Translating the Hugos

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:

  1. A work is eligible when it is first published, regardless of language and place of publication;
  2. A work is eligible again on first publication in English if all previous publication has been in languages other than English;
  3. 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.

11 thoughts on “Translating the Hugos

  1. Thank you for the well reasoned editorial. As one of the proponents of a Best Translated Novel, I can tell you first hand that my thoughts we always towards adding more international flavors of fiction to the Hugos, since we proport to be members of the World Science Convention, we should do our best to live up to that standard.

    A BT Hugo amendment may not make an appearance at the the WorldCom 76 but I can assure you that it (or something like it) will be on the table at the Dublin Worldcon.

  2. These are excellent suggestions. But I can’t avoid to say my opinion on some subjects 🙂

    Firstly, a clarification, at least with regard to Spanish Ignotus Awards. It’s true that in Spain translated works are 50% or higher of a production of 1.000 sci-fi books a year, so some people still think that cathegories for Foreign Novel and Foreign Story are protectionist measures for local writers. The reality is that local works get more votes year by year and, therefore and except for exception, foreign works would simply disappear from the list of finalists.

    Secondly, the categories you propose are many and interesting (in particular translation) but perhaps too many for the Hugo. Too many categories cause tiredness in the voter and perhaps it would be better if it were organized by an international organization, as in Europe we have the European Science Fiction Society.

    Personally, I prefer to have just two categories for translation: one for Novel and another for short fiction. Of course, each finalist should overcome a certain number of votes as it happens in other categories and in case of having to choose, for example, between Novel and Foreign Novel because the work has enough votes for both, I suggest Novel to avoid ghettos (you have cited 3 voting rules, in this case only two would apply).

    These new cathegories would give visibility to the works in translation, which despite representing 3% of total production in the United States and other English-speaking countries, well, the total production is huge and I think there would be enough works every year. Even to think about retroHugos.

    Finally, we must not forget that Hugo are a world reference. Many readers, voters or not, use them as reading guides and having these categories would allow many to know works and authors from other cultures using English as an intermediate language; a kind of shorlist and longlist worldwide. That would be really great.

    Mariano Villarreal

    1. Hi Mariano, thanks for dropping by. Some good points there and well done Spain for supporting local writers.

      A couple of points of clarification.

      Firstly I am not proposing multiple categories: I’m proposing just one, a category for services to translation.

      WSFS is an international organisation. That’s why it is so important that we keep the multi-cultural aspects of the Hugos, and don’t drop back into making them English-only.

      Having been responsible for founding the SF&F Translation Awards, I’m aware that there are plenty of translated works published each year. The problem is that most of them don’t come to the attention of the voters. It is a bit of a chicken and egg problem: we need more awareness of translated works to make a viable category, but how do we get that awareness without a category?

      Absolutely WSFS has a duty to highlight SF&F wherever it is published (and in all languages). I loved what Helsinki did in highlighting the results of national and continental awards from around the world during their Hugo ceremony. Hopefully we will see other Worldcons doing that.

      Of course the Translation Awards did produce wonderful reading lists, but we got almost no support from fandom or the industry, which is why they no longer exist.

  3. Hi! I cannot but to think of the Oscar awards and the category of Foreign Film. In the end, those foreign films hardly get any relevance.

    One of the problems I have noticed is that many readers consider translations to be not good enough. I don’t say it a critic to translators. I have simply come across lots of comments from USA in Amazon about foreign novels that suggest the translation was not “that bad”. There is this common tendency to underappreciate foreign novels through translation I can’t honestly understand because, at the same time, there is no intention on reading those novels in the language they were written either. In Spain, you may want to read foreign novels in either Spanish or in English, French or German if you know those languages, but you don’t discard them unless you don’t like the plot or the style. So maybe the impulse should tend to either improve the translations or clean their image among readers.

    Perhaps it’s also a matter of publicity. Maybe editors don’t invest so much in promoting sales of foreign novels. I personally believe that allowing foreign novels to win a HUGO award might actually help the industry to pay attention to foreign works more than winning an award with the emblem of “translated”, which would put relevance in the translation more than in the real author of the novel. Translating, after all, has to do with accurately transmitting the author’s message. It’s not a creative work or shouldn’t be.

    1. Totally agree. It was really powerful to have a translated book win in Novel. I don’t want to lose that possibility.

      I also want to make sure that when a translated book is a finalist, or winner, that the honour is shared with the translator and does not just go to the author. This happened with Three Body Problem, but it needs to be enshrined in the rules.

      1. Translating is a very hard job and could be recognized in a different award category for Best Translator. The fact of having an award would claim attention to the hard work it requires and the professionalism readers can expect from every novel translated, and would also increase motivation among professionals to reach excellence. Knowing good translators would also be helpful to foreign authors. A Best Translator award would not change the rules that apply to Novel either. It would be great.

        1. Worldcon did once attempt to present a Best Translator Hugo Award. Only one person got more than nine nominations, and the category was dropped due to lack of interest. Anyone wanting to propose it again needs to show that things would be different today. The first step would be to get a Worldcon committee to use their authority to create a Special Category to try Best Translator again to prove that there is sufficient interest among the members of Worldcon for such a category.

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