Nobel Academy for them to spend as they saw fit. She then read a droll statement of thanks from the absent American translator of Tove Jansson’s The Listener, Thomas Teal (who also won in 2009 with an earlier Jansson title, Fair Play).
Anne McLean, Javier Cercas’s regular translator, was the winner of the Premio Valle Inclán for her rendition of Outlaws. Jason Wilson, who judged the prize with John King, lamented the absence of Latin American work among the entries (all were from Spanish writers). Margaret Jull Costa, who seems to be an annual fixture, was runner-up this year with her version of Benito Pérez Galdós’s Tristana.
The joint winner of the Vondel Prize, Donald Gardner, read resonantly from his translations of the Dutch poet Remco Campert, of which the judges, eloquently represented by the TLS contributor Paul Binding, wrote: “Gardner’s translations show true empathy; . . . the authentic voice of the original Dutch poems rings through in the translation. This is a great achievement”. Gardner’s co-winner Laura Watkinson, the translator of The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt, revealed that it had been a long-held ambition of hers to translate the novel (published in Holland in 1962). The prize vindicated her decision to do so, and she seemed particularly thrilled to have it.
I came away with a renewed sense of the sheer hard work that goes into the art, or craft, of translating. Not only are you dealing with someone else’s ideas and words rather than your own, but you must treat those words with the utmost respect. And all too often, reviewers only draw attention to a translation in order to criticize it, sometimes unfairly. That seems a shame: it could be argued that a successful literary translation is an achievement even greater than an Oscar-winning performance.