Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Translation Prize Ceremony

The first month of my stay here has rushed by with a speed that would, if I’d let it, push me toward clichés about time’s winged chariot and comparable proverbs. On Friday I move to my new place in Belsize Park. I’ve had Mimi Khalvati to dinner here, then Adam Mars-Jones and Keith King. Mimi was recently awarded an Arts Council grant, which will give her a sabbatical from teaching and allow her to complete a new book of poems. Adam says the next installment of the mega-novel whose first part Pilcrow appeared last spring will be coming out in September 2009. Keith is producing his art works in ceramic. An amateur London historian he tells me that the area I'm now staying in was once London's primary quarter for the stabling of horses, including Iliffe Yard, which these windows overlook. There are now no more horses, but I feel surrounded by energy and originality.

The translation prizes for 2008 were awarded last night at Queen Elizabeth Hall, with winners in Arabic, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Greek. Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS, presented the prizes, but his participation also included some good-humored dispelling of what Eliot once called "the depressing highbrow effect." He'd also arranged to distribute copies of the current issue to the audience, its pages as usual containing articles you want to read as son as you see the subjects.

I’d been invited to attend the evening by Samuel Shimon and Margaret Obank under the auspices of Banipal magazine, which administers the Arabic translation prize. I looked forward to seeing Fady Joudah, whose translation of three Darwish books under the title The Butterfly’s Burden was this year’s winner. It was published by Copper Canyon Press in the U.S.A. and Bloodaxe Books here. Actually, there was a less formal prize celebration this past Saturday at a pub in Holborn, where Margaret, Simon, and Fady greeted me warmly and also welcomed James Byrne, who came with me. The whole evening had a spirited, Middle Eastern family feeling, and, in fact, I was introduced to Fady’s mother and father, who had flown over from Tennessee in order to attend. I met several Arab authors, including Amjad Nasser and Aamer Hussein, and I was glad to see Mimi (who knows Farsee but not Arabic) at the party, and the American poet Margo Berdeshevsky, who came over from Paris just for this event. Margo and I first met about fifteen years ago when she signed up for a poetry workshop I gave at a cultural center in Maui, and we’ve seen each other in New York a couple of times since then. Her first book But a Passage in the Wilderness was out last year with Sheep Meadow.

Fady read very movingly from Darwish in both Arabic and in his translation. Also, with eloquence and reined-in passion, Amjad Nasser recited from memory a Darwish poem. Hearing the sounds of that language, I reflected on what could be called its “epic” history, given that Arabic has traveled to so many parts of the world and formed the basis of so many high points in civilization. (My own special favorite moment is the golden age of El Andalus, where Christian, Jewish, and Arab cultures coexisted peacefully and were able to influence each other in surprisingly productive ways.) Samuel recounted how he began learning Arabic at an early age (his first language was Assyrian or Aramaic) but didn’t make much progress until he began reading Darwish, whose poems more or less guided him toward a deeper understanding of the language.

I mentioned that Copper Canyon has published The Butterfly’s Burden in America, and I’m proud to say they have also just brought out the new edition of The Poem’s Heartbeat, as well as the paperback edition of Contradictions, both findable on Amazon and B&N.

For Jewish friends, Lshanah tovah, happy 5769!

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