November 11, 2013
The launch of the Typographical Translation Award
by Sal Robinson
Goodreads has been running its readers’ choice awards since 2009, and this week, the voting just opened for the 2013 round, with the winners to be announced at the end of the month. Since it is the largest and most active social book site in the United States (and possibly in the world—it now has 20 million members), it’s the country’s real, true readers’ choice award, gestures by the National Book Award in that direction notwithstanding.
And like all such awards, its results usually aren’t all that surprising—everybody already knows that everybody was reading Gone Girl last year and recommending it to other everybodies. But it does get more interesting the more categories there are, and the greater the possibilities are for voting for some non-behemoths… or at least, slightly smaller behemoths in different clothes. The number of categories has evolved over the years of the awards’ existence: originally, there were 13 categories, but it went up to 23 in 2010, down to 22 in 2011, and docked two more categories to settle at 20 in 2012.
20 is a nice round number, and so that may be why, when Aaron Westerman, who runs the blog Typographical Era with Karli Cude, tweeted at Goodreads last week, asking them why they didn’t have a “translation category,” the Goodreaders weren’t biting. This was their response:
Now, it’s not true that translations are ignored, as Westerman writes, in the Goodreads Choice Awards: 1Q84 won Best Fiction in 2011, and Stieg Larsson’s in there, of course, having skipped the traces of being a book-in-translation to become just a great honking international bestseller.
But it definitely doesn’t have its own category, as, for instance, Paranormal Fantasy does. And if no translations make it past Goodreads’ initial number-crunching to determine which books will be official nominees (based on readers’ ratings) or they aren’t nominated as write-ins, then there’s no translations for translation-lovers to support in the later stages of the award—which is crazy, because there are a lot of super, super books in translation that come out each year, and moreover the people who read them feel strongly about them, just like paranormal fantasy fans.
So, faced with this problem, Typographical Era did the only sane thing to do in the situation, which is to set up their own Translation Award and get readers busy weighing in.
The Typographical Translation Award, whose winner will be announced on December 19th, has 20 official nominees, with 13 languages represented, coming from presses in the US, the UK, and Canada. The books you might expect to see are there—Javier Marias’s The Infatuations, Book Two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Seibo Down Below—but also many, many books that I, who follow this area pretty diligently, had no idea were out this year: hello, hello Hella Haasse’s The Black Lake? And there are both familiar and new names on the translator and author fronts, enough to demonstrate the relative health of the industry.
And this is exactly what prizes are supposed to do: lay out the glorious options—both those you knew about and those you didn’t—to interested readers and make you slaver over them. Ok, not slaver, that’s a little gross, but at least produce high-pitched feelings about getting your hands on these things now, and less Pavlovianly, renewed joy about the possibilities of publishing, fiction, and life, generally. And readers’ choice awards take this one step further, making the participation of readers essential to the final result. So that you end up both full of sense of a promise and a sense that it’s really very important you get your vote in there, so that that psychologically, structurally, and linguistically unimpressive bit of hackwork from Writer X does not accidentally get crowned by dolts.
In other words, Typographical Translation Award: mission achieved.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.