Waiting for the winner of UK Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation

David Tresilian , Tuesday 19 Jan 2021

The winner of this year’s UK Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation will be announced in London later this month


While literary prizes have been proliferating both inside and outside the Arab world over recent years, there are still few that recognise specifically translation, at least of contemporary works of literature.

It is here that the UK Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, one of several administered by the UK’s Society of Authors, has come into its own. Founded in 2006, it is awarded every year in January to the best English-language translation of a work in Arabic published after 1967 by a panel of judges made up of mostly UK-based writers and critics.

This year’s shortlist, announced in November, consists of five works by authors from Palestine, Morocco, Kuwait, and Egypt. It represents a range of talents, and expectations are high ahead of the announcement of this year’s winner.

There are two Palestinian authors on the shortlist, Ahlam Bsharat for Trees for the Absentees (Ashjaar lil-naas al-ghaa’ibeen), translated by Ruth Ahmedzai and Sue Copeland and published by the UK-based Neem Tree Press, and Huzama Habayeb for Velvet (Mukhmal) translated by Kay Heikkinen and published by Hoopoe, an imprint of Cairo’s AUC Press.

Morocco is represented by A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me (Farah) by Youssef Fadel, translated by Alexander E. Elinson and also published by Hoopoe, while Kuwait is represented by Ismail Fahd Ismail’s The Old Woman and the River (Al-Sabiliyat), translated by Sophie Vasalou and published by US imprint Interlink Books. Egypt is represented by The Egyptian Assassin (Abu Umar al-misri) by Ezzedine C. Fishere translated by Jonathan Wright and published by Hoopoe.

These books are by authors who are well known in their native Arabic, but perhaps less so in English translation. Their appearance on the Banipal Prize shortlist is an indication both of the many new Arabic literary translators that have emerged over recent years and of the activity of independent presses like Neem Tree and Interlink in building up lists of Arabic fiction in English translation.

The AUC’s Hoopoe imprint has of course for some years been a go-to place for English-speaking readers interested in contemporary Arabic fiction.

The situation was very different just a few years ago, and it means that English-speaking readers, in the past often starved of new titles appearing in Arabic, are now much better served. Reading through this year’s shortlist, whoever the winner turns out to be, is an opportunity to gain a clearer sense of the range and diversity of literary materials now being translated into English from Arabic.

Of the two Palestinian writers represented, the first might be described as a new or emerging figure. Ahlam Bsharat writes predominantly for young adults, and an earlier novel, Code Name: Butterfly (Ismi al-haraki farasha), has also been translated into English. By contrast, the second, Huzama Habayeb, is a more established figure and is a journalist and commentator as well as a novelist. Her novel Velvet won the AUC’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2017 when it first came out in Arabic.

A slim volume of just under 100 pages, Trees for the Absentees consists of six short pieces told in the first person by Palestinian university student Philistia about her family living in the village of Deir Sabra near Nablus on the West Bank. “You come across quite a lot of girls with the name Falasteen [Palestine in Arabic],” she says, “whereas no one has ever heard of the name Philistia.”

Philistia’s family life is centered on the powerful presence of her mother in the absence of her father, locked up in an Israeli prison. Where does real life take place, she asks herself – in the familiar space of the family or in the wider world beyond? There are dreams of marriage and life after graduation, and there are the harder facts of the masculine world of politics appearing outside in the shape of slogans on city walls.

“Then that thing happened to me that can happen even with the people closest to us when you find yourself in a strange place,” Philistia says, remembering catching a minibus to Nablus for a shopping trip with her mother. Those kinds of things – often glimpses of people’s stories outside the family circle – are part of growing up and leaving childhood behind. Ahlam Bsharat admirably captures these within the miniature frame of her stories, and Ruth Ahmedzai and Sue Copeland’s fluent English translation convincingly renders the narrator’s voice and feelings.

Larger in scale, Velvet by Huzama Habayeb needs no introduction to Arabic-speaking readers because of the award of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal three years ago. Kay Heikkenen’s new English translation captures the bleakness of life in the Baqa’a Palestinian Refugee Camp in Jordan where the novel is set, along with the possibility that even within this unpropitious environment some redeeming features can be found.

In the meantime, the life of Hawwa, the novel’s main character, seems singularly hemmed in. Her childhood memories are of an abusive father and of family life that offered little aside from caring for her father and brothers. Outside the home, life has also been unpromising. The male gaze must be avoided in the streets and on buses, and there has been an abusive and loveless marriage.

Yet, female complicities remain, consisting in Hawwa’s case of working for local seamstress and businesswoman Sitt Qamar. Some readers may be reminded of the work of Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat – her novels The Stone of Laughter and The Tiller of Waters also explore the possibility of imaginative release in an uncomprehending or restrictive society, notably through the colours and textures of fabric.

“Velvet has an aroma unlike any other; that’s what Sitt Qamar used to tell her. It’s the aroma of warmth, of dormant heat, of depth and expanse,” the narrator comments, drawing attention to what Hawwa’s life lacks. It can be a means of accessing the imagination or a way of escape. It has “the aroma of well-deserved luxury, of pride and restraint; it’s the aroma of wishes and desires, of maturity of love and of age; it’s the aroma of clean flesh, of flesh suffused with yearnings and the sweat of lust.”

