I recently read for the National Book Awards in the translated literature category. It was a lot of work but also gave me the chance to read many excellent new translations, which is one of the main reasons I agreed to serve on the jury. The committee, which besides me included Nick Buzanski (our spreadsheet guru), Veronica Esposito, and Rohan Kamicheril) was chaired by Ann Goldstein, who exercised a very light leaderly touch. (Here’s a pic of Ann and me at the gala.) The staff at the National Book Foundation was very helpful, and the process itself went pretty smoothly.
The “black-tie” party in NY was fine, though it did remind me once again how little I like attending big flashy events. Getting together in a small group to talk about the books, which we did at lunch to make our selection of the winner (Samantha Schweblin’s Seven Empty Houses, in Megan McDowell’s translation) is far more to my taste.
The only question I was left with at the end was and remains the one I started with: why is it organized this way? There is a category for fiction, one for poetry, one for literary non-fiction, and one for young adult literature. The one for translation is the odd one out, as it’s the only one that is not itself a genre. The entries in that category could all also be entries in any of the other categories. In other words, it’s like the old Academy Awards category for “best foreign-language film.”
It would probably be hard to change the structure, which, among other things, might entail putting translators and other professionals with translation expertise on all the other juries. But the more I sat at the ceremony, which felt a lot like a big entertainment event and was hosted by author and actor Padma Lakshmi, the more I thought it would be the right thing to do, not just for academic and artistic reasons like the fact that translation is not a genre but for the reasons that the Motion Picture Academy now includes foreign-language feature films in the best picture and other categories: it’s about inclusion, fair representation, and the recognition that books, like movies, are part of a global system in which the U.S. is an important participant but by far not the only one.
A few other comments on the process here