- On Judging the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize
The Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, funded by Lord Weidenfeld and by New College, The Queen's College, and St Anne's College in Oxford, is awarded annually. It is judged by a panel of three Oxford acadamics and/or translators, plus a guest judge from the wider literary world.
The 2007 shortlist consisted of modern novels from France, Austria, and Norway; the selected poems of a contemporary German poet; three volumes of the writings of a Swiss dramatist, essayist, and story-writer; and a parallel-text version of Dante. The field of eligible books published during 2006 had of course been far larger, and was also wider-ranging, for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize is for Englishings of prose fiction, poetry, and drama from living European languages. I have been a judge for the last four years now, and each time, when faced with the pile of eighty-odd entries, the multiple source languages (a few known to me, most not), the gamut of genres – from crime fiction and chick lit through Dumas (say) to Tolstoy and the poetry of Rilke or Kaplinski; not to mention the variety of translation challenges and ways of meeting them, from the exfoliation of a much-translated classic to the acute responsibility of introducing a writer for the first time, from the fairly straightforward demands of genre fiction to the peculiar meld of liberty and rigour required by the translation of poetry – each time, when faced with all this, I have asked: How on earth do you set about it? How can such incommensurables be compared?
The written guidelines give some help. Judges are to consider 'the quality of the translation, the importance of the original work and the value of its being put into English'. The criteria triangulate and qualify each other. What counts is not only the imaginative force of the work as brought into English, but what one might call the translation event – the feeling that this book should matter particularly to us, in [End Page 65] the UK, now. The quality of the translation is perhaps the paramount criterion – after all, the prize money goes to the translator – but this should be judged primarily not by measuring translation against source (in any case impossible to do fairly across so many languages) but by gauging the strength of the English writing that has been done on behalf of the original, which is offered here by the translator as its representative.
Tendencies emerge from these considerations. Of course any kind of book could turn out to have the particular energy of a prizewinner or shortlist item. But a new version of an already translated classic will have to be especially eye-opening to deliver the necessary cultural jolt – as Rosamund Bartlett, for instance, did in her translation of Chekhov, About Love and Other Stories, shortlisted in 2005. Again, a piece of genre fiction will have to be unusually distinctive, not only because genre fiction is by definition generic, but because its standard styles tend not to call forth compelling English from the translator. Take this, from Frank Schätzing's The Swarm, translated by Sally Ann Spencer: 'a few weeks later the circumstances surrounding his sudden disappearance sent shockwaves around the globe'. Just the sort of journalese you want from that sort of book, and no doubt perfectly translated; but in its nature not offering anything valuably new to the English reader. (It is striking, incidentally, how international the materials for genre fiction are: cyberterrorism and environmental catastrophe are exercising the imaginations of thriller writers across Europe.) Usually, it takes great writing in the source language to stimulate great translation; and the special pressure of a first or early encounter seems to do it most. Len Rix's version of Magda Szabó's The Door – our winner in 2006 – is a case in point: a truth-telling, unsummarizable novel rendered in a spare, driven English that became cumulatively overwhelming.
The way a text is presented affects how you take it. An obvious truth, but one that exerts a particular influence on the reading of translations – and also qualifies what I said above about...