Briony Everroad (R) awards the Young Translators' Prize to Wiam El-Tamami
The climax to the award ceremony for second annual Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, held some days ago at Foyles bookshop in London, was the announcement that the £1,000 award had gone to 27-year-old Egyptian Wiam El-Tamami.
The announcement was made by the prize’s founder, Briony Everroad, who presented Wiam with the £1,000 prize for her Arabic-English translation of the short story ‘Layl Qouti’ (‘Gothic Night’) by Egyptian writer Mansoura Ezz Eldin.
El-Tamami is a freelance editor of literary translation at the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press. She has lived in Egypt, Kuwait, England and Vietnam and obtained a BA in English & Comparative Literature from AUC in 2004. She subsequently did an MA in Writing for Children at the University of Winchester, England.
El-Tamami said she was thrilled at her win. “The story was a wonderful choice for a translation competition — it presented just enough technical challenges while leaving plenty of room for creative interpretation. I really enjoyed travelling through the author’s text and mine to find the right mood, voice and style.'
El-Tamimi’s entry won out of 92 entries from translators based in 18 countries. The figure was a decrease from the first year when the designated language was Spanish and there were more than 230 entries.
Everroad founded the Young Translators’ Prize last year to mark the centenary of Harvill Secker in its first incarnation: publisher Martin Secker Ltd. Harvill Secker itself was born in 2005 when Secker and Warburg merged with the Harvill Press. Everroad is an editor at Harvill Secker, where she has worked for five years. Her authors include two major Norwegian thriller writers, Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum, and Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov (who writes in Russian).
The prize aims to help young translators make the leap to a career in the difficult-to-enter literary translation arena. The prize has an age restriction of 18 to 34, and is limited to entrants who have not previously translated, or been contracted to translate, more than one full-length work for print or online publication. Rather than make the prize specific to one source language, it was decided that the language should change each year. And rather than being judged on the basis of existing published translations, like most literary translation prizes, the Young Translators’ Prize requires all entrants to translate the same piece.
Everroad noted that the winner of the prize in its first year, Beth Fowler, had at the time been working as a commercial translator. Fowler was interested in becoming a literary translator, and her prize helped her make the vital transition. Her first-full length translation, of the 2006 debut novel Open Door by Argentine writer Iosi Havilio, will be published by Any Other Stories next month.
Everroad said: “The really nice thing about this prize is that a whole bunch of people got excited by it and have come on board and wanted to join in one way and another. This year, for instance, Banipal is very kindly giving the winner a subscription to the magazine, and offering an opportunity for the winning translator to do some work for them. Also, in the future we have plans to work with some kind of mentorships.”
For this year’s prize Harvill Secker teamed up with Foyles. El-Tamami’s cash prize was supplemented by a selection of Harvill Secker titles and by £100 worth of Foyles tokens. The prize also has support from Granta magazine, which published El-Tamami’s winning translation on its website the day after the prize was awarded (an interview with El-Tamami was subsequently added) .
At the prize-giving Everroad announced a new partnership between the prize and the Crossing Border Festival, held annually in the Netherlands and Belgium. Winners of the prize will from now on be invited to participate in the festival’s ‘Chronicles’ project which invites four writers and six translators to be writers and translator in-residence for the duration of the festival.
Beth Fowler will attend this year’s Crossing Border festival being held on 15-19 November. Wiam El-Tamimi will be invited to next year’s festival.
The prize giving was preceded by a panel discussion chaired by Daniel Hahn [pictured], programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, and an award-winning translator. Hahn introduced Everroad as “a great champion of literary translation. Those of us who translate complain about publishers quite a lot – but we don’t complain about this one. We like Harvill Secker, which has always been a very good friend to – and celebrator of – really fine literature in translation.”
It was Hahn who suggested that Arabic be selected as the language for the prize in its second year. The organisers of the prize consulted the Iraqi writer Samuel Shimon, co-founder and editor of Banipal magazine over the choice of the text for the competition. He suggested Ezz Eldin’s ‘Layl Qouti’ .
Ez Eldin is one Egypt’s leading young writers. She was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF – the Arabic Booker) in 2009 for her second novel Beyond Paradise. She is also one of the Beirut39 writers – 39 Arab writers aged 39 or less selected from more than 450 names by a jury in 2009.
The panel at the prize giving included two judges of the prize – Everroad, and the eminent literary interviewer, journalist and critic Maya Jaggi. Jaggi, who has judged many literary competitions, said she had been pleased to be asked to be a judge for the Young Translators’ Prize. This was because “I review a lot of translations, and I’m aware of how little is coming out in translation – and Arabic in particular is so badly served.”
Also on the panel was Professor Paul Starkey, head of the Arabic Department at the University of Durham. Starkey is well acquainted with Ez Eldin’s work, having translated her first novel Maryam’s Maze (AUC Press, 2007). He also translated her story Déjà Vu for the anthology Emerging Arab Voices (Saqi, 2010). Next month Interlink Publishing Group imprint Clockroot Books publishes Starkey’s translation of Palestinian Adiana Shibli’s novel We Are All Equally far from Love.
