The Nobel Prize has only been awarded to a writer working in a non-European language five times in the past 30 years. Furthermore, every single author had been translated into English.

July Blalack, MULOSIGE


Regardless of where you live or the last time you picked up a book, you’ll probably hear about who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Whereas most literary awards attract attention from readers and writers, the Nobel Prize is an event that stays in the larger popular consciousness in much the way that The Oscars do. In cases where an author who writes in a non-European language is awarded the Nobel, the prize also becomes a chance for these literatures to enter the awareness of people who might not normally think of buying, say, Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz’s novels (1).

Given the cultural, literary, and popular significance of the Nobel Prize, I was excited to hear a lecture from Professor Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy of Literature and an accomplished literary theorist in her own right- not to mention the first woman to hold this prestigious position at the academy. With the provocative title “How to Win the Nobel Prize,” it promised to be an engaging talk. I also looked forward to a discussion spearheaded by fellow students attending Harvard’s Institute for World Literature, an accomplished group representing diverse areas of literary and linguistic expertise.

Nobel Prize founder Alfred Nobel's will and inkhorn by Tomas Er

Nobel Prize founder Alfred Nobel’s will and inkhorn by Tomas Er, via Wikimedia Commons

I enjoyed hearing Danius explain why Svetlana Alexievich and Bob Dylan were chosen for the prize in 2015 and 2016 respectively. In reference to singer and musician Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Danius pointed out that many classics which we now read as books, from Homer to Shakespeare, were originally composed to be listened to and performed. In this sense, Bob Dylan’s lyrics are no less literary than a Shakespeare play, and the prize has been awarded to many playwrights in the past. In response to an audience question about whether a graphic novel might one day receive the Nobel Prize, Danius replied “Yes, of course- it’s still language.” The committee’s expansive definition of literature is certainly encouraging, even if it may be motivated by what Danius described as the academy’s need to stay relevant.

While the conversation regarding form and genre was open, Danius refused to comment on many aspects of the prize’s selection and judging process. From the talk and the Q&A, we learned that Alfred Nobel’s will gave the instructions that the prize be awarded to an author “who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” and that it was Nobel’s “express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates.” Although this is not mentioned in the text of the will, Danius also emphasized that the award must be given “without taking politics into account” and that the author should have created something new either in content, form, or both. She also explained that the Nobel Prize is conferred based on a lifetime’s worth of work, not just one or two pieces.

Until now, however, has the Nobel Prize in Literature lived up to its historical call to stand against nationalism? How broadly can this be interpreted in an age where factors such as native tongue, receiving a Western-style education, access to Internet, and holding a desirable passport often represent bigger divides between peoples than their nation of birth? It would seem unfair to judge the entire list of the prize stretching back to 1901 in answering these questions, but issues of language are clearly part of winning the Nobel Prize. In the past 30 rounds for example, the prize has only been awarded to a writer working in a non-European language five times, and every single author had been translated into English at least a decade before being awarded the prize (2). It appears Naguib Mahfouz was correct when he remarked, “it was through the translation of these novels into English that other publishers became aware of them and requested their translation into other foreign languages, and I believe that these translations were among the foremost reasons for my being awarded the Nobel prize.”  

Many audience members were curious about how the prize’s requirement that the five-member committee “not take politics into account” was actually applied, but Danius repeatedly stated that she could not comment on the judging process. When an audience member asked why the process was confidential instead of transparent, Danius also did not provide an explanation. Twice she mentioned that eleven languages were spoken among the five committee members, not counting the Scandinavian languages. She also said that Chinese was one of them, perhaps as proof that there were some non-European languages represented. Danius then explained that the process of finding the next laureate involves working year-round and asking for nominations from literature professors and PEN Organization branches in literally every country on the planet.

Since it is impossible to know what languages the committee actually reads in, it is difficult to say whether or not enough is being done to address possible language biases, which are no less salient than national biases. It is true that the Nobel Prize Committee may not be able to fix issues that cause some languages to be written in and not others, or some genres to be accessible to their committee and not others, or some stories to be translated but not others. However, as a prize with an incomparable draw and worldwide prestige, I hope that part of the committee’s idea of staying relevant includes recognizing that knowing ten European languages and Chinese is not enough to do justice to the prize ceremony’s global audience. I hope that, in the same way that they have embraced a wide definition of literature where form is concerned, the Swedish Academy will take it upon themselves to find idealist and humanist expression across a wide swath of cultures. I hope future committees will have a strong knowledge of different local, regional, and transregional literary forms but, perhaps more importantly, that they will recognize that the idealist literary expression Nobel spoke of may come through in forms and languages that are not perfectly translatable to any five-person committee’s eyes (and ears).

Without knowing more about the selection process, it is impossible to say whether or not the Nobel Prize in Literature deserves the global audience it attracts. However, it is precisely these limitations that make it so important for us to engage with literatures around the world through channels other than the old guard.

Update, 05.10.2017: To clarify, The Nobel Committee for Literature, which evaluates nominations and makes recommendations to the Swedish Academy has five members. The Swedish Academy, which selects the laureates, has 18 members, according to the Nobel Prize’s official website. 

(1) Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in 1988 for “works rich in nuance – now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous – [he] has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind,” according to the Nobel Prize’s website.
(2) To clarify: not necessarily all of their works had been translated into English, but at least some had. In a rather exceptional case, most of French author Patrick Modiano’s works were not available in English before he won the Nobel Prize, although the novel Night Rounds was. For a list of the laureates and their first translations into English, please see my table in Google Documents.