The Financial Express

The undying appeal of the English language

Translator Anna Moschovakis (L) with Booker Prize 2021 winner David Diop (R) and the book cover of  "At Night All Blood is Black" Translator Anna Moschovakis (L) with Booker Prize 2021 winner David Diop (R) and the book cover of "At Night All Blood is Black"

The chances for winning a Booker or Man Booker Prize by the globally little known nations are getting slimmer. The blow came in 2014. That year came the new prize criterion for the prestigious British award introduced by three entities. The announcement told the English-speaking world and the nations using English as a second language that the prize's sphere has been widened. During the launch of the prize in 1969, it was specified that only novels written by the commonwealth, Irish and South African authors were eligible to receive it. The list also included Zimbabwe. The new guideline was widened to include English language novels from any country. The changed rule triggered controversies. The rule posed a challenge to the writers of regions and countries long used to receiving concessions from Britain. It meant from then on that they had to compete even with writers from New Zealand, Australia or Canada.

After the winning of the Booker by Salman Rushdie in 1981 for his fiction 'Midnight's Children', many international award-hopefuls in the sub-continent looked forward to a glimpse of receiving the British book world-administered prize. The winning of the award by Arundhati Roy in 1997 whetted their craving. Many Indian authors dismissed Roy's Booker-winning novel 'The God of Small Things' as a mere juggling of the story's non-linear plot and narrative. They also call the story's unfolding difficult to fathom. Comparatively, Roy's 'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness' is considered a stunningly evocative and easy-read novel.

On the other hand, the International Booker Prize, a relatively new prize category introduced in 2004, is awarded to a book translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland. Unlike the Nobel Prize for literature, the broad category of the Booker Prize is based on a complex structure. Most of the general book lovers are unaware of it. In the days not long ago, the common notion about the British literary prize was it honoured the novelists and short story writers from the Commonwealth countries. The authors in the South Asian sub-continent including India and Bangladesh found themselves highly deserving. What most of the English-proficient and simultaneously high-grade authors didn't know was the condition that their books required to be published in the UK or Ireland. It stood as an impediment to becoming a candidate for the coveted prize. The Booker Prize 2021 has gone to South African writer Damon Galgut. David Diop has been honoured with this year's International Booker Prize. South Africa has been among the countries eligible for the prize since the prize's launch. Galgut's receiving of the prize only added to the list of the earlier prizes that went to South Africa. The International Booker Prize 2021 winner David Diop, a French author and academic, has won the award for his novel 'At Night All Blood Is Black'. To be considered for the Booker International, a fiction has to be translated into high-standard English. In Diop's case, it was accomplished by Anna Moschovakis. As per the Booker authorities' rule, the prize amount is equally distributed between the original writer and the translator. Another prerequisite --- the books vying for the prizes have to be published in the UK or Ireland. Many potential writers in countries with a rich legacy of novels in their own language, thus, remain deprived of the prize. They have authors, but they lack good translators.

After Tagore's Nobel Prize, it has remained mostly illusory to the Bangla-speaking novelists or short story writers. In spite of the Bengal region's pride in its treasure of creative prose works, both the West Bengal state in India and sovereign Bangladesh couldn't think of the prize even in their utopian dreams. The Bengalees couldn't grow into skilled English translators. Thanks to this shortcoming, the Bengalee authors have kept aside the dream of winning prizes of international stature. They dominantly include the Booker International Prize, and also the far elusive Nobel recognition.

In spite of Bengali being the sixth largest-speaking language in the modern world, it has veritably no place when it comes to global literary competitions. For it to join, and later excel in the race, it has to pass through the test of its skill in the written form of English. The language has long been accepted as a global one. Thanks to it, few global meets, competitions etc can turn away from English. Many literary works could not think of being even considered for a place in the preliminary list, unless they were translated into English. Due to the Booker being centred in England, the birthplace of the English language, the prestigious prize and English go hand in hand. That the Booker authorities have widened their grasp on all countries and territories linked to Britain and English is understood. Few political or cultural powers in the modern times want to remain content with small areas of conquest. It began in the medieval times and continued up to the 20th century. But with the decline in interest in the brutal military superiority, a few mighty nations turned to cultural expansionism. It was spearheaded by a few languages. Dominant of them were Spanish, English, French and Portuguese. Finally, it was the mother-tongue of Great Britain which won the stellar position.

That the world cannot do away with English has once again been proved by the Booker Prize hosted by England from 1969. The prize centred round new English writings, the gifted authors writing in English and opening new frontiers of the language. The first person to be awarded the prize was PH Neyby. He won the prize in 1969 for his book 'Something to Answer For'. Perhaps the most suspense-filled wait and literary fanfare occurred in Britain in 2005, the year which witnessed the introduction of the International Booker Prize. The 'Man' group was behind the massive work of organising the award. The Albanian author Ismail Kadare opened the award after he received it in 2005. He was followed by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe in 2007. Canadian short story writer Alice Munro received the prize in 2009.  She was followed by Philip Roth (USA) in 2011. The 90-year-old Munro also received the Nobel Prize for Literature (Short Story) in 2013.

Through its relatively brief history, the Booker Prize has introduced a number of variants with slightly altered names. They include the Booker Prize for Fiction (1969-2001), the Man Booker Prize (2002-2019) and the International Booker Prize (2004 -). A common requirement that applies to all the categories is the award-aspirant authors must have their books published in either UK and Ireland. This imperative, apparently, disappoints many otherwise brilliant authors writing in both their mother-tongue and English in their countries, which belong to the Commonwealth. All of them were once British territories. Some of these now-independent nations can boast of their state-of-the-art printing technology. The history of English publications in some of these countries dates back to the 19th century. The reason the Booker Prize authorities have kept the provision of printing and publishing the books, eying the coveted award, in England or Ireland could be an attempt to keep the dominance of the British cultural mores on the prize.

The books entering the award phase of the Nobel Prize have to be translated into the major European languages, especially in English. The Pulitzer Prize, meant for US citizens only, is based on the English language. This prize remains beyond controversy, largely because the organisers haven't altered the prize criteria much since its inception. But the many changes to the rules before entering the competition and the newly inserted auxiliary provisions make the major English-language promotional prize inaccessible to a lot of writers having high potential for being awarded it. The authors of many Commonwealth countries with English enjoying a prestigious place eagerly watch the Booker Prize's performance. Their countries may not be fortunate enough to win a Booker in the near future. But their admiration for the prize and for the position of English globally adds to the grandeur of one of the few vibrant and living languages in the present world.


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