Finnegan’s List 2016: Anton Shammas and Sinan Antoon on What We Should Translate Now

The European Society of Authors has released its 2016 “Finnegan’s List.” Launched in 2011, Finnegan’s provides an “annual list of under-translated or forgotten works”:

2016The two authors this year focusing on works in Arabic are the novelists Sinan Antoon and Anton Shammas. These two, along with eight others, have seleceted three titles that make up the committee’s “elective affinities.” In so doing, the Society of Authors hopes to “revive a literary canon encompassing all languages spoken and written in Europe and beyond.”

Sinan Antoon recommends three classic works:

Abdelrahman Munif, (A Magian Love Story), Beirut: al-Muʼassasah al-ʻArabīyah lil-Dirāsāt wa-al-Nashr, 1974.

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, (Rain Song), Beirut: Dar Shi’r, 1960.

Ghaib Tu’ma Farman, (The Palm Tree and the Neighbors), Sidon: al-Maktaba al-’Asriyya, 1965.

In his comments, Antoon wrote that A Magian Love Story is a “powerful novella about a visceral and destructive infatuation. While most of Abdelrahman Munif’s later works were concerned with the interplay of history and politics and how they shape individual and collective lives, A Magian Love Story is focused on individual passion and pain, and is written in a poetic language. Badr Shakir al-Sayyab was the pioneer of modern Arabic poetry. He staged a revolt against the form and content of the traditional qasida and changed it irrevocably. His experiments with meter and the new themes he introduced are crystallized in this collection. A milestone in the development of prose fiction in Iraq in the 20th century. The Palm Tree and the Neighbors by Ghaib Tu’ma Farman is a tightly structured and masterfully written novel set in the poorer quarters of Baghdad in the middle of the last century. It is a vivid portrayal of a society on the cusp of change.”

Relatively little of Munif’s work has been translated into English, perhaps in part because of the initial reception of his Cities of Salt quintet by John Updike in The New Yorker. Selections of al-Sayyab’s magical Rain Song have been translated, and were included in the recent 15 Iraqi Poets chapbook edited by Dunya Mikhail. There are many, including Dr. Issa Boullata, who have written on al-Sayyab’s importance to modern poetry. Banipal 29 did a feature on Farman’s work, and Jadaliyya featured a short story of Farman’s in translation, “The Old Man’s Word.

Anton Shammas recommends three newer works:

Iman Mersal, (Until I Give Up the Idea of Houses), Cairo: Dar Sharqiyat, 2013.

Rabee Jaber, (The Druze of Belgrade), Beirut: Dār al-Ādāb lil-Nashr wa-al-Tawzīʻ, 2011.

Salim Barakat, (Delshad), Beirut: al-Muʼassasah al- ʻArabīyah lil-Dirāsāt wa-al-Nashr, 2003.

In his comments, Shammas writes that, “With the publication of her second collection of poems, A Dark Alley Suitable for Dance Lessons, Iman Mersal has established herself as one of the most unique, refreshingly subtle and intriguing voices in modern Arabic poetry. Against the backdrop of a poetic scene dominated mainly by the rhetoric and poetics of the leading male poets of the Arab world with their grand gestures and large-scale itineraries, Mersal’s has been a very low-keyed and minor voice, totally oblivious to the tyrannical heritage of the Arab poetic past.”

He adds that, “Her fifth and most recent collection has a section entitled ‘the side-roads of life,’ which seems to capture the essence of her project: leaving the Main Road of collective loyalties, and following the personal, the intimate, and the mundane. A selection from Mersal’s poetry, These Are Not Oranges, My Love, was published in 2008 (Sheep Meadow). Her poems have been translated into numerous languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, Hebrew and Hindi.”

A few weeks ago, ArabLit published A Holiday Gift: Ten Poems from Iman Mersal. However, Shammas is a bit late here: Mersal confirms that Robyn Creswell is at work translating the poems from this collection.

Shammas calls Rabee Jaber, whose Mehlis Report received surprisingly little attention in English, “one of the most talented, prolific, original, yet underrated Arabic novelists. Jaber’s novels have over the years brought to Arab readers ‘news from elsewhere,’ as Walter Benjamin described the task of the storyteller. His subjects include, among many others, the Beirut of the American Protestant Missionaries 22 in the 19th century, Belgrade of the 1860s, and America of the early 20th century. The Druze of Belgrade, winner of the 2012 Arabic Booker Prize [International Prize for Arabic Fiction], tells the heartwrenching story of Hanna, a boiled-eggs vendor who, one early morning in 1860, leaves his young wife and new-born girl, and near the port of Beirut finds himself dragged into a ship to replace a missing convict.”

This year, New Directions is bringing out Jaber’s Confessions, trans. Kareem James Abu-Zeid. This perhaps will spark a wider interest in Jaber’s work.

This is Salim Barakat’s second time being selected for Finnegan’s List, and several publishers have sniffed around translating his dense work. As Shammas writes, Barakat “is a Kurdish-Syrian novelist and poet whose masterly Arabic style has brought back to the modern Arabic language the grandeur of its classical past in a totally unprecedented manner. In this regard, and even though five of his novels have been translated into French, he is probably one of the most difficult writers to translate, especially into English. Yet, I can hardly think of any Arab novelist who’s worth the effort and the challenge more than this astonishing writer.”

Shammas explains why he chose Delshad in particular: “It’s about that elusive, arduous, impossible ‘task of the translator.’ Set against the strangulation of the Kurdish language and identity by the modern Syrian state, the novel tells the tragic story of Delshad, who is commissioned by a Kurdish prince to translate for him a book from Syriac into Kurdish, The Compendium of the Reckoning of the Unknown, for which he has to learn the Syriac language. Delshad is so entranced by the wonders and challenges of translation that he turns the two volumes of the original into fifty-two Kurdish volumes. Over forty years of meticulous rendering culminate in a Syrian police officer cruelly shooting through the volumes to test the velocity of his bullet. It’s a brilliant foreshadowing of what’s been happening in Syria in recent years.”

There are a few Barakat excerpts online:

From Rampaging Geese, trans. Thomas Aplin.

From The Iron Grasshoppertrans. Mona Zaki.

From Jurists of Darknesstrans. Marilyn Booth.

From Caves of Hydrahosetrans. Sawad Hussain.

You can read the whole 2016 “Finnegan’s List” report:

http://www.seua.org/wp-content/uploads/Finnegan_2016.pdf



Categories: translation

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5 replies

  1. Anton Shammas’ choice of “Delshad” is a bit of surprise. The novella’s language debunks notions of renderings and translation as it falters at every turn. And it reads at times as a political track rather than a work of fiction.

    • No offense, mr Mustafa, but you and I cannot have read the same book. There’s really nothing here remotely reminding me of a “political track”. (Or tract, if that is what you intend. Whatever.) Admittedly, there are passages where the language is so dense it borders on the untranslatable – which of course is a point the author is making, given the subject of the book. (Maybe it would take fifty-two volumes to do it justice😉 .) But it’s a masterly novel, and the language is sublime. I do hope some brave translator gives it a shot.

  2. So much by Munif needs to be translated – most importantly his Iraqi trilogy Ard as-Sawad. I haven’t even heard of A Magian Love Story but it sounds really cool. Just proves my point of how under-appreciated and how little understood this Arabic master his.

    We also need translations of other key Arab writers like Mikhail Naimy, Taha Husayn, Nizar Qabbani, Badr Shakr al-Sayyab (as noted above), etc. There was a noble project by the Zaydan foundation to translate Jurji Zaydan’s novels. Some great titles have been released but there are still numerous gems yet to make it into English like his book on Abu Muslim Khurasani.

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