Why the Nobel Prize in literature should not be awarded

The Nobel Prizes in literature have been awarded to Polish writers many times.

1905   Henryk Sienkiewicz

1924   Władysław Stanisław Reymont

1978   Isaac Bashevis Singer (born in Poland, wrote of Polish – Jewish cultural tradition, in Yiddish)

1980   Czesław Miłosz

1996   Wisława Szymborska.

Therefore I should be, and I am, appreciative of the recognition my country receives from the Swedish Academy.  In addition, Maria Skłodowska received The Award twice: in Physics (1903) and in Chemistry (1911).  So we cannot complain about lack of honors.

Reading and studying of “Anna Karenina” I learned there are 11 just English translations of this book.  Being familiar with the 1901 translation by Constance Garnett done in 1901 English, I know that contemporary work by Marian Schwartz cannot be the same as the 2008 translation by Kiril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes.  I know my own difficulties in reading the 1901 translation and repackaging to contemporary English.  And what about translating the Imperial Russian to old English to contemporary English?  Then come revisions of translations.  All this reminds me of a game we played in my childhood called “Telephone”.  How adequately one can translate the nuances of Tolstoy’s, master of language in a way of thinking, behavior, social interactions and clothing details, where every word counts and is important?

Many books were written critiquing the adequacy of translations of “Anna Karenina” or the lack of thereof.

Here are the selected comments;

1911 translation revised 1901 Garnett’s work by “correcting errors…..tightening the prose, converting Briticisms and casting light on areas Mrs Garett did not explore”.  Here are just a few criticisms.

Kitty’s hair was not her own – a factual error in translation.

Kitty’s shoes “delighted her feet”, instead “made her feet feel lighter”.

The translator “lacks true sensitivity of the language, leading to missing a many of subtlety”.

Another translation is “readable, but with errors and misunderstandings as well as clumsiness”.

When one looks at the piece of art, he doesn’t need an interpreter, just knowledge and educated taste. How do you compare 220 authors selected for the Nobel Prize in literature written in many languages to be assessed by the Committee in 2011?  Of course they had to have interpreters, but how do you compare prose in one exotic language to poetry in another?

So there is a plenty of room for judgement.  In medicine, judgement is a decision-making process, when we don’t have enough data about a patient’s condition.  Therefore errors in process can happen.

And there is a room for bias.  Intended and unintended.

Winners are announced on Nobel’s birthday, December 10th.  The identity of all nominees is withheld for 50 years, so we are separated from the real drama.

There is a sea of controversies.

Czech writer Karel Čapek was refused the Prize.  His writings were seen as offensive to Germans.

W. H. Auden didn’t get The Prize due to errors in translation and admission, that he was homosexual.

John Steinbeck was given The Prize in 1962.  He was chosen as a “compromise” between writers, as a “best of bad lot”.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was awarded The Prize in1970.  He didn’t want to go to Sweden to personally accept the award for a fear, that the Soviet government won’t let him come back to his country.  He proposed a ceremony in the Swedish Embassy in Moscow, but the Swedes refused.  He picked it up later on when he was deported from the USSR.

Argentinian writer Jose Luis Borges was nominated several times, but was refused The Prize based on his political views.  He was too right wing.  Writers like Sartre and Neruda got the award despite their views strongly supporting Generalissimo Stalin.

Salman Rushdie and Arthur Miller didn’t get it because it would be “too predictable and too popular” (?).  In the case of Rushdie, there was also opinion, that the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini was a deciding factor.  Two of the commission’s members resigned as a result.

So there we go. Accusations of improprieties are flying.  And that’s just the facts we know of.

I submit, that even in a good faith it is impossible to compare pieces of literature written in different languages, prose and poetry, coming from different socio-economical and political scenarios by judges who are plain human and therefore are biased.

Leo Tolstoy, author  of “Anna Karenina”, was considered for The Prize in 1902.  He never got it.  The reason – Swedes didn’t like Russians.  The 1902 Nobel Prize in literature went to Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen, who was just a part-time writer.

So, each year’s winner should be listed with an asterisk.

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