The Booker Prize and the Prix Goncourt: A Case Study of Award-Winning Novels in Translation
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The Booker Prize and the Prix Goncourt:
A Case Study of Award-Winning Novels in Translation

The global publishing industry has witnessed the rise to hegemony of English-language cultural products in recent decades.1 A parallel rise in corporate sponsorship of the arts, which is taking over from more traditional forms of patronage as the central mechanism of cultural legitimation,2 has similarly led to the dominance of a model of cultural capital developed in a highly liberalized publishing industry that places a premium on economic, rather than symbolic, value. This article compares the circulation and reception of two sets of prize-winning novels in translation within this context, paying particular attention to the forces and mechanisms governing the international circulation of the texts and reading the resulting translation flows as a significant indicator of cultural and economic hierarchies within the global polysystem.3

As Itamar Even-Zohar's polysystem theory noted as early as the 1970s, the place allotted to literature in translation in a given culture depends on the relative degree of cultural dominance between the two languages. This reflects the uneven distribution of political, social, and cultural forms of capital across languages.4 The impact of such hierarchies of capital can be tracked by studying the relative flows of translations between publishing markets. English is by far the most central language in the global polysystem: its share of the international publishing market rose from 40 to 60 percent between 1979 and 2004.5 Even an otherwise dominant language like French cannot compete with the centrality of English: French publishers bring out on average 4,100 translations from English a year,6 while publishers throughout the English-speaking world acquire the rights to a mere 350 French titles.7 To borrow a metaphor from ecolinguistics, which considers language communities as elements of a wider linguistic ecosystem, English-language writing is a highly successful introduced species, outcompeting other languages for marketplace visibility. [End Page 221]

One way to track the hegemonic reach of English in the international literary marketplace, then, is to follow the fortunes of novels as they cross national and linguistic borders. This article does so by focusing on novels short-listed for and awarded the two leading literary prizes in France and Britain, the Prix Goncourt and the Booker Prize, respectively, since the latter was founded in 1969, through to 2009. This corpus lends itself to such a study in three ways. First, the French and British prizewinners and short-listees represent two coherent, clearly delineated, self-contained sets of data, allowing for clear comparisons. Second, as books that, almost by definition, enjoyed relatively high levels of marketplace visibility, the level of international interest and therefore of translations can reasonably be expected to be higher than in the case of a data set of randomly selected novels. The corpus thus allows for a relatively systematic study of the mechanisms by which translations circulate internationally. Third, it enables us to study not only the circulation of the texts in translation but also the differing constructions of literary prestige within which the works were selected on each side of the Channel.

This case study begins by considering the time taken to translate the novels for the French and U.K.-U.S. markets and outlining the positions occupied by the translations in their respective publishing markets by drawing up a typology of their publishers. It also studies the paratext of the translations to measure the visibility of each prize in the respective foreign-language market.8

Figure 1 illustrates the time taken to translate prizewinners in each direction. The results can be read as revealing the evolution of the prestige of each prize in its respective foreign markets over the period. Most Goncourt winners are translated relatively rapidly into English. A small number of titles have taken as long as nine years to be translated,9 and there have been a few years when the prizewinners remained untranslated.10 Overall, however, most winners are translated within two or three years. This suggests a relatively consistent level of visibility for the Prix Goncourt in the English-speaking publishing world,11 reflecting the fact that the...