From 17 eligible entries, judges for this year’s Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation chose four books, meant to represent the best in Arabic literary translation published in the UK this year:
The list is:
The Dove’s Necklace by Raja Alem (Saudi Arabia),
translated by Katharine Halls and Adam Talib (Duckworth)
The Book of Safety by Yasser Abdel Hafez (Egypt),
translated by Robin Moger (Hoopoe)
No Knives in the Kitchens of This City by Khaled Khalifa (Syria),
translated by Leri Price (Hoopoe)
Limbo Beirut by Hilal Chouman (Lebanon),
translated by Anna Ziajka Stanton (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Univ. Texas Press)
The release suggests that these books were chosen not for the quality of the original, but for the effort in translation:
All four were translated with respect for nuance, contemporaneity and readability, never betraying the integrity of the original writer but also acknowledging that English-language readers need to feel at ease with what they are reading and not held up by awkward expression or mystifying allusions.
Indeed, these are worthy books. The Dove’s Necklace was a densely packed and complex narrative work to move into English, as the judges note “[a]t times she almost trips over herself in dealing with such a diversity of tales”; The Book of Safety was a similar challenge, managing the shifts and switches into voices and times; No Knives is well-voiced novel and was also shortlisted for the US’s National Translation Award; Limbo Beirut, which moves fluidly from Hilal Chouman’s Arabic into Anna Ziajka Stanton’s English, was longlisted for the 2017 PEN Translation prize.
Yet it is not entirely clear what these books achieve, translation-wise, that the others do not. Perhaps it isn’t possible within the structure of an awards shortlist, but would be good to know: 1) what translational challenges the judges identified for each of the books, 2) how they saw the translator awake to these challenges, 3) the specific beauties they found in the translator’s or translators’ decisions.
All shortlists are flawed in some way, and one could make arguments for many of these books. It’s particularly unclear why Samuel Wilder’s melt-in-your-mouth poetic rendering of Ghassan Zaqtan’s Describing the Past doesn’t make the list.
Shortlisted translator Robin Moger has shared his own numbered thoughts on Twitter.