Literary Translation and the Nobel Prize in Literature

On Wednesday, I hosted literary translator Lisa Carter on this blog. I also wrote a guest post for her blog, too, about literary translation and the Nobel Prize in literature. I am too tired to blog properly today, so just read my guest post on her website if you have not already.

After today, only six more days left for Blogathon. Isn’t it crazy? I can’t believe I’ve blogged so much!

Update: For the sake of completeness, here is the post.

Lost in Translation: Literary Translation and the Nobel Prize in Literature

A guest post by Natalie Keating

Most people who read (and many who don’t) have heard of the Nobel Prize in Literature, one of the most prestigious honors that can be bestowed on an author. What is less well-known about this award is that the Swedish Academy decides each year who receives it.

The Swedish Academy was founded in 1786 and has eighteen members. It was modeled after the Académie française and has awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1901. From what I can tell, membership in the Swedish Academy is for life, and all the members appear to be highly educated. They hold high academic degrees and are fluent in multiple languages.

One of the most well-known Swedes, former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, was a member of the Swedish Academy until his untimely death in a plane crash in Africa (he occupied Seat 17).

So, how does this discussion of a little-known organization relate to literary translation? The connection is through Hammarskjöld: while reading a biography of him, I was struck by the idea that the members must rely on literary translation to award the Nobel Prize in Literature. Though the members are multilingual, amongst themselves, eighteen people cannot know every language.

Hammarskjöld spoke an impressive amount of languages (Swedish, English, German, and French, if memory serves me correctly) and according to some sources, could read Russian. Attributing Russian reading ability to him certainly sounds plausible. In The Last Days of Dag Hammarskjöld, author Arthur L. Gavshon expresses surprise that Hammarskjöld backed the selection of Boris Pasternak for the 1958 Nobel Prize. He writes, “What is was about Dr. Zhivago that impressed Hammarskjöld so much has never emerged clearly. The literary merit of both the book and its poems is arguable” (p. 205). Gavshon misses the point: either Hammarskjöld read an excellent literary translation, or, more likely, was moved by the book while reading it in the original Russian. (Doctor Zhivago does have literary merit, though I am the first to admit that such merit does not come across in some of the translations I’ve seen.)

The bottom line is: good literary translation matters. After all, it can make the difference between whether a book appears Nobel Prize worthy or not.

For more information on the Swedish academy, see here. The book that inspired this essay is Arthur L. Gavshon, The Last Days of Dag Hammarskjöld, (London: Barrie & Rockliff, 1963).

Natalie Keating is a recent university graduate who studied history and Russian language & literature. In her spare time, she enjoys reading Russian literature, working on her novel, playing violin, and of course translating Russian prose. More of her writing can be found on her blog.

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