Literature & Translation
At a time when many believe there is no need to learn any language but English, the Roth Foundation reminds us that languages remain crucial to cross‐cultural communication and that compelling translations of literary works deepen our understanding of other cultures, communities and histories. An example of this is provided by Lois Roth’s 1967 translation of the Swedish mystery novel Roseanna, which anticipated the immense popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction in the English‐speaking world. This translation of the debut novel of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the Swedish originators of the genre, has remained in print for over four decades.
Our first translation prize, the Prix Coindreau, was conducted in collaboration with the Société des Gens de Lettres (SDGL) and recognized outstanding translations of American literature into French from 1993 to 2016. Working in tandem with organizations including the Modern Language Association of America (MLA), Booker Prize Foundation, Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (EKF) and American Institute of Iranian Studies (AIIrS), the Roth Foundation currently funds a range of programs at the nexus of literature and translation:
- The Sozopol Writers’ Seminar,
- The Arabic Literature Tour, and
- Three prizes for exemplary achievement in literary translation:
- from any language into English (the MLA‐Roth Translation Award)
- from Persian into English (the Persian Translation Prize)
- from English into Bulgarian (the Dyankov Translation Prize),
- The Jeanne Varnay Pleasants Prize for Language Teaching (no longer active)
“Translation is really a very extreme form of close reading. At every minute juncture of the text, you are obliged to ask yourself: why did the writer choose this particular word and not another, why is there a shift in linguistic register or a syntactic inversion, does a cadence or word-play contribute sufficiently to meaning to require that it somehow be reproduced in translation? Wrestling with these issues is hard work but it is also intensely pleasurable because it requires immersing yourself in the rich textures and complex structures of a great work and coming to understand how they join together to convey to us perceptions of humanity and the world we would not otherwise possess.” — Robert Alter
Arabic Literature Tour
In fall 2019, the Roth Foundation began its collaboration with the UK’s Booker Prize Foundation to co-sponsor a program that embodies how translation puts international and cross-cultural exchange into action: the US tour of a prize-winning Arabic-language author and his/er translator. The event remains memorable, although the 2020 and 2021 tours had to be suspended due to the pandemic.
Shahad Al Rawi, the Iraqi author of The Baghdad Clock, and her translator, Luke Leafgren, toured colleges and universities in the northeastern U.S. Here they are pictured at Amherst College, where they read from the novel in both Arabic and English and discussed their experiences with writing and translation.
The Baghdad Clock won the Edinburgh First Book Award and was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The story begins in 1991: Two young girls meet and become best friends in a Baghdad bomb shelter, where they have taken refuge from Allied aerial attacks. They share their hopes and dreams, interwoven with fantasy and illusion. A stranger arrives from the mysterious future of the city bearing prophecies, causing families to flee the city en masse, leaving it empty. When a third girl joins them, the friends begin to write a secret history of their neighborhood to save it from oblivion.
Dyankov Translation Prize
The Dyankov Translation Prize was established in 2007 to acknowledge superlative translations of English‐language literature into Bulgarian. The prize is named for Krustan Dyankov, renowned Bulgarian translator of American literature and is administered by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. Although the award has been on hiatus, we look forward to supporting it again in the future.
The 2019 Dyankov Translation Award was presented to Zornitsa Hristova for her translation of the novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe (List, 2019). Born in Dobrich, Zornitsa Hristova graduated from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” with a degree in English Philology, having specialized in post-colonial literature at Oxford, with an emphasis on contemporary Indian literature in English.
In 2014, Zornitsa Hristova won the national “Hristo G. Danov” award, which is presented annually by the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture and the Plovdiv National Book Center to recognize contributors to Bulgarian literary culture, for her work in children’s literature together with the team behind “Tasty Geography”. She received the same award in 2015 for “When I Want to Be Silent”, together with the artist and co-author of the book. In 2010, Zornitsa Hristova received the Literary Translation Award from the Union of Translators in Bulgaria for her translation of the novel “White Noise” by Don DeLilo.