Morocco, Kuwait, and Egypt: The Moroccan and Kuwaiti entries are by well-established writers whose work will be well-known to readers in English and Arabic.

In a departure from the other novels on the shortlist, translator Alexander Elinson has contributed a foreword to Youssef Fadel’s A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me picking out some of the book’s main themes. Is it better to let a book speak for itself and run the risk that what it has to say may not be fully heard? Or is it better to provide some framing? Similar questions arise with the use of footnotes to explain possibly unfamiliar terms to foreign readers, though none of the books on the shortlist in fact do this.

Elinson says that Fadel’s novel, one of the longest on the shortlist at 426 pages, is the third in a series (he has also translated an earlier one) and deals with themes such as “government corruption, emigration, crime, unemployment, and love, all of this with a masterful attention to detail and focus on the working classes.” Put this way, it sounds as if this is not a novel one would likely choose for entertainment – but fortunately such worries evaporate on turning to the text itself. This makes for an involving read, not least because of the individual voices of the characters.

Elinson says that the novel reflects the Morocco of the 1980s and 90s, the period when the giant Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca that fills its background was being built. Farah, a young woman who is the title character of the original Arabic version, has come to the city in search of fame and fortune. Things turn out badly, as they do for others with similar ambitions, and there are extended descriptions of the various ruses that the characters employ to stay above the surface of sometimes brutal city life.

The late Kuwaiti writer Ismail Fahd Ismail’s The Old Woman and the River also draws on contemporary history, this time the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s that caused so much devastation particularly in southern Iraq. Umm Qassem, earlier a refugee but now having returned to her village of Sabiliyat near the Iran-Iraq border and the Shatt al-Arab waterway in southern Iraq, takes charge of some of this suffering.

“One day in late autumn 1988, I got a call from a journalist friend working for [a] Kuwaiti newspaper,” Ismail writes in his author’s foreword. The friend had been to southern Iraq after the War had ended and had been shocked to see the devastation. “But then they found themselves flying over a strip of land bursting with green. It was like a lush oasis of some kind, no more than a couple of km wide, beginning from the Shatt al-Arab and coming to a halt at the fringes of the western desert.”

“Why just this bit of land,” the friend had asked. “The answers he received failed to satisfy him. All he got was ‘that’s the village of Sabiliyat.’”

Finally, there is Ezzedine Fishere’s The Egyptian Assassin, which highlights the question of genre. Trees for the Absentees is marketed to young adults. Velvet places the emphasis on individual psychology. The Old Woman and the River employs some of the devices of magical realism. A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me might be described as social realism. The Egyptian Assassin, on the other hand, is an action thriller, and some readers might be more familiar with the 2018 TV series (Abou Omar El Masry) starring well-known actor Ahmed Ezz than with the original novel.

“A lifetime ago, Fakhreddin had been an idealistic young lawyer, seeking to fight corruption from his modest quarter of Cairo,” the blurb runs. “Then, a botched attempt on his life forced him to flee the country, propelling him on a wild journey that would lead to Afghanistan’s jihadi training camps. He was transformed into a trained killer and never once lost sight of his goal: revenge. But did he lose sight of the only person that really mattered to him, his son, Omar?”

Many of the distinguishing features of the genre are there, with Fishere having a sure hand when it comes to scenic structure, the use of flashbacks, and free indirect style – the interweaving of the characters’ thoughts with the narration. He makes effective use of interior speech and dialogue. As is often the case with genre fiction of this kind, the focus is on the moral mission of the protagonist, explored in a kind of suspended time parallel to the narration.

“Only the car headlights and the pale blue lights on the dashboard cut through the pitch dark,” Fishere writes in an atmospheric episode near the beginning of the novel. “As he drove, Fakhreddin tried to force these thoughts out of his head for a while. It was close to one o’clock in the morning and he still had a long way to go. He gripped the steering wheel with both hands and concentrated on keeping the car right on course as he took the bends. There was no room for error or for risks… There would be time when he reached eastern Sudan and met them. Then he wouldn’t need to guess. He would get his answers straight from the source. He would see Omar and he would know the truth when he looked into his eyes.” It is all exciting stuff.

The criteria employed by the judges of literary prizes are rarely clear, and perhaps this is especially the case for works in translation. Are the judges being asked to evaluate the literary work or the quality of its translation?

But the very vagueness of the criteria may be part of the fun: every year a sense of expectation builds up before the announcement of the winner of the UK Booker Prize or the French Prix Goncourt precisely because such literary weather-forecasting is rarely more than guessing.

So, who will win this year’s Banipal Prize? Past trends hardly yield a general pattern, and the present conjuncture is uncertain: while wider events can partly determine the results of literary competitions, there does not seem to be any clear correspondence between the events related in these novels and those currently drawing media attention.

For the present writer, perhaps the shorter forms are the more effective, with the concentration of language in The Old Woman and the River and Trees for the Absentees (in their English translations) resisting any tendency towards splurge. On the other hand, there is much to be learned from the other novels, with Huzama Hadayeb’s Velvet striking what has been widely hailed as a new note in Palestinian writing and Youssef Fadel’s A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me encouraging readers to see Morocco afresh. The Egyptian Assassin has been exceptionally well translated.

We will have to wait for the judges’ decision.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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