The National Book Awards offers one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the country, and writers such as William Faulkner, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, Pynchon, Alice Walker, E. Annie Proulx, and Ta-Nehisi Coates are among the literary giants who have won National Book Awards.
“I was invited to serve by the National Book Foundation,” said Professor Valentino. “I believe I was on their radar for having served as President of the American Literary Translators Association from 2013 to 2016, and then on the advisory board for a six-month project they conducted in 2016 called ‘Translation in America,’ which was funded by the Mellon Foundation and attempted to measure the scope and breadth of literary translation in the U.S.”
From among the hundreds of submissions, the jury, this year headed by award-winning translator Ann Goldstein, first identified a long list of ten, then a short list of five, and, before the black-tie awards ceremony on November 16 in New York, will select the winner.
These awards are so important, Valentino explains, especially for translated literature, because “awards that recognize excellence are essential for any field that sees itself as distinct from others. No one disputes that translation is a kind of writing, but what kind is it exactly? It’s distinct from creative writing, on the one hand, and scholarly writing, on the other, but it combines aspects of each. Translators do a ton of research, which is the scholarly side of their work.”
But then, Valentino added, “translators need to be able to write like the best fiction writers, poets, dramatists, and literary non-fiction writers in the receiving culture, all while making sure they never lose sight of or stop listening to their source. All this means that they need to cultivate habits of reading, research, and writing that put them in their own category, one that spans the creative and scholarly worlds.”
When you put these skills together, he noted, paired with a great book from another culture, by an author whose voice “sings” in English, and a high-quality edition by a publisher that pays attention to editing and design, you get the sort of book that the National Book Award for translated literature recognizes.
Service on the panel is important to Valentino. “I am both a scholar of literature and a translator, editor, and sometime publisher of literary and scholarly translations,” he said. “Reading, discussing, and thinking carefully about some of the best books published in a given year is the equivalent of ‘basic research’ in other fields. It helps me to see what’s happening, who is doing what, which authors, translators, publishers, and genres are vibrant and exciting. It also obviously gives me ideas about my own work, where I might want to focus new attention and energy, and where my students and colleagues might find work that speaks to them and connects to their research.”
One major challenge for the panel, Valentino pointed out: “There were so many good submissions!” he enthused. “It was very difficult to narrow the list down to ten and then five. We’ll be selecting one in the end, and it will of course be an exceptional book. But these sorts of competitions are also always about comparing works that in many ways can’t really be compared. Towards the end especially, you are only looking at exceptional books. As a judge, this is a burden. But as a reader, it’s a privilege and a joy.”