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Carl Ernst Wins Global Humanities Translation Prize

April 3, 2017
Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies

The Global Humanities Initiative (GHI), in partnership with Northwestern University Press (NUP), has announced the winners of its inaugural Global Humanities Translation Prize. The $5,000 prize is awarded for a translation-in-progress of a non-Western literary or scholarly text; it honors two winners this year: Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark, both from the University of Chicago, will translate Manzoor Ahtesham’s The Tale of the Missing Man from modern Hindi, and Carl Ernst, director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will translate and annotate the classical Arabic poems of Persian mystic Mansur al-Hallaj. NUP will publish both titles in trade editions during their Spring 2018 season.

Ahtesham’s novel is a milestone of modern Indo-Muslim literature that explores the fracturing of the Indo-Muslim psyche in the wake of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. Al-Hallaj, executed for heresy in 922 CE, is a pivotal figure in the literary and mystical cultures of the Islamic world, and yet this will be the first comprehensive English edition of the poems attributed to Hallaj. Of the 118 poems translated by Ernst, half have never appeared in English before.

Bringing non-Western literature to the English speaking world

The goal of the prize is to promote translations that make the greatest contribution to literature and the humanities, as well as draw attention to the importance of translating non-Western language texts.

“Manzoor Ahtesham is a visionary storyteller who is known for his nuanced psychological portraits of Indian Muslims in post-colonial India,” say Grunebaum and Stark. “This prize means that his singular voice will be heard and studied in the US and beyond. The prize also brings renewed attention to the literature of Hindi — the second most spoken language in the world — and to the rich modern literatures of South Asia.”

“For Middle Eastern languages, the [translation] situation is exacerbated by the fact that printing came late to the region, generally in the middle of the 19th century,” Ernst said. This means that the vast majority of Arabic writings are still preserved in handwritten form. This immense cultural legacy is inaccessible except to those who have special training and access.”

Though they were written over a millennium ago, the poems of al-Hallaj are, according to Ernst, a “living tradition” that continue to influence modern Middle Eastern culture: “Remarkably, a number of these poems can be heard in contemporary recordings available on YouTube, performed by leading singers from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Hallaj, whose story has been dramatized by Arab playwrights, is admired as a revolutionary who defied convention.”

GHI also recognized a few other translations for honorable mention. These are Allen Hibbard’s A Banquet For Seaweed, a translation of Haider Haider’s Arabic novel Walīma li ’ashāb al-bahr; Mui Poopoksakul’s Sunny Boy, a translation of Duanwad Pimwana’s Thai novel Changsamran; Arun Nedra Rodrigo’s The Forest That Took Poison, a translation of Kuna Kaviyazhakan’s Tamil novel Nanjunda Kaadu. Decisions regarding the prize are made in consultation with an international advisory board as well as an internal advisory board comprised of Northwestern faculty in the arts and humanities.

About the Global Humanities Initiative

From left to right: Rajeev Kinra, Adam Talib, and Laura Brueck.
From left to right: Rajeev Kinra, Adam Talib, and Laura Brueck.

Cofounded in 2015 by Laura Brueck, associate professor of Asian languages and cultures, and Rajeev Kinra, associate professor of history at Northwestern, GHI is supported jointly by the Buffett Institute and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. “Our goal is to bring much-needed attention not only to the rich humanistic traditions of the non-West, but also to the relevance of those traditions to the study of the humanities more generally, as well as contemporary debates surrounding global development and public policy,” say Brueck and Kinra. “It places Northwestern University at the center of a vital international conversation about the continuing role of the humanities in building a more just, tolerant and humane 21st century.”

In addition to awarding the Global Humanities Translation Prize and overseeing the Teaching and Translating the Global Humanities working group, GHI hosts several visiting artists and scholars each year. Most recently, they hosted Adam Talib, assistant professor of classical Arabic literature at American University Cairo. Last year, the group hosted Pakistani pop stars, artists and activists Ali Aftab Saeed and Saad Sultan, who performed several live events for Northwestern community. The musicians had the opportunity to perform and record a new song at the School of Communication’s recently built recording studio “sound space.”

The Global Humanities Translation Prize will release a new call for proposals in early summer, and accept submissions for the next round of competition until August 1, 2017.

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