Delving deep into the UK-based Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation

David Tresilian , Tuesday 16 Jun 2020

This year’s shortlist for the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation reveals the variety of the Arabic works now being translated into English

Death is Hard Work
Death is Hard Work

Recent years have seen more and more national and international awards emerging for literary works in Arabic, including the annual International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the “Arabic Booker Prize”), the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature awarded by the American University in Cairo, and the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards in the UAE recognising works and authors.

The UK-based Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation has been awarded every year since 2006 and is different from other prizes in that it recognises specifically translation. It is awarded to what in the opinion of the judges is the best literary translation each year from Arabic into English. The Prize’s Website adds that it is “given to a published translation in English of a full-length imaginative and creative Arabic work of literary merit published after, or during, the year 1967 and first published in English translation in the year prior to the award.”

Previous winners have included Farouk Abdel-Wahab for his version of Egyptian author Khairy Shalaby’s The Lodging House in 2007 and Roger Allen for his version of Moroccan writer Bensalem Himmich’s A Muslim Suicide in 2012.    

This year’s Prize, awarded in London in February, went to a translation by Leri Price of Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa’s novel Death is Hard Work. Khalifa is already well-known to English-language readers, since earlier novels, perhaps particularly No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, have also been translated and enthusiastically received. He has become one of the best-known chroniclers of the ongoing crisis in Syria along with fellow novelist Samar Yazbek and commentator Yassin Haj Saleh.

However, the Banipal Prize, like other awards, is not, or should not be, a winner-takes-all contest, since its longlist and shortlist, published in the run-up to the final decision of the judges, contain intriguing samples of the range and variety of the Arabic literary works making it into English translation each year and are significant tests of their quality.

This year’s shortlist included Jokes for the Gunmen by Palestinian-Icelandic writer Mazen Maarouf translated into English by Jonathan Wright, Celestial Bodies by Omani novelist Jodha Alharthi translated by Marilyn Booth, and My Name is Adam by Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury translated by Humphrey Davies. Jokes for the Gunmen and Celestial Bodies are early career novels (the former is a collection of linked short stories), whereas My Name is Adam is an addition to an already distinguished body of work that has seen Khoury publish some 15 novels, among them the critically acclaimed Gate of the Sun.

This was made into a film directed by Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah in 2004, and its subsequent English translation, also by Davies, was awarded the inaugural 2006 Banipal Prize.

While the first two novels may have been firsts for their writers, they were far from being so for their translators, both of whom have distinguished track records. Wright has translated well over a dozen Arabic literary titles into English and has previously won the Banipal Prize on two occasions, the first for his translation of Egyptian novelist Youssef Zeidan’s Azazeel in 2013, also the 2009 winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and the second for his translation of Kuwaiti novelist Saud Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk in 2016, which earlier won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013.

 Booth, also an academic at Oxford University in the UK, has translated many works of modern Arabic literature into English, perhaps one of the best known being her translation of Girls of Riyadh by Saudi novelist Raja Alsanea, which gave rise to some controversy between writer and translator when it first appeared. She has produced many translations of works by contemporary women authors, including several by Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat and by Egyptian writer Nawal al-Saadawi, and is the translator of Egyptian novelist Latifa al-Zayyat’s classic novel The Open Door.

Davies is a veteran translator, responsible for the translation of contemporary popular novels such as Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, as well as heavyweight older materials, such as his inventive translations of 19th-century Lebanese writer Ahmed al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg and 17th-century Egyptian writer Yusuf al-Shirbini’s Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded in 2016 and 2019, respectively.

Price, the winner of this year’s Banipal Prize for her translation, thus found herself in very distinguished company.


JOKES FOR THE GUNMEN: Maazen Maarouf’s Jokes for the Gunmen, published under the same title in Arabic in Beirut in 2015, appears in a fresh and idiomatic translation by Jonathan Wright in an English edition from British publisher Granta Books.

It is a book marked by civil conflict, and, though Maarouf is probably too young to remember much of it (he was born in 1978), also the Lebanese civil war. Most of the violence is indirect or represented in the form of “jokes,” with the gunmen of the title being engaged in a series of surreal encounters with the book’s young narrator in linked short stories.

