From IFFP to Man Booker International Prize…

150707 MBI2016 Announcement web bannerOne of the problems of submitting an article well in advance is that subsequent events can make you look slightly foolish, and that’s certainly happened with my recent piece on the Shadow IFFP judging process. You see, just a couple of days before it went live over at Shiny New Books, there was news of a major change for the prize, one which would totally restructure the fiction in translation scene. The announcement was of the merger of two prizes, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Man Booker International Prize, into one – from 2016, the new Man Booker International Prize, concentrating on books not writers, will be the only show in town.

There have already been several articles on the news in the mainstream press (of which the best piece by far was Daniel Hahn’s piece in The Guardian), and people haven’t exactly been quiet online either. Unlike many of the newspaper write-ups, aficionados of fiction in translation have been a little less hesitant to accept the new prize with open arms – yes, it’s probably going to be a good thing overall, but that doesn’t mean the move is without its issues. In view of that, here’s what I’m attempting to pass off as a summary of the views I’ve seen so far (although you’d be right in suspecting that I’m focusing on views I mostly share…).

For me, the discussion of the change can be divided into three parts – the good, the bad and the sad. The positive effects are, perhaps, the easiest to explain, as the shift to the new Man Booker International Prize will provide a well-needed image boost for the annual prize. While the IFFP was well run, it was probably a little low-key in its approach to mainstream literary culture. The Man Booker name brings prestige and, more importantly, a vast amount of marketing know-how too, with the new prize able to tap into the existing framework (and online presence) of what is perhaps the most effective literary prize in the Anglosphere.

There’s also the small matter of money. The amount put up for the winners will certainly do a lot of talking, and fiction in translation needs all the conversation and discussion it can get. The new prize will award ₤50,000 to the winners (to be shared between the writer and translator), with a total prize pool of ₤60,000. Having put up a lucrative award, the organisers will be hoping that publishers who have been reticent to enter the IFFP in the past will be a little more likely to publish and promote translated literature.

Despite these benefits of the new move, there is one major drawback, and that’s the fact that where we had two prizes we now have just one. The IFFP and Man Booker International Prize were two distinct entities with differing approaches to promoting the wonders of translation, one focusing on a book, the other on a writer’s complete body of work. Now that second idea has gone, and it’s a shame as there’s space (and a need) for both.

It hardly comes as a surprise, though, as the demise of the writer prize has been on the cards for a while now, mainly because the Booker people shot themselves in the foot by focusing on English-speaking writers. The Man Booker International Prize was set up to honour a writer from anywhere in the world, pitting Anglophone and non-Anglophone writers against each other, making it even more embarrassing that of the first five winners, three were from North America and four wrote their work in English. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it appears that László Krasznahorkai’s recent win showed just what might have been if the prize had focused on authors writing in the many other languages our planet has to offer.

After the good and the bad comes the sad, and the most disappointing aspect of the new change for me (and for many others) has been the overshadowing of the IFFP. I’ve found it amazing how much the coverage has been focused on the Man Booker International Prize, with the IFFP a mere uncomfortable side-note. Yes, the Booker people are taking the prizes forward, yet the truth is that the new prize is the IFFP redux under the Man Booker badge. That’s not something you’d appreciate from much of the press coverage (Hahn, again, is the honourable exception here). Much as I’ve struggled with some of the decisions that Boyd Tonkin and his various panels have made in the past, the IFFP was still a worthy prize which did something nobody else was doing in the UK at the time – there’s a little sense of rewriting history here, one which leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Still, what’s done is done, and there’s no point in looking back too much. While we hope for another career award at some point, there’s still the American Neustadt Prize and, of course, the Nobel Prize for Literature to cover that particular base. I’m looking forward to the first edition of the new prize, when I’m sure I’ll be teaming up with another group of eager bloggers to Shadow the event.

Before we move ahead into the new era, though, let’s just hope that the Man Booker people honour the history of both prizes. This year saw the rediscovery of the ‘missing’ first female IFFP winner (Marta Morazzoni), showing how easy it is for the past to be forgotten. It’d be a tragedy to see more than two decades of winners disappear from memory, just because their prizes were won under a different banner. Let’s move forward, by all means – just don’t forget the names of the giants upon whose shoulders the next generation of writers and translators will stand…

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19 thoughts on “From IFFP to Man Booker International Prize…

  1. For me, the problem with the new prize is that by definition it rewards established authors – they’re the ones with a ‘body of work’. What the IFFP did was to introduce writers of quality whether newbie or not. It was not an encouragement award – it was an award that focussed on the quality of the book and if it was good enough in the company it its fellows, it was nominated. So in terms of promoting translated fiction as a source for interesting writing of all kinds from around the world, the IFFP was better for authors and better for readers. The new award will reward authors that many of us already know about rather than introduce us to new authors.
    Still, as you say, the IFFP is gone, just like the Asian Booker. C’est la vie.

