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National Translation Prize

The Award Goes to…

Translation isn’t a topic that often makes headline news, and when it does it’s generally not what we would consider good news, but rather stories of “Oops!” and “I can’t believe nobody caught that!” (See the story about the rather unfortunate translation of a Galician culinary festival last year.) Nevertheless, there are the occasional moments in which the art of translation does get some positive recognition, such as when an award is bestowed. In Spain in the past week, what should have been a proud moment for translators, as one of their peers and their profession as a whole stole the spotlight, regrettably became yet another opportunity to ask ourselves, “Really?”

Since 1984, the Ministry of Culture has granted the National Translation Award to “a translation in any of the languages of Spain of a literary work written in any foreign language deemed excellent by a jury of specialists.” This year the ministry gave the award to Luis Baraiazarra for his Basque translation of the complete works of Saint Teresa of Jesus, also known as Saint Teresa of Ávila. Well, it did for a few hours at least, until the ministry realized ­­– thanks to attentive readers of news websites who commented – that the original work was written in Spanish, which, according to the contest conditions, doesn’t qualify as a “foreign language.” Thank goodness that the minister of culture, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, hadn’t signed the ministerial order for the prize before announcing it to the media and informing the would-be winner, because that meant the minister could still retract the prize allocation and start the search for a candidate who complied with the rules, which is what he did.

Now then, having witnessed a 76-year-old man being given a piece of candy (or in this case, €20,000 and prestigious recognition) and then have it forcibly taken away (as Baraiazarra himself described it), those of us paying attention might be asking ourselves what we mean exactly by this notion of “foreign language.” When we talk about “foreign languages,” is it essential to the definition that they not be spoken in the nation in question? In that case, the concept of “foreign language” becomes quite political. What about mutually incomprehensible languages declared official in the same state, such as Basque and Spanish? When someone speaks Basque, is that not a foreign language to a Spanish interlocutor who can’t understand it? This “foreign language” business isn’t easily defined but, when it forms the basis of something such as an award, we should work hard to gain a full understanding of it.

In any case, the good news seems to be that it’s not a translator saying “oops!” this time. Let’s hope that before reassigning the award our friends at the Ministry of Culture take some time to review the guidelines they’ve established.

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