Two Titles from Arabic Make 2022 Shortlist of Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation

SEPTEMBER 22, 2020 —Two titles from Arabic have made the six-book shortlist for the 2022 Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation, announced today. The two books are: Salim Barakat’s Come, Take a Gentle Stab,  translated from Arabic by Huda J. Fakhreddine and Jayson Iwen, and Najwan Darwish’s Exhausted on the Cross, translated from Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.

The other four shortlisted titles were translated from Spanish, Korean, and French.

“Translating poetry is the most dedicated form of reading and actualizing poetry’s potential,” translator Huda Fakhreddine said over email, in response to the shortlisting. “I can’t think of a more intimate and critical engagement with a poem than translating it, particularly when the translator is dedicated to producing a text which itself longs to be poetry. 

“The translation of poetry is poetry stretched to its very limits.”

The biennial Sarah Maguire prize aims to celebrate “the best book of poetry by a living poet from Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Middle East published in English translation.” The 2022 edition was judged by Rosalind Harvey (chair), Kit Fan, and Kyoo Lee.

To celebrate the shortlist, the PTC also today publishes The Sarah Maguire Prize Anthology 2022, featuring selections from each shortlisted book and an introduction by prize judge Rosalind Harvey.

In her introduction, Harvey talks about the particular challenges of judging poetry in translation, especially in a context where judges don’t read every source language. “What makes for a good poem in translation is hard to define, and there are two elements to the task we had: one, what makes for a good poem, and two, what makes for a good translation. The subjective nature of both these questions is clearly part of what makes this task hard, but also perhaps what makes it so beautifully rewarding.”

Among other things, she wrote, judges were looking for linguistic inventiveness; playfulness; a collection with internal logic; and poetry that “seemed necessary as a way of seeing or living or coping right now.”

This is the fourth prize the Darwish-Abu Zeid collection Exhausted on the Cross has been recognized by, following shortlisting for the National Translation Award, the Derek Walcott, and a PEN America prize. In an email exchange, Kareem James Abu-Zeid said that prizes like the Sarah Maguire “serve as amplifiers for the books that make it to the longlists/shortlists, helping them reach a much broader audience. The extra publicity is particularly important for poetry in translation, as opposed to prose, since there is obviously a smaller readership (in general) for poetry). Sarah Maguire was a great champion of poetry in translation (and especially poetry from the Middle East), not least through her founding of the Poetry Translation Centre in the UK, so it’s a particular honor to be on the shortlist for this particular prize.”

For her part, Fakhreddine said that, “In their dedication to the art and craft of poetry translation, awards like the Sarah Maguire Prize celebrate poetry in its most shared sense: poetry as a quest and a search for something beyond the individual, the here, and the now — even though it can only begin with one person, here and now, reaching through language across all boundaries.”

Judges also wrote up brief remarks on the six shortlisted collections.

Of Exhausted on the Cross, the Sarah Maguire judges said:

Exhausted on the Cross is a beautiful collection by one of the Middle East’s best known contemporary poets. Darwish’s graceful verses bring to life notions of displacement, faith and conflict – which are brilliantly conveyed through Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s translations.

And of Come Take a Gentle Stab, judges said:

Written by the renowned Kurdish-Syrian poet Salim Barakat, Come, Take a Gentle Stab is a collection of his works spanning five decades. Often drawing on ideas of conflict, violence and identity, Barakat pens his poems in Arabic, despite his native language being Kurdish. Fakhreddine and Iwen’s translations successfully bring the flow of Barakat’s creativity to the Anglosphere.

The shortlisted poets and translators are set to take part in a series of online events throughout October, organized by the Poetry Translation Centre (PTC) in partnership with the British Council, the British Centre for Literary Translation, and Manchester City of Literature. More information about these events is available at the PTC website.

Abu-Zeid said, of ways to create more space for poetry in translation:

Well, through their events and workshops and readings, organizations like the Poetry Translation Centre in the UK, as well as the American Literary Translators Association in the US, are doing precisely that. There has also been an increased emphasis on translation at universities and MFA programs, at least here in the US, which is nice to see. The role those organizations play in providing literary training to translators of poetry is also extremely important, because stilted or middling translations are unlikely to garner much of a readership. More literary training helps raise the overall quality of poetry in translation, which in turn means folks are more likely to read those translated works.    

The other four shortlisted titles are:

  • Migrations: Poem, 19762020 by Gloria Gervitz – translated from Spanish by Mark Schafer – published by New York Review Books
  • Unexpected Vanilla by Lee Hyemi – translated from Korean by Soje – published by Tilted Axis Books
  • The River in the Belly by Fiston Mwanza Mujila – translated from French by J. Bret Maney – published by Deep Vellum
  • Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully – translated from French by Nancy Naomi Carlson – published by Seagull Books

The winning book will be announced on November 1. The winning poet and their translator( or translators) will share a £3,000 monetary prize.

Also read:

Huda Fakhreddine: A Translator Must Have Something To Say About the Text

Najwan Darwish and the Politics/Poetics of Translating Exhaustion

Poems from Najwan Darwish’s ‘Exhausted on the Cross’

Yasmine Seale Reviews ‘Come Take a Gentle Stab’