Big Words, Big Prize-Money

In Berlin, Saudi emissaries have presented the world's largest prize for translation. But the show and the obsequious ritual that go with the prize seem to be more important than anything else: one previous winner has only received a fraction of the prize-money he was promised. According to Werner Bloch, it was a bizarre event

By Werner Bloch

The deputy Saudi foreign minister, Abdelaziz bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, came to Berlin to give away a million-dollar prize: the "Translation Prize of the Guardians of the Two Holy Sites" (the two holy sites being Mecca and Medina). This is the world's largest prize for translation; an astronomically large sum in a badly paid profession.

The Saudi prince, a son of King Abdullah, spent plenty of money to ensure the event was staged appropriately. On Sunday, he and his entourage flew to Berlin in his private jet, and on Monday (8 October 2012), the prize was awarded in the grand ballroom of Berlin's City Hall.

The event was hosted by the mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit. The place must have felt unspectacular and anything but luxurious to the Saudis, but they put on their show anyway. To the accompaniment of German traditional roast marinated beef (Sauerbraten) and vegetable soup, they watched the advertising films they'd brought with them, praised the prize, which his Majesty the King had initiated, and offered their thanks to the people of Berlin – not that the people of Berlin knew about it, since there was scarcely any publicity for the event.

Prizes of $200,000 each were awarded in four categories for translations in the fields of the humanities, religion, literature and natural sciences, into and out of Arabic, with a fifth special prize for institutions that promote translation.

Klaus Wowereit was full of praise for the Saudi's record in culture and science, but also defended the Arab Spring and insisted that democracy is compatible with Islam

​​This year, for example, that prize went to Uzbekistan, where a team had translated the ninth-century "Biography of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace be unto Him" by Ibn Hashim into Uzbek for the first time.

One of the prize winners had flown in from Samarkand. Deeply moved, he told the audience that he prayed that this success would lead to further successes, and that the prize and its winners would enjoy a long life. He went on to say that the success did not belong to him, but to God and the Saudi king. It was a speech in which a theocratic Muslim way of looking at the world continually found itself muddled up with the modern framework of an awards ceremony.

"I feel I've been cheated"

In Berlin, Saudi Arabia busied itself with its own domestic rituals. For example, the Saudi foreign minister's speech went like this:

"His Excellency the deputy foreign minister thanks his Majesty the King of Saudi Arabia for holding the celebration of the presentation of the awards in the German capital, Berlin. This underpins the international nature of the prize and allows it a permanent openness to all cultures and languages. His Excellency thanks the Germans, both on the official and on the private level, for their recognition of the noble purposes of this award." This is how the presenter of the prize, the Saudi foreign minister, thanked the Saudi king for donating it. The recognition of the Germans is, of course, very welcome.

"I have the impression that the Arabs don't know who their friends are," says Hartmut Fähndrich, a previous recipient of the Translation Prize of the Guardians of the Two Holy Sites

​​Behind the scenes, however, further embarrassing aspects await. If one asks past prize winners, one hears bizarre stories: Hartmut Fähndrich, one of the best translators from Arabic into German, was awarded a prize in Casablanca three years ago. Only a fraction of the prize money he was supposed to have shared with an Arab colleague has arrived so far.

"I thank the Saudis," says Fähndrich on the phone, "but I feel I've been cheated." When he asks what has happened to the prize money, he gets some excuse. He says that's because the Arabs are mostly interested in old-fashioned oriental obsequiousness: "I have the impression that the Arabs don't know who their friends are."

Private function

Klaus Wowereit sees things differently: he emphasises the advantages of the relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially in the fields of culture, science and medicine. He mentions the substantial science city that has grown up in Riyadh and is being led by open-minded and academically brilliant Saudis. But he adds, "I always speak about the issue of human rights." In his speech, he defends the Arab Spring in glowing terms and insists that democracy is compatible with Islam.

Anyone who wanted to attend the award ceremony was sent home by the police. On the door was a notice saying "Private function."

Werner Bloch

© Süddeutsche Zeitung 2012

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/