February 1, 2018

The envelope please: A National Book Award is being created for translated literature


One of Melville House’s recent translated books, hint hint.

There was a time in book publishing when the brilliance of a literary translation was about as recognized as the brilliance of well-poured latte. Times have changed.

According to the New York Times’ Alexandra Alter, “Starting this year, the National Book Foundation will recognize works in translation, opening up a distinctly American literary award to writers working in other languages.” That’s right: translations will now be recognized with their own prize at the National Book Awards!

It’s great news. The prize will be awarded to both the authors and translators of winning titles. For now, eligibility remains limited to fiction and nonfiction works by living authors published in the United States. And it will be strictly a translation prize: international writers working in English need not apply. Sorry, Commonwealth.

Otherwise, the news should be applauded. A longstanding statistic is that translations comprise only three percent of the literature published in the US. Whether that has changed or not in the past few years (no institution has taken up the challenge of a reevaluation), the sentiment remains that translated literature remains underread and underappreciated here.

Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the Foundation, told Alter, “This is an opportunity for us to influence how visible books in translation are. The less we know about the rest of the world, the worse off we are.”

We couldn’t agree more.



Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.