Organizers announced today that 2020 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation will go to Kay Heikkinen, for her translation of Huzama Habayeb’s Velvet:

According to the news release, the Banipal prize’s four judges were unanimous in selecting Heikkinen as the winner of the £3,000 prize. While noting that the “judges were impressed by the quality of several other shortlisted translations, including two shorter works,” they write that “after extensive discussion” they “reached the decision to award the prize to Kay Heikkinen for a translation that they considered to be of outstanding quality and which deserves to enjoy the same success in English as it has already done in Arabic, through the award of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2017.

Habayeb’s novel was one of the two most recent winners of the Mahfouz medal, which was given to Omaima Khamis in 2018 before going on hiatus. Like other Mahfouz medal winners, Velvet was published by AUC Press’s Hoopoe Fiction imprint.

The Banipal Prize will be awarded in a Society of Authors ceremony on February 11, 2021, as part of a larger event celebrating translations from a number of languages into English.

Velvet was selected by judges from the five-book shortlist that was announced last November. The judging committee, chaired by translator Paul Starkey, said in a prepared statement:

Kay Heikkinen deserves the highest commendation for her sensitive translation of Huzama Habayeb’s award-winning Arabic novel Mukhmal, published in 2016. The novel is an intense and vivid story of one woman’s life in a Palestinian refugee camp, told with sensitivity to the sensuous but tragic world of its heroine but above all to her disturbing and almost heroic defiance of reality. The coarseness of Hawwa’s everyday life stands in stark contrast to the softness of the material around which much of her world revolves. On one level, the novel is a study of the claustrophobia of poverty and oppression, of daily lives shorn of all tenderness and of the stranglehold of family and patriarchy. Throughout it all, however, there remain dreams of individual fulfilment and the possibility of love and escape, turning the novel into a celebration of the triumph of the imagination over the mundane.

Hawwa’s story is told in a rich, carefully crafted Arabic that represents a significant challenge for any translator, requiring stamina and resilience as well as accuracy and precision. The judges were impressed by the way in which Kay Heikkinen’s translation has succeeded in conveying not only the sense but also the mood and emotion of the original, bringing to life a narrative that vividly portrays the repressive life of ordinary Palestinian women while scrupulously avoiding any hint of political platitude. Her translation faithfully adheres to the elegance of the original without losing the deeply tragic tenor of its events.

Habayeb, in the news release, talked about how she discussed the translation with Heikkinen, saying, “A particularly heartening moment was when I explained the symbolism behind one of Fairouz’s songs to Kay, only to see her express greater appreciation for the novel, which made me even more convinced that hers was truly a labour of love.”

In an earlier discussion, Heikkinen said that she was particularly taken with the book’s language: “it’s very precise and uses a very large vocabulary of synonyms and nuances in describing many things. The perfect example is the beginning about the rain. I will never look at rain the same way I used to; the author talks about it as if it were a living being with a will, attacking the earth, and how it has an effect on the streets. …. The challenge is to render the language in a way that means the same as the original and ideally gives some of the same impressions.”

Although Velvet was Habayeb’s third novel, it was her first to appear in English. Habeyeb, a Palestinian writer who was born and raised in Kuwait, brought out her first novel in 2007. Her acclaimed second novel, Before the Queen Sleeps, was named by Ahdaf Soueif as a “favorite of the year” in 2012. It is forthcoming in English translation from MacLehose.

The other four shortlistees for the 2020 Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation:

Trees for the Absentees by Ahlam Bsharat (Palestine)
Translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp & Sue Copeland
Publisher: Neem Tree Press

A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me by Youssef Fadel (Morocco)
Translated by Alexander E. Elinson
Publisher: Hoopoe Fiction (an imprint of AUC Press)

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail (Kuwait)
Translated by Sophia Vasalou
Publisher: Interlink Books

The Egyptian Assassin by Ezzedine C. Fishere (Egypt)
Translated by Jonathan Wright
Publisher: Hoopoe Fiction (an imprint of AUC Press)