Leri Price, who graduated just ten years ago from Edinburgh University with a degree in Arabic, was awarded the 2019 the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation on February 12th 2020 in London for her translation of “Death is Hard Work” by Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa.
According to The Arab Weekly online, Price was shortlisted alongside two other literary translators, both of whom she knows – Marilyn Booth (another Edinburgh graduate) and Humphrey Davis, who she also met while studying.
Booth was shortlisted for her translation of Jokha Alharthi’s “Celestial Bodies”, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2019 (a prize shared between both the novelist and the translator) and was also winner of the best Omani novel in 2010.
Davies was shortlisted for his translation of Elias Khoury’s “My Name is Adam”, a touching tale of Palestine’s 1948 exodus which is the first in a trilogy by the Arab world’s leading novelist.
Price said she knew all of the translators who were on the short list and she was “proud” to be named among them. She also said she wasn’t expecting to win.
“Death is Hard Work” (Faber & Faber) is Khalifa’s fifth novel and his third that Price has translated. “The more you work on a writer, the more your ear attunes to their rhythms,” says Price. “The words Khaled uses are often visceral; there is a lot of stagnation, of disgust.”
Khalifa and Price always discuss the translation in Arabic so that Price can better understand the character’s motivation in order to give the best translation. She says Khalifa is “patient and trusting, with confidence in the art of translation in general.”
“In Praise of Hatred” (2006) was the first of Khlaifa’s novels that Price translated. It features a female narrator experiencing the turbulent 1980s of violent Islamist and Baathist regimes.
“Death is Hard Work” is the set in post-2012 war-torn Syria and was inspired by Khalifa’s own experiences of this time which included suffering a heart attack in 2013.
Khalifa explains the idea for the book came to him while he was stuck in the emergency room of the hospital for days wondering if he would survive. He says “The war was everywhere, the sound of bombs didn’t stop. I asked myself: What if I die now? How will my family take my body to my village, Maryameyn, in northern Syria?”
In the novel, Abdel Latif al-Salim, on his death bed in Damascus, makes his son Bobol promise to bury him in his home village near Aleppo. Bobol and two siblings, Hussein and Fatima, subsequently set off with Abdel Latif’s shrouded body in Hussein’s minibus on a journey that should take a few hours but involves negotiating checkpoints of the regime, pro-regime militia and assorted rebel groups. There is invariably no network coverage to enquire ahead, and the van’s lights are switched off so as not to attract sniper fire.
Choices regarding which road the siblings should take become a matter of life and death; they vent their frustrations, anxiety and fear on each other while their father’s corpse decomposes next to them.
The book shares moments of hope, love, compassion, laughter and tranquillity but underlying everything is an urgency and fear linked to the war that Khalifa imparts through his character’s experiences.
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