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Guest Post by Kevin Prufer: NBCC at 35

By Kevin Prufer

 NBCC board member Kevin Prufer offers these thoughts on his years on the board.

One of the satisfactions of having hung around the NBCC Board for seven years is that I’ve seen many of the same conversations played out over and over again. One of the most common goes something like this:

First, a board member points out that translated books often seem to get short shrift in our deliberations. (I’ll confess that this has often been me.)

Someone else then helpfully suggests that maybe we need a new category called “Books in Translation.”

A third Member of the Board inevitably counters that by asking how we’d ever judge such a category. Wouldn’t we be comparing translated books of poetry to translated books of nonfiction to translated biographies? How would that even work?

And are we expert enough to make these kinds of distinctions? another asks. I mean, we’ve got people here who speak Spanish, French, and German, but what about Latvian? What about Hungarian? Or Icelandic? We’re just not qualified to judge.

But, I say, we know a good book when we see one. Isn’t that the important thing? And if we need to, we can always seek outside counsel, too.

And furthermore (I say into the dead air) we’re not experts on the subjects of the various biographies, are we? But we make judgment calls there, too. Or we ask people who know.

(Here, someone whispers to his neighbor that he never feels very confident of his judgment of translated books, anyway.)

But, the woman on my right says, there’s still the question of comparing translated books of poetry to biographies and novels and memoirs.

And there we sit, until someone says, What we need is seven translation categories, one for each area.

Or, someone else suggests, we could give some kind of special award for a translated book now and then.

Heads nod.

Then I ask if that would mean excluding translations from the regular awards.

And everyone shrugs.

It’s getting kind of late, someone murmurs. So we move on to more pressing business.

The truth is, though, that I think we have a chronic translation problem on the NBCC Board. We opted, many years ago, to include translations because, as an organization of book critics, we’re in the business of rewarding the best books published each year, regardless of a writer’s nationality or native language. So long as the books are published in English in this country, they’re eligible.

And, sure, in recent memory we’ve given the fiction award to Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and now and then have translated books among the finalists, especially in poetry. But it’s also true that translated books raise all kinds of questions for the Board that books composed in English do not. And as a result, they have to overcome dissent and worry that others books skate past.

I fully expect to repeat this conversation at least once more before my seven years on the Board ends in March. Maybe it will revolve around Elena Fanailova’s marvelous THE RUSSIAN VERSION. Or maybe it will concern Mahmoud Darwish’s IF I WERE ANOTHER. Or Novica Tadic’s DARK THINGS. Who knows?

And maybe I’ll luck out and some reader will email me the perfect solution before that conversation begins again.

Kevin Prufer is a NBCC board member