Friday, 22 May 2015

Proposing The Arthur Waley Prize

I'm a great believer in the power of literature, albeit that most of the time those benefits are fairly intangible. Just occasionally though the world of books has an opportunity to intervene in human affairs with a clear and important message.

Many of us have watched with dismay the ever-increasing rancor of the political relationships between the nations of East Asia - the triangle of suspicion and mutual disdain that encompasses China, Japan and South Korea - not to mention the waves of tension that fan out further to the shores of Vietnam and the Philippines, or the eternal stand-off with North Korea.

Here's a suggestion about how the creation of a new literary prize could make a powerful symbolic statement and make a difference not just to the mutual relations of the East Asian family of nations, but to the cultural understanding of East Asia throughout the world.

Let me row back a little and explain.

In the world of Japanese Studies, there is something called the Japan-US Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature, which is a literary award for scholars of Japanese Literature in the West.

As a past (2005) winner of the prize, I received an email the other day enquiring if there were any new works I would nominate for the award, but noted a significant change in the conditions: all candidates now have to be American citizens. Whereas previously scholars from all over the English-speaking world - including Brits like myself, Canadians and Australians - had been able to win, now it was strictly for Americans.

As the prize is about 'Japan-US Friendship', it might seem odd that non-Americans were ever able to enter in the first place, yet restricting the prize to Americans seems to me an entirely retrograde step. Opening the prize to everyone in the English-speaking world seemed a bold, confident assertion of the US's position as the leading Anglophone nation as well as an acknowledgement that books are not confined to national boundaries.

I might lament that the directors of the prize have taken such an insular step, but it also set me thinking that this was perhaps an opportunity to create a new kind of prize. After all, I had long thought that there should be some type of literary award not just for the best literary translation but for books which offer the general reader important new insights and understandings on Japan, including historical or critical works.

I was very clear about what that prize should be called: The Arthur Waley Prize.

Arthur Waley (1889-1966; portrait by Roger Fry, top), an Englishman, was arguably the greatest scholar of Japanese and Chinese literature to have ever lived. He was the first person to translate the world's first novel The Tale of Genji into English (original text followed by front page of Waley's translation below) and his poetic translations of key Japanese and Chinese classics were widely read by figures as diverse as Virginia Woolf and Ezra Pound. The great Japanologist Donald Keene, after a long life meeting the world's leading intellectuals and writers on five continents, declared that he had only ever met two geniuses: Arthur Waley was one and Yukio Mishima was the other. By devoting himself to Japanese literature, Keene declared that he hoped to at least become 'half a Waley'.

Despite the fact that Waley is one of the greatest scholars Britain has ever produced, he is hardly known in the UK and it seems fitting that a new prize should celebrate his monumental achievements.

But this made me consider: there seems something odd about an 'Arthur Waley Prize' devoted only to books on Japan. After all, Waley was equally noted for his achievements in the Chinese classics (see one of many titles below). Shouldn't such a prize also incorporate books on China?

My first reaction though was to hesitate and think that this ran the danger of old-fashioned 'orientalism' of bundling together unique cultures. But looked at another way, what Waley represented was something that today's world is in desperate need: a recognition of the connectivity and mutually influential cultural achievements of China and Japan.

Famously, Arthur Waley, despite being a great scholar of Chinese and Japanese classics, never visited China or Japan. Waley was uninterested in the modern political vicissitudes of either country: it was their enduring cultural legacy and what that offered to the world that fascinated his interest.

I believe that it's important to have in place a prize that celebrates the enduring cultural kinship of East Asia - including Korea and South East Asia - a prize which makes a powerful statement about the fact that great art vastly transcends transient and often petty political squabbles. Not only would such a prize speak of the communality and continuity of East Asian culture, but it would also recognize that East Asia remains the most important and yet least understood part of the world to the general public in the West.

I therefore propose that the Arthur Waley Prize should be an annual award to the best book in English - as judged by a panel of leading writers, scholars and journalists - on a subject offering new insights and understanding of East Asian culture. The award should include outstanding literary translations, but it should also be open to historical and critical works, and not narrowly scholastic works, but to books that have the vision to communicate scholarly research into highly readable books broadly accessible by the general public (this was a crucial part of Arthur Waley's vision).

The prize would be open to anyone in the world and at an annual awards ceremony the representatives of the Chinese, Japanese and Korean governments (among others) would come together every year to celebrate it.

As for the prize itself, a sum of £10,000 - from a fund jointly endowed by the various cultural foundations of East Asian governments - would comfortably establish it as the leading prize in its category. Though for me, just the honour of being associated with the name 'Arthur Waley' would mean more than any cash reward.

Arthur Waley is the ultimate in poet-scholars not just because of his extraordinary breadth of interests and knowledge, or his desire to communicate his findings to a broader community, but because of the very means by which he conducted his life. Until his late 50s Waley was not attached to any university, working instead in his youth as a keeper of antiquities at the British Museum before becoming an independent writer at age 40. His Chinese and Japanese (and a variety of other languages including Ainu and Mongolian) were self-taught. He was not the beneficiary of countless university grants and scholarships. He was a man working in isolation, but with a quite magnificent vision.

There are other poet-scholars out there whose achievements should be recognized. They might be outside of the university system; they might not have been fortuitous enough to have been born in the US. The Arthur Waley Prize would reward and publicize their labours in helping us understand a little bit more about the shared cultural glories of East Asia. In my view, it could also play a small but significant role in helping those nations come together to understand that they share much more in common than what seems to drive them apart.

1 comment:

Vikingslav said...

An excellent idea couched in humane and sympathetic manner. My one reserve would be the scope of comparing outstanding books about different cultures. China in itself is after all a vast empire of many aspects. Could there not be 3 different Arthur Waley prizes, one for each East Asian nation? In the joint ceremony to award the prizes, the kind of cooperation and cross-fertilisation you desire could surely be incorporated...