Posts featuring Raja Alem

What’s New in Translation: October 2018

Join us to find out more about titles fresh off the press in the world of translation.

Cities can be energizing or inspiring, sites of sensuality or spirituality. Two such cities take center stage in this edition of What’s New in Translation, where our team members introduce you to new and exciting publications.

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Sarab by Raja Alem, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price (Hoopoe Books)

Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor

Not only does Sarab, the forthcoming novel by Saudi author Raja Alem, open a new chapter in the fictional treatment of the 1979 siege of the Great Mosque—following Badriah al-Bishr’s Love Stories on al-Asha Street, Yousef al-Mohaimeed’s Where Pigeons Don’t Fly and Alem’s own The Dove’s Necklace (winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction)—it also marks a precarious moment in the development of the global novel.  The book first appeared in April in German, and it’s set to be published in English in October by Hoopoe, an imprint of Cairo University Press. The work is intriguing, translated from a text that the novelist does not regard as finished. Since it deals with “a dark chapter in the history of this most holy city” of Mecca—as the Paris resident, Raja, says of her hometown, in a recent interview with Publisher’s Weekly—“I am very sensitive to the words, and up until now I cannot find the right words to capture this story, this wound,” she continues.  “I feel I need to rewrite this book in some new Arabic, after taking a distance.”  Thanks to translator Leri Price, the Anglophone public who cannot read Arabic can nevertheless now imagine that new Arabic for themselves, across a different, and otherwise uncrossable, distance.

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What’s New in Translation: September 2018

Readers of English are introduced to four fresh titles, and to their takes on conflict, whimsy, and the human condition.

Even as we celebrate 30 issues, join us at Asymptote as we bring you new reviews of exciting fresh releases. Dive into four titles here with us, featuring work set in Russia, the former Yugoslavia, Syria, and Argentina. Keep on following our blog in September to witness the journey our team has been through in the last seven years.

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Checkpoint by David Albahari, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Restless Books, 2018

Reviewed by P.T. Smith, Assistant Editor

On the jacket copy for Ellen Elias-Bursać’s translation of David Albahari’s Checkpoint, Restless Books cites Waiting for Godot and Catch-22 as comparisons. I’ll take them, especially the latter, but if I’m pitching this book to people, I’d offer up authors instead of books, and César Aira and Kurt Vonnegut. They better suggest the whimsy and quick-play changes that fill the brief pages of this novel, the sense that anything might happen, that the rules of the narrative can change in a sentence. Aira brings the freedom and the pace that Checkpoint has and Vonnegut the gentler, more passive characters than the strange and bold people who make up Catch-22.

Checkpoint is a quick book, coming in at under 200 pages in small format, and written entirely in one paragraph. It’s the latter that sets the pace. There are no pauses, sentences come and come and come, and so, though it seems as though at times nothing happens, events can rise and fall in an instant. This pace fits a war novel that’s about the absurdity of war, which Checkpoint determinedly and obviously sets out to be. A group of around 30 soldiers marches with their commander to guard a checkpoint, but they have no idea who they are guarding it against, who they are at war with, or even which side of the checkpoint they marched from. They have no known orders, and no way to communicate with their superiors. It’s a paralyzing life, one which soon includes mysterious deaths, refugees, attacks by soldiers of unknown allegiance, severe weather, and misfortunate forays into the surrounding forest.

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Zainab Hefny: A Bold Saudi Writer in a Conservative Society

Saudi women writers’ texts are revolutionary because they had no choice but the pen to disclose their suffering.

Despite the dominant conservative society of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi creative scene is considered the most daring in the Arab region. Indeed, many Saudi writers are courageous enough to confront the power of a patriarchal, religious culture; however, some have paid the price for their opinions, bold visions, and enlightened thoughts. For instance, liberal journalist and novelist Dr. Turki Al Hamad was known for his hard line against the Wahhabi order of the Minister of the Interior, following a complaint filed by religious authorities in December 2012 because of his tweets that were considered offensive to the divine, Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad. One such tweet states, “A new Nazi view of the world the Arab world calls Islamism. But this time of Nazism is over, and the sun will shine again” (1). Even more recently, the Saudi writer Raif Badawi has been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and floggings as punishment for using writing to express and expose the need for societal change. On January 9, 2015, Badawi was flogged 50 times before hundreds of spectators in front of a Jeddah mosque, the first in a series of one thousand lashes to be carried out over twenty weeks (2).

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International Prize for Arabic Fiction Winner Announced

“These works existed but were not known outside the Arab world as they deserved to be.”

Last night in Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Hasan Alwan was announced the winner of the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his novel, A Small Death, chosen from an impressive shortlist including Elias Khoury of Lebanon and Mohammed Abdel Nabi of Egypt.

In a video for IPAF, Alwan, who was born in Saudi Arabia but now lives in Toronto, said, “It might seem odd to choose to write a novel about Ibn ‘Arabi with all those extreme eastern concepts, whilst residing in this distant cold corner of the world in Canada. I often think about this. So, at first, I directly linked it to me feeling nostalgic, then I realised that being exposed to what is seemingly foreign or different is what drives me to reconnect with myself, as well as with my heritage and old culture.”

Since its inception almost ten years ago, IPAF, often referred to as the “Arabic Booker,” has maintained as its central mission the translation of winning and shortlisted novels to encourage greater readership of high-quality Arabic literature internationally.  In fact, it guarantees translation of winning novels into English (and other languages when the budget permits), provides monetary awards to shortlisted pieces ($10,000 each, and $50,000 to the winner), and supports appearances of authors at international festivals, including Shubbak in London and the Berlin Literary Festival.

The initial idea for IPAF emerged in 2007 when Ibrahim el Moallem, then President of the Arab Publishers’ Association, “talked of the regrettably few numbers of high quality contemporary Arabic novels being translated into leading Western languages,” as Fleur Montanaro, current administrator of IPAF, recounted to me in a recent interview.  Ms. Montanaro added “these works existed but were not known outside the Arab world as they deserved to be.”

According to numbers alone, IPAF does appear to have made some headway in promoting translation.  Although some have argued in the past (see this report from Literature Across Frontiers) that IPAF primarily encourages Anglophone translations, winning and shortlisted novels have been translated into 20 languages, including several non-European languages, among them Chinese, Turkish, and Russian.  Furthermore, distribution has not been limited to the European continent.  For example, The Druze of Belgrade by Rabee Jaber, winner in 2012, was distributed in Latin America.

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