Monday, October 13, 2008

mahmoud darwish translator fady joudah wins ghobash-banipal prize

A Magical Metamorphosis
Susannah Tarbush

13 October 2008 Saudi Gazette

The awarding of the annual Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation at a ceremony in London had a particular poignancy this year, as the award went to the translator of poems by the hugely-lamented Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died on August 9.

Darwish learned not long before his death that the translation of “The Butterfly’s Burden”, comprising three of his late works, had won the prize. His translator, fellow-Palestinian Fady Joudah [pictured below in London], recalls how happy Darwish was about the award. Worth £2,000 Sterling, the prize is sponsored by Omar Saif Ghobash of the UAE in memory of his father the late Saif Ghobash, who had a passion for Arabic and other literature.

Darwish’s voice sings out from the pages of “The Butterfly’s Burden” in the translation by 37-year-old Joudah, a Houston-based medical doctor and poet who won the 2007 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition for his first collection “The Earth in the Attic”. (Texas-born Joudah received some of his education at school in Saudi Arabia, where his father was a teacher).

The three collections in “The Butterfly’s Burden” are “The Stranger’s Bed” (1998), “A State of Siege” (2002) and “Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done” (2003). “The Butterfly’s Burden” was first published by the US publisher Copper Canyon Press. The British edition is produced by groundbreaking poetry publisher Bloodaxe Books. One of the many virtues of “The Butterfly’s Burden” is that it is a bilingual edition, with the Arabic on the left hand pages and the English translations on the facing pages.

The Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize is one of six major translation prizes, administered by the Society of Authors, which were awarded at a high-profile event in the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s South Bank Center. The main event was preceded by readings by the winners from their translations: Joudah read Darwish’s poem “Not as a Foreign Tourist Does”. The prizes were awarded by the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, Sir Peter Stodhard. The novelist Louis de Bernières, author of “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, then gave the 2008 Sebald Lecture on the art of literary translation. His lecture took the form of the reading of his short story “A Day Out for Mehmet Erbil”.

Arabic was the only non-European language for which there was a prize this year. The judges of the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize, now in its third year, were literary translator Marilyn Booth of the University of Illinois, author Aamer Hussein, the commissioning editor of Bloomsbury publishing house Bill Swainson and literary translator Professor Roger Allen of the University of Pennsylvania.

Allen, who chaired the judges for the Banipal Trust, said: “The translator’s sensitivity to the nuances and music of the original texts is already evident in the way in which the poetry is introduced and the translation process discussed in the Preface. Darwish is there described as ‘a songmaker whose vocabulary is accessible but whose mystery is not bashful’.”

The English versions of the poems “replicate, deliberately so, the structures of the original poems that parallel them on the opposite page, and yet they can be read in their English forms as wonderful transfers of the images and music of the Arabic poems. It goes without saying that this is a major achievement.”

Allen added: “Darwish’s recent contributions to contemporary Arabic poetry and to the literary tradition of his Palestinian people – most especially the siege poem emerging from the Second Intifada – are here made available in a carefully produced and beautifully translated volume.”.

Marilyn Booth said that Joudah’s “brilliant translation and presentation of recent works by the renowned poet Mahmoud Darwish allows the reader of English to savor the solid and carefully created building blocks of Darwish’s bold and delicate imagery, and the echoes of his sound patterns.”

Ghassan Nasr was the runner-up with his translation of the late Palestinian writer Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s last novel “The Journals of Sarab Affan” (Syracuse University Press). In the judges’ view: “As is to be expected with the writings of this poet-novelist, the Arabic text is couched in language of exquisite beauty, and Ghassan Nasr succeeds admirably in transferring the nuances of the original to an English version that is a pleasure to read.”

Nancy Roberts’ translation of Egyptian novelist Salwa Bakr’s “The Man from Bashmour” (American University in Cairo Press) was highly commended. The jury was “deeply impressed by Bakr’s courageous novelistic exploration of Egypt’s complex relationship with its Christian (Coptic) community during the 9th century AD.” The text uses complex levels of discourse, “and the translation project has therefore been a significant challenge, one that has been met with great success by the translator.”

The poems in “The Butterfly’s Burden” may surprise some of those who are familiar with earlier, more overtly political, works by Darwish in English translation. As Marilyn Booth puts it: “Darwish has long been an eloquent voice for Palestinian identity, aspirations and rights, but his poetry is never reducible to politics, and this volume above all communicates Darwish’s mighty artistic presence at this utterly mature period of his career.”

In an interview on BBC Radio 3’s cultural Night Waves program, Joudah was asked whether Darwish was a political poet or whether politics “happened” to him. He replied: “Perhaps in the English language, whether in England or the US, we separate political poets and non-political poets and in that there is some sort of an implicit sort of derogatory intention. And I think that the political ‘happened’ to Darwish, what else is he to do? And there is a particular kind of luxury to be a contemporary British or US poet and not to have to deal so much with the problematic, particularly the problematic of Palestine.”

Joudah noted that Darwish’s later works “do not necessarily focus on the political in that traditional sense that he started with in the 60s and 70s. He moved past Palestine into Palestine as a metaphor for a collective human situation – that of exile – and I think that explains his popularity around the world. He also was very loved in the Arab world, and was perhaps the Arab poet of his time.”

The most political of the three books in “The Butterfly’s Burden” is “A State of Siege”, relating to the siege of Ramallah by Israeli forces in 2002. The judges singled out “A State of Siege” for particular praise, but Joudah revealed that Darwish had not wanted him to include this book in his translation. “He correctly thought many people would focus on ‘State of Siege’ and not the other two more complete artistic books."

Joudah said: “One of the things that makes Darwish a brilliant poet is his ability to change his language: the language in ‘The Stranger’s Bed’ is starkly different from the language in ‘Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done’ - and the key to that is passing through ‘State of Siege’.”

Asked how Darwish would be remembered, Joudah had no doubt that “he won’t be remembered as only a political poet: I do think with absolute confidence that he has achieved immortality in his language, the Arabic language, and I think he has been celebrated the world over for much more than the political, for being a poet of exile, for being a poet that has taken the self into its several others.”

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