A Week in Books

The gift of tongues: at last, a truly world-class prize
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The Independent Culture

You need a pretty good excuse to launch (or re-launch) another annual event into the crowded waters of the literary prize business. In the case of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which will be awarded again from next year onwards, we're sure that we have one. Its purpose was, and will be, simple and unique: to honour the year's best published work of prose fiction translated into English from another tongue. Other awards recognise the professional skill of translators, and do an invaluable job. This one just hails an outstanding book from the non-English speaking world. Among the eminent winners in its first incarnation was José Saramago, some years before the Portuguese maestro found favour with Nobel Prize committee.

You need a pretty good excuse to launch (or re-launch) another annual event into the crowded waters of the literary prize business. In the case of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which will be awarded again from next year onwards, we're sure that we have one. Its purpose was, and will be, simple and unique: to honour the year's best published work of prose fiction translated into English from another tongue. Other awards recognise the professional skill of translators, and do an invaluable job. This one just hails an outstanding book from the non-English speaking world. Among the eminent winners in its first incarnation was José Saramago, some years before the Portuguese maestro found favour with Nobel Prize committee.

Now, in collaboration with the Literature Department of the Arts Council of England, and thanks to its generous support, the Prize will be revived. Books published in Britain between 1 January and 31 December 2000 (either novels or short stories) will be eligible for this first award. We hope to compile a shortlist early next year, and the award will be made in spring 2001.

Worth £10,000, it will be split equally between author and translator. The panel of judges consists of the novelist and critic Patricia Duncker; the poet, novelist and translator Elaine Feinstein; the international literature officer of the Arts Council, Amanda Hopkinson; the head of libraries at Essex County Council, Grace Kempster; and the literary editor of the Independent, whose mug adorns this column. The prize will be administered by the Arts Council of England.

In a country that publishes 110,000 books in a year but only translates a paltry 2.5 per cent of that vast aggregate, it would be easy enough to stress that this award should aim to break down our resistance to any writing from beyond the Anglophone galaxy. The world is shrinking all the time yet - as the citizens of Charleroi well know - travel by itself may sometimes broaden nothing much except the beer-belly. A great, well-translated book can plunge you deeper and faster into another way of life than many a physical trip. Given the odd mix of economic globalism and artistic insularity that stamps British culture now, it would do no harm to make that journey more often.

All of which is true, but tells only half the story. Translation has a glorious history in Britain. It has hugely enriched literature and life here ever since Chaucer filleted his Italian master, Boccaccio. In a thousand turns of phrase, the language we speak bears the mark of the Biblical translations from Hebrew and Greek made by Tyndale, Coverdale, Cranmer, and those shadowy clerics behind the Authorized Version of 1611.

Shakespeare, of course, plundered his favourite translations - such as John Florio's version of the essays of Montaigne. Wave after wave of culture-shifting imports followed: Greek and Latin classics in the 18th century; French and Russian novels in the 19th; a parade of giant figures through the last, from Proust to Kundera. The new edition of Craig Raine's magazine, Areté, prints an enlightening dialogue between Martin Amis and Ian McEwan about their shared passion for the work of Jorge-Luis Borges - an Argentinian, albeit one who was proud of his Geordie grandma.

In literary terms, Britain has never managed to keep its borders closed. Our prize will help to spread the imported word a little wider than before. After all, millions now understand that Portuguese maestros (not to mention Romanian ones... ) may be able to teach us a thing or two.

Publishers who wish to submit entries for the 'Independent' Foreign Fiction Prize should contact Abigail Campbell, Literature Department, Arts Council of England, 14 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 3NQ,tel: 020 7973 0300

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