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    1. Lisa – That’s not the case here, although it was with the old Man Booker Int. The new MBI is exactly the same as the old IFFP – just with more money. The focus is definitely on the book, not the writer.

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        1. Possibly… The old prize happened every two years and was for the body of work, and it’s this prize which has disappeared. Instead, the Man Booker International name is being used for the new prize, which is essentially exactly the same in format as the old IFFP. As I mentioned in my piece, you wouldn’t know this from many of the newspaper write-ups as they have essentially forgotten about the IFFP. We’ll still get the mix of fresh faces and old favourites every year – I just wonder whether the in-built biases of the IFFP towards ‘easy reading’ will continue…

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  2. Time will tell if this is a good move or not the loss of the old man booker prize is sad but an international prize that for time it ran that gave the prize mainly to English writers isn’t so international .I want see how judging and entries work before I’m convinced it’s better

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  3. You know I enjoy reading translated literature but more critically I am drawn to international literature. The two are not synonymous. “English-language” is so commonly over identified with UK and American literature that it is very difficult for English language writers from African or South Asian countries, or even Canada and many other small market English language countries to receive recognition. On the 80 strong shortlist for the Folio last year there were two Canadian writers one of which was the ubiquitous Margaret Atwood. Fortunately the other, Miriam Toews, was short listed with a novel that tackled a daring subject. We also have other strong authors who have emigrated from and set their works in the countries of origin – East Africa, Sri Lanka, India, Chekoslovakia, etc. What is international? Yes translated work deserves to be supported but “international” is a far more complex notion. I recently went to a poetry reading called “Translating Loss”. One poet was a Kurdish man whose work is published in translation, but the other was a woman who emigrated from Russia in the 1990s and writes of her experiences in English. It is her second language. Both are Canadian but is only the translated one worthy of being considered “international”? Not sure of the answer, but I find myself critically re-assessing my own biases. Perhaps it is due to coming back from a country of 11 official languages where the literary market is predominately English, the Afrikaans and books are priced so high they are a luxury unaffordable to the average South African, regardless of language.

    *stepping down off soap box*

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    1. Joe – That’s a good point, but personally it’s an area I don’t really have a lot to do with (I’m too busy with fiction in translation!). It would be great to have more prizes for everything worth reading – and that is another disadvantage of the old MBI’s demise…

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    2. This is exactly why I’ve chosen to focus on international literature – it covers translated works, but also all of the great literature written in English in places other than the US and England. And it seems to me that decreasing the number of prizes isn’t exactly the best way to promote diversity in literature…

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      1. Chelsea – No, the more the merrier as far as literary prizes are concerned. I wonder if someone will step in to fill the void…

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  4. I really enjoyed both prizes, although despite the so called marketing prowess of the ManBooker, it seemed there was a lot more noise around the established literary book prize and very little for the international prize until soon before the announcement.

    Online my perception is that there is a lot more discussion of the IFFP and shadow IFFP prizes, so for the MBI, they will benefit significantly from that publicity and IFFP authors and translators will benefit from the finacial recognition MBI brings.

    I was a tad disappointed to see the disappearance of the ‘body of work’ prize and did wonder why they couldn’t still offer every 2 years, a kind of honorary prize for a writer, who has made a significant contribution to the international literary community, like they do in the music and film industries, ok its not the Nobel Prize, but there is such great value in promoting those often little known writers and I am sure there is demand for them, but so difficult for the average, non-blogging, non-tweeting English language reader to discover through traditional outlets.

    So many positives, but still room for improvement, a great summation of the issues Tony, thanks for sharing it.

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    1. Claire – Like most, I hope they do find room for a career prize – sadly, the old MBI died a death through lack of interest (and, as I argued, a flawed MO). Let’s hope that they make a better fist of what is essentially the legacy of the IFFP…

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  5. It’s always sad to see a prize go, but you’re right, the Man Booker International Prize unfortunately rewarded those writing in English disproportionately (though they weren’t always already well-known). I liked the idea of a body of work prize as there are writers who are consistently excellent / important but don’t have one ‘great’ novel.
    I hope the new prize (basically the IFFP with a new branding) gets more publicity. It always disappointed me to rarely see bookshops highlight the IFFP (or even have the books!) If that happens maybe it will be a good thing.

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    1. Grant – That’s probably the main positive of this move, the hope that the Booker clout will see a rise in public awareness – it’s only a hope, though, no certainties here…

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