American lecturer wins 2020 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation

Kay Heikkinen was lauded for her translation of Palestinian writer Huzama Habayeb’s novel, 'Mukhmal'

An American lecturer has won the 2020 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for her work on a prize-winning novel set in a Palestinian refugee camp.

In Tuesday's announcement from Banipal, the magazine of modern Arab literature in English translation, Kay Heikkinen was praised by judges for her accurate and precise translation of Palestinian writer Huzama Habayeb's novel, Velvet (Mukhmal).

Set over one day in a Palestinian refugee camp, Velvet tells the story of a courageous woman bearing the suffocating limits of her life's circumstances and her heroic defiance against them.

The original, Mukhmal, won the illustrious Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2017 and is Habayeb's third novel.

Heikkinen, who holds a PhD from Harvard University and is a lecturer of Arabic at the University of Chicago, has translated other Arabic works including Naguib Mahfouz's In the Time of Love and Radwa Ashour's The Woman From Tantoura: A Novel From Palestine.

Judges said the translation was "a celebration of the triumph of the imagination over the mundane".

The prize's judges celebrated the "stamina and resilience" she exerted in successfully conveying the "mood, emotion … and elegance of the original".

Heikkinen said she was overwhelmed by the news and praised Habayeb for writing "a new kind of Palestinian story".

The author thanked the prize winner for her "brilliant and passionate translation".

Habayeb admitted she initially thought the translation would be "mission impossible" because of her delicate and nuanced use of the Arabic language, but she recognised Heikkinen’s work as a "labour of love".

Habayeb was born and raised in Kuwait where she began writing and publishing articles, short stories and poetry as an undergraduate student of English language and literature.

After the outbreak of the First Gulf War in 1990, she was forced to move to Jordan with her family where she excelled in her literary pursuits, winning her first writing award in 1992 for her debut short-story collection, The Man Who Recurs.

After publishing four collections, Habayeb's debut novel, The Origin of Love (Asl Al Hawa), was published in 2007.

It received widespread critical acclaim, but the novel was banned in Jordan, where it was originally printed, for its explicit content.

Her second novel, Before the Queen Falls Asleep (Qabla an Tanama al-Malika), was even better received and cemented her status as one of the most important Palestinian authors of her generation.

The Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize is run by London's Banipal and The Society of Authors to raise "the profile of contemporary Arabic literature" and comes with a £3,000 ($4,055) award.

Now in its 15th year, the prize has been wholly sponsored by the Emirati career diplomat and patron of the arts, Omar Ghobash, in honour of his late father and the UAE’s first Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Saif Ghobash.

Velvet was first published in Arabic in Beirut in 2016 by the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing and is now available in English from Hoopoe Fiction.