Nobel, Jabuti, and Other Literary Prizes in Translation

The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded early October to Mo Yan, a Chinese novelist and short story writer "who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary," according to the Swedish Academy. Many, however, didn't spare criticism against the celebrated author of "Red Sorghum."

Controversy # 1: Critics in China say that the Academy is bias toward writers from the mainland, instead of those from Taiwan. Chen Fang-ming, professor of Taiwanese Literature at the National Chengchi University, says authors in Taiwan are more prolific, yet prize jurors discriminate against them. 

On the other hand, Taiwanese authors don't get translated into other languages as often, thus creating a language barrier between the original work and international organizations in charge of literary awards.

Controversy # 2: State broadcasters in China interrupted the regular programming to announce that a Chinese author had finally won the Nobel in Literature, "easing anxiety among the country's leaders regarding the Western world's recognition of Chinese cultural prowess," as mentioned by ForeignPolicy.com

However, back in 2010 when jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Chinese government was furious and wiped the announcement from the Internet in the country, condemning the award as a “desecration” and calling it "a Western propaganda tool intended to insult and destabilize the ruling Communist Party," The New York Times reported.

This time around, the government couldn't have been more proud of the accomplishment because, as critics put it, Mo Yan is not as controversial in China. Nevertheless, he isn't the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel in Literature, since Gao Xingjian was awarded the prize in 2000, but received his French citizenship in 1997, so France got the credit for such a feat.

Controversy # 3: Mo Yan's contributions to the literary world were not judged in the original language. Rather, it was translations from Chinese that facilitated the access of jurors to his work. For example, his most celebrated work, “Red Sorghum,” was translated into English by Howard Goldblatt and into Swedish by Anna Chen. 

"Strictly speaking, translation of literary works is impossible," believes Joe Hung with The China Post. "The unique nuance in one language is lost in translation into another language, particularly not in the same language family." If that were the case, literary translations wouldn't exist and countries should be confined to their own literature, without experiencing stories by authors coming from other cultures, other realities.

Controversy # 4: One of Mo Yan's translators into Swedish is a voting member of the Academy, so there could have been a conflict of interest. Sinologist Göran Malmqvist, 88, was one of the main driving forces behind the nomination and, now that the Chinese author has won the Nobel, the Swedish linguist could financially benefit from his popularity. In fact, Malmqvist provided Swedish translations to the Academy during the selection process and should now be handing his work to editors for publication. 

Read more about this year's Nobel Prize in Literature: 

In Brazil, the Jabuti Prize was also awarded this month and there were some controversies surrounding the Original Novel category―one of the then unidentified jurors gave some pretty low grades to experienced authors, thus boosting ratings of newcomers. 

However, everything seems to have been smooth in the Translation into Portuguese category, with revisited classics finishing as the main top three. Trajano Vieira got first place for Homer's "Odyssey," published in bilingual format and combining neologisms and archaic expressions to create a poetic strangeness critics seem to have enjoyed. Interestingly enough, another translation directly performed from Greek by Frederico Lourenço, who prioritized the oral expression of the work, hit the shelves almost concomitantly.

Rubens Figueiredo finished second with the Portuguese version of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace," translated for the first time directly from the original in Russian, followed by Mario Laranjeira's rendition of "Madame Bovary," written in French by Gustave Flaubert.

Read more about the Jabuti Prize and winner [in Portuguese]: Folha de S. PauloRevista CultDivirta-seUnicampNão Gosto de Plágio

Here are some highlights of other translation prizes worldwide:

  • National Translation Award in Greece
    • "C. P. Cavafy: Selected Prose Works" written by Constantino Kavafis and translated from Greek into English by Peter Jeffrey
    • "Emmanuel's Travels / Short Stories from Syros" written by Emmanuel Roidis and translated from Greek into Spanish by Carmen Vilela as "Relatos de Siros"
  • Tchernichovsky Prize for Translation in Israel
    • Dr. Aminadav Dykman translated poetry written in a number of ancient and modern languages, especially an anthology of 17th century European poetry
    • Tal Nitzan received the prize for a diverse corpus of translation of poetry and prose written in a number of languages, especially Spanish
  • The Harold Morton Landon Award goes to Jen Hofer's "Ivory Black," the Spanish into English translation of Myriam Moscona's "Negro marfil" 
  • Long List for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in English, which is submitted by authors who belong to the region through birth or, regardless of ethnicity, wrote about South Asia