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Monday musings on Australian literature: NSW Premier’s Translation Prize

March 18, 2019

Don’t worry. I know this is the second Monday Musings post in a row inspired by the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, but when I wrote last week’s post, I felt that one on the Translation Prize in this suite of awards would be an appropriate follow-up. It’s not the start of a Monday Musings trend!

I know I don’t need to say this to readers who come here, but reading works by people from other cultures is so critical to our ability to understand our world and the people in it. However, funnily enough, not all of that literature is written in the language/s we read! Hence, the importance of translation. Unfortunately, translation doesn’t have high visibility in Australia, partly, I presume, because of our geographic isolation and our attendant monolingualism. Yet, there are many* in Australia who speak more than one language. It surely behoves us, for a start, to read more from the cultures living amongst us.

Jane Sullivan wrote an article in The Age back in 2005 about the state of translation in Australia, and made this comment:

In Australia, the market for translated work is very small and publishers are rarely willing to take the risk of commissioning a translation. While the Australia Council supports translation of Australian writers’ work into other languages, it does not usually support Australian translation of foreign literature into English.

I wonder how much has changed since then? (Do read the article, if you are interested. Sure, it’s a bit old now, but it has some interesting things to say nonetheless, including suggestions that things were changing.)

NSW Premier’s Translation Prize

Now, I have written about translation before, particularly in my review of Linda Jaivin’s Quarterly Essay and in a Monday Musings on Australian literary translators, but have never focused on the NSW Premier’s Translation Prize. I’m rectifying that now!

The Translation Prize is offered biennially, and is currently worth $30,000. It has been offered, I believe, since 2001. According to the State Library of NSW, it was proposed by the International PEN Sydney Centre and is funded by Arts NSW and the Community Relations Commission for a Multicultural NSW. Its aim is “to acknowledge the contribution made to literary culture by Australian translators” and it “recognises the vital role literary translators play in enabling writers and readers to communicate across cultures and ensuring that dissident voices are heard around the world”. (This latter is probably where PEN, particularly, comes in.)

The prize is awarded to translators (not to particular translations) who translate into English from other languages. Meaning, I suppose, that it is geared to broadening the reading of the English-speaking Australian public.

The winners to date, as listed in Wikipedia, are:

  • 2001: Mabel Lee: Chinese
  • 2003: Julie Rose: French
  • 2005: Chris Andrews: Spanish
  • 2007: John Nieuwenhuizen: Dutch and Flemish
  • 2009: David Colmer: mainly Dutch
  • 2011: Ian Johnston: Chinese and Classical Greek
  • 2013: Peter Boyle: French and Spanish
  • 2015: Brian Nelson: French
  • 2017: Royall Tyler: Japanese

Raphael Jerusalmy, EvacuationBy this schedule, the next prize will be awarded this year, and the shortlist has been announced: (Names are linked to the judges’ comments.)

  • Harry Aveling: translates South and South-east Asian literature, including Indonesian, Malay, Hindi and French. He has translated Pramoedya Ananta Toer (but my 1991 edition of a Toer novel was translated by Max Lane)
  • Steve Corcoran: translates French philosophical and literary works.
  • Alison Entrekin: described as one of the world’s leading translators of Portuguese
  • Penny Hueston: mostly translates contemporary French literature, and is a Senior Editor at Text Publishing. (She translated Jerusalmy’s Evacuation – my review.)
  • Stephanie Smee: translates mostly French, specialising in children’s literature, but does other work too.

Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountainsThis year there’s also a “highly commended”, Omid Tofighian. He’s not on the shortlist because he doesn’t have “the substantial bodies of work” of the shortlisted translators, but is worth special mention, they say. Some Australians will recognise him as the translator of No friend but the mountains by Kurdish-Iranian poet and Manus Island detainee, Behrouz Boochani. He has also translated a number of articles by Boochani. The judges argue that Tofighian merits this special commendation because of that point about translation allowing “cultures to converse and voices to be heard that might otherwise remain silent”. (Quite coincidentally, I bought No friend but the mountains the other day. The enthusiastic bookseller said it was a great book and specifically told me to read the Translator’s Note! She didn’t need to tell me that because I always do, but I loved that she did. This book had special challenges for the translator because the book arrived via thousands of text messages from Boochani’s phone).

