A ‘Bad Translation Award’ for Arabic Literature in English?

At yesterday’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair panel on “Translation as Part of Intercultural Dialogue” — with novelist-translator Sinan Antoon, publisher-editor Vinutha Mallya, Literature Across Frontiers Director Alexandra Büchler, Icelandic Professor of Translation Gauti Kristmannsson, and others — Buchler raised the idea of a “Bad Translation Award”:

panelAntoon focused on the poor state of the criticism of translations as a site of improvement while Büchler, who translates between Czech and English, raised one possible way to raise overall standards: a “Bad Translation Award.”

Some twenty-five years ago, she said, after the Velvet Revolution, standards for translation into Czech fell precipitously. Suddenly, anyone could publish anything, and anyone did — “especially from English.” Publishers contracted with non-professional translators, she said, and rushed things to print.

So in an effort to improve standards, translators established a “Bad Translation Award,” something like the “Bad Sex in Fiction” award awarded by the Literary Review. Büchler said this “award” was not targeted at shaming individual translators, but on improving publishers’ procedures.

As you might expect, “no one came to receive the award,” Büchler said.

When asked if the “Bad Translation Award” really helped improve the state of translation, Büchler said that — along with other things — it did.

Awards for the “worst” of something are certainly not unprecedented: The stated mission of the “Bad Sex in Fiction” award, established in 1993, is “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.” It’s difficult to say if the award has affected English-language writing about sex in any way, as the field is so large. With a narrower award — for instance, “worst blog about Arabic literature in English award” — it would presumably have larger impact.