Winner of 2021 ArabLit Story Prize Goes to ‘Fresh, Disquieting Translation’ of ‘Compelling and Haunting Tale’

We are delighted to announce that the winners of the 2021 ArabLit Story Prize are — jointly — Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa, Maisaa Tanjour, & Alice Holttum, for Tanjour and Holttum’s co-translation of Almosa’s “How Kind They Are”:

This marks the first year the prize has gone to a co-translation.

This year’s three judges decided, after reviewing the stories on 2021’s five-strong shortlist, to award the top prize to the chilling “How Kind They Are,” which the judges noted for how the story stayed with them.

The prize, now in its fourth year, is collectively funded by ArabLit’s Patreon supporters. The $500 prize is split between author and translator(s).

Syrian author and playwright Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa has published six collections of short stories and four plays that have won him prestigious literary prizes in Syria and the Arab world. Several of his short stories have been translated into many European languages as well as Turkish, Japanese, Persian and Kurdish.

Translator Maisaa Tanjour spoke movingly, in an interview published earlier this week, on discovering Almosa’s stories:

On a cold winter evening in December 2015, my brother and I were discussing the storyline and translation of one of his films, as we usually do. During the conversation, he simply could not believe that anyone had the temerity to call themselves a literary translator without actually having heard of or read Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa’s short stories, so I immediately looked him up on Google and social media platforms. During the years that followed, I read Almosa’s short stories. This was a pivotal moment: a moment that Almosa’s literary work spoke to me. 

Judge Leri Price said, of the story: “‘How Kind They Are’ is a simply exquisite piece of storytelling. Absurd, grotesque, and unsettling, it stays with you, ready at any moment to make solid ground feel that little more unstable beneath your feet.” She added: “The care and precision of the translators simply shone through their work as they recreated this into an equally fresh, disquieting translation.”

Maisaa Tanjour is a freelance translator and researcher. She was born in Syria in 1979 and currently resides in Leeds. She is also an interpreter with years of experience working in diverse professional, humanitarian, local and multicultural communities and organizations. She studied at the University of Homs, and has a BA English Language and Literature and a PG Diploma in Literary Studies. She came to the UK in 2005 to study at the University of Leeds, and has an MA in Interpreting and Translation Studies, and a PhD in Translation Studies. 

Alice Holttum is a part-time freelance translator and translation proofreader. She was born in Edinburgh in 1979 and currently resides there, working also as a furniture maker. She has a Joint Honours BA in Russian and Arabic (2004) and an MA in Applied Translation Studies (Arabic-English) (2006), both from the University of Leeds.

Judge Layla AlAmmar said that, “With a juxtaposition of mundanity and stark violence, ‘How Kind They Are’ makes for a compelling and haunting tale. The deft translation stays faithful to the original voice, with short and sharp sentences that often end somewhere unexpected. Surrealism and dark humor are brought together in a chilling effect that stays with the reader long after the final line.”

Tanjour talked about the reasons she and Holttum wanted to work as co-translators in the interview earlier this week:

Co-translating is a complex shared process that has enriched the project on various levels: the macro level which includes the socio-cultural, political, and ideological aspects of source and target texts; and micro level which covers the selection of words, grammatical patterns, forms of speech reproduction, narrative perspective, and culture-oriented problems such as allusions. 

Judge Nadia Ghanem called the story, “A joyful and utterly disturbing descent into hell’s belly, and one of the most memorable short stories about madness vs. sanity I have read in a long time.”

She added: “I am so grateful to translators Maisaa Tanjour and Alice Holttum for having brought me to Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa’s world.”

Previous winners of the ArabLit Story Prize are: Robin Moger translating Muhammad Abdelnabi (2018), Sawad Hussain translating Najwa Bin Shatwan (2019), and Shakir Mustafa translating Hadiya Hussain (2020). Submissions for the 2022 prize will open in March 2022, when next year’s judges will also be announced.

We are grateful to all authors and translators for their work.

Read the winning story now.