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It’s been a gratifying journey for Jokha Alharthi and Marilyn Booth, Man Booker International Prize winners.

Aaron Robertson

May 23, 2019, 12:39pm

The announcement on Tuesday that Jokha Alharthi and her translator Marilyn Booth received this year’s Man Booker International Prize for Celestial Bodies brought smiles to many people’s faces, and for good reason.

Celestial Bodies is the first novel written by an Omani woman to be translated into English, and Alharthi is the first Arabic author to win the Man Booker International Prize, an award that acknowledges some of the finest literature in English translation. The morning after the prize was given, the Sharjah Book Authority in the United Arab Emirates announced the creation of the Turjuman Award, valued at $350,000, which will go to publishing houses that facilitate the translation of Arabic literature.

Alharthi’s story follows three sisters—Mayya, Asma and Khawla—and their families as post-colonial Oman transitions from a slave-owning society (slavery in Oman was abolished in 1970) into the present. Oman had become a British protectorate in 1891 and achieved independence six decades later, in 1951.

In an interview with Literary Hub, Alharthi said she’d started writing the book in 2005 while completing her PhD in classical Arabic poetry, in Scotland.

“It was my first year in Edinburgh and I was a bit homesick,” Alharthi said. “I needed to write about something so intimate to me. I had been thinking of the novel before that, but since I was in a difficult situation for the first months in Edinburgh, I needed to go at a different pace.”

For Booth, a professor at the University of Oxford and prolific translator from Arabic, Celestial Bodies provided a welcomed challenge. Much of her scholarly work has focused on Egyptian politics and culture. Fortunately, her easy relationship with Alharthi, and support from the charitable Anglo-Omani Society, made the task a bit easier.

“Basically, I translated and when I had questions I would email them to Jokha,” Booth said. “A lot of my questions were about specific aspects of Omani culture.”

Alharthi and Booth were grateful to spend a pleasant evening among their fellow nominees.

“It means a lot,” Alharthi said of the prize. “It’s a great honor. I think a window has been opened to Arabic literature, in general, and Omani literature in particular. Also I hope it will open a dialogue through the Human Values Foundation.”

Booth echoed the sentiment.

“It’s fantastic. It’s great to be among these fantastic writers. We had brief chances to talk to each other. It just feels stimulating and inspiring. I love it.”

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