Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada (Portobello Books) and translated by Susan Bernofsky has been announced as the winner of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.
The story is a family saga about three generations of polar bears who live and move in human society despite really being polar bears in every physical and metaphysical sense. The judges described the book as “unusual, funny and sad at the same time, personal and yet very political."
They added: “Human society has rarely been described with such acuity nor seemed so strangely wayward. Magical fantasy collides with brutish political demagoguery. Susan Bernofsky’s deft and delightful translation revels in the disorienting wit and unsettling perspectives of Tawada’s furry stars.”
Coordinated by Dr Chantal Wright of the University of Warwick, the £1,000 prize is awarded to an English-language translation of a literary work written by a woman writer and published in the UK or Ireland, with the prize is shared equally between writer and translator.
The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation aims to address the gender imbalance in translated literature and to increase the number of international women’s voices accessible by a British and Irish readership.
Titles from independent publishers dominated the six-strong shortlist which consisted of Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated from Polish by Eliza Marciniak (Portobello), Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from German by Susan Bernofsky, Second-hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich translated by Bela Sheyavich (Fitzcarraldo Editions), Swallow Summer by Larissa Boehning, translated from German by Lyn Marven (Comma Press), Clementine Loves Red by Krystyna Boglar, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Zosia Krasodomska-Jones (Pushkin Children’s Books) and The Coast Road by Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, translated from Irish by a host of translators (The Gallery Press).
Yoko Tawada and Susan Bernofsky (© Caroline White)
The 2017 prize was judged by Boyd Tonkin, special adviser, Man Booker International Prize; Susan Bassnett, emeritus professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick; Amanda Hopkinson, visiting professor in Literary Translation, City, University of London.
Tonkin said: “In Memoirs of a Polar Bear, three generations of polar bears, stars of the circus and the zoo, learn to write and pen memoirs of their adventures, first in the Soviet bloc and then in re-united Germany. From this fantastic premise, Yoko Tawada builds a droll, playful but challenging fable about the role of the outsider, and the artist, in societies bound by convention and conformity of various kinds. She cleverly respects the actual behaviour of bears, even as her ursine authors inspect the vanities of humankind through marginal - or migrant - eyes.”
Tawada was born in Tokyo in 1960, moved to Hamburg in 1982 and has lived in Berlin since 2006. She writes both in her mother tongue of Japanese and in German, her adopted literary language. She has received numerous awards for her writing including the Akutagawa Prize, the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, and the Goethe Medal.
Translator Bernofsky directs the Literary Translation at Columbia programme in the MFA Writing Programme at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Her awards include the 2006 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize. in 2014 she was named a Guggenheim Fellow.
Bernofsky said: “This is an incredibly important book that quietly takes on some of the most vital themes of our time - inclusion and othering, racism, nationalism and xenophobia, the environment - while hiding its seriousness beneath a veneer of playfulness. I loved every minute of working on it.”