The Man Booker Prizes were created to reward the finest in fiction, and to bring great books to avid readers. Starting this year, the 11-year-old Man Booker International Prize will be awarded annually for a single book, translated into English and published in the UK. As such, it mirrors the long-established Man Booker Prize for fiction which does the same for a book written in English.
The Man Group has sponsored the original prize since 2002 and the international prize since it was started in 2005. The symmetrical relationship between the two prizes will ensure that “Man Booker” can now honour fiction on a global basis - the name will be synonymous with choosing the year’s very best books in English.
But, given that only a tiny percentage of novels in English have been translated from another language, is it really worth all this effort?
The short answer is yes. The extraordinary success of Karl Ove Knausgård and Elena Ferrante in recent years is proof that fiction from other lands has a global following. Last year a new report from Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) finally put some figures on this. The statistics show a steady growth of literary translations over the past two decades, both in absolute numbers and as a share of the whole. The number of literary translations into English grew by two-thirds between 1990 and 2012, accounting for a peak of 5.23% of the whole in 2011 against an average of just 3%. Specialist foreign-fiction publishers, such as Quercus, Pereine and Pushkin, have all sprung up in the past decade or so.
Having joined forces with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Man Booker International prize aims to encourage the reading of quality fiction from all over the world. This year’s panel is chaired by Boyd Tonkin, the champion of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The vital work of translators will be more celebrated by the Man Booker International prize than by any other literary award, with the £50,000 prize money being divided equally each year between author and translator. Each shortlisted author and translator will also receive £1,000. Both novels and collections of short stories are eligible, and, for the moment at least, there is no limit to the number of books each publisher can submit.
Those who have judged the Man Booker International Prize often have the same reaction; the best thing about it, they say, is that it is a journey of discovery – a serendipitous introduction to cultures previously ignored and to fascinating new voices. Some are more obvious than others: Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Arabic and Japanese writers are among the most common now represented in English. Hungarian and Korean have also recently produced gems that will not easily be forgotten.
The 2016 judges have been reading non-stop since the autumn. The key dates ahead are the longlist, which will be announced on 10th March; the shortlist, which will come out during the London Book Fair on 14th April; and finally the winner, who will be celebrated at a dinner at the Victoria & Albert Museum on 16th May. Prepare for a surprise.
Fiammetta Rocco is administrator of the Man Book International Prize.