The judges of the prize included one Arabic-English literary translator: Anthony Calderbank. Calderbank was previously British Council deputy director in Saudi Arabia, but was recently appointed as the Council’s director in South Sudan, the newest country in the world. The judging process was conducted over speakerphone to South Sudan.
The fourth judge, the prize-winning British novelist Penelope Lively, was unable to attend the prize-giving for health reasons. Lively was born in Cairo in 1933 and her girlhood in Egypt is the basis of her memoir Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived (Harper Collins, 1994). Her novel “Moon Tiger”, which won the Booker Prize in 1987, is set partly in Egypt.
A major issue discussed by the panel was that question of what the judges had been looking for in the translations. Everroad said it was crucial that a translation read well. “It needs to be a wonderful piece of writing that any reader in a bookshop of anywhere else is going to engage with.”
She said: “Wiam not only rose to the challenges of the text, fully comprehending the author's Arabic, but also produced a beautiful piece of writing. The translation displayed an elegance of style alongside fidelity to the Arabic original, yet the story is wonderfully articulated in the translator’s own voice.” The story had presented many challenges to the translator with its “shifting tenses and a dreamlike structure which was far from straightforward. Translators needed to manage the English text very carefully in order to maintain a sense of narrative logic.”
Rather than present the judges with all 92 stories, the organisers weeded out weaker entries in an initial in-house process. Everroad said a fascinating part of the judging process was that when the judges got down to the smaller number of stories, with each new translation “you really want to keep reading the story even though you’ve read it many times before. It creates a new tension for you even though you know the ending and so on. If it flows well it’s almost like reading it afresh, which is a really good sign.”
Hahn asked Jaggi what, as a judge who does not know Arabic, she had looked for in judging the translation as a piece of English. Jaggi said the brief had been “beautiful expression and voice in English” and that “first impressions matter a lot, because when you’re reading without knowing the original, you’re thinking ‘if you can’t write, you can’t translate’.”
The judges were looking for a translator who was also a “writer” in English, and “that type of writing involves a range of vocabulary. And you’re looking for someone who has a nuanced approach and an appreciation of language itself.” Beauty of expression “doesn’t have to be smooth or elegant –it could be staccato and jarring, and in different registers depending on the original.”
The three judges who did not read Arabic depended on the fourth, Arabic scholar Tony Calderabank, for accuracy. “He actually ruled out a couple of things and we deferred to him – because if there were inaccuracies, not simply stretching interpretations, then that was a real problem because editors need to know what they’ve got to work with is accurate,” Jaggi said.
Starkey said although there is a temptation to assume that the first quality in translation of Arabic is a wonderful knowledge of the language, that alone “doesn’t actually get you anywhere in producing a piece of English which people want to read, and if people don’t want to read it, publishers won’t want to publish it.”
Starkey said that theoreticians have tried to formulate the qualities required to be a translator “and you get things like the translator must have equal knowledge of the source language and target language, and of the source culture and the target culture. It gets extraordinarily tedious that sort of theorising, especially if you have to teach it, as I do. But none the less there is something behind it.”
Briony said one of the challenges for the non-Arabic reading judges was repetition in the Arabic. “We liked the versions where people had found creative solutions around that and came up with more adventurous vocabulary to vary that.”
Starkey said there a number of characteristics of Arabic prose that commonly cause problems, including repetition of vocabulary, or related root items, and long sentences. Combine these problems with “the very carefully worked out vocabulary and phraseology that Mansoura uses and you get quite a lot of problems in translating it [her story] into decent, feasible English.”
from L to R: Banipal publisher Margaret Obank, Wiam El-Tamami, Samuel Shimon and Maya Jaggi
The panel was asked about the current state of Arabic translation into English, given Jaggi’s comment that it was “badly served”. Starkey said that although only a small proportion of Arabic literary works find their way into English, “the temptation is to be slightly too pessimistic”. He pointed to a number of developments in recent years including the Arabic Booker (International Prize for Arabic Fiction – IPAF), the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, and “a number of smaller exercises” such as the workshop for young writers that is associated with the Arabic Booker. “A number of publishers are taking more interest in Arabic literature. More could and should be done, but my feeling is that things are getting better not worse, so I’m not in total despair on this matter.”
Jaggi noted that the number of entries for the Saif Ghobash-Banipal prize has grown since the prize was inaugurated in 2006. In addition, English-language publishers and literary agents have attended the annual IPAF awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi in the four years of its existence. They are interested not only in the winning entry, but in other shortlisted novels.
Starkey was asked whether enough attention is paid on Arabic-English translation courses to the development of English writing skills.. He said that at Durham University, the MA in translation is mainly taken by Arab students paid for by their governments. “They are not interested in literary translation – they’re interested in legal translation, in business translation, and that sort of thing. You find the odd one who is keen on literary translation, but as far as formal teaching goes, it is a very marginal activity.”