By Sara Patterson
Humanities Lecturer Kay Heikkinen thrives on the challenges of translating Arabic novels into English. “It’s like playing music: you have a score and you bring it to life,” said Heikkinen, the Ibn Rushd Lecturer of Arabic in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) at UChicago. “Many people do not realize that the translation of a literary work requires an artistic sense and imagination. It’s not mechanical.”
In recognition of her translation of the Arabic novel Velvet (2019) by Huzama Habayeb into English, Heikkinen will receive the 2020 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation from the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature and the Society of Authors on Feb. 11. Through this annual Prize of £3,000, the Society of Authors strives to raise the profile of contemporary Arabic literature, as well as honor individual translators whose work allows access by broader audiences.
“The genius of Kay’s translation of Velvet is twofold,” said Jason Grunebaum, instructional professor in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at UChicago. “One, she strikes the right narrative tone to rewrite Huzama Habayeb’s forensic description of daily life in a Palestinian refugee camp, and she achieves this by a dazzling use of just-right verbs and by a diction that tends toward punchy, visceral Anglo-Saxon. These choices create oxygen for Kay’s lapidary prose in what otherwise could have been a baroque and overwrought English text.
“Two, Kay draws on a multitude of registers, allowing her to skillfully modulate the pitches of hope the protagonist Hawwa experiences amid the pathos of the camp, and invites the reader to inhabit both. It’s a level of sophistication that very few translators achieve.”
Although a scholar in the Arabic language for many years and at UChicago since 2004, Heikkinen only began professional literary translation work in 2010. Her husband Farouk Mustafa (1942‒2013), a renowned translator and a beloved lecturer at UChicago, helped her find the opportunity when American University in Cairo Press was looking for a translator for In the Time of Love (2010) by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.
“The creative choices translators make are restricted by the maximum constraints imaginable,” Grunebaum said. “What’s more, all of the challenges, puzzles, scholarship, and recontextualization that lie behind a good translation are invisible to most readers. Translation is often considered the purest form of writing because its only concern is language itself. But all these constraints give rise to great imagination, creativity, and, in the best of cases, translations nourish and enrich the target language.”
While her UChicago colleagues recognize her talent as a translator, Heikkinen also is highly valued as an Arabic teacher and mentor. She is lauded for her patience, curiosity, enthusiasm, and willingness to share her knowledge with her students and colleagues.
“All the things that make her a wonderful translator also make her a wonderful teacher,” said Ghenwa Hayek, associate professor in the Department of NELC at UChicago.
Outside UChicago, Heikkinen is active in the Third Coast Translators Collective. “She builds durable, lasting bridges” among the group, according to Grunebaum.
Likewise, connections between the authors and translators are crucial. For Velvet, Heikkinen worked closely with Habayeb who supported her throughout the translation. Habayeb realized the many challenges and potential pitfalls of translating her book into English and was thrilled Heikkinen captured both the narrative and spirit of her book.
“Only love can produce a work like Velvet, both in Arabic and English,” Habayeb said. The relationship between author and translator must be strong to do justice to the literature and provide the wider audience with a true representation of its power to persuade and move its new audiences.
“Without translations, we don’t talk to each other,” Heikkinen said. “Even the best literature in another language is invisible to us unless it’s translated.”