Anyhow, have you noticed something about all this? By far the majority of the translators listed above work with European languages. This is, to me, astonishing – but perhaps it shouldn’t be, given our still obviously Euro-centric attitudes. Are we still so myopic – is that too harsh a word – that we only want to read European literature when we leave our own?

So, hmm, I checked my own reading … and discovered that, since starting this blog, my reading of translated works has been 25% Asian, 15% Latin American, and the rest European (mostly, I admit, Western European), so, who am I to talk?

What about you? 

* According to the 2016 Census, just over one-quarter of Australians speak languages other than English at home.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2019 11:59 pm

    Ooh, lots to think about in this post dear to my heart!
    Firstly, we are lucky here in Melbourne because AALIRTA is based here and they sometimes invite me to their events even though I am not a translator. So I have had the pleasure of meeting heaps of people translating all kinds of languages from everywhere, (and LOL I am going to do some name-dropping now) including two past winners Julie Rose and Brian Nelson (who translated most of the Zolas I read), and Linda Jaivin. And I know one of this year’s nominees Harry Aveling from a different context: Harry was on the committee of VILTA when I was president and he has done some beautiful translations of Indonesian poetry as well as other Asian languages.
    I take your point about Asian languages, however, and I’m a bit surprised that Ouyang Yu hasn’t been nominated. I’ve read about a dozen books from China, but I don’t think any of them were translated by Australians…
    I couldn’t tell you where this info came from, but I have seen somewhere on the web that there has been a respectable upsurge in translations in the UK and US since it was realised that only 3% of books in US markets were translated. When he started Stu at Winston’s dad was just about the only blogger reviewing TF, but now there’s quite a few who specialise and others like me who take an interest in it as well as reviewing English books. (But Stu is still the most widely read and the best IMO).
    Last of all, I’d like to remind readers about Shokoofeh Azar who wrote The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree in Persian and had it translated by Wild Dingo Press and it was nominated for the Stella last year. The only other Australian book I know with a similar journey to publication is Oh Lucky Country by Rosa Cappiello, written in Italian and translated by UQP back in the 1980s. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait so long for the next one to arrive!

    • March 19, 2019 3:37 am

      Thanks Lisa for all this. I thought about mentioning Azar and Cappiello, but decided to keep the focus narrow to the Award. I’m glad you did.

      There are a few translators I was surprised about not being there, like Ouyang Yu, but maybe some of them have been shortlisted in other years. I didn’t feel I could include all the short-listees from 2001, so I didn’t research them, but it would be interesting to do, to see who popped up.

      And, of course, as I was focusing on Australia I didn’t mention Stu, but my commenters are allowed to take these posts wherever they like so, again, I’m glad you did.

      This wasn’t my first Monday Musings on translation in Australia, and probably won’t be my last, because, like you, I do think it’s important to keep it in our consciousness.

  2. March 19, 2019 7:39 am

    I have a feeling those statistics about your reading in translation have something to do with availability of books in certain languages.

    • March 19, 2019 9:06 am

      Thanks Karen. That’s kind of you! I think the truth is a bit more complex – and to do with much of my translated fiction reading happening a bit more by serendipity than by planning. If I planned it more I would read more Asian (and African) writing. I have read some African literature but, surprisingly none of it in the last decade in translation.

      (Are you home? Or en route?)

      • March 21, 2019 3:35 am

        We’re home! It took us 36 hours and three flights. Not an ideal trip for someone who has spent 11 days in hospital. My husband got out of the hospital bed, straight to a car and to the airport. So now he’s feeling really rough. Fortunately the journey didn’t do any damage to the area where he had the surgery…..

