Human Rights, Translation, PEN

Fifteen thousand words into translating Jergović’s monumental Rod (sticking with the title Kin for now), I’m taking a short break to mention the PEN Awards festivities just completed in NYC last week. I was able to attend for the first time, thanks to an invitation from my friend Esther, who knew I was going to be nearby for an ALTA board retreat and suggested I stick around for a day to see the show.

The absolute best thing about the awards and the celebration, in my opinion, is their democratic character, by which I mean the degree to which they recognize a wide variety of kinds of writing, from fiction and poetry, to theater, science writing, essay writing, (literary) sports writing, and literary translation. Not all the awards that PEN gives out were featured at the ceremony. One or two of the more prestigious ones (e.g., the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction) are saved for the fundraising PEN Gala that takes place under different circumstances, but still it’s an impressive list, and the atmosphere of the event reflects both the quality of the work being celebrated and the commitment of PEN to issues of social justice and free expression.

This commitment may or may not be coterminous with literature in exactly the manner that PEN’s logo (see below) seems to imply. PEN logoThey certainly come together in enough cases in enough ways to make it hard to argue against an essentially human rights emphasis for an essentially literary organization. I wonder, however, whether we don’t miss something by making literature instrumental in this particular way. There will be kinds of writing that fit especially well as a result, e.g., socially and politically engaged writing, or writing that comes from particular parts of the world, or writing by those who have been historically marginalized, not allowed a voice. But there will also be kinds of writing, some of it exceptional and poignant, that does not really fit that well. Just literature in other words. It can be celebrated but it is less likely to be championed when literature and free expression, or rather free expression and then literature, is the mission.

I found myself mulling over such things during the ceremony and after, especially where translation is concerned. The awards for translation—there are four, one category for works in progress (the PEN/Heim Translation Awards), one for lifetime achievement (the PEN/Ralph Mannheim Award), and two for finished works (the PEN Translation Prize and the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation)—seem on first glance to be especially well suited to a human rights mission. But the criteria for these awards do not mention social justice explicitly and do not seem to be intended to champion the historically under-represented. The long lists include works from the Ancient World (sometimes frequently translated) and works from contemporary France, Russia, Argentina, or Mexico, once in a while China, Japan, or Korea, and once in a greater while India, Central Asia, or Africa. They include women and men on both sides of the translation process, though most of the authors of the original works are likely to be men. They include no or almost no translators of color (because there are almost no translators of color into English). I will leave it to someone else to actually count up the exact numbers in each category. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if just reading through them quickly as I did proves an inaccurate assessment. These are features of translated literature in general, not of these prizes in particular, so I do not mean them as a criticism.

Translation, by its very nature, is concerned with giving a voice to those who would not otherwise have one, and the goal of the under-represented is nowhere better served than by introducing the inscrutable foreignness of “all those other languages and cultures” into the complacency of the English-dominated (and often English-blinded) publishing world. I recall a grad student in fiction who didn’t want to come on one of the overseas writing workshops that Robin Hemley and I organized at the University of Iowa. He thought the presence of the translators would somehow lower the quality, taint the craft of the “real writers” in the group. Too bad for him that he did not come with us that year. He might have learned something about writing that he didn’t already know.


  1. Hi Russell, A belated reply to your blog post. I know that the larger point is “over time this is no doubt true” and that your intent is not to criticize PEN, but I’d like to highlight that the winner of the 2015 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, Eliza Griswold, edited and translated, with help, an anthology of translated landays (rhymed couplets, usually sung not written) by contemporary Afghani women, “I Am the Beggar of the World.” War, shrouds, cruise missiles, drones. Nothing too apolitical there. In 2013, Molly Weigel won for her translation of “The Shock of the Lenders & Other Poems” by the Argentine Jorge Santiago Perednik, implicitly about the violence of the Dirty War.
    Selections year to year will depend on the judges and it’s true, there is no human rights tie-in in the description of the award or in the instructions to the judges. One would need to go to the archives to find out why these prizes were set up and what the intentions were of the funders.
    I hope to be on a panel at the ALTA conference on literary prizes and grants in translation. That would be the ideal time to go into more detail about how they serve as well as lightning rods for critique, both inside and outside the institution that administers them.

    1. Yes, Margaret, your points are well taken, and I suspect that even in those cases where a human rights or freedom of expression aspect is not immediately visible, it would not be hard to find one by simply looking a little harder. I suppose my concern is that there might be an unintentional narrowing of the scope of literary translation when the obviously high stakes of free expression take center stage. Narrowing is not an automatic outcome obviously, and Christopher Merrill’s keynote at the 2014 ALTA conference on Politics and Translation was an eloquent testament, it seems to me, that you can have both without reducing one to the other. Looking forward to your panel.

  2. What I understood, and maybe I jumped too fast, was that PEN was not being true to its mission, but is your point is that it’s an impossible (or overly idealistic, or problematic), banner to fly, period, because literature and literary translation should not be bound to an activist agenda? BTW, Is there a transcript of Merrill’s keynote or a video available?

    1. I think Merrill’s talk will be put up on the ALTA website in its next stage of development. That’s in the process now. On the PEN mission, freedom of expression is a very effective, tightly conceived mission. I’m sure it is helping that organization to reach an audience. But PEN gives awards in sports writing and science writing, too. The freedom of expression angle is a relatively recent recasting of the mission of the organization, but the awards collected at the awards ceremony are in many cases older and have different histories. The Heim awards in translation, like the sports and science and drama awards, have a broader and more inclusive profile. They may or may not dovetail with PEN’s human rights mission. Where they don’t, they are likely to be seen as less important, less central to PEN’s mission.

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