PEN Translates Awards
By Jane Bentham, Lucy Clark and Rob Tomlinson
English PEN first launched the PEN Translates Awards in 2012 with the aim of encouraging UK publishers to acquire more foreign language works. English PEN’s slogan “Freedom to Write, Freedom to Read” perfectly captures why it is so important to support international writers and books from other languages as translation provides access to be able to read books from all over the world. This initiative is especially important because of the financial support it awards to selected projects. The award helps UK publishers to meet the cost of translating new works into English ensuring translators are acknowledged and paid properly for their work. These awards are also important as one of the criteria for selection is contribution to UK bibliodiversity meaning English PEN as an organisation are striving to create a more diverse publishing industry.
Let’s get into a few of this year’s winners.
To Hell with Poets, written by Baqytgul Sarmekova and translated from Kazakh by Mirgul Kali.
This year, a title translated from the Kazakh language has won the award for the first time. A collection of “vivid, hilarious and often unsettling” short stories, this work explores the tensions between tradition and the advance of capitalism in Kazakh society after its independence from the Soviet Union. As very few Kazakh literary works have been translated into English, this award represents an exciting milestone for Central Asian literature. Sarmekova’s work will be published in early 2024 by Tilted Axis Press.
The Fire Within, written by Touhfat Mouhtare and translated from French by Rachael McGill.
This will be the first novel written by a Comorian woman to be translated into English. Mouhtare is the second published female writer in the Comoros and she has previously won multiple Francophone literary awards.The Fire Within weaves myth and magic into a coming-of-age story that explores the realities of ordinary women on the Comoro Islands. Mouhtare’s novel will be published by Dedalus Africa, an independent publisher of African literature.
The Dark Side of Skin, written by Jeferson Tenório and translated from Portuguese by Bruna Dantas Lobato.
This Brazilian novel has gained critical acclaim in its home country and across Latin America due to Tenório’s in-depth examination of structural racism, the education system and corruption in Brazilian society. The story follows the protagonist’s exploration into his family’s past after his father is murdered during an encounter with the police. Tenório combines his investigation of core social issues with a tender emphasis on familial bonds and the inescapable ties of history. This work will be published in 2024 by Charco Press.
The Plains written by Federico Falco and translated from Spanish by Jennifer Croft.
2020 finalist of the prestigious Premio Herralde, a Spanish prize for unpublished novels, The Plains is a subtle work. It recounts the self-imposed exile of a writer who, having been left by his partner, retreats to a small farm in the country to be alone with his thoughts in the vastness of the Argentine plain. Reminiscent of Chilean folk artist Violeta Parra’s lyric “To forget you, I’m going to cultivate the land,” the narrator of The Plains spends his days toiling on his small holding, engaged in the quotidian tasks of planting and raising animals he is bathed in memories. Attempting to comprehend the reason for the breakdown of his relationship, the narrator simultaneously recalls his family history as immigrants from Italy weaving a personal and deeply introspective narrative. Published by Charco Press.
Happiness written by Yuri Felsen and translated from Russia by Bryan Karetnyk.
Despite being described by some as the “Russian Proust,” Yuri Felsen’s work was almost lost to history following his 1943 arrest and murder by the Nazis. Having fled the Russian Revolution, Felsen travelled to Paris, the heart of the Russian diaspora in Europe, to immerse himself in the artistic milieu of the city. There he began work on his trilogy of novels, of which Happiness, published in 1932, is the second, after 1930’s Deceit and preceding Letters about Lermontov which was published 1935.
Following his death, his work was lost for eighty years, with his books only receiving a Russian re-edition in 2012. Nonetheless, Felsen’s talent for writing challenging and engaging prose has recently begun to receive the international acclaim it deserves. Happiness, published by Prototype Publishing, follows Bryan Karetnyk’s 2022 translation of Deceit.
The full list of winners for this year’s PEN Translates Award can be found here.