Last week, I was singing the praises of translators, a group of people whose work on behalf of other authors tends to be underestimated at best and, more frequently, entirely ignored. This week, partly because I was travelling around the UK discussing crime fiction and partly because of what I had written earlier, I was reminded of something translation-related that has been bugging me for quite a few months now.
As those of you who follow such matters will already be aware, the Crime Writers’ Association in Britain decided some time ago to disqualify books in translation from competing for the Gold Dagger, the main prize awarded each year by the CWA for the best crime novel. To those of us with a slightly cynical bent, it seemed that the main reason why this decision was made was because translated novels have been doing rather well in the Daggers in recent years, and ruffling some feathers in the process. After all, it’s hard enough to win a Dagger without Johnny Foreigner coming along and spoiling the party. Lots of nice British and American authors, who speak and write proper English, would rather like a dagger for themselves, not to mention the whopping £20,000 cheque that will find its way into the pocket of the victor in 2006.
The final straw came in 2005 when the Icelandic novelist Arnaldur Indridason won the Gold Dagger for Silence of the Grave. (Actually, he should have won it in 2004 for the superior Jar City, but then Al Pacino should have won an Oscar long before he got one for the dreadful Scent of a Woman. At least, in both cases, an attempt was made to rectify the earlier mistakes.) Splendidly, the CWA announced that the award showed that crime in translation was gaining mainstream recognition, before immediately withdrawing that recognition itself by disqualifying translations. Really, you have to admire that kind of brazen hypocrisy.
Anyway, the decision to exclude translations led to a lot of odd statements being made in an effor to justify what was, in the end, a dubious piece of business. For example, Val McDermid - usually a fairly sensible type - offered her support for exclusion by pointing out that if Peter Hoeg’s rather wonderful Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow had been read in its American version rather than its English version, then it might not have seemed so wonderful after all.
Now there really are only three appropriate responses to this. The first is “Huh?” The second is to enquire just where exactly she acquired her degree in comparative literature. The third, meanwhile, is to wonder exactly how much Danish she speaks and reads to enable her to make this kind of judgement. Curiously, McDermid was also one of those who provided approving quotes for Silence of the Grave. She described it as “a fascinating window on an unfamiliar world”, albeit the type of window that she and her colleagues were apparently happy to see closed in order to facilitate the future marginalisation of foreign authors.
Robert Richardson, the CWA’s vice-chairman at the time and now its chairman, had this to say of the decision in the Guardian newspaper: “British crime writers have always recognised the quality of foreign crime fiction. However, the CWA has decided that this is the right time to bring our rules into line with the Man Booker and Orange prizes. The opportunity to win our Gold Dagger will still be open to crime writers from all over the world - as long as our judges are reading the original text, not a translated version.”
So that’s all right then. All you have to do to qualify for the Gold Dagger, or the Duncan Lawrie Dagger as it is hereafter to be known, as a nod to its generous sponsors, is to learn English. It’s a doddle, really. Frankly, these foreigners should have thought of it before. Perhaps they could learn to sing “God Save the Queen” while they’re at it.
And why, precisely, is it necessary to follow the lead of the Man Booker and Orange prizes? What has that got to do with anything? Why not instead follow the lead of the Edgars, the US mystery awards, or the IMPAC awards, both of which operate a far more inclusive policy? In the end, would the issue even have arisen if, in recent years, translated works had not had an impact on the Daggers out of all proportion to their UK sales? Basically, if foreign writers hadn’t started winning the Dagger, then I rather suspect that they would have been quite welcome to keep competing for it. After all, everybody likes a plucky underdog, especially if he talks a bit funny. As someone pointed out, the decision to exclude foreign writers because they happened to be successful was a little like FIFA announcing that Brazil would no longer be entitled to compete in the World Cup because they were making most of the other teams look bad.
The exclusion of translations also raises new questions about the value of the Duncan Lawrie Dagger. After all, most writers would like to feel that, if they win a prize, they have done so by allowing their work to be judged alongside the cream of their fellow authors. By refusing to acknowledge translated works in the main competition, the CWA has diminished the achievement of winning its premier award. Creating a second award, however valuable, for books in translation just isn’t good enough. The issue is not money, but marginalisation. For as long as this situation persists, the Dagger presented to the winning author will be slightly tarnished by the circumstances of the victory.
Sorry to be coming to this debate so late, but it sometimes takes a while for these things to annoy me sufficiently to compel to put my objections in print, and I noticed that a great many of my fellow writers had chosen to remain diplomatically silent on the issue. (After all, £20,000 is not to be sniffed at, and we wouldn't want to offend anyone, would we?) At least I had time to think about it which, given the fact that the CWA announced the exclusion of translated works 24 hours after giving the Dagger to Indridason, is more than can be said that august body. And if they had been considering it for longer, then how could they announce, after giving Indridason his prize, that they were in favour of mainstream recognition for foreign writers? The two positions are, frankly, incompatible, and everyone involved in the exclusion decision should hang their heads in shame.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I’m not a member of the CWA which, handily, saved me the trouble of resigning in protest.
This week John read
All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman
and listened to
Surprise by Paul Simon
Just Like The Fambly Cat by Grandaddy
Everything is Green by The Essex Green