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Illinois State University’s Dr. Steve Halle wins PEN Award for Poetry in Translation

Written by on March 27, 2023

NORMAL, Ill. – A faculty member at Illinois State University has brought home the 2023 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.

Director of ISU’s Publications unit, Dr. Steve Halle, earned the award for The Loose Pearl, a poetry book written by Paula Ilabaca Núñez and published by Halle’s press, co•im•press

PEN America was founded in 1922 with the belief that all writers should have freedom to express themselves in their own ways and acknowledge how the power of literature can change the world. Every year, the organization recognizes outstanding literary achievements with “The PEN America Literary Awards”. There are more than 20 different awards and grants, totaling almost $350,000 to be given to the award winners. 

To Halle, it is always an honor to be nominated for any award, but being nominated for a PEN Award stands for much more. 

“The big thing that PEN is known for is advocacy for writers,” said Halle. “They do a lot of work on behalf of writers, especially on behalf of writers whose speech is threatened… and it goes across the gambit. It’s not just literary writing, it’s all kinds of different writers. I was also really excited about this biography by Dan Charnas of J. Dilla, the hip-hop producer, won for the biography category. They support writers in a lot of important ways… Especially with writers in countries who are in peril or in danger for writing.”

Halle’s victory is regarding a book he published, The Loose Pearl by Paula Ilabaca Núñez. The story follows a woman and her two identities, the loose one and the pearl, dealing with themes of trauma and sexual politics. Halle remarks how the creation of the book began with an uncanny first step. 

“Paula Ilabaca Núñez began writing the book on a blog back in 2007,” said Halle. “There’s sort of an interesting moment where you can have your writing go up immediately and people can interact with it immediately. It’s a very important act, not only as a blog but also as a book, particularly for women in Chile and women in Santiago. The book is very edgy and it does some work to reclaim the fully realized feminine self…”

Halle’s 2023 PEN Award victory for Poetry in Translation marks the publisher’s third major literary translation award. In 2017, Valdivia by Galo Ghigliotto, another Chilean poet, earned the 2017 National Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association.

Two years later in 2019, Brazilian author and poet Hilda Hilst’s book Of Death. Minimal Odes won Best Translated Book Award for Poetry from Three Percent at the University of Rochester. Despite the numerous wins over the years, Halle remains humble and doesn’t rely on awards to fulfill his passion of publishing literature. 

“I don’t know that I publish books to win awards,” said Halle. “Plus, it’s not really something you can control, so I never look at it in those terms. I do use co•im•press to really learn about the poetry and the literature from around the world, especially from places that are under resourced or cultures that are under resourced. I’m interested in the literature from cultures that are less easily translated into English and that’s part of the reason why keeping co•im•press independent and not for profit is pretty important.