Luke Leafgren wins Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation

Assistant Dean at Harvard College has been recognised for his work on Mister N by Lebanese author Najwa Barakat

Translated from Arabic by Luke Leafgren, Mister N by Najwa Barakat is the story of a former novelist. Getty Images
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Translator Luke Leafgren has been named the 2023 winner of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. The annual £3,000 ($3,800) literary prize was awarded to Leafgren for his translation of Mister N, the novel by Lebanese writer Najwa Barakat, published by And Other Stories.

Leafgren is an Assistant Dean at Harvard College and has published seven translations of contemporary Arabic novels. They include his translation of Shalash the Iraqi by anonymous blogger Shalash and The President’s Garden, by Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli, for which Leafgren received the 2018 award for Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.

“Winning the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation in 2018 meant more to me than any other achievement in my life, and that special feeling is echoed now,” Leafgren said.

“This prize is also for Najwa Barakat, whose creativity is a gift to readers, and whose remarkable novel rewarded all the hours I spent in reading, drafting, revising and editing since the day she sent me two sections of the manuscript in 2018.”

Mister N is a dark tragicomic novel that follows the story of a former novelist, known as Mr N, who returns to writing as an attempt to expel disturbing memories from his past. However, as Mr N sits in his hotel room, he struggles to disentangle fiction from reality.

Mr N’s memories are fragmented, and he falls into disillusionment, unable to differentiate between the tumultuous relationships he’s had with family members and the characters he’s created in his novels. Time, place and Mr N’s inner dialogue reflect the damaged city outside his hotel room, a chaos that he can’t understand or put back together.

The novel was written by Barakat, who is the author of seven other books as well as being the Arabic translator of Albert Camus’s notebooks.

“In addition to being a powerful work of literature, this book is a testament to the capacious history of Beirut, and to that great city’s resilience and promise through past and current tragedies,” Leafgren added.

Mister N was one of six shortlisted works that were announced on December 1, for which translators of published English versions of full-length Arab works of literary merit were recognised for their efforts.

There were 20 entries for the prize, comprising 18 novels, a poetry anthology and a collection of testimonies. The works were written by 18 authors, eight women and 10 men, and translated by 18 professionals, nine women and nine men.

The judges noted that while the shortlisted works of literature differ in genre and style, they all appear “to be seeking a kind of method in the madness of the upheavals of today, from the southernmost tip to the northernmost point of the Arabian Peninsula.”

The Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation is the first literary award that aims to raise the profile of Arab literature, as well as honour translators who bring the works to the attention of the wider world.

Leafgren will be awarded the prize at the Translation Prizes Award Ceremony, hosted by the Society of Authors at the British Library in London on February 7.

Updated: January 08, 2024, 9:59 AM