Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Translation Prizes to Dollenmayer and Mitchell (Both Male)

Not overly new news, but the American translators David Dollenmayer and Breon Mitchell have both won prizes recently.

Dollenmayer took the Austrian Cultural Forum New York's (ACFNY) 2010 Translation Prize for his translation-in-progress of Michael Köhlmeier's Idyll With Drowning Dog (Idylle mit ertrinkendem Hund), a short novel first published in 2008. This is an award of $3000 for translations of contemporary Austrian fiction, poetry, and drama which have not previously appeared in English. The translator gets the actual cash if and when they find a US publisher for their project. And Dollenmayer gets a sparkly trophy too. Congratulations!

And the American Modern Languages Association has awarded its Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a translation of a literary work to Breon Mitchell, for his astounding new translation of Günter Grass' The Tin Drum. Well done to him too - he gets an unspecified cash award, a certificate, and a one-year membership in the association.

Now without in any way questioning these choices, which seem mighty fine to me, I did notice something of an imbalance when I was looking at past winners of both the MLA award and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize. They have both mainly gone to men. Interestingly, this isn't the case for the British equivalent, the Schlegel-Tieck Prize - even if you discount the fact that Anthea Bell's won it six times over.

I was suprised at this imbalance, because I'm used to thinking that translation, and literary translation as a subset of that profession, is a female-dominated industry. That may be because I live in Germany, where so many books are translated that there are plenty of translators, and the profession is not particularly prestigious. So as with many other lowish-status language-related jobs, women dominate. My hypothesis is that because literary translation tends to be the preserve of academics in the USA, the gender make-up of the award winners thus reflects a gender imbalance in the upper echelons of academia.

I can't draw any conclusions about the British situation, other than a sneaking suspicion that literary translators without academic posts can survive there because there is greater call for non-literary translations. But that's just a wild guess - and as the pattern of multiple wins shows, there aren't a huge number of people in the industry in the UK either.


schultzie said...

Idylle mit ertrinkendem Hund was my favourite book of those I read this year (excl der Zauberberg ;-) for first time in German) - for such a small book it is incredibly thought provoking on the relationship between writer and editor (also the indoor garden reminded me of Paglia's Sexual Personae) - definitely a masterpiece and well worth reading.

As for the prizes and gender - argument by numbers is a fallacy. You need to identify translations that could definitely have been found better and make a case for them.

kjd said...

Schultzie, I'm not arguing that those prizes should have gone to women. I'm suspecting that the gender structure of the winners reflects an imbalance in the gender structure of the pool of possible winners, i.e. American literary translators.

The ACFNY prize either hasn't been in existence for long or doesn't publicise many past winners (last year it went to Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf).

Martin Rauchbauer said...

Dear kjd:
I just discovered your blog and in general agree with your analysis about structural imbalances. However, in our case, the ACF Translation Prize went to three winners last year (when it was awarded for the first time). You mentioned the first two but left out the third: Jean Snook who translated Gert Jonke's "The Distant Sound" is a great female translator and had her translation published by the Dalkey Archives almost immediately.


Martin Rauchbauer
Head of ACF Literature Department

kjd said...

Thank you, Martin. I hadn't realised the prize went to Jean Snook as well last year. That does indeed make you a parable of gender balance.

I do want to point out though that I'm not a believer in quotas in areas that are judged wholly on merit. I think in fact that would be counterproductive.

In an ideal world, and I like to think that judges of translation prizes probably reside somewhere close to that world, the gender of the translator would be of no significance for the choice of the winner.

But to reiterate, the fact that so many men and so few women have won prizes for their translations can't be a coincidence.