The art of translating Arabic literature into English was in the spotlight in London last week when the Egyptian scholar Farouk Mustafa was awarded the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. He won the prize for his rendering of Egyptian writer Khairy Shalaby’s novel “Wikalat Atiya”, which earned Shalaby the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2003. Mustafa’s highly accomplished translation, produced under his pen name of Farouk Abdel Wahab, is published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press under the title “The Lodging House”.
The prize was awarded on Thursday evening at a ceremony held in the Purcell Room, at the South Bank Centre. During the prizegiving ceremony a total of seven prestigious translation prizes administered by the Society of Authors were presented by Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement. They included the Scott Moncrieff prize for translation from French, the Premio Valle-Inclan for translation from Spanish and the Schlegel-Tieck prize for translation from German. The ceremony was preceded by readings by the translators from their prize-winning translations and by the 2007 Sebald Lecture on the Art of Literary Translation, which was delivered by Marina Warner. The lecture was entitled ‘Stranger Magic: True Stories and Translated Selves’.
Shalaby’s novel tells of the descent into the underworld of a trainee teacher and aspiring author after he is kicked out of a teachers’ training college during the Nasser era for beating up a teacher. The teacher had driven the young man beyond endurance by constantly persecuting him for being one of those “sons of detestable peasants…more like barefoot riffraff than anything else” for whom the coming to power of Nasser had brought new educational opportunities. The novel takes its title from a notorious old Damanhour caravanserai, where the poor and disreputable end up living. The narrator is drawn into the world of the place’s inhabitants and encounters a series of extraordinary characters. He comes to know from the inside the tragedies and turmoil of their lives, and the strategies they adopt in order to survive.
The Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef, chair of judges from the Banipal Trust, said: “Khairy Shalaby’s ‘The Lodging House’ is an outspoken message, in defense of the forgotten, the downtrodden and the poorest of the poor. Before Khairy Shalaby nobody dared to give such a statement.” Another judge, the journalist Maya Jaggi, said Shalaby’s novel is “a wise, anarchic, ribald, compassionate compendium of life at its most precarious and most ebullient.”
Mustafa’s translation brings Shalaby’s prose vividly to life in a text that is charged with vitality, tragedy, tenderness, humor and bawdiness. A glossary of terms explains words such as “sabaris” – cigarette butts collected from the streets, the tobacco from which is used by the poor to roll cigarettes.
The presence at the prizegiving ceremony of both Mustafa and Shalaby, who had travelled to London for the occasion, added to the spirit of the event. Mustafa had come from the US, where he is Ibn Rushd Professorial Lecturer in Modern Arabic Language at the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.
Banipal is the London-based magazine of modern Arab literature in translation, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of its foundation this year. Its translation prize is worth a modest £2,000 Sterling, but the prize’s significance is far beyond its monetary value. When Banipal established the prize, which was awarded for the first time last year, it made a major contribution to the presence and appreciation of Arabic literature on the world literary scene.
The prize is sponsored by Omar Saif Ghobash of the UAE, and his family, in memory of his late father Saif Ghobash. Saif Ghobash was a passionate lover of literature, Arabic and non-Arabic. He built up a remarkable collection of literary works in many languages, which has been passed on to his family. Omar Saif Ghobash said: “A prize for people who are so dedicated to the power of literature and the power of translation seems so clearly something my father would have supported himself. When I spoke with other members of our family, they supported the idea immediately – before I could finish my sentence! It is a small but fitting tribute to my father’s memory.”
Cultural exchanges via the medium of literature are more needed than ever during these troubled times. But as one of the judges of the prize, Roger Allen, commented: “It is not a little ironic that, in an era in which the Western world seems more than ever focused on events taking place in the Middle East and especially the Arabic-speaking world, the opportunities and publication outlets available for making well crafted translations of Arabic literature available are fewer than ever.”
In Allen’s view: “It is almost as though, in an era where we see a plethora of works on Islam, terrorism and Middle Eastern economies, literature is not to be considered as a reflection of a nation’s/culture’s view of the world- indeed, one might suggest, as the most accurate reflection of it.” Allen added that if the Saif Ghobash – Banipal Prize can serve to highlight the excellence and relevance of the literary works that are available to a readership of English-language texts “then it is providing an invaluable service. It deserves the widest possible support.”
The runner-up of the prize was Marilyn Booth, for her translation of Egyptian Hamdi Abu Golayyed’s first novel “Thieves in Retirement” in what Maya Jaggi described as “a supple, subtle English that brilliantly captures the dark ironies and skewering satire of a relatively new voice in Egyptian fiction and Arabic literature. It reads delightfully, as though it were not a translation at all.”A third work, Peter Theroux’s translation of Palestinian Emile Habiby’s “Saraya, The Ogre’s Daughter”, won a commendation from the judges of the prize.
Saudi Gazette, November 12 2007