The Curious Relationship Between the IMPAC Prize and Arabic Literature

The 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award longlist — 142 books long — was announced yesterday.

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The €100,000 prize gathers nominees from libraries in 114 cities and 39 countries worldwide, although most of these are in the US, the UK, and Europe, with a particularly strong contingent from the US, England, Ireland, and Australia. Meanwhile, for instance, there is only one Indian nominating library, and none from any Arab countries. AsM.A. Orthofer points out at the Literary Saloon, there are as many nominating libraries in Liechtenstein as in all of Africa. (One.)

I glanced through the very long longlists from previous years, looking for Arabic literature in translation:

1996 – 0
1997 – 0
1998 – 0
1999 – 0
2000 – 0
2001 – 0
2002 – 0
2003 – 0
2004 – 1, Leaves of Narcissus – Somaya Ramadan, translated by Marilyn Booth
2005 – 0
2006 – 1, The Yacoubian Building – Alaa Al Aswany, translated by Humphrey Davies
2007 – 1, An Iraqi in Paris – Samuel Shimon, translated by Banipal Publishing
2008 – 0
2009 – 1, Girls of Riyadh – Rajaa Alsanea, translated by Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth
2010 – 1, Chicago – Alaa Al Aswany, translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab
2011 – 1, Sunset Oasis – Bahaa Taher, translated by Humphrey T. Davies
2012 – 0
2013 – 0
2014 – 0
2015 – 0

This isn’t just an Arabic issue: There are few translations from non-European languages on the lists. The prize has only explicitly listed a novel’s language of origin on the longlist since 2014, and in that year, there were no booksfrom non-European languages. This year was a bit more bibliodiverse, with two from the Korean, one from Chinese, and one from Malay. Although, as Orthofer points out, the problem here is that “nationalism rules the day”: Just as the Liechtensteinian library nominated a self-published and self-translated work by a local author, the Malay work was nominated by the National Library of Malaysia, and the two Korean works were nominated by an organization that had subsidized their translation.

Certainly, there are wonderful books on these lists, along with some popular titles. But there must be a better way to get a greater diversity of translated works.

Certainly, there have been a number of Arab writers nominated for the prize. I wasn’t looking for Arab authors who write in non-Arabic languages, but nonetheless I stumbled on a number: Rawi Hage (who won the prize in 2008), Nathalie Abi-Ezzi, Rabih Alameddine, Diana Abu-Jaber, Hisham Matar, and Leila Aboulela (English), Yasmina Khadra, Faïza Guène, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Salim Bachi, and Amin Maalouf (French), Abdelkader Benali (Dutch), Sayed Kashua (Hebrew). There’s no reason to think the librarians are using these as “substitues,” or a reason not to seek out Arabic literature in translation; it’s more likely that Arabic works in translation just aren’t reaching their desks. They also, I imagine, haven’t a context in which to read them.

Indeed, the few selections from the Arabic are a curious bunch. I enjoyed Shimon’s An Iraqi in Paris, recommend it, and think it’s a great book for this list — both literary and fun. But I wouldn’t recommend it in its original translation, the one longlisted, which is assembled from a variety of translators. And as to the translation of Girls of Riyadh, Marilyn Booth (the translator) wrote a protest letter about the re-working of her words.

I understand some people’s appreciation of Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, but Chicago? Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis did win the debut International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), which presumably is why it shows up here, but it’s hardly the best Arabic novel to come out in translation in the last five years.

I was absolutely startled not to find Elias Khoury on a single one of these longlists (Gate of the Sun, Yalo, As Though She Were Sleeping, hello), and I hope it was a glitch in my checking. I was also honestly surprised not to find Hanan al-Shaykh, who is well known to English-language audiences, or some nod toward Hassan Blasim. I was further surprised not to see Azazeel, IPAF’s sophomore winner, even if it wouldn’t have been my first choice. As to the myriad of books that come out to a much smaller bang, such as Sonallah Ibrahim’sStealth or Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah or Bensalem Himmich’s The Polymath or Hoda Barakat’s Tiller of Waters or Jabbour Douaihy’s June Rain or Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain — there would likely need to be an active, interested Arab library on the list to support them.

Another issue is that, to be eligible, a book must have been not just published within the previous year, but the original (from which it’s translated) must have been recent as well. The books eligible for the 2015 award “must have been: first published in English between 1st January 2013 and 31st December 2013, both dates inclusive, or first published in a language other than English between 1st January 2009 and 31st December 2013 and first published in English translation between 1st January 2013 and 31st December 2013 (all dates inclusive).”

So al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg, originally published in 1855, is a no-go, which is a bummer. But so are many other works. And, anecdotally, I’d suggest that works from non-European langauges tend to come out slower because there are fewer publishers who read in those languages, fewer high-profile prizes in non-European languages, and fewer traditional links between publishing houses.

Whether this signals a larger issue — librarians are less aware of books in translation from non-European languages — I can’t say. But while the IMPAC can boast books from a good number of countries, they are still mostly the usual suspects.

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