The February blog is written by our Awards Secretary, Paula Johnson.
After a career in publishing and literary editing, Paula now looks after prizes and awards for the Society of Authors. She also administers the RSL Ondaatje Prize, the RSL Jerwood Awards for Non-Fiction and the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize for the Royal Society of Literature. She is a trustee of the Royal Literary Fund and an honorary fellow of the RSL.
I love books, luckily, even in the moments when the piles in my office come to resemble the Manhattan skyline, and there was one such moment earlier in the month, in the build-up to the annual Translation Awards as the New Year’s entries chased out the old.
Five new award-winners were announced in early February in the course of a wonderful evening at Kings Place, London. We celebrated to the full the best of last year’s translated books, with prizes for Arabic, Dutch, French, German and Spanish translation, all run by the Society of Authors and stoutly supported by individual embassies and cultural organizations, some of them since the mid-sixties. Don’t take my word for it, listen to recordings of the winners. There’s nothing to beat being read to (in semi-darkness, of course, on the night) by someone who knows and feels the text. Khaled Mattawa reading his translation of the poetry of the Syrian poet Adonis or Paul Vincent recalling the words of Louis Paul Boon in My Little War takes you straight to the heart of the matter, showing how remote and fascinating a different culture or circumstance can be, and yet how familiar the emotion.
Soon the Society’s cool grey boardroom, a great - and surprisingly adaptable - space for meetings and gatherings, will be the scene of animated discussion (I’m carefully not employing the word ‘argument’ but there will be no shortage of passion) as the judging of the current prizes gets underway. First up this month is the German Embassy Award for Translators, a wonderful opportunity for emerging literary translators. The legendary Anthea Bell, Christin Stein from the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Elisabeth Pyroth from the Goethe Institut and I will be wrestling with the merits and demerits of the entries. Exciting to think that the winner will be heading straight off for a month to the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin and to the Leipzig Bookfair.
At home, though, a roll-call of writers is already reporting back to the prizes hub on the entries for the summer prizes: from Paul Bailey and Terence Blacker to Mavis Cheek, Jim Crace and Rachel Cusk, from Carol Ann Duffy and Adam Foulds to Mike Gayle, Frances Fyfield, Caroline Moorehead, and Carol Rumens, Fiona Sampson, Jo Shapcott, Fay Weldon and many others. It takes time and dedication to read forty or so entries, as they do, but come June, a new batch of winners will be receiving their prizes from Claire Tomalin at the Summer Awards. There’s a warm feeling of continuity in the fact that many of the current judges have themselves entered, and in some cases won, the Society’s awards, so, as they come to a decision, they have every understanding of how hard it can be. It’s enough to make the large busts of Voltaire and Bernard Shaw that eavesdrop every conversation from the boardroom chimneypiece, look as earnest as they do.
Susannah Clapp has just sent me a copy of her Postcards from Angela Carter, a very recent BBC Radio Four Book of the Week choice, and also the subject of an Authors’ Foundation application. One of two entry points in the year for these charitable awards is fast approaching. They offer a unique source of financial assistance for authors in the midst of writing and research. As well as considering applications (which, unless the author agrees otherwise, remain confidential) on proposed books of general interest, the awards are also open to areas of special category writing about natural history and landscape, Japanese culture, the theatre, Scandinavia, understanding between races, historical biography and travel writing.
Back again to prizes – and a fresh set of boxed entries has just arrived for a brand new prize, The British Council Award for ELT Writing, also to be presented this summer. Oh no, back to that New York skyline…
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