From IFFP to Man Booker International Prize…

By Tony Malone

150707 MBI2016 Announcement web bannerOne of the problems of submitting an article well in advance is that subsequent events can make you look slightly foolish [not at all – Ed], and that’s certainly happened with my recent piece on the Shadow IFFP judging process. You see, just a couple of days before it went live here at Shiny New Books, there was news of a major change for the prize, one which would totally restructure the fiction in translation scene. The announcement was of the merger of two prizes, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Man Booker International Prize, into one – from 2016, the new Man Booker International Prize, concentrating on books not writers, will be the only show in town.

There have already been several articles on the news in the mainstream press (of which the best piece by far was Daniel Hahn’s piece in The Guardian), and people haven’t exactly been quiet online either. Unlike many of the newspaper write-ups, aficionados of fiction in translation have been a little less hesitant to accept the new prize with open arms – yes, it’s probably going to be a good thing overall, but that doesn’t mean the move is without its issues. In view of that, here’s what I’m attempting to pass off as a summary of the views I’ve seen so far (although you’d be right in suspecting that I’m focusing on views I mostly share…).

For me, the discussion of the change can be divided into three parts – the good, the bad and the sad. The positive effects are, perhaps, the easiest to explain, as the shift to the new Man Booker International Prize will provide a well-needed image boost for the annual prize. While the IFFP was well run, it was probably a little low-key in its approach to mainstream literary culture. The Man Booker name brings prestige and, more importantly, a vast amount of marketing know-how too, with the new prize able to tap into the existing framework (and online presence) of what is perhaps the most effective literary prize in the Anglosphere.

There’s also the small matter of money. The amount put up for the winners will certainly do a lot of talking, and fiction in translation needs all the conversation and discussion it can get. The new prize will award ₤50,000 to the winners (to be shared between the writer and translator), with a total prize pool of ₤62,000. Having put up a lucrative award, the organisers will be hoping that publishers who have been reticent to enter the IFFP in the past will be a little more likely to publish and promote translated literature.

Despite these benefits of the new move, there is one major drawback, and that’s the fact that where we had two prizes we now have just one. The IFFP and Man Booker International Prize were two distinct entities with differing approaches to promoting the wonders of translation, one focusing on a book, the other on a writer’s complete body of work. Now that second idea has gone, and it’s a shame as there’s space (and a need) for both.

It hardly comes as a surprise, though, as the demise of the writer prize has been on the cards for a while now, mainly because the Booker people shot themselves in the foot by focusing on English-speaking writers. The Man Booker International Prize was set up to honour a writer from anywhere in the world, pitting Anglophone and non-Anglophone writers against each other, making it even more embarrassing that of the first five winners, three were from North America and four wrote their work in English. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it appears that László Krasznahorkai’s recent win showed just what might have been if the prize had focused on authors writing in the many other languages our planet has to offer.

After the good and the bad comes the sad, and the most disappointing aspect of the new change for me (and for many others) has been the overshadowing of the IFFP. I’ve found it amazing how much the coverage has been focused on the Man Booker International Prize, with the IFFP a mere uncomfortable side-note. Yes, the Booker people are taking the prizes forward, yet the truth is that the new prize is the IFFP redux under the Man Booker badge. That’s not something you’d appreciate from much of the press coverage (Hahn, again, is the honourable exception here). Much as I’ve struggled with some of the decisions that Boyd Tonkin and his various panels have made in the past, the IFFP was still a worthy prize which did something nobody else was doing in the UK at the time – there’s a little sense of rewriting history here, one which leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Still, what’s done is done, and there’s no point in looking back too much. While we hope for another career award at some point, there’s still the American Neustadt Prize and, of course, the Nobel Prize for Literature to cover that particular base. I’m looking forward to the first edition of the new prize, when I’m sure I’ll be teaming up with another group of eager bloggers to Shadow the event.

Before we move ahead into the new era, though, let’s just hope that the Man Booker people honour the history of both prizes. This year saw the rediscovery of the ‘missing’ first female IFFP winner (Marta Morazzoni), showing how easy it is for the past to be forgotten. It’d be a tragedy to see more than two decades of winners disappear from memory, just because their prizes were won under a different banner. Let’s move forward, by all means – just don’t forget the names of the giants upon whose shoulders the next generation of writers and translators will stand…

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Tony is based in Melbourne and blogs at Tony’s Reading List, where this post also appears. He wrote about the IFFP Shadow Jury for BookBuzz here

David Hebblethwaite went to the 2015 IFFP Award Ceremony – read more here.

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