Bridging boundaries through language and literature

Thinking out of the box and creating a space for Arab literature, two people made it their work and their life to give a platform to the works of famous and emerging writers from the Arab countries. Margaret Obank and Iraqi author Samuel Shimon realised that there was a lack of the works of Arab authors, whose works were at par with those in the mainstream, being translated into English (unlike those written in other languages like French, Spanish or Russian).
In 1998, they took the task of translating and publicising works by Arab authors and started their independent magazine, Banipal.
Banipal publisher & editor-at-large Margaret Obank visited the Oman Daily Observer office during her visit to the Sultanate and as one of the brains behind this literary magazine, Margaret shared with us why she and her husband, who is also an author and the editor-in-chief, thought it was important that a space was created for Arab authors in the western world. “We didn’t start it as a commercial operation, we felt it was time to give Arabic authors a platform in the English language.”
The magazine takes its name from Ashurbanipal, as quoted on their website, Ashurbanipal “the last great king of Assyria and patron of the arts, whose outstanding achievement was to assemble in Nineveh, from all over his empire, the first systematically organised library in the ancient Middle East. The thousands of clay tablets of Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian writings included the famous Mesopotamian epics of the Creation, the Flood, and Gilgamesh, many folk tales, fables, proverbs, prayers and omen texts.”
The Banipal magazine is a platform created for Arab authors in English translation, irrespective of where they were written or published. The magazine, 20 years later comes out three times a year with works from both established and emerging Arab writers publishing translations of their poems, short stories, excerpts of novels including issues featuring literary influences, travel tales and others.
The magazine also publishes interviews with authors, publishers, translators along with book reviews and photo-reports of literary events. Every issue has a central theme but all working towards Banipal’s mission “to promote intercultural dialogue.”
The magazine publishes translations of the works of Arab writers and poets who write in various languages like French, English, German and of course Arabic. They use the term Arab literature and not Arabic to not exclude “literature by Arab authors not written in Arabic — and consequently many great Arab writers”
Margaret said, “All over the Arab work there are some great writers and literature is really the way different countries and cultures can speak to each other”
Translating not only requires the work of someone who knows both languages but also truly understands it. This is the real difference that Banipal as an institution is (successfully) trying to establish.
Margaret during her visit said, “We know that translation is creative work in itself and it requires great skill and great concentration, because you have to get the voice of the author and the rhythm in a different language and you have to bring the culture of the writer’s in, into another culture, it’s quite complicated really.”
To check out the magazine for yourselves, visit — you can access a list of contents, and decide whether you want to subscribe to the magazine, shipping is available worldwide. Earlier last year, they released their first digital edition, where each issue was digitised and archived. When an individual joins their subscription list, with the new online archive, you can access any issue from whichever year on your computers or mobile devices.
From the very beginning to this day, the importance of this publication remains to hold true to one ideal, as it says on their website, believe, “The dialogue between different cultures needs to be continually deepened; and that the joy and enlightenment to be gained from reading beautiful poetry and imaginative writing is an integral part of human existence. These three points have guided Banipal’s translation and promotion of contemporary Arab literature.”

Titash Chakraborty

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