        Re your reading – I hear you re the serendipity aspect. I had a plan a few years ago to read more translated fiction and started really well. But then got sidetracked…..

        • March 21, 2019 10:11 am

          Oh, I’m so glad you’re home. That would be a horrendous trip in that situation. Our son, who he was 31 flew home in a situation like that – ie straight out of hospital, in fact, still wearing his hospital shirt over his own jeans, with his arm in a very complicated cast. He’d broken the arm in 8 places so had multiple pins and wires up his arm. BUT the surgical site was the arm which is not as tricky as other sites on the body, and he was only flying from South Korea, so about 10 hours I think. 36 hours is tough at the best of times. I wish you and him all the best …

        • March 22, 2019 1:52 am

          I bet he had some strange looks when he turned up in that outfit. But then again there are some peculiar outfits worn by travellers

        • March 22, 2019 11:24 am

          He probably did … Our daughter picked him up at the airport as we had to make a rushed flight home from a Central Australian holiday to Canberra to change our mild weather clothes for miserable Melbourne winter weather clothes! (A broken holiday for us too!)

        • March 22, 2019 8:25 pm

          Oh dear, its a holiday you will remember for sure but for the wrong reasons

        • March 22, 2019 10:18 pm

          You know the feeling I’m sure!!

  3. March 19, 2019 9:46 am

    I received a survey yesterday from Tasmania State Library. I suggested they seek out more translated fiction in the comments section. When I read Stu’s posts on Winstons blog I often check the library for his titles suggested and never find them in the library. I think people should suggest to their libraries to be more proactive in searching for these books.

    • March 19, 2019 10:09 am

      Good point, Pam:) My library constantly surprises me with its offerings – they don’t just have the ones I’ve heard of (via prizes or whatever) but also others that I know nothing about and I come across them on display, not just hiding on the shelves. I keep meaning to see if I can get an interview with their accessions officer to find out how this comes about, because I belong to five municipal libraries and Kingston is the only one that *actively* promotes TF in this way.
      My library is also the only one that makes it really easy to ask for a book. I read something online, decide I want it, and search the catalogue online. All my libraries have their catalogues online bit mine is the only one, if it comes up with a nil result, to suggest requesting a copy, and the process of doing this is dead simple. (I’m not saying the others don’t have this facility, I’m just saying that Kingston’s website makes it really easy.

      • March 19, 2019 2:12 pm

        Thanks Lisa … that sounds like a great library. I haven’t used our library for a long time because I have so many books to read – unlike you, hahaha!! – that I just keep away. I know I’d be so tempted. Anyhow, this means that I really don’t know how good their collection or service is.

    • March 19, 2019 2:11 pm

      Well done Pam … they only know if people tell them. One of the issues with library stats is that they can tell what library books people DO borrow, but they can’t tell what they’d LIKE to borrow.

  4. March 20, 2019 9:54 pm

    I am not organized enough to say what my translated reading has been, but I would think that it was mostly French and Japanese, and maybe Spanish third. I’ve read some African, mostly Nigerian but I think that was all written in English. Mmmm … I’ve listened to a fair bit of Scandanavian crime fiction. And some Italian. And Dutch. Maybe I read more translations than I realise.

    • March 20, 2019 10:10 pm

      Yes, Bill, my African reading since blogging has all been written in English. French was my most European language, and Japanese my most Asian. Probably not surprising eh?

  5. March 23, 2019 2:16 am

    Here in the United States we are known for being too monolingual also. I think that the trend is headed in the right direction however as more Americans are speaking both Spanish and Chinese.

    Translations and reading things from other cultures are important topics. In terms of translation, I have been very careful about choosing which version to read.

    I agree that it is a good thing that there is now an award aimed at translations.

    • March 23, 2019 8:53 am

      Which Spanish speakers on your border Brian you really should have more Spanish speakers shouldn’t you? Chinese is increasing here but probably mostly because of migrant families – though it is increasingly being taught.

      I like to research translations too…. Where more than one has been done, which is common with classics isn’t it.

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