This year’s winner of the UK’s Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation was announced in January, with the jury awarding the Prize to Sarah Enany’s translation of The Girl with Braided Hair by Egyptian writer Rasha Adly from a shortlist of five novels by established Iraqi, Egyptian, Syrian, and Lebanese writers.
Also on the shortlist were Voices of the Lost by Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat, translated by Marilyn Booth, A Bed for the King’s Daughter by Syrian writer Shahla Ujayli, translated by Sawad Hussain, The Frightened Ones by Syrian writer Dima Wannous, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, and God 99 by Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright.
Adly was born in Cairo in 1972 and is the author of eight novels, including Shaghaf (2017), the Arabic original of The Girl with Braided Hair, which was also shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the “Arabic Booker,” in 2018. Enany is a professor of English at Cairo University and has previously translated Egyptian writer Kamal Ruhayyim’s Diary of a Jewish Muslim, Days in the Diaspora, and Menorahs and Minarets.
The Banipal Prize, unusual because it goes to the translator of the work and not the author, is administered by the UK Society of Authors, a professional association, on behalf of Banipal, a UK-based magazine of Arabic literature in English translation. Translations of works of Arabic literature published after 1967 are eligible for the Prize, the aim of which is to raise the profile of Arab authors in the English-speaking world.
The first Banipal Prize was awarded in 2006 to the late Humphrey Davies for his translation of Gate of the Sun by Palestinian author Elias Khoury, and Davies won the Prize again in 2010 for his translation of Yalo by the same author. Other highlights since the Prize was established 15 years ago have included translations of works by major Egyptian writers, with due recognition given to their translators.
Farouk Abdel-Wahab won the 2007 Prize for his translation of The Lodging House by Khairy Shalaby, and Samah Selim won the 2009 Prize for her translation of The Collar and the Bracelet by Yahya Taher Abdullah. The 2013 Prize went to Jonathan Wright for his translation of Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan and the 2016 Prize to Paul Starkey for his translation of The Book of the Sultan’s Seal by Youssef Rakha.
Commenting on the shortlist, the Banipal judges said that the Prize was “an opportunity to explore and discuss the enormous repertoire of literary works that vividly represent the creativity of writers across the various regions of the Arabic-speaking world and to evaluate the relative merits of translations of a sample of that creativity that are published for the English-language readership.”
The criteria used to select the winning translation are not stated – whatever their relative merits, one of the translations has to come out on top – but the general aim seems clear. Some readers might be tempted to get out the red pencil or look up the original if the translation is felt to stumble, but the priority is to recognise translations that can be read with pleasure by English-speaking readers as self-contained literary works.
This year’s winning novel is one of the more obviously reader-friendly of the five works on the shortlist. Interweaving two stories, one set in modern Cairo and the other in the late 18th-century city occupied by invading French forces, the novel sees its contemporary protagonist, Yasmine, an art historian, investigating the history of a painting of a mysterious woman. It turns out to be by Alton Germain, a French artist who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte during his invasion of Egypt. The artist becomes infatuated with Zeinab, the subject of his painting and the titular girl with the braided hair, who is the daughter of a sheikh at Al-Azhar in Cairo.
Commenting on her translation of this substantial novel, the longest on this year’s shortlist, Enany expressed the hope that the award would “encourage English-language readers to enjoy this richly detailed and poignant novel.”
Four others: The four other shortlisted works also bring together formidable writer-translator teams, notably in Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat’s Voices of the Lost, the Arabic original of which, Bireed al-layl, won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2019.
The English translation is by Marilyn Booth, the translator of earlier novels by Barakat as well as of many other works, among them Celestial Bodies by Omani writer Jokha Alharthi, winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2019, the first Arabic novel to do so.
Barakat, born in Beirut in 1952 and living and working in Paris, is best known for her novels set in or in the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War and often questioning gender roles and identifications, notably in The Stone of Laughter and The Tiller of Waters, both published in the 1990s. These feature male protagonists at odds with the standards of the surrounding society, drawing attention to voices not always heard or recognised.
In her Voices of the Lost, Barakat again writes about individuals battered by the brutality of society, this time inhabiting their thoughts by reproducing fragments of letters, the “night mail” of the Arabic title, written anonymously as first-person confessions to unnamed interlocutors who are often family members.
The letters, found stuffed into drawers or abandoned in hotel rooms, tell of the loss of a family or a country, often as a result of war, and of intense psychological suffering experienced in solitude. At the same time, the act of writing signals a desire to communicate, even if only in letters written at night that are neither finished nor sent to their intended recipients but instead are found by strangers in similar predicaments.
