A Necessary Possibility: The Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize

Oxford Writers' HouseInterviews2017MayA Necessary Possibility: The Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize

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A Necessary Possibility: The Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize

Last year, the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prizeawarded to a book-length translation into English from any living European languagesaw translators Philip Roughton, Paul Vincent and John Irons emerging from a shortlist of works by Kamal Daoud, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sofi Oksanen, among others. Following the announcement of this year’s shortlist, we sat down with judges Professor Adriana X. Jacobs and Dr. Eleni Philippou for their thoughts on translation and the prize process.  


Theophilus Kwek (TK): You've just released the shortlist for this year's Oxford Wiedenfeld Translation Prize, with books from a range of genres and traditions. What are you most excited by?

Just paging through the book is an experience...

Adriana Jacobs (AJ): I love that we have a graphic novel on the shortlist. I won’t tip my hand any further than that! But can I also tell you what disappoints me? I wish we had more poetry to consider. I hope that poetry publishers are reading this.

Eleni Philippou (EP): All of the books are appealing for different reasons. However, hardly any Eastern European books are submitted to the Prize (or indeed even published in English), so Dušan Šarotar’s Panorama is particularly interesting. Translated from Slovene by Rawley Grau, it’s the only one of Šarotar’s five books to be translated into English. Just paging through the book is an experience: it has an intertextual Sebaldian air, with its prose interspersed with melancholic black and white photographs. Even the book’s title makes reference to the German artist Gerhard Richter, an influence on Šarotar’s photography.


TK: I've also noticed that the shortlist includes books from large, established publishing houses like Penguin alongside 'specialist' translation-focused presses like And Other Stories (with two titles!). What role do these different houses play in the 'ecosystem' of translation?

EP: That’s a fascinating question and one I hope I’ll be able to answer more fully at Oxford Translation Day. At Oxford Translation Day, I’ll be chairing an event in which representatives from three publishers (MacLehose, And Other Stories, and Granta/Portobello) explore the dynamics of publishing translated literature. Arranged in a “conversazione” format, these publishers will informally discuss the marketing, economics, challenges, and delights of publishing a genre that comprises a tiny percentage of the UK book market. The publishers will be joined by Dr Rajendra Chitnis, an academic who recently completed a collaborative report on translating the literatures of small European nations. His project involved extensive engagement with translators, publishers, agents, booksellers, and national and third-sector bodies.

As much as we are focused on the merits of the translations, we’re also aware that we’re not judging in a vacuum

AJ: They play a huge role in determining what gets translated and how these translations are marketed and distributed. Even the fact that prizes like this one require that publishers submit multiple print copies of each submission can prove prohibitive for smaller presses. Smaller,independent presses often have to be more selective when it comes to sending work out for review and for prize consideration. I don’t think that larger publishing houses have this concern,or if they do, it becomes an issue at a different stage and on a different scale. We are aware of this imbalanced economy of translation—it’s something that we continue to discuss as the parameters of the prize and the ways in which we evaluate submissions develop. As much as we are focused on the merits of the translations, we’re also aware that we’re not judging in a vacuum!


TK: So, walk us through the selection process: how do the books arrive on this shortlist?

EP: We send out the Prize’s call for submissions in early December to all UK publishers. Publishers then have roughly two months to get the books to us. The books are randomly distributed to the individual judges and each judge chooses two books for the shortlist. When choosing a text, the individual judges have their own subjective preferences and proclivities, although we all have the shared agenda of choosing books that are topical, relevant, and beautifully crafted in the hope of increasing the readership of translated literature. Personally, I wanted to see more books from marginalised European languages on the list. Most of submissions we get are from the big five: Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, German. I was thrilled to put forward Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years, dexterously translated from Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh.

We all have the shared agenda of choosing books that are topical, relevant, and beautifully crafted in the hope of increasing the readership of translated literature

AJ: My favorite part of the process is when we sit down and start making a case for each title. We don’t do this over the phone or Skype but rather face to face, so it’s very personal. And the books are sitting right there in front of us—a large pile that gets smaller as our discussion moves along. That also feels very personal. I often come into this meeting feeling very strongly about a few titles, but I also rely on my fellow judges to help me think critically about the choices we are making. So even though the first stage of judging is entirely in my hands, this meeting is where the real collaboration takes place and where we all take responsibility for the books that remain on the table.


TK: Did you observe any differences in this year's entries, as compared to previous years'?

AJ: One of the big differences is that we have a graphic novel on the shortlist! I think it’s taken too long for this to happen. Comic books and manga, for instance, have been published (successfully) in translation for decades, so there’s nothing new about this kind of translation. But it has taken a long while for this translated literature to be taken seriously. I hope that the inclusion of the Proust graphic novel encourages publishers of graphic novels in translation to consider our prize in the future.

EP: There are certain texts that are common from year to year: there’s always a lot Nordic noir and Patrick Modiano! In terms of Russian literature, we consistently receive the usual suspects. Last year we got the Russian classics, Tsvetaeva and Gorky, and this year Turgenev, Pushkin, and Dostoevsky made an appearance.


Oxford is filled with literary and creative initiatives that promote and nurture the idea of multilingualism, cultural diversity, and world literature.

TK: It’s certainly a rich selection, and I can’t wait for Oxford Translation Day (3 June), which is when we’ll learn the results! It’s also a day that brings together writers and translators from across the world. Just to closewhat possibilities do you see for Oxford as a city of world literature?

EP: Oxford is filled with literary and creative initiatives that promote and nurture the idea of multilingualism, cultural diversity, and world literature. Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation is just one such hub of activity. OCCT hosts events that explore literature from all parts of the globe, and reminds Oxford residents and students alike of the value of thinking about literature beyond an insular national framework. Oxford Translation Day, OCCT’s crowning event, has grown into a wonderful literary festival that is far from Anglocentric in its focus. This year alone, Translation Day is hosting a Chinese translation masterclass; an event of women’s writing from the post-Soviet Baltic states, and a German performance artist and poet. Every year Oxford Translation Day gets bigger and more established, and feeds into an overall narrative that Oxford really is a space where world literature is cherished and championed.

AJ: A couple of years ago Translation Day featured a conversation with Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson, US-based poets, translators and independent publishers. People really enjoyed their talk and wanted to read more of their work,but most of it isn’t available in the UK. This underscored for me why it matters that something like Translation Day happens. The conversations and connections that will take place on 3 June are opportunities for challenging and expanding our world literary map. Given the current state of world politics, this possibility is not only exciting but also necessary.


The winners of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize will be announced at the reading and prize-giving dinner at 7pm on 3rd June, 2017, in St Anne’s Collegefor more details and registration, please click here.

Image of shortlisted books by Dr. Eleni Philippou. 


Adriana X. Jacobs

Adriana X. Jacobs

Adriana X. Jacobs is Associate Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature in the Faculty of Oriental Studies, Oxford. Her book Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry will be published next year by University of Michigan Press. She is a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant recipient for her translation of Nguyen’s The Truffle Eye.

Eleni Philippou

Eleni Philippou

Dr Eleni Philippou completed her DPhil in English Literature at New College, Oxford, exploring the implications of Adorno’s critical theory for literary studies. In addition to serving as Co-ordinator of the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation (OCCT) Network, she teaches a wide spectrum of theoretical and literary topics at Oxford, and is editor of the OCCT Review.

Theophilus Kwek

Theophilus Kwek

Theophilus is the author of three collections, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue (2011), Circle Line (2013) - shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize in 2014 - and Giving Ground (2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets Prize in 2016, and was president of the Oxford University Poetry Society. He also works with Asymptote and The Oxford Culture Review.

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