How do you judge translations?

On Wednesday, I featured a graphic novel that had been shortlisted for a new literary prize as my Book of the month. Last night, the winner was announced. The inaugural TA First Translation Prize went to translator Bela Shayevich and editor Jacques Testard for the English edition of Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time.

Although all the shortlisted titles would have been worthy winners, the selection of Shayevich and Testard for this honour (in which the prize goes entirely to the people who brought the text into English and not to the original author) is great news. Belarusian Nobel laureate Alexievich’s work is as challenging as it is important (her Chernobyl Prayer was one of my #WITMonth picks back in 2016). It surely demands special skill to convey its polyphony, while maintaining a sense of cohesion.

It’s also great to see a literary prize that shifts the focus entirely onto the craft of recreating a narrative in another language. Too often, translators are overlooked when books from elsewhere are discussed. Indeed, several of the works I read during my 2012 round-the-world literary adventure, failed to mention the name of the person who had written the words in them.

Yet recognising what individual translators bring to – or even leave out of – a text is often impossible for those who only read the secondary version. Consequently, judging translations without referring to the original works requires an unusual approach, as prize-founder, writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn explained when I asked him to tell me a bit more about the thinking behind the TAFTP award:

‘Most translation prizes fall into one of two categories – either you’re really judging the translation as an act of translation (ie. with an eye to the process, what happens in the journey from the original to the new text, what the particular challenges, solutions, frictions might be), or you’re basically judging the new text as a stand-alone thing which just happens to have its origins in another language. This prize isn’t quite either of those.

‘I’ve judged what used to be called the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, where translations-into-English are appraised alongside books written in English; and in our meetings we barely mentioned the translation process at all. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Man Booker International were the same – you’re judging works of English, not discussing the “translation” aspect as a distinct thing; these are just English-language books which happen to have two authors, who – in the event of a win – will share the prize. (As a translator, I like being judged this way, incidentally.) Meanwhile, those prizes that look at the translation as a-thing-in-relation-to-an-actual-original (so have perhaps a different idea of what makes a translation great) need to be judged by a quite different process – you’re dependent either on judges being able/willing to read originals (single-language prizes, for example) or having a big team of multilingual assessors who can report on this aspect on the judges’ behalf. (Even this new little prize of mine had nearly twenty languages among the submissions. We judges have four between us.)

‘I’ve only once before judged a prize like the TAFTP, where the judges read only the translated books and yet it’s the translator and not the writer who gets the cheque – that was the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation. It’s a slightly tricky one, since we aren’t reading the originals, yet at the same time we’re absolutely rewarding the translator’s role rather than the book generally. Here the author doesn’t get a look-in at all; if we’re giving a prize for a translation, it should in theory be possible to reward an awe-inspiring translation of a mediocre book, above a good translation of a masterpiece… In practice, of course, it’s not always easy to avoid being swayed by things that are seductive manifestations of the writer’s skill; and nor is it always realistic to think that as readers we can accurately isolate different people’s contributions anyway. (We make assumptions about such things all the time without realising – when I read a fine novel in English, my assumption is that, basically, the author wrote a fine novel in English for which s/he should be rewarded, rather than that the author wrote a catastrophically awful novel, which some poor editor basically had to rewrite in order to make it functional…)

‘In other words, the whole thing’s a bit messy. But we talked about that in the judging meeting, too – one of the most fun bits of judging any prize, in my experience, is trying to work out what it is you’re all looking for, and whether there’s some way of articulating that. We certainly can’t pretend there’s a scientific measure. Maybe in the first instance it just comes down to whom you ask to judge, and whether, as in this case, they’re people whose instincts you trust, and who understand how translating and writing and editing work, even if articulating quality is harder to do in the abstract than just “you know it when you see it”.

‘It’s sort of impossible to do, in some senses, but I did have two very wise fellow judges (a great translator and a great editor) to help me in the process. We had no way of knowing what the relationship of the translation is to the original, and yet there’s a lot we absolutely could tell. Did it work as a piece of English? How did the voices sound? If there were English jokes, were they funny? Etc. etc. We could get a sense, too, of whether a translator is having to do something particularly demanding. Our winning book is a dazzling piece of polyvocal English writing, and Bela Shayevich and her editor made the dazzling things happen in English. Of course, it’s possible that it’s a “bad” translation if the original is, say, a 64-page illustrated children’s book about a pony with lots of funny jokes – in which case, yes, this translation truly is an utter travesty (but I’d be surprised if that was the case); the new work would still be a masterpiece, of course, but then perhaps not a translation…’

As with so many things connected to international literature and cultural exchange, there are no easy answers to the question of how we ought to weigh translations. But that’s part of the fun.

Incidentally, if any Russian speakers know of a 64-page illustrated children’s book about a pony that’s been badly misrepresented in English, I’d love to hear more…

Picture from the Society of Authors website.