Related in tone is Syrian writer Dima Wannous’s The Frightened Ones (Al-Kha’ifoun), published in Arabic in Beirut in 2017 and translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, earlier also the translator of The Queue by Egyptian writer Basma Abdel-Aziz. Born in Damascus in 1982 and the daughter of Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous, Wannous also seeks to inhabit the thoughts of individuals brutalised by society, this time by interweaving the thoughts of a female narrator with pages from the manuscript of an unpublished novel by her lover Naseem.
Her thoughts are not recorded in the form of letters, however, since Wannous has imagined a different venue for exploratory speech in a psychologist’s office. The narrator goes back over her past in the company of a professional listener bound to the idea of helping her make sense of her experiences or even extract therapeutic benefit from them.
Many of her memories are of shocking violence experienced in her native Syria – of a brother, for example, kidnapped, beaten, and disappearing “for a whole week [before] returning an empty shell.” There are Naseem’s memories, autobiographical and recording a childhood spent in fear, or reflections on new outbreaks of violence in more recent years, “an aimless schoolboy who discovered a taste for power during the revolution… who joined the shabiha [a militia]” so he could inform on others and exhibiting an authoritarian personality apparently honed at school.
God 99 by Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim is translated by veteran translator Jonathan Wright who like Booth has been responsible for introducing a long list of works by contemporary Arab authors to English-speaking readers including books by Egyptian writers Alaa al-Aswany, Ibrahim Eissa, and Ezzedine Choukri Fishere.
Blasim’s book uses the device of the first-person monologue, though in the form of Internet posts rather than more formal letters. He does not hesitate to introduce himself into the text – “an unknown writer living as a refugee in Finland, and no Arab publishing house has ever wanted to publish my short stories or poems” – or to mull over problems in identifying either the subject-matter or the audience of his writing. The book appeared in 2018 from Al-Mutawassit, an Arabic-language publisher in Milan.
“I’d previously made an unsuccessful attempt to get a grant from the cultural authorities in Finland,” he writes. “They were right. Who would be interested in stories by a refugee who writes in Arabic?” Blasim worked as a filmmaker in Iraq before moving to Finland. “I’m incapable of maintaining continuity: sitting as a keyboard night and day as if I’m a political prisoner in a cell,” he comments.
However, even if the narrator of God 99 is not always sure that it is literature he is writing, or that his words will find an audience, he feels a compulsion to write. “I was born in a country where every decade the barbaric level of violence has risen to higher and more grotesque levels,” he says, with the subject-matter question finally being solved by a decision to interview Iraqis from various backgrounds, some of whom also appear to be refugees.
Finally, there is A Bed for the King’s Daughter by Syrian writer Shahla Ujayli, translated by Sawad Hussain. The title story, a few paragraphs long, refers to a pediment high in the air at the ancient Roman site of Bosra in southern Syria. “A fortune-teller informed the king that his only daughter, whom he had lived his life for, would die on her twentieth birthday from a scorpion sting. So what else could the king do except demand that a bed suspended in mid-air be built for her, as high as the most skillful builders could possibly make it,” the story says.
Ujayli, now living and working in Jordan, has produced a set of short or very short stories that have a similarly suggestive feel, many of them asking to be read several times over before their significance sinks in. Looking up the traditional story after which the collection is named, it seems that Bosra was targeted in the civil conflict in Syria and the “bed for the king’s daughter” destroyed.
Of the shortlisted titles for this year’s Prize, three of them, Voices of the Lost, The Frightened Ones, and God 99, are testimonies by people driven out of their homes by violence, with their use of anonymous letters, fragmentary memoirs, Internet posts, and interviews reproduced in the first person all signaling an urgent desire to get their experiences across even if there can be no certainty that they will find comprehending readers.
Against this background of writing in the aftermath of violence, where even the possibility of writing coherently seems under threat, the winning novel provides readers with the image of a much more stable world not undermined by political conflict. Compared to the other shortlisted works, it is conservative in style and treatment.
It is an outlier, too, in that the authors of all the other shortlisted books live outside their countries of origin, mostly as a result of war or conflict. As has often been the case for refugee authors, for three of them at least the subject matter of their writing is focused on what can be retained from a now inaccessible past life in another country and the experience of that loss.
Rasha Adly, The Girl with Braided Hair, trans. Sarah Enany, Cairo: Hoopoe Books; Hoda Barakat, Voices of the Lost, trans. Marilyn Booth, London: Oneworld Publications; Dima Wannous, The Frightened Ones, trans. Elisabeth Jaquette, London: Harvill Secker; Hassan Blasim, God 99, trans. Jonathan Wright, London: Comma Press; Shahla Ujayli, A Bed for the King’s Daughter, trans, Sawad Hussain, Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.