Susan Sontag devoted a great part of her life to championing the English translation and publication of heretofore un-translated works of both classic and contemporary world literature. Whether she was cajoling publishers to take on writers famous in their own country but relatively unknown or forgotten in the English-speaking world – writers such as Robert Walser, W. G. Sebald, Anna Banti, or Victor Serge – or by writing her own essays about their work, Susan Sontag was indefatigable in her enthusiasm and commitment to what she once called “literature as an international system.” That is, globalization and multiculturalism in the truest and most humane sense of those terms.
In Susan Sontag’s honor, the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation was established to continue that work. This prize is awarded annually to a literary translator under the age of 30 for a translation project of his or her own design. An evaluation panel comprised of noteworthy translators, writers and Foundation members determines the prizewinner each year. Following announcement of the Prize, the Foundation will “employ” this fledgling writer over a four-month period of time, oversee the completion of their project, and encourage the writer’s curiosity and skill in the field of literary translation. Most translation prizes, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, are awarded to established writers whose works have already been published. In contrast, the Susan Sontag Foundation seeks to encourage rising talents who will directly benefit from exposure to a broader literary sphere that might otherwise be unreachable for them at such an early juncture in their careers.
Furthermore, with this Prize for Translation, the Susan Sontag Foundation seeks to raise the overall stature of literary translation in America. Across the country, very few universities focus on or teach translation, particularly at the undergraduate level. According to a recent study by The New York Times, a mere 3.54% of new adult fiction published in America was in translation. This is a great loss for American readers; as Sontag said of her own childhood reading experiences in her acceptance speech for the Friedenspreis in 2003: “To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom… Literature was freedom. Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged, literature is freedom.”
Now, more than ever, it is crucial for young people in America to find ways to embrace foreign cultures, languages, political sensibilities, aesthetic notions, and tastes.
The ultimate goal of the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation is to foster a new generation of literary translators, strengthen these young writers’ curiosity in voices beyond their own borders and hone their talents in bringing those new voices home for Americans to hear, thereby changing the landscape of literary fiction in this country.