October 15, 2012
Remember the translators
by Sal Robinson
In all the Mo Yan frenzy, you may have missed the news that another prize was handed out last week: the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, a relative newcomer to the translation prize circuit, but a welcome one for two reasons: 1) (the obviously nice and useful one) it highlights the work of young translators, and 2) (the less obvious but equally important) it is organized yearly by language, and thus it draws attention to translators who translate from languages that are less well-represented in the English-speaking literary world. Viz., Chinese.
The way the prize works is that a text is chosen and translators are invited to submit their versions. This year, the text was a short story, “The Wig”, by Chinese author Han Dong, and the prize was won by Philip Hand. His translation is on Granta’s site here, and begins:
Hu Yanjun had got his hands on a wig, and was trying it on in front of the mirror when his friend Wang Xinghai came to see him. Hu Yanjun had very high cheekbones and sunken temples (you know how qigoing masters in fantasy novels are supposed to look? He was the exact opposite). A full head of long hair might have disguised this cranial imbalance, but he was not overly blessed up top.
Past year’s prizes have gone to Arabic and Spanish translators. The prize founder and organizer Briony Everroad was kind enough to answer some questions about this year’s outing:
Generally, how did the contest go this year?
We were really pleased with the quality of the entries this year, and our winner and runners-up produced really excellent translations. They all had to translate the same short story, and it was a tricky piece, largely because it was very funny. The translators had to be accurate, lyrical and have sense of comic timing, which is no mean feat.
More specifically, have you seen more entries each year?
One of the most challenging and exciting things about the prize is that we focus on a different language each year. This means navigating the quirks of each language and culture and their relationship with English, and it means finding new contacts and communication channels each year. In 2010 we focused on Spanish, and consequently had a huge number of entries. We had fewer entries for Chinese, but then there are far fewer opportunities to study Chinese at university level in the UK. It was a similar situation with Arabic.
Do you get the sense that the prize has a growing presence?
The prize is well known among the translation community in the UK, and I’m very pleased to say that word has spread even further. Granta has published the winning translations right from the very beginning, and now our winners participate in the Crossing Border festival in The Hague and Antwerp as part of their prize. The British Centre for Literary Translation has also come on board and is offering mentorships to the winners.
And have prize-winners gone on to future translation jobs or publications?
Yes! Beth Fowler (Spanish, 2010) went on to translate Open Door by Iosi Havilio for And Other Stories. Wiam El-Tamami (Arabic, 2011) has since done translations for Banipal magazine and had her own writing published online with Granta. Michael McDevitt (runner-up, Spanish) has had work published in Two Lines. This kind of success is what the prize is all about, so we’re absolutely thrilled.
The language for next year has yet to be announced, but, young translators, watch this space.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.