Translation, Littérisation, and the Nobel Prize for Literature




Nobel Prize for Literature, Cultural Capital, Literary Consecration, Literary-Value Industry


This work is a cultural economics study of the problem of translation production and assessment in and leading up to the literary Nobel Prize deliberations. I argue that the constraints of assessing an unevenly and partially translated body of literary works, many of them from less common languages, present an unbreachable expertise gap. Translation as a sacralization, or consecration in Casanova’s (2004) term, of a writer’s work is considered in the context of the award. Ultimately the prize is shown to depend upon translations carried out in dissimilar circumstances for each candidate. The award of the Nobel is part of the founder’s call for works to be more widely circulated, not to reward fame; thus a Nobel is more an invitation to translate than a recognition of an author in translation, although evidence suggests that the post-Nobel translational impact may vary by writer and over time. This study sheds light on the degree to which the Prize is an authority-mediated phenomenon, and while critiquing the quixotic task of judging disparate forms and amounts of cultural capital side by side, and never from a point of neutrality, it also attempts to show how translation shapes this symbolic form of prestige in the struggle for existence. I posit that alternative prizes and prize-awarding in general as fraught with similar cross-language challenges. Possibilities for future research, qualitative analysis of the Nobel and translation demand, among other consequences, are briefly sketched.


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Author Biography

Kelly Washbourne, Kent State University

Kelly Washbourne teaches masters and doctoral courses at Kent State University in Ohio, United States. He earned his MA in Translation (Monterey Institute of International Studies) and his PhD in Hispanic Literature and Linguistics (University of Massachusetts Amherst). His works include An Anthology of Spanish American Modernismo (edited; MLA Texts and Translations, 2007), Manual of Spanish-English Translation (Pearson, 2009), a textbook, and Autoepitaph: Selected Poems of Reinaldo Arenas (edited by Camelly Cruz-Martes, 2014), and he is completing an edition of fifty-seven short tales, Wild Honey, by Uruguayan master of horror, Horacio Quiroga. He won a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship (2010) for his translation of Nobel Laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias’ Leyendas de Guatemala (Legends of Guatemala, Latin American Literary Review Press, 2011), and is series editor of Translation Practices Explained (Routledge, UK). He writes on pedagogy, literature, and cultural economics, and coordinates and trains medical interpreters for the Hartville Migrant Center.