Friday, 16 August 2013

US PEN Translation Prize to Donald O. White

The PEN America Center announced the winners of its literary awards a couple of days ago. Scroll down, down, down to the PEN Translation Prize, which has been awarded to Donald O. White for Albert Vigoleis Thelen's Island of Second Sight.

I'm very pleased indeed. My friend Amanda DeMarco reviewed the novel for Three Percent earlier this year, so I know it must be outstanding. And White got an honorary mention for the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize too. I've been feeling eternally guilty because the British publishers sent me a big fat review copy a couple of years ago (the book came out in the UK in 2011). At which I baulked slightly - a 450,000-word novel about bohemian adventures in 1930s Mallorca! - and passed it on to someone else to read, who presumably baulked as well and passed it on to... and so on. Which is why there's no love german books review.

And that's been somewhat of a pattern, I suspect. The story of how the English translation came to be published is an inspiring one. The Cambridge-based translator Isabelle Weiss rediscovered the novel, which was first published in the Netherlands in 1953; too anti-fascist for German publishers even then. And she found out that the American Germanist Donald O. White (don't you love the name overlap?) had been working on a translation for twenty-odd years. A labour of love, I believe we call this. So they spent a year or so approaching major UK publishers with the manuscript, all of whom said no. It was too long and too obscure. In the end, a friend - Robert Hyde - who'd been in on it all from the beginning, decided to revive his old publishing house and bring the translation out himself.

It helped that Thomas Mann and Paul Celan had praised the book in the 1950s. The novel got favourable reviews in serious publications and was then picked up by Overlook Press in the US. Where they certainly know how to honour translators, if not in monetary terms then at least in terms of high-profile awards. White receives $3500 from PEN and the knowledge that a lot of people appreciate his hard work and excellent translation. 

I think this is a great success story, one to remind us that it is OK to publish long, obscure books in translation. Specially for Donald, Isabelle and Robert - and by way of apology - here's the world's biggest band playing their tune in suitably ecstatic manner.

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