Margaret Litvin Wins PEN/Heim to Translate Khalil Alrez’s ‘The Russian Quarter’

PEN America today announced the ten translators to have won 2023 PEN/Heim grants. The ten projects represent a diverse array of books in ten languages: Arabic, Filipino, Polish, Urdu, Spanish, Bulgarian, Korean, Swahili, Tamil, and German.

The award-winning Arabic project is الحي الروسي (The Russian Quarter) by Brussels-based Syrian novelist Khalil Alrez, to be translated by Margaret Litvin. In her translation and scholarly work, she has focused on literature with Arab-Soviet intersections; she previously translated Sonallah Ibrahim’s Ice.

Alrez earned a degree in Arabic literature from the University of Aleppo, then moved to Russia in 1984 to study theater. After learning Russian, he worked as a translator and radio host, leaving Russia in 1993. He has published nine novels and a play and has also translated various works from Russian into Arabic.

The Russian Quarter was shortlisted for a 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

From the PEN/Heim judges’ citation:

Khalil Alrez began working on The Russian Quarter in a Damascus suburb where mortar fire repeatedly shattered his apartment windows and completed it in a refugee shelter in Brussels where he has since settled. “In writing it,” he says, “I wanted to offer my readers something beautiful and delightful set amidst the ugliest of subjects.” Indeed, the novel is a strikingly original war fiction deeply rooted in whimsy. Its narrator and his Russian girlfriend Nonna live in a rooftop room in the neighborhood’s zoo, sharing their lives with a lively human and animal menagerie including a giraffe; across the book’s pages, the animals’ inner lives are revealed and the whole neighborhood’s close-knit charm unfurls. When war finally intrudes — as it must — on this magical realist world, it is all the more devastating for how deeply human its victims are to us. Margaret Litvin’s seemingly effortless translation not only keeps pace with the novel’s unique and “fresh, reckless, fast language” but sensitively picks up on all its translingual connections between Russian and Arabic. 

Also read:

  *   An excerpt of The Russian Quarter appeared (in Sophia Vasalou’s translation) in Banipal 67
  *   Another excerpt, in Litvin’s translation, is set to appear in Spring 2023, along with her interview with Khalil Alrez, in a forthcoming anthology from Oxford University Press.
  *   Alrez’s latest novel, Strawberry-Spotted Handkerchief, is set in Russia and intertextualizes Othello.
  * In an interview with The National, Alrez talks about the novel and his time in Russia.

The other 2023 PEN/Heim grant recipients:

  • Kristine Muslim’s translation from the Filipino of Book of the Damned by Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III
  • Mark Tardi’s translation from the Polish of Dogs of Smaller Breeds by Olga Hund
  • Noor Habib and Zara Khadeeja Majoka’s translation from the Urdu of Oblivion and Eternity Within Me by Miraji
  • Joaquin Gavilano’s translation from the Spanish of The Hostage by Gabriel Mamani Magne
  • Stoyan Tchaprazov’s translation from the Bulgarian of The Misunderstood Civilization by Dobri Voinikov
  • Stine An’s translation from the Korean of Today’s Morning Vocabulary by Yoo Heekyung
  • Richard Prins’ translation from the Swahili of Walenisi by Katama Mkangi
  • Priyamvada Ramkumar’s translation from the Tamil of White Elephant by B. Jeyamohan
  • Caroline Froh’s translation from the German of Words of Resistance by Mariella Mehr
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