Winners of nationally selected awards include novels set in post-war Croatia and Ottoman Hungary.
Twelve writers were today named as winners of the European Union's Prize for Literature.
They include a couple of poets – Jana Beňová of Slovakia and Anna Kim of Austria – as well as a short-story writer, Giedra Radvilavičiūtė of Lithuania, and writers of novels set in Croatia after the Balkan wars (Lada Žigo), in Hungary's Ottoman past (Viktor Horváth), and in the love life of a 15-year-old French girl (Laurence Plazenet).
The post-Holocaust lives of Jews are central to novels by Poland's Piotr Paziński and Portugal's Afonso Cruz, while Norway's Gunstein Bakke and Sweden's Sara Mannheimer have strong family themes. The novel by Italy's Emanuele Trevi is described as a “farewell to adolescence”.
The purpose of the prizes, which were established four years ago by the European Commission, is to bring international attention to new or emerging writers not yet widely known abroad. As a result, few of this year's winners will be familiar outside their own country and the only winner whose work is currently available in English is an Irish writer, Kevin Barry, whose novel is driven by gang loyalties in a coastal town.
The winners were chosen by national juries – put together by the Federation of European Publishers, the European Booksellers Federation and European Writers Council – and, according to a European Commission spokesman, the awards amount to a “subjective” appraisal of writers who the national panels believe should be better known beyond their borders.
The national character of the prizes is also reflected in their rotation around Europe, with one-third of the 37 countries in the programme selecting an author each year.
As well as a cash award of €5,000, the winners are “given priority”, the Commission says, for EU grants for their work to be translated, sometimes into five or six languages.
Edgar de Bruin, the agent and translator of one of the winners of 2011, says that selection by an international, rather than national, jury would add weight to the prize.
He agrees, however, that the value of the prize can be significant, particularly the “almost 100% guarantee” of winning grants for translation.
De Bruin says that he had already sold the rights of Tomáš Zmeškal's “Milostný dopis klínovým písmem” (“A love letter in cuneiform”) in the US, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland before the Czech writer, whose father is Congolese, won a prize in 2011. However, he says, “there are publishers in smaller countries who look closely at the list” and who approached him after the award. With the award, publishers know “they will have quality and support” – and, for authors, accelerating publishers' decison-making is valuable at a time when publishers are increasingly cautious.
An award is, though, no guarantee of a breakthrough into the biggest markets. Zmeškal has yet to enter the German market.
The most successful winner so far has been Goce Smilevski, a Macedonian whose novel – “Sigmund Freud's sister” – has been translated into 28 languages, many of them since he won the prize in 2010.
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