MLA‐Roth Translation Award
The MLA‐Roth Award for translation of a literary work into English was established in 2000. Like few other translation prizes given at the annual Modern Language Association convention, this award is not restricted to translation s from a specific language. As a result, its recipients have made works from all over the globe accessible to English-language readers.
The 2022 MLA-Roth award went to Sasha Dugdale for her translation of Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory: A Romance. Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory: A Romance is a bold exploration of personal identity and Jewish life during the last years of Soviet Union. The result is a deep reflection on personal memory and the Russian past, revealing the story of how an ordinary Jewish family survive persecutions and repressions of the last century. Published by New Directions Press and highly praised by the MLA committee as “the work of a poet,” Sasha’s translation contributes a unique interpretation and perspective on the power and potential of personal and cultural memory.
This year, Jennifer Grotz and Piotr Sommer received an honorable mention for the 2022 MLA-ROTH TRANSLATION AWARD for their translation of Jerzy Ficowski’s Everything I Don’t Know: Selected Poems. Their translated selections of the poetry published by Jerzy Ficowski from 1957 to 2006, offering an excellent representation of the development of his poetic voice. Ficowski writes about a drop of water, a stove burner, one single louse, or a bird’s flight yet succeeds in evoking immense historical loss, cultural resilience against the odds, and at times also the sheer pleasure of being alive. In a thoughtful afterword, Sommer explains that Ficowski’s inventiveness with language makes him a translator’s nightmare.
The second honorable mention was awarded to Marianna Past and Benjamin Hebblethwaite for their translation of Michael Rolph Trouillot’s Stirring the Pot of Haitian History. Originally published in 1977 and one of the first nonfiction books to be written in Haitian Kreyòl, the book offers an in-depth analysis of a durably divided society in the wake of the Haitian Revolution. The combination of proverbs, wordplay, and songs from popular culture and Marxist criticism provide the readers a glimpse into Haiti’s rich oral storytelling traditions. Mariana Past and Benjamin Hebblethwaite have rendered this unprecedented verbal performance sharply.
Persian Translation Prize
The Roth Foundation has sponsored the Persian Translation Prize, juried by members of the American Institute of Iranian Studies (AIIrS), since 2001. The prize honors superlative translations into English of contemporary works and ancient Persian texts on a biennial basis.
The translators selected a masterpiece by an important contemporary writer and insightful satirist of Iranian society. In it, Iraj Pezeshkzad brings to life one of Persia’s most enduring and beloved 14th-century poets, in a historical novel that captures the lyrical beauty of Hafez’s often mystical poetry and evokes the turbulent history of medieval Shiraz, while conveying the continued relevance of themes from the past to contemporary Iran. As part of their beautiful and nuanced translation, the translators have included an appendix with the historical characters surrounding Hafez, thus offering an insight into both historic and contemporary Persian society and opening a world of intrigue, literature and poetry to English-language readers.
In making its selection, AIIrS considered Pezeshkzad’s artistry and the context represented by the place of Hafez in Iranian culture, as well as the brilliant and timely translation of the novel:
Iraj Pezeshkzad (1928-2022) was born in Tehran in 1928 and educated in Iran and France, where he received his degree in Law. He served as a judge in the Iranian Judiciary for five years prior to joining the Iranian Foreign Service. Until the Iranian revolution in 1979, he served as a cultural affairs diplomat; he then went into exile in France. In the early 1950s, Pezeshkzad translated the works of Voltaire and Molière into Persian and wrote short stories for magazines. His best-known work, My Uncle Napoleon, published in Tehran in the early 1970s, became a cultural phenomenon when it was serialized on Iranian television.; the book was banned and the series taken off television after the revolution. Pezeshkzad eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he continued writing and gave lectures. In 2014, Stanford University’s Iranian Studies Program awarded him the Bita Prize for Persian Arts. On January 12, 2022, Pezeshkzad passed away in California at the age of 94.
