Roger Allen Wins 2012 Banipal Translation Prize for ‘A Muslim Suicide’

According to a January 16 news release, Roger Allen is the winner of the 2012 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for his translation of Bensalem Himmich’s A Muslim Suicide:

msThe four judges —  Ruth Padel, Esther Freud, Fadhil al-Azzawi, and John Peate — were in unanimous agreement about both the winner and the runner-up, Humphrey Davies.

Davies, who has won the award twice (2006 and 2010) and also been a runner-up (2010), was runner-up for the 2012 prize with his translation of Mourid Barghouti’s I Was Born There, I Was Born Here.

This was Allen’s third translation of a Himmich novel. Previously, he has translated Himmich’s celebrated The Polymath and The Theocrat. According to the prize judges:

Himmich (left) and Allen.
Himmich (left) and Allen.

The Arabic original is written in a language not only related to the heritage, but also full of contemplations and Sufi ideas. The author enables us to accompany the main hero of the novel in his long journey across different cities and countries from Spain to Mecca, letting us get in touch with different dimensions of Arabic history, poetry, Islamic religion and heritage. In this work, Roger Allen shows us how fine and deep his linguistic awareness is: he succeeded with his wonderful style not only in turning Himmich’s text into brilliant English prose, but also in creating a real piece of literature – this fascinating historical novel. It is a major work of translation that impressed all the judges with its remarkable sophistication and ambition, its rich philosophical and literary tapestry, and the seamless way in which it has been translated.

As I noted in my review of A Muslim Suicide, the book was originally titled This Andalusian! 

But this new title, translator Roger Allen explains, is not a betrayal of the author’s intentions. In fact, it hews very closely to the author’s original wishes. According to Allen’s afterword, Himmich had wanted to call the book “Al-Intihar bi-Jiwar al-Ka’aba” (“Suicide Beside the Ka’aba”) for the way his protagonist reportedly died in AD 1269. Review here.

In an interview last year, Allen noted that Himmich writes historical novels, but he “introduces not only actual historical figures but also texts written by them. There’s a large amount of quotation. So he’s actually using history to talk about power and corruption.”

Allen has also translated a fourth book by Himmich, his 2010 novel My Torturess; I am not yet sure if it as found a publisher.

As for the runner-up, I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, the judges said:

herethereHumphrey Davies is one of the masters of translation from Arabic into English. He knows how to find the right tone for his translated text and once more, in I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, he catches the spirit of the original text and lets us feel and enjoy the beauty of his English prose. He has adopted exactly the right palette of both vocabulary and tone right the way through, giving readers the beautifully rendered revisiting of a riven landscape. In this fluid translation of a thoughtful and moving book he manages a rare thing – to make you feel you are reading the book in the language in which it was written. The great skill in his translation is not just in the sophisticated understanding of the original, which should be beyond doubt. It is also in the rendering of an apparently effortless, yet deeply nuanced English prose, behind which – translators will know – undoubtedly lies long, long hours of intense (self) debate, reflection and research. Davies is a true exemplar to translators in work such as this.

The winner and runner-up were chosen from among 22 entries (listed here), many of them beautiful literary translations.

The award ceremony will be held on Monday, February 4 at King’s Place in London and will include readings by the winners of this and other literary-translation awards, among them prizes for translation from French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch/Flemish and German. The annual Sebald lecture on the Art of Literary Translation also will be given by Russian author and translator Boris Akunin.


Roger Allen will give a masterclass on Arabic Literary Translation from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Feb. 5 at the Arab British Centre. To reserve a place, you’ll need to email margaret – at –

Also that evening, Roger Allen will be in conversation with Bensalem Himmich at the Mosaic Rooms, 7 p.m.

Davies’ “Rules for Translating”

Review of Muslim Suicide

Excerpt I Was Born There, I Was Born Here in Guernica