With Worldcon being only a couple of months away, fannish social media is inevitably starting to buzz with proposals for adding new Hugo Award categories. Old time fans are doubtless muttering into their beer in disgust, using phrases like “giving out rockets like candy” and “devaluing the Award”. Fandom at large will, I think, continue to ignore such misgivings, because fans like giving people awards. If they can think of new excuses for doing so, they will go for it.
That out of the way, therefore, let’s take a look at this year’s favorite for a new category: a translated fiction award (or perhaps several).
Much of the talk that I have seen online about this focuses on the fact that the national awards in most European countries have categories for translated works. British Awards do not (which people often forget). The Hugos do not either. The argument is that if the French, the Germans, the Spanish, the Finns and so on can have awards for translated fiction then so should “we”. And by “we” people tend to mean “Americans”.
Of course there are good reasons why some sets of awards include translation categories and others do not. In English-speaking countries the proportion of published works that are translated from other languages is, very famously, only around 3%. (Actually I think it is a bit higher these days, but 3% is the figure that everyone knows.) In contrast, if you live in a non-English-speaking country, you may find that the proportion of translated works published locally is 50% or higher. Many of those translated books will be by internationally famous writers such as George RR Martin, or Stephen King, or Margaret Atwood.
In such an environment it is entirely understandable that the local awards would have separate categories for books written in the local language and books published in translation. The translated books are very common; and may be selling very well. You want to make sure that your local writers get a look in as well.
In the English-speaking world, because translations are such a small part of the market, there has never been any need to protect local writers by putting translations into a separate category. There are, of course, arguments such as whether books written by Americans should be eligible for British awards, and they happen for similar reasons. But translations are left to fend for themselves alongside books written in English.
So that’s why there are no translation categories in British national awards. The Hugos are different matter, because they are not the American national awards.
Yes, I know that lots of people think that they are. I still remember 2005 when a British publisher expressed their annoyance to me about being expected to take note of an American convention, giving out American awards, that had been so rude as to locate itself in Scotland for a year. But let’s remind ourselves what the eligibility criteria for the Hugos are:
- A work is eligible when it is first published, regardless of language and place of publication;
- A work is eligible again on first publication in English if all previous publication has been in languages other than English;
- A work is eligible again on first publication in the USA if all previous publication has been outside of the USA.
The reason for this somewhat complex set of rules is not, as is often claimed, to give special privileges to American fans, but a recognition that the majority of Hugo voters are American. The objective is to give a second or third chance to a work in the year in which it comes to the attention of that majority of voters. Should we move to a situation where that special treatment is no longer necessary then presumably the rules will be changed. People have, in the past, argued (unsuccessfully) for suspending the system in years when Worldcon is held outside of the USA.
Why is this important? Well, remember the whole fuss over the YA Award and why it is Not A Hugo? The objection was that the same work should not be able to win two separate Hugos in the same year. A YA novel would be eligible for the Novel Hugo (or Novella depending on length) as well as a YA Hugo. The solution adopted, which is exactly the same as was used by SFWA for the Nebulas, was to make the YA Award a separate category. So Not A Hugo (or Not A Nebula).
Obviously the same argument can be applied to awards for translated fiction. If there is a category for Translated Novel then any book eligible for it would also be eligible for Novel. It could win both. Three Body Problem presumably would have done so.
There are people who will not like this. There are people who, seeing a proposal for a Translated Novel category, will introduce an amendment that will remove the eligibility of translated works in the novel category. Some of these people are likely to try to remove the foreign language and translated eligibility options from *all* Hugo categories. Some people will think that is a price worth paying in order to get a Translated Novel category. Personally I think that losing the international and multi-cultural aspect of the Hugos would be a tragedy, especially now that we are starting to see a lot more non-US Worldcons.
Now of course there is no reason why the same solution cannot be adopted. We could create a WSFS Award for Translated Novel that was Not A Hugo. We’d call it the Ansible, obviously. But people seem to get very upset when awards are deemed Not A Hugo, so let’s look at other possibilities.
The question that we should ask before trying to create any new category of Hugo is: What are we trying to achieve?
Obviously we are not introducing a translation category to protect people who write in English. Presumably what we are intending to do is to bring more attention to people who don’t write in English. And perhaps we also wish to promote the general idea of translation.
How about this for an idea? Instead of an award for a translated novel, we instead have an award for services to translation. The sort of works/people who might be eligible include:
- A translator for a body of work;
- A publisher for publishing translations;
- A magazine for publishing translations;
- An anthology that contains a number of translated stories;
- A non-fiction book or documentary about translated fiction;
- An organisation such as StoryCom that promotes translated fiction;
- A blog, fanzine or fancast devoted to translated fiction; or
- The committee of a Worldcon held in a non-English-speaking country.
One of the benefits of this is that it would widen the number of works that are eligible. A Translated Novel award might not have enough eligible works to make a viable category.
One obvious downside is that people would complain that they are being asked to choose between apples and oranges, much as they do every year in the case of the Related Work category.
I’m by no means wedded to this idea. My main concern is that we keep the international aspect of the Hugos. If we can have them do more work to promote translations while retaining that feature I will be happy.
Mostly, however, I just want people to think carefully about proposing new Hugo categories. You can’t just add a new Hugo because it would be nice to give more people awards. The category has to work, it has to perform the function that you want it to perform, and you have to get your proposal past the Business Meeting. These things are not always easy.