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22nd May 2023

Interview with Frederick Studemann: Judge for the International Booker Prize

The Mancunion sat down with one of the Judges of the International Booker Prize, Frederick Studemann, to discuss the importance of translated fiction and the diversity of this prize
Interview with Frederick Studemann: Judge for the International Booker Prize
Photo: Ravi Sharma @ Unsplash

The International Booker Prize celebrates works of fiction from all over the world translated into English. The Financial Times literary editor, Frederick Studemann, gave us his insight into his role as one of the judges for the prestigious prize and his thoughts on the value of translated fiction.

With its focus on world literature, Studemann reflects on how this prize “is an opportunity to go outside of the anglophone world, to discover new perspectives and unfamiliar places.”

The shortlist was announced on April 18, and it comprises of books originating from six different countries. The final winner will be announced on May 22 at a ceremony at Sky Gardens in London.

Although Studemann was cautious to not “divulge any secrets” concerning the final decision, he revealed that the process of choosing a winner relies on the simple question of “What is a good book?”

Studemann disclosed that “Part of the great learning experience for me was to be reminded that different places and cultures have a different idea of what a great book is.” Along with the other judges’ own views, this made the process of choosing the shortlist and the winner more complex.

To qualify for the International Booker Prize, the writing must be a piece of translated literature, making the accolade distinguishable from other literary awards. “Translation is a very complicated issue; it is expensive, it takes time. We don’t get the whole picture. There must be great writing that hasn’t been translated yet”, Studemann says as a response to the importance of the translation as a qualifying point.

The award is particularly unique because the final cash prize of £50,000 is divided equally between the original writer and the translator. “It’s a significant pot of money to be split between them. That is an important signal because translation is critical, it’s been with us since the dawn of literature. Without them, we’d be lost.”

However, translators have often been overlooked. “It can be in a very superficial way, like where do they get credited? Is it on the front of the book? The early page with the publisher’s imprint?” He discusses how translators are sometimes never credited which is “overlooking an essential part of the creation.” However, there has been a slight shift, and more recently translators are commanding more respect and recognition from the book industry.

This prompts the ongoing difficult debate of who’s the real writer; the original author, or the translator? Studemann considers that, “For translators this is marvellous to have a prize that puts them on the same footing as the writers financially and by implication that equals them up.”

One of the shortlisted novels is the Korean novel Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan and translated by Chi-Young Kim. Whale is significant because the original text was published in 2004 and almost twenty years later has been translated, qualifying it for this year’s prize.

On the subject of the translation process Studemann comments, “Whale gives a tale of the mechanics of translation which can be drawn out, particularly if it comes out of languages that don’t have a natural or an established crossover with English.”

Studemann elaborates further on how the industry of translated works can be reduced to a matter of privilege. “There is a question of cost, some countries will provide funding for translation.” Countries that have more money can support the translation of works, so there will be more literature from these cultures readily available to English speakers. This again marks the importance of the International Booker Prize as it aims to draw attention to novels from all over the world.

Translated fiction often appeals to a younger generation, with a study revealing that under 35-year-olds make up almost half of the readership of translated works.

Studemann reflects that when he was young there was a rising interest in reading German literature from central Eastern Europe, especially before the Berlin Wall fell. He says, “There was a subconscious feeling that something was brewing so we went to the novels and the writings to engage with it.” This is still reflected today as we turn to novels to enlighten us on social and historical movements.

All the judges have an understanding of other languages aside from English, varying from German, French, Arabic, Ukrainian to Russian, increasing the diversity of the decision making. Studemann who speaks German said, “Sometimes with the text I was translating it back as I was reading and thought the translation wasn’t quite right, and I can see what the original was.”

The judges are now rereading the shortlisted novels for the third time to determine the winner, which as a student studying English isn’t uncommon, but Studemann admitted that “my day job doesn’t allow me to reread books very often.”

Overall, for Studemann, the experience of judging this prize, although daunting at first, has been a positive experience. “It has been immensely rewarding and has led me to rediscover the joys of reading. I’ve read so many things I would never have encountered.”

The shortlist is available at the International Booker Prize website where the winner will be announced on May 23.

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