PEN Offering Translation-sample Grants, Especially for Under-represented Languages

A £250 grant won’t allow you to take the year off work. But it will allow you to give time and space to translating a sample and writing a reader’s report, with the hopes of attracting a publisher to a work that otherwise wouldn’t grab their attention:

samplesThis is particularly important for languages who are far off the beaten paths to English.

Translation into English, for many reasons, is a heavily European affair. Publishers often have staff who read in European languages; European countries have grants, prizes, and other support for translations from their national languages; best-seller lists tell publishers what’s worked in European languages; there are more working literary translators who are excellent with French, German, and Spanish.

A literary magazine might see ten Dutch submissions for every one from Arabic. Or fifty French submissions for every one from the Urdu. Or goodness knows, a hundred.

The 16 winners of the recently announced “PEN Translates” award were nearly all from bigger Western European languages: French (5), Spanish (3), German (2), Portugeuse (2), and Italian (1). The outliers — with one each — were from Galician, Turkish, and Chinese.

I don’t know how many of the world’s thousands of languages are producing fresh, interesting literature each year, but it’s certainly more than eight. According to, The Little Prince has been translated into 253 languages. More modestly, Asterix has self-reportedly been translated into 114. Harry Potter, 1984, and My Name is Red have all been translated into more than 60.

Next Tuesday, April 7, the US’s Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) finalists — 25 for fiction, 10 for poetry — will be announced. In the first set of “spoilers” posted online, award founder Chad Post wrote:

There are nine languages represented in the list of twenty-five longlisted fiction titles. The top three languages made up seventeen of the total books.

That’s a pretty small cluster of languages, and a very heavy concentration in just three. The PEN Translates organizers promoted the diversity of their authors within French and Spanish, as they included authors from Morocco, the Congo, and Colombia. But for the BTBA:

There are sixteen different places of origin with a book on the list. The top three locations make up eleven of the total titles.

I wrote, tongue-in-cheek, that I suspected the three top languages that so dominate the awards were not Arabic, Bengali, and Chinese. Judge M.A. Orthofer, a definite supporter of bibliodiversity, responded that:

I’m afraid (& disappointed) there wasn’t a single eligible book translated from the Bengali, so you’re certainly right there

Translator-publisher Deborah Smith chimed in:

Fear not, is on the case! We’ll be pub’ing xl8ns from ‘obscure’ langs & submitting to prizes.

What’s the point of bibliodiversity? Isn’t it enough that we translate at all? Why do we need wildabeests and duikers when we’ve got cats and dogs? And so many varieties of really great cats and dogs?

Anyway, silly questions. The important thing: It’s a rolling grant, and you can apply at any time.