It's a measure of the huge current interest in Arab writing that an 82-year-old Syrian poet is the talk of London literary circles right now. Last weekend, audiences flocked to The Mosaic Rooms to celebrate an exhibition devoted to Adonis's artwork and writing, to hear the man read and discuss his lengthy career. And on Monday, a similarly impressive crowd gathered to celebrate the winning book in the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. Adonis: Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa, is a worthy, timely winner - the judges calling it a "stunning, monumental piece of work filling a great gap in the English language".
Indeed, the prize has its roots in the Emirates. First established in 2005 by the literary magazine of modern Arab literature in English translation, Banipal, it is sponsored by Omar Saif Ghobash and his family in memory of Ghobash's father, the UAE's first Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, who was the unintended victim of an assassination attempt on Syria's foreign minister in 1977. Saif Ghobash was passionate about Arabic literature and its global possibilities, and his son, now the UAE's ambassador to Russia, continues that legacy.
"A prize for people who are so dedicated to the power of literature and the power of translation seems so clearly something my father would have supported himself," says Ghobash on the prize's website. "When I spoke with the other members of our family, they supported the idea immediately. It is a small but fitting tribute to my father's memory."
That a translation of a work by such a celebrated author as Adonis - regularly tipped for the Nobel Prize and, as Mattawa puts it, "the great figure of this generation of Arabic writing" - has won this year will further boost the profile of the award. But beyond the prize itself, there's the sense that translation from Arabic is enjoying something of a golden period. Runner-up Barbara Romaine translated Radwa Ashour's Spectres - a combination of autobiography and fiction set across 20th-century Egypt - and has been genuinely gratified by the amount of interest in this and future work from Arab writers.
"Some of this is undoubtedly down to recent events in the Arab world," she admits after the prize-giving. "But I don't see this as a bad thing necessarily. All interest is good."
She's also been struck by how the rash of awards - a relatively new development in the Arab literary world - has helped books gain the oxygen of publicity when they might otherwise have struggled to reach wider audiences. "It gives them a legitimacy," she says, pointing towards the success of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
To that end, the eagerly anticipated translation of Abdo Khal's winning IPAF entry in 2011, Throwing Sparks, hits the English-speaking world next month.
But speaking to Mattawa, it is clear that it's not just the increased interest in translated work that is intriguing, but the act of translation itself. Perhaps some of the current vibrancy is thanks to the approach of those who spend hours unpicking every line into English. It transpires that Mattawa doesn't translate every line of Adonis's work in a literal sense, but reworks it to create something that's perhaps less literally accurate, but truer to its spirit.
"It would actually be ridiculous to just print literal versions of his poems in English - for starters, much of his early work was written in rhyme, which wouldn't work at all if I was trying to translate it and then also make it sound the same [in terms of rhyme]," he says. "I think people will probably question my choices and whether I've properly translated all his complexities, but just as Adonis is bold and fearless in his experimentation, reading his work and spending some time with him meant I felt I could be, too.
"That means I admit that sometimes I twisted the language or even the structure of the poem. But I'd like to think I got the sense right - and being able to be so inventive meant there was a double satisfaction. It does become like your own poetry."
After the prizes were awarded, English poet Sean O'Brien gave the prestigious Sebald Lecture on "the poet as translator", and it was striking how much his attitude reflected Mattawa's. He talked of imagination and personality being key to the translator's art, rather than accuracy or faithfulness. Of course, this is truer of poetry than prose - it won't do to change the narrative completely - but even Romaine can see some validity in that approach.
So perhaps it's as much this looser technique that is responsible for the buoyancy of the translation scene as it is the current interest in the news headlines. Put simply, it's making for better, more interesting work; it feels like prizes such as the Saif-Banipal are praising good literature rather than merely accurate translation.
"And I think that might be the advice I would give to anyone thinking about translating these days," says Mattawa, smiling. "It's not always about being literal, it's about getting into the mind of the original author and through that, getting into your own mind. It's about finding an inspiration - not just translating words."
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