The New “Italian Prose in Translation Award” – Two Cheers for ALTA

A few days ago, the American Literary Translators Association announced

a new prize for Italian literature in English translation! The Italian Prose in Translation Award (IPTA) recognizes the importance of contemporary Italian prose (fiction and literary non-fiction) and promotes the translation of Italian works into English. This $5000 prize is awarded annually to a translator of a recent work of Italian prose (fiction or literary non-fiction).

Translators’ groups and forums immediately began buzzing about it.

Unfortunately, I can find little reason to be as enthusiastic about the IPTA as some of my colleagues seem to be.

In my research on copyright (Copyright “Rustling” in English-Language Translation: How Translators Keep (and Lose) Rights to Their Work—Data from Translations Published in 2014), based primarily upon 2014 data from the Library of Congress and the Three Percent database, I logged 73 Italian-to-English translations. These included every kind of publication: academic treatises and texts, self-help books, kids’ books, novels, poetry, short stories.

Those 73 books represented 8.7% of all translated titles (in any genre) in my research. (French won with 23.8%, then German with 15.6%, and Spanish with 10.1%.)

So let’s consider those Italian-to-English translations in terms of ALTA/IPTA elibibility. ALTA’s prize category is defined, more than a little vaguely, as “fiction or literary non-fiction.” (If you can tell exactly what goes into the second of those categories … something about Gunga Din.)

If, however, we exclude books that would pretty unambiguously be ineligible for the IPTA prize (kids’ books; self-help/pop psych; poetry & plays; treatises on history, philosophy, religion, or economics)—but include everything else—we’re left with 38 Italian-to-English translations published in 2014. (I haven’t collected data for the other three years eligible for the first IPTA – 2011 through 2013.)

Of these, 55.2% were produced by the same five translators whose names you certainly know if you follow Italian-to-English literary translation, and 21% were published by a single publisher, Europa Editions, which is notorious for taking translators’ copyrights.

After Europa, there was Farrar, Straus & Giroux with 10.5% (and Farrar doesn’t rustle copyrights), but no other publisher brought out more than two Italian-to-English literary titles; most produced only one in 2014.

I appreciate ALTA’s claim that its prize “promotes the translation of Italian works into English,” but I don’t believe it will. (Perhaps, if the prize continues to be awarded in future, its mission may change.)

At the moment, however, ALTA considers only already published translations for the IPTA and, thus, can do nothing more than reward the status quo that has, for years, favored a small number of Italian-to-English translators and a small number of publishers.

If the goal is to promote Italian literature in translation, there’s no logical sense in creating an award that, by definition, will have virtually no impact upon the existing market presence of a book or upon the existing lack of competition among Italian-to-English literary translators.

ALTA was right to look at the comparatively small percentage of Italian books that appear in translation in English and see a problem.

But we don’t need prizes for translators whose books have already been published—more than half of them by well-established, large to mid-sized presses. That changes absolutely nothing.

What we need are two things:

  1. financial grants for small publishers who want to acquire Italian titles for future publication but can’t afford either to buy rights or to hire qualified translators; and
  2. a commitment of solidarity from the best-known and most rewarded Italian-to-English translators (Ann Goldstein, Howard Curtis, and Antony Shugaar chief among them) to stop working with publishers that usurp translators’ copyrights.*

My prediction? The winner of the first IPTA will be Ann Goldstein for one or more of the Ferrante novels. She doesn’t need the money and Europa doesn’t deserve the press.

I’d like to be wrong about the IPTA prize. At the moment, though, I think that’s ALTAmente unlikely.

_______________

* I’d go so far as to say that ALTA should refuse to give the IPTA to any translator who has handed over copyright to the translation under consideration. That’s drastic, I realize. I also realize its direct impact is on translators rather than on publishers who persist in bad practices. But a concerted response to the copyright problem has to begin somewhere. Translators apparently need a greater incentive to say no to the copyright grab, and organizations that award prizes or create annual “best translation” lists have enormous influence (one out of five titles on Three Percent’s fiction long-list for its 2015 Best Translated Book Award, for example, was a book whose translator’s copyright had ended up in someone else’s hands; Three Percent could easily have narrowed the field to “virtuous” publishers only).

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