Saturday, November 11, 2006

Should English-language writers be considered for literary prizes in non-English language countries?

Visiting the Frankfurt Book Fair a few weeks ago, I was startled to hear the Indian writer Paul Zacharia mention that only three per cent of books are translated into other languages (at least that was how I understood his statement).

Then, at another event at the Fair, I heard the President of PEN in Norway respond to a suggestion that the Norwegian Prize for Literature should be awarded NOT only for a work written in Norwegian, but for work in ANY language written in the country.

After these weeks, I still find myself very divided in my response to the suggestion.

On one hand, if (for example) the work of English-language migrant writers is considered for such prizes, then immigrants in Norway have at least some possibility of winning the national prize - which appeals to my sense of social justice.

On the other hand, would such a possibility not merely strengthen the hold of English as the world's lingua franca?

What is good for English-language immigrant writers is bad for the other languages that are, in principle, threatened by the rise of English. This may seem to be a rather large claim to make, till one considers what has happened since the Second World War to French as the language of international diplomacy. Or to what has happened to German as a language for research publications since the 1980s. Or to what is happening in Switzerland, where the usual second language in schools is rapidly becoming English rather than one of the other Swiss "official" languages - which will have consequences for Swiss unity given a generation or two....

Anyway, my conclusion is that countries may rightly want to recognise the work of migrants writing in their own language, but it is best not to try to do so by putting, in the same competition, migrants writing in other languages alongside natives writing in national languages.

Rather, it is best to recognise literary excellence on the part of migrants writing in other languages by means of a special prize established for that purpose. If migrants write in the national language of their country of adoption, then of course they should rightly expect to be considered for the national prize.

Recognising and rewarding merit in the work of migrants needs to be encouraged, but not at the cost of writers who are from the country and write in a national language.

The case of English-language writers in countries which have English as an official language, such as India, is different - and India has found the best solution to this conundrum by having separate prizes for literatures in each of the languages that are recognised by the country (including English).

Certainly in the West, which is still remarkably free, any individual or group can establish a prize for work in any language. Indeed, anyone can establish a prize for anything. So why not more prizes for work in whatever language by migrants? Sphere: Related Content

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