Words Without Borders Gala: Edith Grossman’s Ottaway Award

In News by Porter Anderson

A gala celebrates the work of Spanish-to-English translator Edith Grossman in a month when ‘Words Without Borders’ has focused on Arabic humor.

Translators Daniel Hahn and Edith Grossman talk at the 2019 Words Without Borders gala in which Grossman was honored with the Ottaway Award. Image: WWB, Beowulf Sheehan

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

More Than 200 Attend Gala
As Publishing Perspectives readers will recall from our coverage of the September announcement, the nonprofit translation hub Words Without Borders—which produces the online magazine Words Without Borders, well known to Publishing Perspectives readers—named translator Edith Grossman the recipient of its 2019 Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature.

The honor was conferred on Tuesday (October 29) at the organization’s annual fundraising gala at Tribeca Three Sixty in New York City, Words Without Borders’ annual fundraising event, this year reportedly raising nearly a third of the operations annual budget. The organization’s executive director, Karen Phillips, says the evening was attended by more than 200 people.

During the course of the event there were bilingual readings from Maaza Mengiste, Carmen Boullosa, and others, and UK-based Daniel Hahn was on hand to make the presentation to Grossman, a translator whose previous awards include the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Civil Merit, awarded by the Spain’s Felipe VI and a Guggenheim fellowship.

A specialist in Spanish to English, Grossman is a leader in translation of authors including Miguel de Cervantes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, and won the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute Translation Prize in 2010. Her book is Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press, 2011), a collection of her essays.

Those readings on Tuesday evening included a passage from Mrs. Robinson at the Hotel Estoril with Xiaolu and translator Jeremy Tiang at the lectern.

The honor is named for James H. Ottaway, vice chair of the event and the first chair of Words Without Borders. Previously named recipients include last year’s winner Chad Post, and previous seasons’ laureates Jill Schoolman, Barbara Epler, Sara Bershtel, the late Carol Brown Janeway, and Drenka Willen.

Edith Grossman accepts the eponymous 2019 Ottaway Award, joined onstage by James H. Ottaway. Image: WWB, Beowulf Sheehan

‘The Comic Edge: Arabic Humor’

Marcia Lynx Qualey, founding editor of ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly, joined Publishing Perspectives on a panel in Jordan during the International Publishers Association’s (IPA) and Jordanian Publishers Union’s Middle East seminar, and Qualey also served as guest editor for the October edition of Words Without Borders—The Comic Edge: Arabic Humor.”

Working with Words Without Borders editorial director Susan Harris, Qualey, who is based in Morocco,  Qualey helped put across a compelling construct about the topic in her essay, “Warning: Arabic Humor, Makes Frequent Stops.

“Humor has that paradoxical quality,” Qualey writes, “of being absolutely universal (or even more so, as chimpanzees also apparently appreciate a good joke) while also being deeply embedded in linguistic wordplay and sociocultural zeitgeist.

This is a constant challenge in translating.”

Excerpts Include ‘The Book of Stupid People’

Doaa Eladl, “Global Warming Effect,” courtesy of Cartoon Movement. Image provided by Words Without Borders

Her choices of writers to highlight include:

  • “Run, George!” a short story by Najwa Bin Shatwan, translated by Sawad Hussain. Bin Shatwan is a Libyan academic and novelist, the author of three novels in addition to collections of short stories and plays. She was chosen as one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of forty by the Beirut39 project of the Hay Festival.
  • “Blood in Flames,” a short story by Muhammed Mustajab, translated by Robin Moger. The late Mustajab (1938–2005) became one of Egypt’s most celebrated short-story writers and novelists, and his satirical commentaries and columns were a mainstay of a number of national and regional newspapers.
  • ”Important Announcement,” a poem by Ahmed Fouad Negm, translated by Elliott Colla. Negm (1929–2013) was one of Egypt’s most popular poets and the first to write in colloquial Egyptian. He was known for his satiric verses mocking rulers and others in power.
  • “Vienna,” a novel excerpt by Sahar Mandour, translated by Nicole Fares and Sarah Ramey. Mandour is a Lebanese-Egyptian writer, journalist, and novelist whose areas of expertise include issues of gender, social movements, and cultural production in Lebanon, Egypt, and the Palestinian Territories.
  • The Colonel’s Wedding, a play by Wajdi Al-Ahdal, translated by Katherine Hennessey. Al-Ahdal is a Yemeni novelist, author of short stories, screenwriter, and dramatist.
  • An excerpt from The Book of Stupid People by Ibn al-Jawzi, translated by Emily Selove. These are excerpts from the work of Al-Jawzi who died around the year 1200 and was a famous scholar of religion, history, and law, as well as a prominent preacher in the mosques of Baghdad.

In a concluding note, Qualey writes, “Nearly all of the comedy in this issue sits on the razor’s edge between funny and tragic. Perhaps we are at a particularly funny-tragic moment in human history, or perhaps that is simply our human condition.”

You get to decide as you laugh your way through this collection of work.

Marcia Lynx Qualey at the International Publishers Association’s Middle East summit in Amman, on a panel examining the freedom to publish in an era of new media. Image: IPA, Nabs Ahmedi

More from Publishing Perspectives on Words Without Borders is here; and more from us on translation is here. More on international publishing’s awards is here. And more details on the IPA’s Middle East seminar, the first of its kind in the Arab world, is here. Publishing Perspectives was the media partner of the IPA’s regional seminar program in Jordan.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.