Wednesday, 24 April 2013

German Children's and Young Adults' Literature Prize to Translated Works?

The Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis is Germany's big prize for picture books, children's books, YA books and children's/YA non-fiction books. Most of the biggies have won it over the years, including two of my friends. The unusual thing about it is that it can be awarded to books written originally in German or published in translation, all within a particular year. There has been some annoyance about that on the part of some German writers of children's and young adults' literature. In fact they went as far as to write an open letter to the family minister calling for an end to the practice (original formatting):
An alteration to the award guidelines for the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis is indispensible and overdue in the following two points:
1)      The evaluation by the critics' and young people's juries should apply to  German-language original works in the categories picture book, children's book, young adults' book and non-fiction.
2)      German translations of foreign-language works should be honoured  separately, i.e. in their own category/categories.
After almost sixty years of the award's existence, may German-language children's and young adults' literature finally be adequately acknowledged and valued by the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis, as other countries deal with their own literary production.
In case you're wondering why they wrote to the family minister, it's because her ministry is officially in charge of the prize.

Anyway, the open letter did the rounds of the social media, making me feel a little uncomfortable but not enough to keep me up at night. And then today the German literary translators issued a response in a press release containing a long and combative statement by Heike Brandt. Unfortunately, you're going to have to click the link above and then go to "Pressemitteilungen" to get there. I do apologise. A soundbite from the VDÜ's chairman Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel to make up for it:
It is good and important that the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis covers the entire range of children's and young adults' literature published in Germany, originals and translations into German. A national limitation of the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreises would be an untimely and fatal signal. Setting up a prize category for translations would not balance that out.
Now you can imagine I'm torn. On the one hand, I want my German writer friends to win prizes for their books. On the other hand I want my German translator friends to win prizes for their books - on a par with all the other books. Because that's precisely what makes this award special: the fact that it's a prize for all children's and young adult's books and doesn't make a false distinction between books written in German and books written in Swedish, English or Hebrew. The upset authors claim it's not a level playing field, however, because translated books have had longer to establish themselves on the market (abroad) and gain attention. They say it's more difficult for books written by German authors to win the prize. I'm not sure about that. A brief glance at the previous winners shows it's a fairly even distribution. In fact in 2011 no translated books won anything, although last year was back to half and half. I suspect this year's nominations might be the straw that broke the camel's back, with only three originals in the running for any of the critics' fiction prizes.

Nevertheless I shall come down from the fence and say that yes, I think it's marvellous that this award treats originals and translations as exactly the same things: great books. On the anecdotal level, my daughter reads German originals, German translations and English originals of all her confusing YA fantasy series, depending on what she gets her hands on. And to back that up, there's the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis young people's jury, who fairly consistently nominate a mix of translated and original titles. I think Germany could be proud not to make a distinction like all those other countries with their narrow-minded national book awards. But then of course I could just be saying that because I'm a translator.

Update: As the very clever writer, translator and YA-lit expert Danny Hahn pointed out, this is exactly how the Dublin IMPAC prize works, and is something to be applauded. And as with the IMPAC prize, the award money either goes to the writer (of a German-language original) or is shared equally between the writer and translator.


holly said...

I enjoyed reading this, Katy!

Anonymous said...


I like your writing but I would ask you to read the letter you are referring to before you comment on it.

I am a translator, too and I like the idea the 450 German writers have: To give the prize to translations AND to originally German books in EVERY category.

So there would be one German picture book and one translation. One German children's book and one translation. One German book for teenagers and one translation. One German nonfiction book and one translation. The teenage jury would give the price to one originally German book and to one translated book.The categories would be both national AND international.

Since the ministry grants the Arbeitskreis für Jugendliteratur a budget of 600.000 Euro a year for this prize there is no money for a second one which would honor national writers.

But I guess you can imagine why the AKJ fights every change with teeth and claws. They earn a lot of money the way it is now and nobody has the right to question them - though it's all tax payer's money.

There is only this one prize for children's literature in Germany and it is only international. So German books have to compete with all the books which won prizes in the US and in GB and Italy and Sweden before they were translated to German - the best of the best of the world.

They themselves can never get the same kind of acknowledgment in their homecountry. I would like to see how you tell Italy and France and Great Britain that their writers cannot be honored nationally because it's a sign of bigotry and nationalism and envy.

The AKJ and the German ministry argue that the prize was made international two years after its founding because a) there were hardly any books in German and b) the books they had were influenced by Nazi-Germany.

They say that 60 years later they "do not see a political situation that would rectify a change".

So basically they tell their German children's books writers they are (still) Nazis.

Then there come the translators lead by Heike Brandt (I as a translator do not agree with her at all) and tell us there "is no German cultural identity". She "wouldn't know what that even means" and "wouldn't want it anyway".

Completely ignoring the UNESCO's 2005 resolution to protect the variety of national cultures in the face of globalism.

Brandt argues German writers are greedy because they ask for a national prize for their work to signal the rest of the world that Germany honors its own artists. It's the best way to be translated into other languages and to be seen by the market.

By that Brandt neglects that a) she didn't read the proposal by German writers which states very clearly that they ask to split the prize in half and honor translations and originals equally. And that b) the reason translators disagree is that right now they get most of the prize money and honor.

