I would love to be the fly on the wall during a panel session determining a translation literary prize winner. It seems logical that judges of the Booker International Prize, with shortlistees translated from multiple languages must judge using the same criteria as when judging books in their own language. Technical prowess, literary merit, readability (yes, that old chestnut, but if the novel is not enjoyable or attention holding, for me it cannot be the best.) Perhaps asking one translation related question: Does the translation read well or is it clunky in places? Translators have been appearing on judging panels for a while now. In fact, the multi-lingual Frank Wynne (*1) is chairing this year’s Man Booker International Prize, so I imagine translation issues may well be discussed quite robustly. But how do you discuss or even recognise the creativity of a translator when translating idioms from, let’s say, Hindi to English equivalents, when you’re not aware that the Hindi idiom is there in the first place?

The Society of Authors Translation Prizes are somewhat different, as the judging panel always includes translators from the language in question. The judging panel of the 2021 Vondel Translation Prize, for instance, consisted of two translators from Dutch to English, Susan Monetty and Michele Hutchison (*2), and the English language poet, Jane Draycott. So no difficulties recognising the intricacies of Dutch or Flemish, the honest capture of tone, lyricism or rhythm, creative exposition to avoid footnotes, and other tricks of the trade. In fact, I imagine, judging sessions would in places – provided there was time – resemble those wondrous pre-covid literary events, the translation duels.(*3)

I got very excited when I saw the most recent Vondel prize shortlist, as all titles are published by indie presses. So I decided to shadow judge it. What, though, are my credentials? I’m an avid reader. I read a lot of translated fiction. I did at one time speak Dutch quite fluently, but have forgotten almost every word. (*4). On that basis, I’m totally under-qualified to shadow judge the translation aspect of this prize, but let’s not split hairs. So, after quite a long preamble, which may well end up being longer than my unscientific judging process, let’s get started, and find out if I agree with the official judges.

The 2021 Vondel Translation Prize Shortlist

Taking it from the top

Lampie – Annette Schaap. Translated by Laura Watkinson. Published by Pushkin Press. My full review here. 5*

This illustrated children’s book full of mermaids, pirates, the good, the bad and the ugly, was the only shortlistee I read in one sitting. The toes of my inner child still curl with delight at the thought of it. I read a copy from the library, and I’m still fighting with myself not to buy a copy for my own shelves. (It’s a fight, I know I’m going to lose.)

The Republic – Joost De Vries Translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle. Published by Other Press. Review at The Literary Review here. DNF

This satire of history, politics and academia was the shortlistee that appealed to me most, and triggered the desire to read the entire shortlist. The irony is that I DNF’ed it on page 195, which may have been the point when the action was just about to pick up. I just couldn’t summon up the interest to read on. Was this a case of a satire running out of steam or just a satire not being condusive to my mood? Don’t know. But as I’m not a paid judge, I have the luxury of not having to persevere to the end.

Summer Brother – Jaap Robben Translated from Dutch by David Doherty (*4) Published by World Editions My full review here. 4*

The actual winner of the 2021 Vondel Prize. A summer adventure and coming-of-age with a difference in which a young boy has to care for his seriously disabled brother. Written by a generous author, full of understanding for human frailties, even those of the negligent, unlikeable father. The POV of the 13 year-old Brian completely authentic: trying his very best for his brother, overwhelmed by the challenge at times, oblivious to the risks when he leaves Lucien to do his own thing. At the same time growing in love and understanding for his brother, the scales falling from his eyes with regard to his father. Filled with memorable scenes. Would make a fabulous film.

Adrift In The Middle Kingdom – J Slauerhoff Translated by David McKay Published by Handheld Press My full review here. 3*

The official 2021 runner-up. A journey into inner China which works as an allegory for stages on the journey to Nirvana. Through diverse landscapes and civilisations. Interesting but I struggled with pacing. The second half of the novel much more interesting than the first, but the ending was weird. Actually full of spiritual significance that I didn’t comprehend. A patchy reading experience.

Will – Jeroen Olyslaegers Translated by David Colmer Published by Pushkin Press My full review here My rating: 4*

A powerful novel, set in war-time Antwerp. The main protagonist is a young policeman, trying to survive. Is he a patriot or a collaborateur? What did he do to estrange himself from his whole family? How reliable is he, now that he’s writing his memoir in old age? Switching between two time lines, this is the most complex of the 5 novels.

The star ratings above indicate my gut reaction on first reading, from which you could surmise that Lampie would be my winner. Not so, even if it is my favourite. One of those stars is for the charm of illustrations. So I’ll subtract that, which result in a shorter shortlist of Lampie, Summer Brother and Will. I know I deducted 1 star from Summer Brother simply because there were some scenes that made me uncomfortable, but even so I still couldn’t look away. Let’s add that star back on. For objective judging purposes only, you understand. Which elevates Summer Brother to the winner’s podium.

The contest for runner-up. Lampie vs Will. While I have no doubt that Lampie will charm the socks off me again, would it reveal more in literary terms on multiple reads? I think not. Whereas Will, with its more complex structure and unreliable protagonist, is I am sure, full of shadows that only rereading will bring into the light.

Final result:

Lizzy’s 2021 Vondel Translation Prize Winner: Summer Brother / Runner-Up Will

Non-integrated, non-expository footnotes 😉

*1 Meet The Translator Frank Wynne here

*2 Meet The Translator Michele Hutchison here. Since that interview Michele has won the 2019 Vondel Prize for Translation for Stage Four and the 2020 Booker International Prize for The Discomfort of Evening.

*3 Translation Duels sampled here, here and here. (Plea to Daniel Hahn: Please, please, please bring them back to the literary festivals. Edinburgh before all others, of course. 😉)

*4 I do understand it’s Boekenweek though, which is why this post is publishing today.

*5 Meet The Translator David Doherty here