The Globalization of the National Book Awards

January 2018



The New York Times
Book News

By Alexandra Alter


The National Book Awards, among the most prestigious literary prizes, are going global.

Starting this year, the National Book Foundation will recognize works in translation, opening up a distinctly American literary award to writers working in other languages. The new category marks a radical departure for awards, which began in 1950 “to celebrate the best of American literature.”

The prize will be given jointly to authors and translators, and will be limited to fiction and nonfiction works by living authors that are published in the United States. International authors who write in English won’t be eligible.

The decision to recognize international authors was made unanimously by the foundation’s board of directors, in an effort to draw attention to works in translation, which are often neglected by American readers and publishers.

“This is an opportunity for us to influence how visible books in translation are,” said Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation. “The less we know about the rest of the world, the worse off we are.”

While there are a growing number of publishing houses that specialize in publishing works in translation and international literature — including Europa Editions, Archipelago Books, AmazonCrossing and Tilted Axis, which publishes contemporary Asian literature, mainly by women — translated literature still accounts for a tiny percentage of books published in the United States. And although international authors like Elena Ferrante, Haruki Murakami, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Han Kang have been embraced by American readers, there’s still a lingering perception that translated literature doesn’t sell well in the United States.

It’s not the first time the National Book Awards has broadened its scope. In the 1960s and 1970s, an array of new categories were added, including prizes in science, philosophy and religion, history and biography, arts and letters, contemporary thought, autobiography, first novel, original paperback and children’s books, as well as a prize for translation. Then, in 1986, the organization scaled back drastically, to just two awards, for fiction and nonfiction. It later added poetry and young people’s literature.

The new translation prize marks the first time the foundation has added a category in more than two decades.

Other literary institutions have also made efforts to highlight works in translation. PEN America, formerly the PEN American Center, has given out a translation prize to highlight international works since the 1960s. In 2015, the Booker Prize Foundation recast its international prize, which was previously open to novelists writing in English, as an award dedicated to fiction in translation.

When other major literary awards have expanded their geographic reach, there’s occasionally been a backlash. In 2014, the Man Booker Prize, which was previously open only to writers from Britain, Ireland, Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth, began considering any novel written in English and published in Britain, prompting complaints that the prize was sacrificing its British character. Some expressed concern that American writers would dominate the award, and those fears have been heightened in recent years as Americans have made up a disproportionate share of writers who make the shortlist. (For the last two years, the Booker has gone to Paul Beatty and George Saunders, who are both from the United States).

In adding a translation prize, the National Book Foundation may restore some balance, by opening an American award to overseas authors.

“It goes to the mission of the organization, which is at its essence, to increase the impact of great books on the culture,” said David Steinberger, chairman of the board of directors of the National Book Foundation. “There were so many deserving books that we were never able to recognize.”