x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A translation of a dystopian Cairo-set novel wins the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize 

Robin Moger won the £3,000 (Dh14,872) prize today for his translation of The Book Of Safety by Yasser Abdel Hafez

The Book of Safety: A Novel by Yasser Abdel Hafez Translated by Robin Moger published by Hoopoe Fiction. Courtesy The American University in Cairo Press
The Book of Safety: A Novel by Yasser Abdel Hafez Translated by Robin Moger published by Hoopoe Fiction. Courtesy The American University in Cairo Press

An “alluring, nuanced” translation of a dystopian Cairo-set novel in which a master thief breaks into the homes of the powerful and blackmails them into silence, has won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.

Described by judges as full of “enthralling energy, curiosity, sadness and wisdom”, Robin Moger won the £3,000 (Dh14,872) prize today for his translation of The Book Of Safety by Yasser Abdel Hafez, which will be presented at the Translation Prizes Awards Ceremony at The British Library in London on March 1.

The four-member judging panel comprised writer and literary figure Dr Alastair Niven in the chair; author and editor Peter Kalu; Wen-chin Ouyang, professor of Arabic and comparative literature at SOAS; and poet and journalist Salam Sarhan, and all were unanimous in their praise for Moger’s work.

“Robin Moger has created an alluring translation of The Book of Safety by Egyptian author and journalist Yasser Abdel Hafez that captures beautifully the moods, paces, rhythms and nuances of the Arabic original and, ruthlessly but lovingly, lures us into the conflicting, conspiratorial, and violent world that it draws,” said the judges.

“Moger makes us believe this is our world, and we care about the characters and their shenanigans, look out for whispers that will give their secrets away, and cannot wait until we know their fate.”

The Book Of Safety was published by Hoopoe in March, and begins at the Palace Of Confessions, with the state trying to work out why Mustafa Ismail has turned from respected university professor to criminal and author of a guide to professional thievery (the titular 'Book of Safety'). The novel’s protagonist Khaled, who works as a transcriber at the Palace, becomes obsessed with Mustafa and his strange book, as the story becomes ever more dark, dysfunctional and intriguing.

“Moger is a relatively new voice in Arabic literary translation and the full force of his talent is certain to be felt in the years to come,” the judges said. “His work will make a tremendous impact on how Arabic literature is received in English translation.”

And with publishers Hoopoe keen to stress that The Book Of Safety reflects the broad range of Arabic literature and not just the stereotypical view of the Middle East, it certainly feels as if Moger is at the vanguard of a new wave of fascinating translations bringing modern writing to new audiences. The South African also worked on Mohammad Rabie’s similarly dark vision of a corrupt Cairo, Otared, and Maan Abu Taleb’s fantastic chronicle of a middle-class Arab-turned-boxer, All The Battles.

“I am delighted that this year’s award goes to Robin,” said Dr Nigel Fletcher-Jones, director of the American University in Cairo Press. “He’s one of Hoopoe’s most talented translators.”

This is the 12th year of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize, which is wholly sponsored by the UAE ambassador to France, Omar Saif Ghobash. Awarded in memory of his late father, Saif Ghobash - who was passionate about the literature of the Arab world - Omar Saif Ghobash himself is a keen writer, with his book Letters To A Young Muslim garnering worldwide praise this time last year.

In recent years, the prize has gone to Jonathan Wright for his translation of The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi, Paul Starkey for The Book of the Sultan's Seal by Youssef Rakha, and Sinan Antoon for the translation of his own novel The Corpse Washer.

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