Congratulations to Dr. Luke Leafgren for winning the 2018 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize!

February 6, 2019

-Comp Lit PhD 2012-

wins the 2018 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation

Muhsin al-Ramli

"A seamless rendering of an outstanding work of fiction"

The 2018 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation is awarded to Luke Leafgren for his translation of the novel The President's Gardens by Iraqi author Muhsin al-Ramli, published by MacLehose Press. The judges chose his translation from the shortlist of four works announced on 10 December 2018. The award of £3,000 will be presented to Luke Leafgren on 13 February 2019 at the Translation Prizes Award Ceremony, organised and hosted by the Society of Authors, at the British Library's Knowledge Centre, along with the other translation prizes being awarded this year.  

The judging panel comprised publisher and translator Pete Ayrton (chair), editor and translator Georgia de Chamberet, Jordanian author Fadia Faqir, and university lecturer and translator Sophia Vasalou. The prize is administered by Paula Johnson, Head of Prizes and Awards at the Society of Authors.


Luke Leafgren for his translation of the novel
The President's Gardens by Muhsin al-Ramli

In this brilliant novel the personal, political and fantastical are interwoven to excavate and record Iraq's recent history in all its complexity, horror and absurdity. The translation by Luke Leafgren is imperceptible and mirrors the writer's many changes of register. The author is fortunate to have found a translator totally in sympathy with his writing. Faced with many difficult choices, Leafgren has produced a work both faithful to the Arabic and a work of art in English.

In a clear reference to Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Macondo, which was destroyed by the establishment of a banana plantation, Muhsin Al-Ramli's begins his novel with the discovery of nine banana crates, each containing a severed, mutilated head in an Iraqi village without bananas – one of the heads belonged to  Ibrahim, "the fated", who is made sterile by poison gas in the Iran war, loses his foot during the invasion of Kuwait and, then, finds a job in the President's Gardens.

When Ibrahim is appointed to "care for these roses", he is impressed with how immaculate the garden appears on the surface – the crimes lie beneath. His job description and responsibilities keep shifting as he descends into the inferno until he becomes a grave-digger.

Despite Ibrahim's fear and fatalism, he begins to give the dead a dignified burial, register the date and time of their killing, establish and document their identity by painstakingly gathering shreds of evidence like skin, teeth, nails, etc.

Ibrahim's acts of salvation give a history to the thousands of Iraqi disappeared. The point is made that ordinary people can make a difference – giving an identity to nameless corpses ensures that they cannot be forgotten.

Tender, funny, tragic, wise and poetic, The President's Garden is imbued with the richness and complexity of a region that has known little peace over the last century. Luke Leafgren's  translation  conveys beautifully the spirit and idiosyncrasies of the original. It is a seamless rendering of an outstanding work of fiction. Both author and translator are to be warmly congratulated.

Read more here.