(left: photo of Humphrey Davies by Samuel Shimon)
The art of translation from Arabic to English has taken a major step forward with the awarding for the first time of the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. The £2,000 prize went to Humphrey Davies for his translation of Elias Khoury’s “Gate of the Sun.” The translation is published in the UK by Harvill Secker, and in the USA by Archipelago Press.
The new prize puts Arabic on a par with the five other languages which already had annual translation prizes of £2,000 each. All six prizes are administered by the Translators Association and the Society of Authors.
The prizes include the Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation from French, the Bernard Shaw Prize for translation from Swedish, and prizes for translations from German, Italian and Spanish. The awards ceremony for all the prizes took place at the British Centre for Literary translation, University of East Anglia.
The prize for translation from Arabic was established by Banipal, the magazine of modern Arab literature in English translation, and the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature, founded in 2004. It has been wholly sponsored during its first year by the arts patron and publisher Mohammed Al-Sowaidi of Abu Dhabi. The Banipal Trust’s honorary president Peter Clark said the first awarding of the prize was “a memorable event in the reception of contemporary Arabic literature in English.”
The award is Davies’ first prize for translation, although he received support for the translation from English PEN’s competitive Writers in Translation Program. He said the award “represents for me, primarily, recognition of the novel itself. ‘The Gate of the Sun’ is a work of extraordinary strength that non-Arabic readers need to have available.” He added: “I am doubly happy that, in translating it. I have helped to put before the reader of English so compelling an account of the dispossession of the Palestinians.”
Davies has a first-class degree in Arabic from Cambridge University, and also studied the language at the American University in Cairo. He completed his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. For the AUC Press he has translated Naguib Mahfouz’s “Thebes at War”, Alaa Al-Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building”, Ahmed Alaidy’s “Being Abbas el Abd” and Gamal al-Ghitani’s “Pyramid Texts”.
Literary journalist Maya Jaggi, one of the award’s three judges, said their choice of winner was unanimous. She added: “Inspired by refugees’ accounts of the Palestinian expulsion of 1948 and its lingering aftermath, Khoury’s ambitious and richly-crafted novel is an epic retelling of myriad individual stories through the central narrative of Khaleel, a doctor tending a comatose former Palestinian fighter in a refugee camp’s makeshift hospital on the outskirts of Beirut.”
The novel “subtly questions the nature of memory and history, literature and imagination, heroism and defeat.” It is “a momentous achievement, whose translation by Humphrey Davies brilliantly captures the nuances and style of the original.”
The other judges were the author Moris Farhi, and the scholar and literary translator
Roger Allen. Farhi commented: “What impressed me most was the natural poetry in the prose…Needless to say, to convey such delicate poetry to an English readership is also a great achievement by the translator.”
Susannah Tarbush Saudi Gazette, November 7 2006