Who is the International Booker Prize for? How is it different from the original Booker Prize? Who is reading these books and what is the prize’s impact? Find out below
What is the International Booker Prize?
The original Booker Prize is given every year for a novel written in English, published in UK or Ireland. The International Booker Prize is its younger sibling. The difference is that it rewards books in translation. Any work of fiction translated into English, and published in the UK or Ireland, is eligible for the International Booker Prize.
Since 2016 the International Booker Prize judges have read more than 1,000 novels, translated into English from 27 languages. Through this prize, which rewards authors and translators in equal measure, readers not only learn what is being written in other cultures, they get to see how much broader the world can be.
Together, the two Booker Prizes offer the anglophone reader the best new fiction written anywhere in the world, regardless of its language of origin.
Why does translated fiction matter?
Whereas the Booker Prize shows readers what is being written in English, the International Booker Prize takes them to multiple worlds beyond the anglosphere. It distils the essence of our common humanity and expands our sense of how big the world can be. Through the International Booker, lovers of literature understand that there are no borders in reading.
According to Tan Twan Eng, one of the International Booker judges for 2023, ‘Translated fiction is a doorway into the lives of people from a different culture. It forces readers to look outwards, to the world. When you read a book that has been translated from another language, it changes you.’ His fellow judge, Uilleam Blacker, adds: ‘Without translators, culture and literature would never evolve. They would be deprived of new ideas.’
Are there other differences between the two prizes?
Yes. The books celebrated by the International Prize would not exist were it not for their translators, so the prize money is split equally between author and translator. That said, it is important to note that International Booker Prize is not a translation prize. It is a prize for translated work. There are other prizes for translation, won only by translators. This prize rewards the creation of a great work of fiction that is a collaboration between author and translator.
It was also decided, when the International Prize took this form in 2016, that in some cultures short stories are a more dominant literary form than novels. So collections of short stories are eligible for this prize, and many of them have been shortlisted.
Who is it for?
Simply put: the global mainstream. People have often read more books in translation than they realise. War and Peace, Madame Bovary: those works have become such classics of our own culture that their origins have been almost forgotten. Les Mis? That’s by Victor Hugo. Hitchcock’s Vertigo? Based on a novel in French. And if it weren’t for literature in translation, we wouldn’t have the word ‘Kafka-esque’. Fiction written in other languages has long been part of our everyday lives, and anglophone culture has taken its lead from it since before Greta Garbo starred in Anna Karenina.
Is there an opportunity to reach different audiences now?
We believe there is a huge opportunity, particularly among a younger crowd with a more porous sense of national borders. Work in translation accounts for only about five per cent of all books published in the UK. But that number has grown rapidly in recent years and continues to rise. Meanwhile, in other areas of culture the mainstream presence of work in non-English languages is much more palpable, showing how popular translated fiction could be if properly marketed.
Consider the worldwide success of K-pop, or the popularity of Call My Agent. On Spotify last summer, ten of the 20 most streamed songs in the world were in Spanish. Mubi - a film streaming service whose output is mostly subtitled – has 12 million registered users worldwide, 70% of whom are aged between 24 and 38. As of this year, films not in the English language have won the overall Bafta for Best Picture (All Quiet on the Western Front, made in German), and the overall Oscar for Best Picture (Parasite, which is South Korean).
Is anyone I would recognise reading these books?
What are the judges looking for?
The Tolstoy of tomorrow, or the next Elena Ferrante. The judges’ work also acknowledges the vital and often unsung role of literary translators in bringing these writers to a wider audience.
What is the impact of the International Booker Prize?
The International Booker Prize’s effect works in four different ways.
First, the prize brings the world to an anglophone readership, not just in Britain but to the whole of the English-speaking world. The primary beneficiaries of the prize are UK- and Ireland-based English-speaking readers. That’s why only publishers in UK and Ireland are eligible and the judges read all the books in English translation. But it reaches anglophone readers elsewhere alongside them. The statistics are dramatic: Celestial Bodies, by the Omani writer Jokha Alharthi and translated by Marilyn Booth, had weekly sales in single digits until it won the International Booker Prize in 2018. In the month afterwards its sales increased by more than 1000%.
Second, the spotlight it shines on the writer is beamed back to his or her country of origin. It’s an old pattern: international recognition gives an author a whole new profile in their own country. Sales of books in their original language increase exponentially after they win the International Booker Prize. Half a million copies of The Vegetarian, by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith, were reprinted in Korea after it won the International Booker Prize. The original Korean edition was a ten year-old book, and had sold just 2,000 copies over the whole of the previous decade.
Third, the International Booker Prize then sends the book out into the world in other languages. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s debut, The Discomfort of Evening, translated from Dutch by Michele Hutchinson, which was snapped up by an American publisher just days after it won the International Booker in 2020, is now being translated into 40 languages, including Catalan, Croatian and Marathi. This widespread recognition can have significant aftereffects. Olga Tokarczuk’s agent is convinced that Tokarczuk would not have won the Nobel Prize had she (and her translator Jennifer Croft) not won the International Booker Prize first.
And last, the International Booker Prize casts a spotlight on the language and country of origin, bringing to the fore other writers and other books from the same part of the world. It’s our own version of the Stieg Larsson effect. In 2022, Tomb of Sand, by Geetanjali Shree and translated by Daisy Rockwell, didn’t just sell afresh in the original Hindi (more than 35,000 copies on top of the 50,000 copies it sold in India in English), it inspired a surge of interest in Hindi writing. Tomb of Sand itself is being translated across the subcontinent into Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi and Assamese.
The International Booker Prize presents the world in words. In our troubled world and amid hostility between nations, literature can break down barriers and preconceptions. The prize shows that what unites us can be stronger than what divides us.