Translation of Arabic Books Into English Gets a Boost

Last year, we heard all about the Arab Spring on the news. The Beirut39 compendium highlighted the 39 best authors writing in Arabic under the age of 40. Last November, a great deal was reached during the Sharjah Book Fair: a $300,000 fund that will go towards translating the most recent Arabic books into English. And the Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize featured a short story in Arabic that was translated into English by beginner translators under 35 years of age. Be it for political or cultural reasons, we can safely say that 2011 was the year of bringing Arabic writing to the West. Hopefully, this boost will carry the efforts forward into the new year.

"It does feel a little like many English-speaking readers see the Arabic-speaking world in very broad brush strokes, solely via the news," says Briony Everroad, editor at Harvill Secker and creator of the Young Translators' Prize. "People don't know the nuances of the different cultures, so it seems to me that translations of books are hugely important, really."

The American University of Cairo (AUC) Press seems to agree with such statement and made arrangements to re-translate the “The Cairo Trilogy,” Naguib Mahfouz's best-known work that was published in the the 1990s, as originally translated by William M. Hutchins and overseen by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The first installment, “Midaq Alley”, was made possible by acclaimed translator Humphrey Davies and published on 12/11/11, the hundredth anniversary of the author's birth. According to the AUC, this title was chosen first because it had been indicated by critics worldwide as the one in desperate need for a review.

"One of the most difficult things in translation is getting the sense of the voice―the translator has to mimic the author's, but also find their own style when they're writing in English," Everroad adds. From the 92 entries were sent from around the globe for the 2011 edition of the prize, the young translator who seems to have achieved such feat and received a check for £1000 was Wiam El-Tamami, from Egypt, a freelance editor of literary translation at the AUC Press.

The results of the 2011 Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation were announced last Monday and, by unanimous vote, the award goes to Khaled Mattawa for his translation of "Adonis: Selected Poems." Barbara Romaine was the runner-up for her translation of Radwa Ashour's "Spectres," and Maia Tabet received an honorable mention for her translation of Elias Khoury's "White Masks."