Heike Brandt even argues that the reason German writers don't have their own prize is the "poor quality of German manuscripts" and that there are "too many writers and too many books so they are not recognized in Germany". But (and that's odd) she doesn't "know what the German book award could change about that".

So honoring German writers in Germany doesn't make German writers more valued. And since the reason for allowing international books to compete for the prize was necessary because there were hardly any books in Germany - now it's necessary because there are too many books in Germany and they are all too bad.

You seem like somebody who gives every side a chance. Maybe you'd look at he other side of this, too?

Thank you.

kjd said...

Dear V.,

Thanks for your comment. I have in fact read the letter in question and was presenting my own view of the issue, including links to the two documents. As I've pointed out above, the statistics don't seem to back up the suggestion that translators get most of the prize money and honour.

I stand by my argument and would in fact encourage other nations to widen the scope of their literary awards in a similar way (although certainly in Britain, there's no equivalent tax-funded award). Not because I see national awards as a sign of bigotry, etc., but because I think it makes sense to commemorate excellent books, no matter who wrote them. Hence my comparison to the IMPAC Prize, a very highly respected literary award.

As far as I understand, the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis is awarded to outstanding books rather than outstanding translations (as the Leipzig Book Fair Prize does). Dividing the award would not only muddy this issue, it would also split the prize money (as you noted, the budget is not likely to be increased, although I'm not sure the AKJ is making a profit, as you seem to be suggesting). That would probably mean German writers would get half the amount they get now and translators would get a quarter of that amount (at present they get half). Of course, there's the honour to think about - but when it comes to cash, more is usually better.

Coming from a country where translations of children's books are extremely rare, I very much appreciate the fact that children in Germany can read books originating from many different places. The Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis reflects this wonderful market diversity - and as I hinted in my piece, it reflects what children and young adults actually read in Germany, which is a mixture of original and translated books.

I'm sorry you feel German writers are getting a bad deal out of the award. However, I feel the purpose of this particular prize (as I believe the AKJ sets out itself) is to offer guidance to young readers. I don't think the award's loyalty is to writers as much as to readers - and I don't think readers distinguish between translated and original literature, and I certainly don't want to encourage them to do so. That's why I'm in favour of retaining the international character of the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your answer, kjd!
Though I still not quite get what your point of view has to do with misinterpreting and misrepresenting the letter.
You summarize the letter:

1) The evaluation by the critics' and young people's juries should apply to German-language original works in the categories picture book, children's book, young adults' book and non-fiction.

That is simply not true as I explained before. They ask to honor one national book (meaning German, Austrian or Swiss or any author writing in German) and one international book (meaning every other country in the world but in German translation). So what you write is wrong.

2) German translations of foreign-language works should be honoured separately, i.e. in their own category/categories.

No, German translations should not have "their own category". They would have the very same categories. Only would they be acknowledged for the international book and for the German translation. The Austrian and the Swiss children's books awards have one extra category for translations and exclude them from the main categories.

You say there is no British equivalent and I agree in matters of tax funded prizes. But the most prestigious prizes in GB are for british authors only as you might already know. The same goes for France and Italy and the Netherlands.

I don't know an awful lot about other countries but my families are from Switzerland and from Ireland. We honor our own writers with national prizes and honor the world literature separately. Otherwise it would be unfair to both.
The children's books of Ireland foundation explains the why very well.
Cheers, Viktor


The first chapter of CBI’s story has taken place at a time of extraordinary change in Irish society. Shifting arts, education and socio-economic landscapes have formed a dramatic backdrop to our first fifteen years. Significant lifestyle changes, along with increased immigration and urbanisation, have changed how people interact with the arts and, importantly, how children interact with books. Likewise, arts policy and infrastructure development have contributed to a positive relationship between the public and the arts. As an innovative and active arts organisation, CBI will continue to ensure that children’s books and the children’s books community are valued, cherished and supported. We look forward to Children’s Books Ireland making its contribution to the future vibrancy of the arts in a multi-cultural Ireland.

Founded in 1990, The CBI Book of the Year Awards are the leading children’s book awards in Ireland. They are a celebration of excellence in children’s literature and illustration and are open to picture books and novels written in English or Irish by authors and illustrators born or resident in Ireland and published between 1st January and 31st December each year.

Pádraic Whyte, chair of the judging panel that read more than 80 titles, said: “The ten books on this year’s shortlist offer children and young people from a broad age group rich and satisfying reading experiences. Many of the books engage with difficult contemporary issues while others are stories of whimsy and fun. This is a wonderfully diverse shortlist that highlights the literary and artistic excellence of current Irish Children’s Literature.”

Mags Walsh, Director at CBI said “Sharing excellent books with young readers is a great pleasure and this year we have ten books which we know will resonate with readers both young and old. Irish authors and illustrators rank among the best in the world so we are very proud to announce our shortlist today.”

kjd said...

Dear Viktor,

The indented section I posted is a direct translation from the open letter. It is not my summary but theirs. I'm not sure where the confusion arises from here.

I don't think there's much point comparing Germany and Ireland. I would be surprised if any translated children's books were published in Ireland at all, although I note that the award honours books written in English and in Irish. As I said, the German prize reflects the country's literary landscape.

Another comparison I'd like to draw is the SWR Bestenliste,
a monthly list of great literature from wherever it happens to come from, translated or not, put together by critics. Although the books' writers don't get any money, they do get the honour of being singled out as outstanding.