Istanbul Istanbul wins EBRD Literature Prize 2018

By Cecilia Calatrava


(l-r) Ümit Hussein, Burhan Sönmez and Sir Suma Chakrabarti.

€20,000 prize will be split between the Turkish author Burhan Sönmez and translator Ümit Hussein

Istanbul Istanbul, a novel by Burhan Sönmez and translated from Turkish by Ümit Hussein, has won a new international literature prize launched by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

The prize, awarded at a ceremony at the Bank’s headquarters in London on 10 April, was created last year by the EBRD, in partnership with the British Council and the London Book Fair (LBF).

The €20,000 prize will be split between the author and translator.

The EBRD Literature Prize champions the literary richness of its regions of operations, which include almost 40 countries from Morocco to Mongolia, Estonia to Egypt. It was also created to illustrate the importance of literary translation and to introduce the depth and variety of the voices and creativity from these regions to a wider global audience. 

Set after a military coup, the winning novel is a love song to Istanbul inspired by the author’s own experiences. Below the ancient streets of Istanbul, four prisoners sit, awaiting their turn at the hands of their interrogators. When they are not being subjected to unimaginable violence, the condemned tell one another stories about the city, shaded with love and humour, to pass the time. In a style that resembles Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century classic The Decameron, the prisoners’ narratives slowly turn into a story of the city itself, increasingly blurring the line between life above and below ground.

Rosie Goldsmith, chair of the judging panel, said: “Istanbul Istanbul is a life-affirming novel of profound humanity and exquisite writing. And Burhan Sönmez is a major writer, a highly deserving winner of this major new prize. Yes, the novel is set in a prison cell, yes, it’s set in Turkey, but at no point does it condemn or take a position: it’s our story too. The four protagonists are on a quest to find kindness and beauty in a world of cruelty. They are fully rounded, real characters with flaws and oddities, gripping us not with accounts of violence and torture but through their humour and conversation. Burhan Sönmez wears his immense learning lightly and together with his literary companion Ümit Hussein, his outstanding translator, they have created a prize-winning novel of great passion and poetry.”

Suma Chakrabarti, President of the EBRD, said: “Through the EBRD Literature Prize, we recognise the work of scores of authors across the nearly 40 countries where the Bank works – most of whose voices would have remained unheard had it not been for the translators and publishers who bring these works to the English-speaking world. But our prize is meant to go beyond recognition.  It is meant to promote the wealth, depth and variety of culture and history in the countries where the EBRD invests.”

Burhan Sönmez is an internationally prize-winning novelist who worked as a human rights lawyer in Istanbul and was a founder of the social-activist culture organisation TAKSAV (Foundation for Social Research, Culture and Art). Sönmez is a member of Turkish PEN and English PEN. He is a founding member of the 'Writers Circle' at PEN International and currently lectures in Literature and Novel at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

Ümit Hussein is a British translator and interpreter of Turkish Cypriot origin. She has translated the work of Nevin Halıcı, Mehmet Yashin and Ahmet Altan, among others.

The two runner-up titles received €2,000, also split between author and translator. These were All the World’s a Stage by Boris Akunin, translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield, and Belladonna by Daša Drndic, translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth. All were present at the award ceremony, where the three finalist authors and translators discussed their books and the art of translation.

These titles were chosen from the original longlist of 12 titles by the judges.

A special event will also be held at the London Book Fair at 11.30 on 11 April 2018. Entitled ‘Whose Prize is it Anyway?’, featuring the prize winners and the judges, the panel will be discussing the benefit of literary prizes, the need to read more literature in translation and the role the EBRD Literature Prize plays in the current international cultural arena. This year the LBF market focus is on the Baltic states, one of the EBRD regions of operations.

See all information/announcements of the EBRD Literature Prize.

About the EBRD Literature Prize:

The prize provides a unique opportunity to reflect the culture and creativity of almost 40 economies where the Bank invests, from Morocco to Mongolia, Estonia to Egypt.  The prize is awarded to the best work of literary fiction translated from the original language into English and published by a UK publisher in the 18 months prior to 15 November 2017. Divided equally between author and translator, it champions the art of translation as well as the extraordinary richness, depth and variety of arts and history in the countries in the Bank’s region. The EBRD Literature Prize is a project of the Bank’s Community Initiative.

About the EBRD:

The EBRD was set up in 1991 after the fall of the Berlin Wall to meet the challenge of an extraordinary moment in Europe’s history: the collapse of communism.  It is a multilateral bank with almost 70 shareholders which promotes the development of the private sector and entrepreneurial initiatives in 37 economies across three continents.  

About the judges:

Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Oxford University. His most recent book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, was an international number 1 bestseller.

Gabriel Gbadamosi is a poet, playwright, essayist and broadcaster. He was a Judith E. Wilson Fellow for creative writing at Cambridge University. His London novel Vauxhall won the 2011 Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize. 

Lucy Hannah is a writer and producer who founded Commonwealth Writers in 2011. She has worked for a range of organisations on communication for development projects, mostly in areas of conflict and post-conflict, including South Sudan, Chechnya and Afghanistan.

Rosie Goldsmith, chair of the judging panel, is an award-winning journalist specialising in arts and current affairs in the UK and abroad, and a champion of international literature. She is Founder and Director of the European Literature Network.