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- The Jeanne Varnay Pleasants Prize for Language Teaching (no longer active)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 Jody Enders, Distinguished Professor of French and Theater at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for her translation of Immaculate Deception and Further Ribaldries: Yet Another Dozen Medieval French Farces in Modern English. In this collection of twelve French farces, Enders invites the readers to explore the controversial topics of French culture during the time through a blend of hilarity and satire. Published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Enders’s translation has received glowing remarks from the MLA Committee, hailing Enders for her “technical translation prowess, scholarly rigor, and guffaw-inducing creative humor.” Enders not only challenges the modern-day perception of the Middle Ages as a grim period but also harnesses the comedic essence of these stories to encourage readers to reconsider contemporary issues through the lens of historical satire.
This year, Marjorie Perloff received an honorable mention for the 2022 MLA-Roth Translation Award for her translation of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Private Notebooks, 1914–1916. Perloff introduces to the English-speaking world, and even to the German-speaking sphere where these notebooks aren’t widely accessible in their original form, documents that are indispensable for gaining a clearer understanding of both Wittgenstein’s life story and the genesis of his philosophical work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, during the war years. Through her meticulous translation, readers are invited to not only engage with Wittgenstein’s philosophical insights but also to contemplate the sociocultural contexts that influenced his thoughts.
Petra Reid and Jim Dingley received the second honorable mention of the MLA-Roth Translation Award for their translation of Alhierd Bacharevič’s Alindarka’s Children. Originally published in Belarusian, Russian, and a hybrid of the two languages, this darkly satirical fantasy weaves together elements of childhood, forests, family dynamics, and the complexities of language. The translation of this work into English by Petra Reid and Jim Dingley expertly captures the essence of the original text, maintaining its dissonant and multi-layered nature.
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 prize went to Sassan Tabatabai for his translation of Sadeq Hedayat’s Blind Owl (Buf-e kur). Published in 1941, Blind Owl is a landmark novel in the history of modern Persian literature. The narration in the first person voice is a mix of fragmentary recollections of an opium addict and the stream of consciousness thoughts of a troubled man caught between traditional and modern life in Iran.
Sassan Tabatabai’s new translation lucidly conveys the appropriate tone of the text with the use of the most apt idiomatic expressions, along with an evocative representation of an important cultural moment at a particular time.
Sadeq Hedayat is one of the greatest Iranian writer of the 20th century. Born in 1903 to an aristocratic family, he lived a troubled life which ended in 1951 with his suicide in Paris. He was sent to Europe to study Engineering and Dentistry on a government scholarship but eventually devoted his studies to learning Western literature. His exposure to European intellectual circles during his time in Europe proved transformative. After returning to Iran, he emerged as a central figure in Tehrān intellectual circles and belonged to a group of antimonarchical, anti-Islamic literary group intellectuals, the so-called “the Four.” His literary style was deeply influenced by Franz Kafta, shaping the existential elements present in his works. His masterpiece, The Blind Owl, is renowned for its pessimistic and Kafkaesque essence, resonating with readers far beyond Iranian literary circles
Sassan Tabatabai holds a prominent position as the head of the Persian program at Boston University, where he regularly teaches all levels of Persian language and literature. His multifaceted expertise extends beyond academia, encompassing roles as a poet, translator, editor, and scholar specializing in medieval Persian literature. His work has appeared in a number of publications including Essays in Criticism, The Christian Science Monitor, Literary Imagination, The Republic of Letters, Senecca Review, Leviathan Quarterly and Harvard Review Online. He is the author of Father of Persian Verse: Rudaki and his Poetry (Leiden University Press, 2010), Uzunburun: Poems. (Pen and Anvil, 2011), Sufi Haiku (Nemi Books, 2021) and translator of the novel Blind Owl by Sadeq Hedayat (Penguin Classics, 2022)
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.