“That was my little mission in the war,” he explains in the first story. “When the fighting was intense and the gunmen were using heavy weapons such as mortars and RPGs, my terrified mother and brother would lie flat on the floor in the corridor… while I stood near the television,” tending a tiny pepper plant. “Just as I didn’t understand what was happening in the neighbourhood, I didn’t understand why my father had chosen a pepper plant,” he adds.

Later, there is a deal with a group of gunmen in order to gain their protection. “There was always a group of young men standing near the school,” the narrator explains. “Five or six of them. We used to call them the ‘hippopotamuses’… They were known to be quiet but also vicious, and they worked by the hour.”

Other than the gunmen, glimpsed at checkpoints or loitering in the streets, the characters are restricted to the narrator’s immediate family. His father disappears after what may be a botched kidnapping, and his uncle “dies three times in the space of a week.” Later, the father reappears, this time in a shady bar. “It was one level below ground. Long and narrow, it was shaped rather like a rectangular biscuit,” he explains. “My father was the gramophone operator in the bar… He spent hours and hours standing behind the bar, turning the handle of a Berliner gramophone from 1900 – there was no electricity and the bar was lit by candles.”

The bar is destroyed in a bombing, rather like the cinema in the next short story. “When one of the occupying army’s tanks shelled the projection room at the top end of the auditorium, most of the families [taking shelter there] gathered on the stage and hid behind the curtain,” the narrator explains. Perhaps the deadpan manner should not be confused with humour, however black, even if much of what goes on seems to be some kind of monstrous joke.

“I don’t have a sense of humour, to be honest,” the narrator says in a story called “The Angel of Death,” an odd admission in a book of jokes. “And I don’t understand why people smile.”

Also from the Levant, this time Palestine as seen from New York, is My Name is Adam, the first volume in the Children of the Ghetto series by Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury in a handsome edition published by MacLehose. The novel was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2017 and appeared in Arabic in 2012 under the same title.

Khoury is at the other end of his career to Maarouf and is one of the elder statesmen of the contemporary Arabic novel. His intention in this book seems to be to retell the history and aftermath of the Nakba, the loss of Palestine in 1948, through memory fragments brought together in the consciousness of a single character whose “name is Adam.”

These reflections are characterised by their range, taking in not only events in Lydda (Lod) in 1948 and the expulsion of the narrator’s family during the establishment of the state of Israel, but also much that has happened since. The book includes a glossary that tracks down some of the many references, but Davies and his editors have employed a light touch. The novel may be a challenging read for those not familiar with at least some of the events that float in and out of the text.   

Many of these are public, while some are more like private jokes, like, for example, when the narrator attends a screening of Gate of the Sun only to note the presence of its director and author sitting next to him. From the modern literary canon, Egyptian writer Taha Hussein makes an entrance, as do the Palestinians Ghassan Kanafani, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, and Mahmoud Darwish, introduced as suggesting possible ways of approaching Palestinian experience. From the classical canon, there are mentions of Waddah al-Yaman, Imru al-Qays, al-Maari, al-Jahiz, and many others, with these being lighted upon as possible sources for a contemporary novel or as a kind of closely woven intertextual backcloth.

The novel is framed by the idea of abandoned notebooks produced by its narrator Adam Dannoun while living in New York. Maybe it should be seen as notes towards writing a novel rather than the thing itself, an extended monologue, writing about writing, a meditation on the difficulty of stitching together memories to make a single narrative.

“I don’t feel comfortable with messages in literature,” political or otherwise, the narrator writes. “Literature exists without reference to any meaning located outside of it, and I want Palestine to become a text that exists without reference to its current historical condition.”

CELESTIAL BODIES: Published in translation by British publisher Sandstone Books, Omani novelist Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies appeared in Arabic under the different title of “Women of the Moon” in 2010. Its translation by Marilyn Booth won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.

Taking the form of a continuous narrative, though one told in different ways, the novel is divided into short sections headed by the names of different characters. It recounts the lives of a family, particularly three sisters, in the village of Al-Awafi in Oman. Sometimes there is an external narrator, with something like free indirect style being used. Sometimes events are recounted through internal monologue, with the narrative directly reproducing a character’s thoughts.

