LATELY — 1 January 2002

The Nobel Prize for Literature

Are the citations written for winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature becoming more and more incomprehensible?

The Swedish Academy started out more or less on the right track with an award to Sully Prudhomme “in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.” A little ornate perhaps, but this is the Nobel Prize–“because he wrote a bitchin’ book” wouldn’t cut it, to be sure.

In 1923 W.B. Yeats got the prize “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.” By this time the citations had grown more grand, but they’re still very much comprehensible. And there are still straight-forward citations too: Sigrid Undset won in 1928 “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages”; Pearl Buck won in 1938 “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.”

By 1960 the citation’s sentence structure has increased significantly in complexity: in that year Saint-John Perse won for “the soaring flight and the evocative imagery of his poetry which in a visionary fashion reflects the conditions of our time.” Easy enough to follow, I suppose, but I can’t imagine the mostly unnecessary “in a visionary fashion” popping up in such a fashion during the prize’s first few decades. I wonder, too, if battles were fought over the inclusion of “soaring flight.” It’s a little … poetic, don’t you think?

Eugenio Montale’s 1975 citation reads: “for his distinctive poetry which, with great artistic sensitivity, has interpreted human values under the sign of an outlook on life with no illusions.” The Academy’s grip on the tendrils on meaning is slipping. To what does the “with no illusions” belong? Does Montale interpret “with no illusions,” or does he use his illusion-free outlook on life to “interpret human values” (whatever that means)? And “under the sign of”? The “with great artistic sensitivity” is surely meaningless and serves only to futher clog up what was already a pretty far-gone sentence.

The citation of 1983 (for Sir William Golding) has this form: “for his novels which, with the A of B and the C of D, illuminate the human condition in the world of today.” Now this citation has a fairly straight-forward structure: if A had been, say, “clarity”, B had been “Dr. Seuss”, C had been “charm” and D had been “A.A. Milne,” we would have had a real citation on our hands. But of course the Academy would fuck it up (again). The actual citation reads: “for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today.” Sigh. Is “realistic narrative art” really famed for its perspicuity?? I’m not even sure if the citation is in the “A of B” and “C of D” form. Whoever can tell? It’s a mess.

Things haven’t improved much. In 1998 the prize was won by Jose Saramago “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality.” I’m particularly taken by the “continually enables us once again.” Why would “enables us” not do? When we were “enabled” for the first time?

And in 2001, V.S. Naipaul received the prize for “having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.” Now I know what it means for a police officer, say, to be “incorruptible.” But what does it mean here? What author demonstrates corruptible scrutiny? I can’t see any justification for the “the presence,” either.

Are the citations the result of bad translations? Do they actually make sense? Is it not worrisome that the citations for medicine (“for his discovery of Prions–a new biological principle of infection”; “for their discoveries of key regulators of the cell cycle”) make markedly more sense than those for literature?

[The official site of the Nobel Prize for Literature has the citations on separate pages; another, far uglier site has them on the same page.]