Formerly a Senior Faculty Lecturer of Persian Language and Linguistics at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies, Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi is currently an Instructional Professor of Persian in the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. With a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Ottawa and a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from Tehran’s Azad University, she has taught Persian language, linguistics, literature and translation since 1997and published on a variety of topics. From 2018-20, she served as President of the American Association of Teachers of Persian. Shabini-Jadidi has co-translated several books from Persian, partnering several times with fellow prize-winner Patricia Higgins. Of her approach she writes: “I have a passion for languages and how they work. Being a multilingual myself, I always find it intriguing to compare and contrast the structure and the lexicon of two or more languages…. When it comes to translating a book, I believe in collaborative translation where a source-language native speaker works closely with a target-language native speaker.”
Patricia J. Higgins is a University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Emerita, at SUNY Plattsburgh. Her UC Berkeley Ph.D. was based, in part, on research she conducted on education and socialization in elementary schools Tehran, Iran, from 1969 to 1971; she carried out further research on Iranian education as a Fulbright Lecturer at Tehran University in 1977-78. Higgins has held leadership positions with the Council on Anthropology and Education, the Society for Applied Anthropology and the Center for Iranian Research and Analysis; she is currently on the Board of Directors of SUNY Plattburgh’s DANESH Institute. She has authored and edited numerous books and articles on education and anthropology. In addition to Hafez in Love, she has co-translated several works from Persian to English with fellow prize-winner Shabani-Jadidi.
Iraj Pezeshkzad (b. 1928) is one of Iran’s most popular novelists, author of the social satire of modern Iranian manners, My Uncle Napoleon (translated by Dick Davis, winner of the first Persian Translation Prize). Pezeshkzad’s 2004 historical fiction, Hâfez-e nâ-shenide pand—now available in an elegant English translation by Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi and Patricia Higgins as Hafez in Love (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2021)—is set in mid-fourteenth century Shiraz.
The novel depicts the intellectual and political atmosphere of the city during the period following the collapse of the Il Khanid empire through two principal characters: the famous lyrical poet, Hafez (d. 1392) and the notorious political satirist ‘Obayd-e Zakani (d. c. 1371). With a light-hearted, almost comic mood, the novel follows these familiar figures through imagined encounters with family members, other poets and the religious and political leaders of the day. And, of course, the cat.
Hafez in Love is an excellent example of two important rules of translation—accuracy and readability—achieving a fine balance between the narrative prose, the dialogue and the frequent quotations of classical Persian poetry. One senses a manner of storytelling quite distinctive from the usual norms of American novels, yet this distinctiveness in no way impedes comprehension or enjoyment of the text. Appendices provide the reader with a glossary of the significant names and terms occurring in the book, as well as the Persian first lines for all the poems quoted—a thoughtful touch for those who wish to consult the original.
The publication of this book does even more to advance the study and appreciation of Hafez among Anglophone audiences, following in the footsteps of two anthologies of Hafez in translation—Faces of Love by Dick Davis (Mage, 2012) and Geoffrey Squires’ Hafez (Miami Univ. Press, 2014), which won the Persian Translation Prize that year)—and scholarly works, such as Dominic Brookshaw’s Hafiz and His Contemporaries (Bloomsbury, 2019) and M. R. Ghanoonparvar’s translation of In the Valley of the Friend, by Shahrokh Meskoob (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2019). With such a welcome array of new studies and translations now available, it is hoped that Hafez—and Pezeshkzad—may look forward to a revitalized interest in the English-speaking world.
Sozopol Fiction Seminar
Partnering with the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, the Roth Foundation helps support the annual Sozopol Fiction Seminar, held in the historic town of Sozopol on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. This annual seminar offers opportunities for intensive exchange between Bulgarian and English-language fiction writers, under the guidance of established authors in an atmosphere of close and collegial collaboration. Workshops and one-on-one consultations involving faculty and fellows alternate with talks and panels conducted by visiting speakers.
Due to the pandemic, in 2020 the usual seminar held was replaced by a virtual program, much of which was posted on Roth Foundation social media. For Alone Together, seminar faculty and fellows on 5 continents were invited to look through the windows of their studies, literally and metaphorically, and share their thoughts from the confines of their homes.