Banipal Prize winner Robin Moger on the tricky art of translation

Moger won the 2017 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for translating Egyptian novelist Yasser Abdel Hafez's The Book Of Safety

Robin Moger. Courtesy Robin Moger
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Award-winning translator Robin Moger is remembering the first time he came across The Book Of Safety by Egyptian novelist Yasser Abdel Hafez. "I was so excited," he says. "I got such a strong sense of how the book was, its tone and characters - I immediately started thinking how it might work in English." 

So began a journey that ended last week with Moger winning the 2017 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his work on an enthralling book, in which a master thief breaks into the homes of the powerful and blackmails them into silence. “I didn’t think how it would sell or be received,” he protests. “I just wanted to translate it.” 

All of which might sound a little over-humble, if Moger wasn’t such a fascinating voice on the state of Arab literature and its translation into English. Take, for example, his comments on Twitter late last year about how ‘prize culture’ was impacting upon what translators read and worked upon. 

A few weeks, of course, before he won a prize himself. 

“A bit embarrassing,” he laughs. “But I do think there is something quite problematic about the way books are getting chosen for translation into English - and the responsibility translators take for what they are doing.”

Moger’s main issue with prize-winning or timely books in Arabic is that they get hyped-up by major Western publishers and offered to translators who might not even like the content. 

“The problem is, a lot of the time these novels are not actually that good - but nobody can say it. You get the western bourgeoisie saying ‘yes, it’s terribly interesting’, but of course they didn’t finish the book and they’ll probably never buy a novel by that author again - or maybe even an Arabic novel. Prize culture can be misleading - and damaging at worst.”

Living in South Africa, Moger exists outside the publishing and translating scene - and there’s the sense he enjoys that status. It does mean that he’s now able to make choices about the books he translates based on his enjoyment of them alone - which means a new Moger translation is always interesting. 

“Some translators end up dancing around the quality of the literature,” he argues. “They are not honest about the commercial pressures and they work on books that they think will sell rather than books which are important. But I know it’s difficult. It’s their job. They have to live. It’s just these issues aren’t really talked about.”

Well, not beyond Arab literature experts, anyway. But Moger’s brilliant back catalogue means what he has to say is not only credible but could and should have a wider impact upon the kinds of books about the Arab world you might read in English. Here is a man consistently bringing some of the most interesting and groundbreaking literature to English audiences. 

Take the horrific Otared by Mohammed Rabie, set in a future Cairo and - as The National put it at the time, "like having a hand grasping the back of your head, forcing you to look through photos from hell." 

“It’s an experimental novel with no space for hope, confronting the idea that everything’s wrong, which is a very strange thing to try and write,” says Moger. “It’s not really about a dystopia, it’s not trying to predict the future or see where the country is going, it’s saying at the present moment you’re trapped in eternal hell.” 

Ironically, it was also shortlisted for the International Prize For Arabic Fiction. 

"See, there is good stuff out there, and people are curious about Arab literature, which is great," he says. "Sam Wilder's translation of Ghassan Zaqtan's The Silence That Remains is beautiful, and didn't even get longlisted for the Banipal prize. It's easily the finest translation I read last year."


Read more:

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

Year in review: Our favourite books of 2017 

Book review: My Sweet Orange Tree is a tale to both warm and break your heart


Another fine translation of last year was a different Moger book: Maan Abu Taleb’s boxing novel All The Battles. Moger actually thinks it’s better in its original Arabic because it feels more experimental - given the sports novel doesn’t really exist in Arabic literature. “It says some really interesting things about masculinity and failure,” explains Moger, “and Maan has this great willingness to write in a different way in Arabic.”

Both Abu Taleb and Youssef Rakha - whose IPAF-longlisted novel Paolo has also been translated by Moger for publication later this year - have English language educations and are accused by some critics of writing ugly Arabic novels which only work when translated into English. Moger scoffs at the suggestion, putting it down to “pure and simple jealousy.” So how does Moger see the role of a translator?

“Arabic translation does have a problem with who is translating - is it solely about expertise, is it linguists, is it Arabists, is it people who think they speak on behalf of Arab literature in some way? All these people have different relationships to literature and to publishers: some will be commissioned, some translators will bring books to the attention of publishers. 

“For me, I think you have to be a sophisticated reader and you have to be able to write. There’s this thing about translation where people say you have to be a humble servant of the text, which is always a bit creepy. Sometimes you get the sneaking feeling you’ve made it better!”
So does that mean, for example, that to set All The Battles in some kind of English-language context, he’d read Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk?
“No, and I don’t know whether Maan has either. I expect so, actually. But that’s not important. I’ve read enough to know what kind of things aspects of his story belongs to, what kind of language is needed.”

If you were going to take issue with Moger - and he’d probably enjoy the intellectual jousting - it’s that for all he protests, his translations do actually exist in the prize culture he has such distaste for. There’s an obvious love of sophisticated literary novels and poetry too - nothing wrong in that, but you’d love Moger to champion an interesting Egyptian novel, for example, that could genuinely crossover into the international mainstream in the way Alaa Al Aswany did with The Yacoubian Building. You sense he’d have to accommodate that with his concerns about the attitude of major Western publishers to Arabic fiction in translation - he has a long and fruitful relationship instead with AUC Press in Cairo. 

Still, he’s not adverse to populism: his current project is a crowd-pleasing biography of the infamous Egyptian serial-killing sisters Raya and Sakina. 

“It’s an absolute blockbuster, this whole social history of Egypt, with stuff on gangsterism, organised crime, the sisters themselves. It’s an incredibly moving book… and about 2000 pages long! So I’m doing that at the moment.

“People love these sorts of popular histories,” he says. “But this one is really amazing.”

It’ll probably, much to Moger’s chagrin, be prize-winning, too.