Some problems with the Man Asian Literary Prize

By Nicky Harman, published

I was interested in a recent article by Richard Lea of the UK's Guardian newspaper, on the 2008 Man Asia Literary Prize, won this year by a Philipino writer, Miguel Syjuco, and last year by Jiang Rong with Wolf Totem. I've pasted in the article below, but first, my own comment:
In all the discussions on the prize, I think two key points have been missed. One is practical and the other 'conceptual': to get an English language version which has not been published (for the books which originate in languages other than English), you need a translator to spend a year of their time translating a book for nothing, in the hopes that a publisher will pop up later - or you need the publisher of the translation and the translator to do a deal whereby the book is submitted for the prize after the translation deal has been done, but before the book is actually published. That immediately disadvantages the non-English language books in the competition for this prize. On a broader level, the prize is awarded on the basis of the translation to the original author. The problem is that the original and the translation are two separate versions, albeit of the same book. We all know that a good translation can 'improve' a book, and a bad translation can ruin a good book. What about Paper Republic readers' views?

Richard Lea wrote, Monday 17 November 2008:
Running a literary prize in the real world
Well there I was all ready to get in a froth about the Man Asian literary prize. Quite apart from the Literary Saloon's long-running quibble with exactly how Asian a prize can be when it counts out Turkey, Iran and a whole bunch of other 'stans from Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan, they've gone and given it to Miguel Syjuco, an English-speaking graduate of creative writing programmes at both Columbia and Adelaide University.

They are not exactly bringing "exciting new Asian authors to the attention of the world literary community", I grumbled. Not so much facilitating "publishing and translation" of Asian literature, I harrumphed. Just look at this year's shortlist. The judges may be considering unpublished manuscripts, but four out of five of their shortlist were written in English (all but Yu Hua's Brothers), three out of five already have publishing deals with English-language publishers (all but Syjuco and Alfred Yuson) and three out of five have studied on creative writing programmes in the west (all but Yuson and Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi). This comes after the inaugural prize was awarded to Jiang Rong, a debut novelist who'd already signed a $100,000 deal with Penguin for Wolf Totem.

But after speaking to the new winner – "ecstatic, but also incredulous" – and to a member of the administrative committee, Peter Gordon, my dudgeon's subsided.

It's not that I wanted to cast any aspersions on the quality of Syjuco's work. In as much as it's possible to judge an unpublished manuscript I've never seen, it sounds very interesting: Ilustrado is patchwork story constructed out of fragments written by a fictional lion of Philippine letters, the novel examines the history of the Philippines and corruption at the highest level of Philippine society. It was hailed by the Man Asian judges as possessing "formal ambition, linguistic inventiveness and sociopolitical insight in the most satisfying measure". I'm looking forward to seeing it in print.

Syjuco also deserves a lot of points for posting a Wikipedia entry on his fictional main character that was so convincing he's had to make it clear it was all a joke after confusing a bunch of literary agents.

Nor was I trying to make some fatuous point about Syjuco not being Asian enough. He's right when he points out that the "Filipino experience is very much a global one" - there's more to modern Asia than paddy fields, after all. An English-language novel that apparently engages with a vibrant English-language tradition of Philippine letters is just as valid an expression of Asian literature as Duong Thu Houng's Balzacian vision of the Vietnam war.

No, the thing that worried me was the impression that the prize was turning up nothing more than a different bunch of the usual suspects.

For those, like me, who were hoping for "new Asian authors" a little more "exciting" than a bunch of writers who have already sold their books to English-language publishers, Peter Gordon counters that the "prize has to function in the real world". It makes sense to choose English as a language for the prize both in terms of the judging process, and because English is the bottleneck through which literature must pass to become truly global.

The need to translate entries written in languages other than English is a "rather higher barrier", Gordon admits, but there were still a significant number of entries submitted in translation for the 2008 prize, and there were more submitted this year than in 2007. He detects a growing interest in translating works into English throughout the region.

"Only a fool would predict the future," he says, "but I would expect that there would be more and more high quality submissions in translation." He's confident that the process will produce positive feedback – that writing, translation, publishing and reading stimulated by the prize will "increase the diversity of submissions over time and that there is therefore no explicit need to direct the process".

Maybe it's too early to start kvetching about a prize with only two winners anyhow. Give it 10 years, and maybe they'll let in the 'stans.


# 1.   

The prize's stated goals are these:

  1. To bring exciting new Asian authors to the attention of the world literary community;

  2. To facilitate publishing and translation of Asian literature in and into English; and

  3. To highlight Asia's developing role in world literature.

It seems to me that the first two goals are undermined by the fact that, as both Nicky and Richard have pointed out, a book and its author need to first garner the attention of the world literary community (and probably also have a publishing deal) before they're ever eligible for the prize. In a certain sense, they're giving the prize only to books that don't need it.

And what on earth does it mean to "highlight Asia's developing role in world literature?" Where's Asia? What role could "it" be expected to play in anything? Mightn't this be better stated as "To ameliorate English speakers' ignorance of literature from other parts of the world"? In which case, it hardly matters which countries are included within the boundaries. It seems impossible to me that the books considered for this prize would ever have anything in common, let alone anything "Asian" in common.

But of course, all that said, it's certainly better to have the prize than not…

Eric Abrahamsen, November 24, 2008, 2:29p.m.

# 2.   

a book and its author need to first garner the attention of the world literary community (and probably also have a publishing deal) before they're ever eligible for the prize. In a certain sense, they're giving the prize only to books that don't need it.

I think the relative newness of the prize itself might have something to do with this. The books might not need the prize, but the prize needs a well-known book to gain the visibility to attract submissions. Disappointing, perhaps, but it may change in future years.

zhwj, November 24, 2008, 7:09p.m.


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