In October, one of the most distinguished literary awards on the planet, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, was awarded to a novelist who distinguished herself by being both the youngest awardee and for writing the longest book ever awarded the honor. Canadian-born and Kiwi-raised Eleanor Catton, 28, and her more than 800-page tome, The Luminaries, made history but also marked the end of an era.
Specifically, criteria for the Man Booker underwent a number of major (and controversial) changes that will become effective next year. Among them: works will be eligible for consideration regardless of the author’s origins as long as the work was written in English and published in the United Kingdom.
But does this really change much for the international book market and its writers?
While some authors went on record decrying this move to further internationalize the prize as a slap in the face of British writers, the prize never really belonged to the British alone. As a prize for English novelists from the Commonwealth of Nations, the Republic of Ireland, or Zimbabwe, the award has already seen most winners come from beyond the United Kingdom’s borders. New Zealand’s Luminaries aside, winners have included international literary blockbusters like The God of Small Things (India), Vernon God Little (Australia), and Life of Pi (Canada).
Shortlisted titles have been regionally diverse as well. Notable was the nomination of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names to the 2013 Man Booker shortlist. Bulawayo is both the first author from Zimbabwe and the first black African female to ever make it on to the list, joining fellow writers Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee from South Africa and Ben Okri from Nigeria in the African lineup.
A Translation Tipping Point?
The Man Booker is not awarded to books in translation; that distinction belongs to the Man Booker International Prize, which has been awarded every two years to authors worldwide since its equally controversial launch in 2004. However, international publishing rights have long been an indicator of the strength of any work on the reading market with “international bestseller” being added to front covers to tease out additional readers wherever possible.
Could translations of a literary work provide an early indication of a book’s potential success as a Man Booker winner no matter its country of origin or where it’s being picked up for translation? We’d love to think so — The Luminaries was already sold to publishers Ambo Anthos (Netherlands), Buchet-Chastel (France), Ediciones Siruela (Spain), Fandango (Italy), and Siltala Publishing (Finland) before its win. Nevertheless — whether good or bad news for nervous Commonwealth writers — the data doesn’t support the dream.
In fact, the market for books in translation remains effectively skewed toward English. Global data from UNESCO’s Index Translationum shows that books originally written in English far outpace all other languages in the translation market as both source and target. These numbers are for all books, mind you. Data on literary fiction paint a far dismal picture.
The Three Percent project — which launched in 2007 at the University of Rochester, New York with the goal of raising the visibility and viability of the world’s non-English writers in the U.S. market — reports that literary fiction and poetry in translation represents less than eight percent (8%) there. They have this to say about why translation and international efforts remain vital:
In this age of globalization, one of the best ways to preserve the uniqueness of cultures is through the translation and appreciation of international literary works. To remain among the world’s best educated readers, English speakers must have access to the world’s great literatures. It is a historical truism and will always remain the case that some of the best books ever written were written in a language other than English.
Of course, changes to the Man Booker will not stop this onslaught — not when more American English writers now have a chance at the coveted prize. However, if extending this prestigious award to more of the world’s writers means at least raising the curtain on writers worldwide and the need for more works in translation, well, bring up the books!