Khaled Mattawa’s Translation of ‘Adonis: Selected Poems’ Wins 2011 Banipal Prize

This year’s Saif Ghobash – Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, announced last night, rewards three exceptional labors of loving translation. Khaled Mattawa’s translation of Adonis: Selected Poems is the winner of the 2011 Banipal prize; Barbara Romaine’s translation of Radwa Ashour’s Specters is runner-up; and the four judges also commended Maia Tabet’s translation of White Masks by Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury.

The 2011 prize considered books that were published in 2010 and are “available for sale” in the UK.

Mattawa, the Banipal Prize winner, is not just the translator of Adonis: Selected Poems. He is also the editor and tailor of this sweeping work. The book doesn’t represent just a collection of Adonis’s poems, but is a story of Adonis’s career, moving from poetic mode to poetic mode, following Adonis’s changing relationship to language and constantly shifting shape. The body of Adonis’s work must have presented Mattawa with a myriad of challenges, and Mattawa’s efforts expanded in range and scope to meet them. (My review.)

This was not the first recognition Mattawa has received for the book. He also won a 2011 PEN award for the translation, and Adonis: Selected Poems was shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize.

Mattawa is himself also a widely recognized English-language poet. The author of four books, he has collected a number of major prizes, including one from the Academy of American Poets and two Pushcart prizes.

In their statement, Banipal judges said, of Mattawa’s translation: “The translations are supple and fluent, flexible yet accurate, consistently sensitive to the poet’s nuances, and beautifully render into English Adonis’s modernist sensibilities.”

Barbara Romaine was runner-up for her translation of Radwa Ashour’s Specters. This is the second work of Ashour’s that Romaine has translated.

Of Romaine’s translation of Specters, the judges said: “This experimental novel, which is political in the best sense, needs a confident translator, and has found one in Barbara Romaine. Her impressive translation renders the metaphorical power of Ashour’s story with grace and subtlety, skillfully reflecting the shifts in time and the different voices and registers. Fluent and refreshing, Romaine has done a brilliant job.”

Romaine linked Specters, published in Arabic in 1999, to the then-gestating “Arab Spring,” and added that, “Naturally, I hope that one result of this recognition will be to expose more readers in the English-speaking world to the unique, trenchant, and passionately humanist insight that Radwa Ashour brings to her writing. ”

It was an association of many years that culminated in Romaine’s translation of Specters. Similarly, Mattawa wrote in his foreword to Adonis: Selected Poems that he had first thought of translating Adonis in 1992. He realized, however, that to properly present Adonis’s work would be an immense labor, and finally began it in earnest in 2006 with the support of Yale University Press.

Tabet began work on White Masks in 1993 with neither a publisher nor an agent, and called the project “a labor of love.” Many things interceded, she said, before the work was finally published in 2010.

“I just did it because it needed to be done,” Tabet said, “that’s how strongly I felt about the work. It’s how I feel about Elias Khoury’s work in general. I wanted to do it. ”

Of Tabet’s translation, the judges said, “Elias Khoury’s language is smooth and poetic, and finds its parallel in the masterful translation of Maia Tabet which brings the immediacy of the story to life, without sacrificing the nuances of Khoury’s moral and philosophical questions, transposing the colour and originality of the Arabic into wonderfully lucid prose.”

Mattawa, Romaine, and Tabet will be honored on February 7 at an awards ceremony in London. Also next month, London’s Mosaic Rooms will host a “major tribute” to Adonis, at which Mattawa will read from his translations.

The judges for the 2011 prize were Sarah Churchwell, Christina Philips, Joan Smith, and Samuel Shimon.  Previous winners of the Banipal prize have included British translator Humphrey Davies (for Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun and Khoury’s Yalo), Egyptian  Farouk Mustafa (for Khairy Shalaby’s The Lodging House), Egyptian Samah Selim (Yahia Taher Abdallah’s The Collar and the Bracelet), and Palestinian-American Fady Joudah (Mahmoud Darwish’s The Butterfly’s Burden).


A Review of Adonis: Selected Poems

This February and March: London’s Mosaic Rooms Hosting ‘Major Tribute’ to Adonis

Griffin Poetry Prize on Mattawa and Adonis

Excerpts from Mattawa’s most recent collection, Tocqueville, here and here.

Video of Mattawa reading from Adonis: Selected Poems:


My review, for Women’s Review of Books, is not fully online. A short discussion of the book here.

Read an excerpt of Ashour’s Siraaj, also translated by Romaine.


My review of White Masks for World Literature Today is online at Archipelago, along with a number of other reviews

Video of Maia Tabet and Elias speaking about White Masks: