2015 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize to Translator of ‘Sultan’s Seal’; ‘Land of No Rain’ Commended

The 2015 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation has been awarded to Paul Starkey for his translation of Youssef Rakha’s ground-shaking The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars:

Translator Paul Starkey.
Translator Paul Starkey.

Translator Jonathan Wright meanwhile received a commendation for his beautiful translation of Amjad Nasser’s  “lyric, slapstick, romantic, academic” Land of No Rain.

The two were chosen from among twenty-nine entries — 26 novels and 3 collections of poetry — the highest number of entries in the history of the prize.

Wright previously co-won the prize in 2013, along with William Hutchins, for his translation of Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel.

Rakha’s novel presents particular challenges to the translator, as part of its project is a re-engagement with the Arabic language and the classical literary tradition. From this year’s four judges:

This text confronts the translator with extraordinary challenges. It mirrors the fundamental tension in the book between the heritage and modernity by constant reference to the classical literary tradition. The author chooses the pre-modern form of “epistles” or “treatises” for his rambling narrative, and the language of the text swings from the most formal classical Arabic to the most contemporary vernacular, along with extraordinary fusions of linguistic registers. Paul Starkey addresses these problems with great skill, and has produced a masterly English version of this riotous, chaotic and often comedic story, which is also deeply moving.

Nasser’s novel, Land of No Rain, also presented its own challenges. Nasser is primarily a poet, and as Wright said in a 2014 interview, “I knew the author had weighed each word, so I had to do likewise.”

From the judges:

The outstanding feature of this book is its highly poetically charged prose which Jonathan Wright has rendered into English with a sureness of stylistic touch which does complete justice to the Arabic original.

This year’s four judges were Robin Ostle (chair), Emeritus Research Fellow at St John’s College; Samira Kawar, literary translator; Alastair Niven, lecturer and writer; and Susannah Tarbush, cultural journalist and blogger.

The award ceremony is set to be held in London on February 17, 2016. The winner takes a prize of £3,000.


Feb 17: Awards Ceremony of Translation Prizes, 6:30 p.m., Europe House, 32 Smith Square, London SW1P 3EU
Introduced by Paula Johnson, Prize Administrator, the Society of Authors. This is a free event, but please reserve your place by emailing annamaria@banipal.co.uk.

Feb 18: Reading at Waterstones Piccadilly, 6:30 p.m. with Paul Starkey. Waterstones Piccadilly Bookstore 203/206 Piccadilly, London W1J 9HD. With Readings from The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Q & A, reception and signing. This is also a free event, with those intending to go asked to reserve a place by emailing piccadilly@waterstones.com.