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National Book Awards Add Category Honoring Works In Translation

CCAC North Library

For the first time in more than two decades, the National Book Foundation is adding a new category to its annual slate of literary prizes: the National Book Award for Translated Literature. The new prize announced Wednesday will recognize a work of either fiction or nonfiction translated into English and published in the U.S.

Executive Director Lisa Lucas described the move, which was approved unanimously by the foundation's board of directors, as a bid to transcend traditional boundaries and broaden the awards' scope for the sake of American readers.

"We are a nation of immigrants, and we should never stop seeking connection and insight from the myriad cultures that consistently influence and inspire us," she said in a statement.

"We want American readers to deeply value an inclusive, big-picture point of view, and the National Book Award for Translated Literature is part of a commitment to that principle. The addition of this award lends crucial visibility to works that have the power to touch us as American readers in search of broadened perspective."

It also expands a stable of prizes that for more than 20 years has numbered just four: fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people's literature. The latter was added in 1996.

That said, as The New York Times points out, this is far from the first time the National Book Awards dabbled in a little — or a lot — of variety since their founding in 1950. At various points, the prestigious award has recognized genres as diverse as contemporary affairs, philosophy and religion, westerns, and mysteries — including separate honors for both paperback and hardcover.

In fact, the National Book Awards used to recognize excellence in translation for a span of roughly 15 years before cutting off the prize after 1983.

Only after a short-lived experiment in the 1980s, when the prizes were briefly renamed the "American Book Awards" and had the number of categories vastly expanded, did the National Book Awards return in their modern iteration to honor just fiction and nonfiction. Poetry, like young people's literature, was worked back into the fold later.

The new approach, which looks a little farther beyond the borders of the English-speaking world, comes just a few years after the Man Booker Prize — the premier literary award given out in the U.K. — made a big step of its own toward greater inclusion: Since 2014, the Man Booker has been open to authors beyond the Commonwealth, the confines by which it used to be defined.

As for the new National Book Awards category, the foundation says it's intended to honor both author and translator. The inaugural winner will be announced at a ceremony in New York City on Nov. 14.

"We now have the opportunity to recognize exceptional books that are written anywhere in the world," David Steinberger, chairman of the foundation's board of directors, said in a statement, "and to encourage new voices and perspectives to become part of our national discourse."

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.