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December 2006 Issue
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No longer lost in non-translation


Nicholas Jose, acclaimed Australian writer and Creative Writing Chair at the University of Adelaide, is one of three international judges selected for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, highlighting Asia's developing role in world literature. This month Professor Jose outlines the background to this literary prize.

The countries of Asia have long and rich literary traditions and many of their classics are available in fine English translation. But it is a different story with more recent writing. It can be difficult to get hold of good English versions of the novels that mean something to today's readers in China, or Korea, or Indonesia, or in most other parts of the region.

Yet in many parts of Asia the twentieth century produced major literary figures who responded to the turbulence of their times with creativity and insight and whose example continues in new generations of writers and important contemporary works.

For most of us, as English-language readers, those books and those authors are lost in non-translation. If you're someone like me, who likes to get to know a place by reading about it, and particularly by reading stories about it told by a local, that's a significant absence.

That situation is starting to change, helped by the activities of Man Group plc in supporting the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and now the Man Asian Literary Prize.

Some Asian writers live and work in English-speaking countries where they write in English or have access to translators and English-language publishers. Their names appear occasionally on book prize shortlists and bestseller top tens.

In recent weeks Indian-born Kiran Desai's novel The Inheritance of Loss won the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and Yiyun Li's collection of short stories about modern China, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

Publishers have identified a new trend. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October HarperCollins launched its new list of Chinese modern classics in English translation, with two of my favourite writers, Lao She and Shen Congwen, translated by Howard Goldblatt, leading the way.

Other publishers and agents are looking further afield to find the writers that will appeal to the growing interest of international readers in a part of the world that has so far exported almost everything but its writing.

India has been the exception that proves the rule. Thanks to India's colonial history many of the country's most famous writers--Narayan, Rushdie and Arundhati Roy to name a few--use English and feed an insatiable appetite for English-language novels about India.

Authors from elsewhere, such as the late Indonesian master Pramoedya and Japan's Haruki Murakami, have world-wide reputations. Others, such as Su Tong from China and Tash Aw from Malaysia, are becoming prominent. But there are surely many other writers, from venerated elders to chicklit types, for us to value and enjoy.

The Man Asian Literary prize has been established to help the process along. Its aim is to facilitate publishing and translation of Asian literature into English and to highlight Asia's developing role in world literature.

The prize is for a novel, unpublished in English, by a resident citizen of an Asian country or territory. Their work may have been written in English or translated into English.

The first winner will be announced next year. I am excited to be one of the judges, along with author André Aciman, Chair of Comparative Literature at the City University of New York, and Adrienne Clarkson, former Governor General of Canada. Clarkson was born in Hong Kong.

The new prize, sponsored by Man group plc, joins the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker International Prize, two of the world's premier literary prizes.

We'll be looking for a strong and fresh voice, a novel not expressly packaged for the Western market, a writer to surprise us all.

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Nicholas Jose

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