Yesterday, the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) announced the longlists for the 2020 National Translation Awards (NTA) in Poetry and Prose. Two works translated from Arabic — a novel and a collection of interlinked short stories — made the twelve-book longlist for prose:
By M Lynx Qualey
The two books are Ismail Fahd Ismail’s Sabiliyat, translated to English by Sophia Vasalou and re-titled The Old Woman and the River, and a collection of recently rediscovered short works by Naguib Mahfouz. The collection, which was turned up by acclaimed author and journalist Mohamed Shoair, was called The Whisper of Stars in Arabic translated to English by Roger Allen as The Quarter.
The two Arabic titles join a diverse National Translation Award prose longlist that includes two books from Spanish, one from Korean, two from Italian, one from Greek, one from Chinese, one from French, one from Swedish, and one from Russian.
This year’s prose judges are Amaia Gabantxo, Emmanuel D. Harris II, and William Maynard Hutchins. The winning translators will receive a $2,500 cash prize, and the awards will be announced at ALTA’s annual conference, which this year has gone virtual.
The works in The Quarter, presumably written between 1988 and 1994, abandon many Western genre conventions. Time is out of joint, disasters come from nowhere, and events are almost never logically explained. This collection of short works — part folktale, part Sufi koan — was discovered by Mohamed Shoair while he was looking through documents in the home of Mahfouz’s daughter, Um Kulthum, as part of research on his book, The Children of Gebelawi: The Story of a Banned Novel.
While doing so, Shoair came across a file of fifty handwritten stories that had a note: “for publishing 1994.” That’s the year Mahfouz, then 82, was stabbed in the neck outside his home. The attack permanently damaged his right arm and, after it, he was unable to write more than a few minutes a day. Eighteen, he found, were still unpublished.
Back in December 2018, Roger Allen talked about translating the newly discovered collection:
What I would like to know, and don’t know, and don’t think we’ll ever find out is where in the sequence of his writings does this fit. It’s coming out now as something vestigial. But what other works is it between?
I would love to think of this as a set of short narratives he was thinking of turning into something which would be another allegorical look at the quarter and the entire Sufi vision, which he started to bring into his work with the Children of Gebelawi.
It’s all so damn tantalizing, you know?
The story behind Ismail Fahd Ismail’s Sabiliyat — or The Old Woman and the River, tr. Sophia Vasalou — is somewhat less dramatic. The novel was shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, although it was the beloved Kuwaiti author’s final work before his death in September 2018.
This beautiful wartime novel is tender and life-affirming, told from the point of view of an older woman, who rolls with a donkey sidekick, Good Omen. Part desert-island novel, part war story, part Don Quixote, and part folktale, the book shows us the Iran-Iraq war through the eyes of a wise old fool, Um Qasem.
Back in 2017, the author said the novel was his attempt to answer a question:
About the inspiration – at the very beginning of the novel, in the writer’s foreward to the book, I mentioned that in Autumn 1988 I had a phone call from a journalist friend who works for a Kuwaiti newspaper. He told me that at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, his paper received an invitation from the Iraqi media to survey the effects of the war which had lasted 8 years. He said: “We got into a helicopter which circled over an area covering nearly two hundred kilometres, above the decrepit date palm farms, a sad and painful sight. Suddenly we saw a strip of mature green. I asked my companions how this was possible, and his answer was that this was the village of Al-Sabiliat.” At that point my friend told them that my birthplace (I, the writer) was Al-Sabiliat, Basra, Iraq. He continued: “It intrigued me and I wanted to know why your village alone was spared.” He hoped I could find out why. The novel is the result of that investigation.
The other longlisted books are: Among the Lost by Emiliano Monge, translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne; At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell; Beyond Babylon by Igiaba Scego, translated from the Italian by Aaron Robertson; The Cheffe by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump; A Couple of Soles by Li Yu, translated from the Chinese by Jing Shen and Robert E. Hegel; God’s Wife by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Modern Greek by Patricia Felisa Barbeito; Ithaca Forever: Penelope Speaks by Luigi Malerba, translated from the Italian by Douglas Grant Heise; Optic Nerve by María Gainza, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead; Welcome to America by Linda Boström Knausgård, translated from the Swedish by Martin Aitken; and Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden.