Professor Roger Allen (R) and Bensalem Himmich at the awards ceremonyThe Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation was awarded last night to Roger Allen during the Society of Authors' Translation Prizes 2012 awards ceremony held at Kings Place, central London. Allen won the prize for his translation of Moroccan author (and Culture Minister from 2009-2012) Bensalem Himmich's novel A Muslim Suicide. The £3,000 award was presented by the editor of the Times Literary Supplement Sir Peter Stothard.
When Allen ascended the stage to receive the award, he thanked the Saif Ghobash Foundation, the Society of Authors and the Banipal Trust. And then, to much applause, he announced: "Above all I have the honour tonight to tell you that the author himself is in the audience." (It appears that Himmich was the only author whose work in translation had won a prize to be present at the ceremony).
Allen's 414-page translation was published by Syracuse University Press in 2011. The central character is the Sufi philosopher Iban Sab'in (1217-1269 CE) who was born in Murcia in Al-Andalus, southern Spain but was forced to migrate to Africa because of his controversial views. He was later expelled from Egypt and spent his final years in Mecca.
The Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize, first awarded in 2006, is sponsored by Omar Saif Ghobash of the UAE and his family in memory of his late father Saif Ghobash.
The runner-up was Humphrey Davies, commended for his translation of Palestinian poet and author Mourid Barghouti's I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, published by Bloomsbury.
Allen recently retired from his position as Sascha Jane Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, having served as Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations for 43 years.
Allen, whose native city is Bristol in south west England, obtained a D Phil in modern Arabic literature from Oxford University: he was the first student to obtain a doctorate in that field at Oxford, under the supervision of the late Dr Mustafa Badawi. In 1968 he moved to the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.
Allen had travelled from Philadelphia for the awards ceremony. This morning he gave a three-hour Masterclass on Arabic Literary Translation in the Meeting Room and Library of the Arab British Centre. This evening he and Bensalem Himmich are in conversation at the Mosaic Rooms at an event chaired by Professor Paul Starkey, chair of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature. The event will be followed by a reception.
In all, eight of the language prizes administered by the Society of Authors were awarded during the evening (not all the ten prizes it administers are annual awards). The ceremony was introduced by Paula Johnson of the Society of Authors. She co-hosted the event with Sir Peter Stothard, who presented each award.
Himmich signs a copy of A Muslim Suicide for poet Ruth Padel, a judge of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize 2012
The judges of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize were poet Ruth Padel, novelist Esther Freud, Iraqi poet, novelist critic and translator Fadhil al-Azzawi and translator and university teacher John Peate.
Presenting the prize to Roger Allen, Sir Peter Stothard said: "In the view of the judges the most important aspect of this historical novel that takes the 13th century Sufi philosopher Ibn Sab'in as its hero, is its language. The Arabic original is written in a language not only related to its heritage, but also full of contemplations and Sufi ideas, they accompany the main hero on his long journey across different cities and countries, from Spain to Mecca. And this also opens up remarkable historical, cultural and religious perspectives of the Islamic heritage."
In the judges' opinion "it's hard to imagine anyone in the world besides Roger Allen capable of bringing this serious book to English readers. He has succeeded with his wonderful style not only to turn Himmich's text into brilliant English prose but also to create a real piece of literature."
Allen read to the audience a passage from A Muslim Suicide. He introduced it by saying "we have just heard this novel described: it is the story of one of Islam's most radical thinkers, Sufi philosopher, theologian and physician, and perhaps there is a contemporary aspect in that - precisely because of the radical nature of his thought he is hounded out of basically every place he tries to settle down, from Spain to North Africa to Egypt and finishes in Mecca. And it's in Mecca that I choose to read a passage about something which is quite familiar to us yet is told in Hammich's unique style."
Allen read a dramatic passage towards the end of the novel in which Ibn Sab'in witnesses a crush of hajj pilgrims in which people are being trampled and killed. "I suddenly spotted the head of a young girl screaming beneath the pile of rigid, expiring bodies. Rolling up my sleeve, I plunged into the fray, grabbed her by the hands and started pulling her out as though she were some poor animal ensnared in the fangs of a ravenous beast."
Ibn Sabi'in saves the life of the young girl. The next day the warden tells him that the girl is from Khurasan and has been reunited with her father and aunt, but that her mother had been crushed to death. the previous day. "He told me that tragedies such as this happened every year during the pilgrimage season, something that caused us both to seek refuge in God from such calamities."
Professor Roger Allen at Kings Place last night
In announcing the commendation of Humphrey Davies, Stothard observed that he is a former winner of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize and that judge al-Azzawi had described him as "one of the masters of translation from Arabic into English. For the judges, "what Humphrey Davies has done once again is to adopt exactly the right palette of both vocabulary and tone in his translation all the way through."
The judges had added: "The great skill in his translation is not just in the sophisticated understanding of the original, which should be beyond doubt, it is also in the rendering of an apparently effortless yet deeply nuanced English prose, beyond which - translators will know - undoubtedly lies long, long hours of intense reflection and research. Davies is a true exemplar to translators in work such as this."
Davies lives in Cairo and was unable to be present. In his absence Senior Commissioning Editor of Bloomsbury Bill Swainson stepped forward to receive the commendation on his behalf.
Davies won the inaugural Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize prize in 2006 for his translation of Elias Khoury's novel The Gate of the Sun (Harvill Secker 2005). In 2010 he won the prize for his translation of Khoury's Yalo (MacLehose, 2009) as well as being joint runner up with his translation of Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis (Sceptre 2009).
A Muslim Suicide first appeared in Arabic as Hadha Al-Andaluisi published in Beirut by Dar al-Adab in 2007. The Arabic original was longlisted for the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF - often known as the Arabic Booker Prize).
Allen explains in his illuminating translator's afterword how the choice of title for the translation was made. He had happened to meet Himmich when the latter was writing the novel, which the author originally proposed to call Al-Intihar bi jiwar al-Ka'ba (Suicide Inside the Ka'ba). Allen had suggested that while the title was exciting and reflected historical accounts, it was also "not a little provocative and even controversial in contemporary terms."
Allen does not know what happened in the intervening period, but he thought the title under which the novel was eventually published Hadha Al-Andaluisi (literally, This Andalusian) went too far perhaps in the other direction. "I can report that is it at the author's specific request that this translation into English reverts to his original ideas concerning the title of this novel". (In addition to his afterword Allen provides an invaluable 14-page glossary.)
A Muslim Suicide is the third of Himmich's novels that Roger Allen has translated. First came his translation of Himmich's 1989 novel Majnoun al-Hukm, which won the London-based Al-Naqid prize for fiction. Allen's translation of this account of the reign of the controversial (and probably schizophrenic) Fatimi caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (d 1021) was published in 2005 by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press under the title The Theocrat.
Himmich's 1997 novel Al-'Allamah on the latter years in Cairo of the great Arab historian and historiographer Ibn Khaldun (died 1406), was translated by Allen as The Polymath (AUC Press 2004) The Arabic original of the novel won the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for fiction.
Allen has now translated a fourth Himmich novel - Mu'adhdhibati (Dar El Shorouk) which was shortlisted for IPAF 2011. With its theme of "extraordinary rendition" in the post-9/11 era, this novel is a major shift from Himmich's past emphasis on historical fiction. The noun in the title is the feminine of Tormenter or Torturer.
It is surely only a matter for time before the book finds a publisher. IPAF says of it: "In a gripping novel, whose narrative style is a blend of Kafka and One Thousand and One Nights, Himmich imagines an innocent man’s experience of extraordinary rendition in an American prison.
"During his captivity, the protagonist is subjected to interrogation and torture by both Arabs and foreigners and yet, against all odds, the author manages to find some hope in an otherwise desperate situation.".
The eight Translation Prizes went to six novels and two poetry books. In his lengthy article on the prizes in the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Adrian Tahourdin (the TLS's French Editor) leads with Allen's translation: "Most challenging among the novels is undoubtedly Bensalem Himmich's A Muslim Suicide."
The novel is set in "turbulent times - the Crusades and the Mongol advance are in the background - but this is very much a personal quest. Poetry, philosophy and Sufism, with its goal of the transcendent, the 'Necessary Existent', are constant presences in this dense and complex novel." Tahourdin adds: "And the many women who cross Ibn Sab'in's path are presented in a style that seems appropriate to the time and place: 'her diaphanous dress was set and showed every details of her luxuriant body'."
(L to R) Professor Paul Starkey, Bensalem Himmich, Banipal publisher Margaret Obank
As always, the awards ceremony was followed by the annual Sebald lecture, named in memory of the late W G Sebald, founder of the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT). The lecture, entitled Paradise Lost: Confessions of an Apostate Translator, was delivered by the Russian author and translator Boris Akunin. Akunin is one of the most widely read authors in Russia, and has been compared to Gogol, Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle. His best-selling detective novels are translated into English by Andrew Bromfield.
But Boris Akunin is actually the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, a translator particularly from Japanese into Russian. Akunin's revealing and entertaining lecture was a fascinating account of the interplay of translating and writing in his life in the Soviet era and now. In accordance with his habit of dividing everything into chapters, Akunin divided his lecture into three chapters: ‘The 2nd cleanest profession in the USSR’ (according to his mother translation, after medicine, but definitely not writing);‘The bliss of translation’; and ‘Shadows mutiny’ (how after the age of 40 he lost the urge to translate, and how his writing fountain ‘started to gush’ when a middle of the road readership sprang up).
The annual Society of Authors' Translation Prizes ceremony is an occasion for translators, whose role is all too often overlooked, to step forward to receive prizes and commendations. The winners have the chance to talk briefly about, and read from, their winning translations. The ceremony is an excellent opportunity to get an idea of what is being translated in different languages and to break out of literature-in-translation language ghettoes.
Once again the acclaimed translator from Spanish and Portuguese Margaret Jull Costa featured in the list of those honoured. She was both winner and runner up for the £3,000 Calouste Gulbenkian Prize for translation from Portuguese. Her winning translation was that of Teolinda Gersão's novel The Word Tree set in Mozambique. The novel is published by Dedalus which has a sample chapter on its website.
One of the founders of Dedalus was Robert Irwin, the Arabic and Middle Eastern history scholar, author of several novels and many works of non-fiction. He is the commissioning editor for the Middle East of the TLS. Dedalus says that "in The Word Tree Teolinda Gersão paints an extraordinarily evocative picture of childhood in Africa and the stark contrast between warm, lush, ebullient Mozambique and the bleak, poor, priggish Portugal of Salazar." Certainly the extract read by Jull Costa made me want to hear or read more.
Jull Costa was commended for her translation from Portuguese of The Land at the End of the World (Norton) by Antonio Lobo Antunes. She was also commended in another prize: the £2,000 Premio Velle Inclán for translation from Spanish, for her translation of Seven Houses in France by Bernado Atxaga (Harvill Secker).
The winner of the Premio Velle Inclán was Peter Bush for his translation of Exiled from Almost Everywhere (Dalkey Archive Press) by Juan Goytisolo. Bush spoke of the surprise there had been that Goytisolo had in his late 70s written a novel on cyberspace, "though he doesn't know one end of a mouse from the other."
Born in Barcelona in 1931, Goytisolo went into voluntary exile in 1956 and has never returned to live in Spain. Goytisolo lives much of the time in Marrakesh: Himmish recalled warmly last night how Goytisolo wrote the introduction to the Arabic original of his novel Majnoun al-Hukm (The Theocrat in Allen's translation).
The Hellenic Foundation for Culture Translation Prize for translation from Greek, awarded every three years, was won by Avi Sharon, a classicist from Boston University who works in finance in New York City. He won the prize for his translation of The Selected Poems of Cavafy (Penguin Modern Classics). Constantine P Cavafy is of course very much associated with Alexandria, the Egyptian city where he was born to Greek parents and lived for most of his life. Sharon's translation of Selected Poems has been widely praised and won the 2009 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, a $1,000 award by the Academy of American Poets for volume of poetry translated from any language.
The other poetry collection to receive an award was Robin Fulton's translation of Chickweed Wintergreen: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books) by the Swedish poet Harry Martinson, which won the Bernard Shaw Prize for translation from Swedish. Although Martinson jointly won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1974 with fellow Swede Eyvind Johnson, Fulton noted that few of his poems have previously been translated.
I found poems such as Evening Inland read by Fulton powerful and haunting. The judges of the prize, Andrew Brown and Dr BJ Epstein said: "Martinson is a writer who uses rhythms and rhymes of Swedish in ways that cannot be reproduced, but only at best recreated in English. This Robin Fulton has triumphantly accomplished."
report and pictures from Kings Place by Susannah Tarbush