“The Naguib Mahfouz award, established by AUC Press, is important because it showcases modern contemporary fiction from the Arab world,” said Suzan Kenawy, marketing manager (Egypt/Europe), AUC Press and AUC Bookstores, during a conference that she participated in last month during the 2023 Cairo International Book Fair, entitled ‘Literary Awards and their Impact on Translation’.
Kenawy discussed the history, mission, and impact of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature on translating Arabic fiction, noting that the medal has been awarded to 27 novelists from across the Arab world since its launch in 1996.
The panel discussion, held on January 29 at Al Manara Conference Center in New Cairo, was part of the Professional Program for Publishers, a program introduced by the General Egyptian Book Organization, organizers of CIBF. This aims to provide support to Egyptian publishers through workshops, seminars, and conferences, in order to address the numerous aspects of the publishing industry—from copyright laws to foreign translations. The conference was attended by Arab and foreign publishers, novelists, and media, and was moderated by Sherif Bakr, General Manager of Al Arabi Publishing and Distributing.
Each of the six panelists spoke briefly about the award they were representing, outlining its significance, submission rules, and progress. The panelists included Saeed Hamdan Al Tunaiji, who spoke about the Sheikh Zayed Book Award; Mansour AlHassani for the Sharjah Book Award (Turjuman Award); Khaled el Sayed for the Katara Prize for Arabic Novel; Laura Di Pietro of the Brazilian publisher Tabla; and Karma Samy, director of Egypt’s National Center for Translation.
“The Naguib Mahfouz award is about linking the novel to Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel laureate’s name, and having the work translated into English and distributed worldwide,” said Kenawy, stressing the role the prize plays in granting international exposure to the winning Arab novels and novelists while encouraging translations into other foreign languages. “It is never only about the monetary prize,” Kenawy told the panel.
Looking back on the history of the Mahfouz award, Kenawy said: “AUC Press is one of the pioneering publishing houses in the world to translate Arabic fiction into English; it started in 1978 when we published Miramar, the first English translation of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels, and then went on to sign a comprehensive agreement to translate all of his literary work into English.” Ten years later, when Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he attributed part of his winning to the fact that AUC Press was translating his work into English, thus making his novels available to an international audience.
The Mahfouz Medal is awarded to the best novel written and published in Arabic. It consists of a silver medal, a monetary prize of $5,000, and the translation of the novel into English and its publication by AUC Press under its fiction imprint, Hoopoe, with worldwide distribution.
In the Q&A session that followed the panelists’ presentation, Bahraini novelist Barween Habib commented on the “bold and brave decision” by the Naguib Mahfouz Medal jury to announce Fatma Quandi’s novel Empty Cages as the winner of the 2022 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. “We are used to seeing taboo-breaking novels by male writers but very rarely by female writers and to see this novel win a prestigious award like the Mahfouz award is very inspiring,” said Habib.
Responding to this remark, Kenawy said: “At AUC Press we don’t have red lines. If we think a novel is good then it’s translated and published, and if we feel that the English translation might not be well received in some countries we might withhold selling it there but it will be sold elsewhere.”
Asked in a closing question to share a real success story relating to the Naguib Mahfouz Medal, Kenawy referred to Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of This City for which the Syrian author was awarded the Mahfouz Medal in 2013. “The translation was very well received by prominent international media such as The New York Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, and others. This exposure definitely helped in the sales of the book and helped propel Khalifa to international recognition as his work was then translated into other languages,” explained Kenawy. “Today No Knives in the Kitchens of This City is by far one of our bestselling novels.”