Najwan Darwish and Kareem James Abu-Zeid Win 2022 Sarah Maguire Prize

NOVEMBER 1, 2022 — The collection Exhausted on the Cross, composed by Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish and translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, has won the 2022 Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation.

Organizers, who announced the winning book today, said that Darwish and Abu-Zeid will share the £3,000 monetary award. The winning title was chosen from a six-strong shortlist, which also included works by poets from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Korea, Mauritius, Mexico, and Syria, the latter being Salim Barakat’s Come, Take a Gentle Stab, translated from Arabic by Huda J. Fakhreddine and Jayson Iwen.

In a prepared statement, Rosalind Harvey, Chair of Judges, said of Exhausted on the Cross that, “In its direct, stripped-back lines, the collection demonstrates both the limits and the necessity of language, inviting us to ask, together, how we can move through and beyond suffering.”

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 chaired by Harvey, who was joined by prize judges Kit Fan and Kyoo Lee.

In a wide-ranging interview that appears today on the ArabLit YouTube channel and Soundcloud, translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid notes that he has been translating Darwish for 13 years now.

“It didn’t just click like, ‘We’re going to do all this stuff,'” he said. “It started very slowly. We met at a poetry festival . . . well, we didn’t meet. I translated his work for a poetry festival, I think it was 2009.”

Darwish didn’t get a visa in time to attend that San Francisco International Poetry Festival festival — and was reportedly the only poet who had a difficult time getting a visa to attend. But while Darwish didn’t make the festival, it did spark more translations from Abu-Zeid. At that point, Abu-Zeid said, Darwish “already had some stuff translated by great translators. Poems here and there. But we worked well together, so we decided we’d keep doing some more stuff. There was no thought of doing a book, really, but we were publishing here and there, some of the poems. Then . . . I was on a residency to work on a novel of Rabee Jaber’s at Banff.”

Jeffrey Yang, editor of NYRB Poets, also happened to also be there.

“And we did a couple fun evenings where people read not from their Banff projects. I read those [Najwan Darwish] translations because I was working on them.” Yang, he said, “liked it, and he said, ‘Hey, why don’t you send me a sample, and maybe we can do a book.’ That was the first book, Nothing More to Lose.

Exhausted on the Cross was their second collection together, and it has received even more acclaim than the first, having been shortlisted for four prizes. “And then to win one of them, and obviously a very nice one to win,” Abu-Zeid said. “When you get shortlisted for one, or you win one, you think, It could just be the subjective opinions of the judges. And it is that. But I’ve never had four, and for me it kind of justified—I made some bolder translational choices with that one, so, in this instance, the prize for me gave me extra confirmation: Yes, trust your instincts. If you feel strongly about shifting something, do it.”

Working with Darwish, Abu-Zeid said, has also helped him hone his skills as a translator. “We just have a nice dialogue, and we look in-depth at the translations we’re working on, and the Arabic.” 

The relationship continues, and readers can look forward to at least two more collections.

I feel very lucky. We’re good friends, also, so that helps. We have the same kind of criteria for assessing a translation of a poem, so that helps a lot too. It just works well with him, and he’s really the only author where it’s a long-term relationship. We have two other manuscripts that are ready to go, basically, and have been submitted to presses, and I imagine I will continue translating his work. 

The Sarah Maguire Prize was established in honor of the founder of the Poetry Translation Centre, the poet Sarah Maguire (1957–2017). Eligible books are the work of a single living poet writing in a language other than English which has been translated into English. The poet can be resident anywhere in the world, but must “originate from, and publicly identify as being from, Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Middle East.”

Selections from the 2022 shortlist have been published by the Poetry Translation Centre in The Sarah Maguire Prize Anthology 2022.

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Also see:

Najwan Darwish and the Politics/Poetics of Translating Exhaustion

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

More about The Sarah Maguire Prize Anthology 2022