The main impression is one of change over time, with Al-Awafi, like the rest of Oman, being transformed by economic development and the arrival of new patterns of life from abroad. Mayya, for example, one of the sisters, has grown up in a world in which women’s lives are circumscribed by the walls of the family compound, and life-changing decisions, including on marriage, are taken by family members, not by individual women themselves.

She marries Abdallah, the son of local “merchant Sulayman,” having not previously seen him before the engagement is announced. Soon, there are three children, London, a daughter, being the first. Perhaps she is named after the English capital as an act of defiance, since, as a relative exclaims, “does anyone name their daughter London? This is the name of a place, my dear, a place that is very far away, in the land of the Christians.”

As the daughter grows up, life around her begins to change. “When London graduated from the Medical School at Sultan Qaboos University, she said, papa, I want a BMW,” Abdallah remembers. “And when we moved to our new house [in the capital Muscat], Mayya moved the Farrasha [sewing machine] into the storage room… She was very happy about the move. She didn’t want to remain under her mother’s control for the rest of her life, she said. And when she had Muhammad she stopped sewing.”

New pastimes open up, London and her friends being absorbed “in their never-ending expeditions from one mall to the next in her car.” There are new possibilities in business and education. Old family houses are sold, and new apartments obtained, not only in Muscat, but also abroad. The past seems to be receding from present generations, play-stations, BMWs, and consumer goods replacing shopping in traditional village souqs.

Booth evokes the atmosphere of Alharthi’s novel by retaining many Arabic expressions, a rough-and-ready contemporary English, sometimes close to slang, coexisting with them. “Maya’s mother was in the room, and she wasn’t pleased. Laysh ya hibbat ayni! My dear woman, why would you want to name her for me?” “She’s forgetting those days when she didn’t even have a dishdasha to cover her body, way back before she married my boy. Ya ayni alayk, you poor boy, my Sanjar. Your luck took a wrong turn with that viper.”

Finally, there is Khalifa’s Death is Hard Work translated by Leri Price in an English version that won this year’s Translation Prize. The novel appeared in Arabic under the same title in 2016, and it is published in English by the British literary publisher Faber and Faber, not previously known for publishing Arabic fiction.

The framework is a journey from Damascus to Aleppo during the ongoing Syrian Civil War, with the members of an ordinary family, two brothers and a sister, being pushed into taking extraordinary measures in order to carry out their father’s dying wish to be buried in his home district. Along the way there is much to be learned about the workings of the social system in Syria, both under more normal circumstances and during the violence of civil war.

Leaving Damascus, there is the first of a series of run-ins with the security forces and the inevitable production of IDs. “When it was their turn at the checkpoint, the agent on duty told Hussein,” one of the brothers, “that the Mukhabarat [intelligence agencies] would have to check their identity cards while he examined the corpse.” Vertiginous amounts of bureaucracy are required in order to obtain the necessary paperwork, first at the civil-records office, then at the central registry, and then at the relevant military hospital.

All these steps can be avoided on the payment of a bribe disguised as a “goods-transit agreement.” “The agent gave him a sardonic glance, but they agreed on twenty thousand liras.”

On their journey to Aleppo, silence reigns among the family members, each lost in thought about their past and present situation. Abdel-Latif, the father, had retreated into the past during his final years as a way of denying present circumstances. His sons have retreated into private routines designed to put as great a distance as possible between themselves and others.

“Thousands of people disappeared without a trace, simply for being born in areas controlled by the opposition… Kidnappings, ransoms, and random arrests were widespread and tit-for-tat responses meant that they only escalated in frequency. People’s movements were tightly controlled. Any error could be costly.” The best strategy for one brother is to “cut short any burgeoning friendships with colleagues… by the time they started furtively discussing indications they had gleaned which pointed to recent regime losses, using codewords familiar to opposition sympathisers, he had already started ignoring them,” the narrator comments.

The novel presents a terrifying picture of a Syria in which death, like life, is “hard work.” It makes for a bleak diagnosis in Price’s stylish translation, but also a mesmerising one.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: