An English PEN press release, issued yesterday, was headlined “Man Booker International Prize finalist Mia Couto receives PEN Promotes award”:
The other four “PEN Promotes”-supported projects are books by the very well-known Israeli writer Etgar Keret, Mexican investigative reporter Sandra Rodríguez Nieto, Brazilian prodigy Tatiana Salem Levy, and Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, with his best-selling riposte to Camus.
Samantha Schnee, a trustee of English PEN and Chair of the Writers in Translation Committee, said in a prepared statement:
In a recent article for The Nation, translator Benjamin Paloff wrote, ‘We tend to assume that all the best literature in a given language finds its way into English, and that – making a leap that sounds more sensible than plausible – if it’s worth reading, it’s probably already available in English. But this is simply not true… The odds are strong that you will never be able to read what might have been your favorite book.’
Paloff, here, is referring to books that are not being translated into English. The “PEN Promotes” award is meanwhile for a book that was already set to arrive in English. Indeed, there were multiple publishers vying for Daoud’s book.
Certainly, there is a role for “PEN Promotes.” Of all the books that arrive in English translation each year, only a teeny-tiny handful get any kind of press coverage. Most flash onto the scene, are little-read and little-remarked, and fall out of print. So an award like “PEN Promotes” could rescue some of these gems from obscurity.
Yet of the books arriving in English translation this year, these five “PEN Promotes” winners are among those you are most likely to see reviewed in your local broadsheet and to trip over in your local bookstore. There has already been a great deal of attention paid to Daoud’s novel, for instance, which not only won the Five Continents Prize and was among the Goncourt’s Final Four, but gained extra notoriety when an Algerian salafi imam suggested on Facebook that a proper government would kill Daoud for his writings.
But such is the “PEN Promotes” award. Among the award’s main criteria is not to bring work to your attention that might otherwise be lost. Instead, it is “dedication to free speech and intercultural understanding.” Thus, it is little surprise to find Daoud’s novel here.
Yes, this PEN’s award. Yes, they are free to do with it what they like.
But we in the English-reading world already have a keen attention for books that echo and respond to our ideas of free speech, particularly when those books come from Arabs. Indeed, Nawal al-Saadawi is perhaps the Arabophone author who has been the most thoroughly translated and promoted after Mahfouz. While she has written some warm memoirs, the attention we give her is not because she is the most excellent craftsperson. It is because her work echoes the sort of “liberationist,” free-speech narrative many of us are most eager to hear from Arab writers.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the cornerstones of the “freeing” transmission of literature could be finding what is beautiful in another language that we might not otherwise hear. If we want a large, diverse, interesting literature, it is not just important to find those voices that are already saying what we like, but voices that are doing something we never expected.
Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation…