The National Book Foundation’s introduction of a National Book Award for Translated Literature last year felt symbolic in an era of xenophobia and nationalism. It also made a real difference for New Directions Publishing, the independent publisher whose book The Emissary, written by Yoko Tawada and translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, won the inaugural prize.
The prize wasn’t an entirely new idea. The National Book Award for Translated Literature replaced, in a fashion, the National Book Award for Translation, which ran from 1967 to 1983. The earlier award had slightly different guidelines than the current one: the original prize was for fiction only, and works were eligible whether the author was living or dead—whereas both fiction and nonfiction works are eligible for the new award, and both the author and translator must be living at the beginning of the awards cycle. But for publishers that specialize in translated works, such as New Directions, the details were less important than the return of the award. Barbara Epler, New Directions’ president, publisher, and editor-in-chief, called the new award “fantastic” and said she hopes it augers more translated literature in the U.S.
Winning the new award was something Epler had not expected. “We were thrilled,” she said. “I was surprised. I love Yoko’s work, but she’s pretty far out. She’s pretty forthrightly radical: experimental in terms of her language but also her whole approach. It’s a brilliant translation, it’s a brilliant novel, but when she won you could have knocked me over with a feather.”
The publisher said that The Emissary has sold more than 11,000 copies to date through NDP’s distributor, W.W. Norton, and it saw a huge bump following the announcement of the award in mid-November. Sales have skyrocketed beyond those of 2016’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Tawada’s most successful previous book for New Directions, which was written in German (the author lives in Berlin). Epler said it had sold roughly 9,100 copies as of late January.
Figures from NPD BookScan, which captures about 85% of all print sales, also showed that the award gave The Emissary a big bump. The book sold roughly 70 copies per week on average before the award, but after the NBAs that number jumped to more than 325 per week on average through the end of 2018. The book had a 5,000-copy first printing, but New Directions has gone back to print a few times since the award, first in a rush order of 1,500 copies to meet demand, then with another order of 4,000 copies, for a total of 10,500 copies in print. That total doesn’t include more than 1,300 books printed on demand and overruns.
“One thing that’s happened ever since her fifth book, Memoirs of a Polar Bear, is that her audience has gotten much bigger,” Epler said. “She now has an agent. She’s now in many more languages. And I think The Emissary winning the National Book Award from the international point of view was huge. She was on television in Japan, on what would be the equivalent of the Today show, the next morning.”
That increased audience, Epler said, accounted in part for Tawada’s absence from the ceremony. “I thought [NBA executive director] Lisa Lucas was going to have my head on a platter, because we hadn’t really read the fine print and we didn’t realize we had to produce the author,” she recalled. “And Yoko is much more famous over in Japan. She does these jazz performances, and they were sold out. She’s very correct about things she agrees to do—there’s no way she could refund all those tickets.”
Epler added that she thinks the new award is reflective of a burgeoning interest among American readers in literature produced outside of the country—an interest that she attributes to our current political landscape. “One of our essayists, Eliot Weinberger, has a theory that seems to be pretty sound: in pretty crappy political times, when America is really showing its worst face to the world, curiously, there is, inside America, desire to be different and to look out. Like during McCarthyism: that’s when our Sartre books sold, when French existentialism became so chic. It was during the Vietnam era that the Latin-American boom came, and during the ‘W years’ there was more interest in translated literature. And I would say now America is showing the absolutely worst side it’s ever shown to the world, which is saying something. I think that some of this interest reflects that we have this unbelievably bad president.”