The Power of the Judge

Last Wednesday I attended the Society of Authors Awards Ceremony for the literary translation prizes. Various panels reviewed foreign fiction and poetry publishedPrize Winners. Image by The Pie Shops Collection in English translation in 2012.

Our No 9, Sea of Ink by Swiss author Richard Weihe translated by Jamie Bulloch won the second place of the Schlegel-Tieck German translation prize.

And I helped judge the Arabic Literary translation prize. My three fellow judges and I made history. For the first time ever, we agreed on a joint winner.

Azazeel by Egyptian Youssef Ziedan, translated by Jonathan Wright, is an historical novel: a smooth, informative read, a universally accessible story. It is well researched and well translated. It’s a book that travels effortlessly from one culture to another.

A Land without Jasmine by Yemeni Wajdi Al-Ahdal, translated by William Maynard Hutchins, is a novella: daring and ambitious. The story addresses issues of contemporary Arab societies, such as sexual oppression and corruption of public institutions – but does so in the guise of a thriller complete with multiple view-points. The book is exciting, the text feels alive. It’s an edgy read, a work of art where the author dared to question himself through the writing process.

Azazeel slots easily into the Anglo-Saxon book market. A Land without Jasmine presents a challenge to the western reader.

We had over 20 books to choose from. When our selection had narrowed down to these two books we needed to ask ourselves: What are literary prizes for? Are they meant to perpetuate the dominant canon, the common stories and thus give the reader what they know and recognize? Or should prizes draw attention to different forms of expression and thought.

Needless to say, the Nymph gave me high fives when I came out of the judging meeting. ‘I am so thrilled that A Land Without Jasmine made it. It’s different and breaks the mold of a homogenous Anglo-Saxon reading culture. And,’ she lowers her voice, ‘I thought Jamie Bulloch should have won the German translation prize.’

Peirene is, I’m afraid, somewhat biased. It’s fortunate that so far we haven’t published any Arabic literature – otherwise she and I will find ourselves back in the audience.

Image by The Pie Shops Collection.

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