The Banipal Trust for Arab Literature

Annual Lecture 2022


St Jerome or St Christopher?

7pm, Thursday, 10 November 2022

The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB

This year’s Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation Lecture was given by the scholar, Arabist and literary translator Hartmut Fähndrich. He reflected on what he called the 'dubious' pleasure of translating modern Arabic literature into German in considering the ‘load’ placed on translators as they carry out their work.

Every guild has its patron, a saint – either male or female – whose emblem is basic for the activities performed by its member craftsmen. So Mary Magdalene became the patron of perfume traders as she is said to have poured a vase of precious ointment over Christ’s feet. Less obvious is the reason of the bartenders’ choosing Bernard of Clairvaux, the preacher initiating the second crusade, as their patron. More obvious is the translators’ choice of Saint Jerome to be their patron saint. After all, he spent a good part of his life translating the Old Testament into Latin, all by himself with only a lion squatting quietly in front of him.

Yet, this peaceful image does not suffice to convey the daily effort and pain of translators.


And here another saint comes into one’s mind, one not normally connected with the craft of translating: Saint Christopher, known to have carried people across a river. One day there was a child begging for his service. And the man did what he always did: he took the child crossing the river to the other bank. On the way, however, his precious “load” became heavier and heavier and in the end he hardly reached the other side.

The load consists of many parts: the desires of the authors, the demands of the publishers, the expectations of potential readers and the trials and tribulations of an adequate rendering of the text.

This is the burden weighing on the shoulders of the translator as Saint Christopher, this man whom the German poet R.M. Rilke in a powerful poem described as “knowledgeable on both banks” and “receptive for all that want to cross over”.


This event took place at the British Library on 10 November 2022.

For various reasons it was not in the end live-streamed.

However, film and sound recordings were taken of the Lecture and Q&A.

Click HERE to watch the video on the Banipal YouTube Channel. 


Hartmut Fähndrich
has been translating contemporary Arabic literature into German since the mid-1980s. His published translations currently number about 70, mostly novels, and include works by Palestinian authors Emile Habiby, Ghassan Kanafani and Sahar Khalifeh; many major authors from Egypt including Naguib Mahfouz, Sonallah Ibrahim, Gamal al-Ghitani, Salwa Bakr, Edwar al-Kharrat, Mansoura Ez Eldin and Alaa al-Aswany; from Libya Ibrahim al-Koni; from Lebanon Emily Nasrallah; from Saudi Arabia Raja Alem; from Iraq Hassan Blasim, Inaam Kachachi and Ahmed Saadawi; and Khaled Khalifa from Syria. He has published essays in numerous journals and

magazines on modern and “classical” Arabic literature and civilization.

Hartmut has received several awards for his translation activities, including Switzerland’s annual Special Award for Translation in 2016, awarded for the first time for translation from Arabic, and in 2018, the Sheikh Hamad Award for Translation and International Understanding (Qatar). For more information about Hartmut Fähndrich click here.

Photo by © Ebba D. Drolshagen