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2015 Man Booker International Prize Questionnaire: William Maynard Hutchins

By Eric M. B. Becker

William Maynard Hutchins (b.1944) was the principal translator of The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz. He has been awarded National Endowment for the Arts grants for literary translation for both 2005-2006 and 2011-2012, each time for a different novel by Ibrahim al-Koni. His recent translations include Hasan Nasr, Return to Dar al-Basha (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006); Fadhil al-Azzawi,The Last of the Angels (Cairo & New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2007; paperback: New York: The Free Press, New York, 2008) and Cell Block 5 (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2008; paperback: Arabia Books, London, 2008);  Muhammad Khudayyir, Basrayatha (Cairo & New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2007; paperback: London: Verso Books, 2008); Naguib Mahfouz, Cairo Modern (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2008; New York: Anchor Books, 2009); Ibrahim al-Koni, The Seven Veils of Seth (London: Garnet Publishing, and Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2008); and The Puppet  (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010, and Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press). His translations ofThe Traveler and the Innkeeper by Fadhil al-Azzawi  was released in May 2011 from the American University in Cairo Press.  He teaches at Appalachian State University of North Carolina.

Words without Borders: It must be gratifying to see the writer you translate honored as a finalist for the Man Booker. What is it that drew you, as a translator, to the writer's work?

William Maynard Hutchins: Perhaps the question should be what draws me to continue translating novels by Ibrahim al-Koni. I have to date translated his novels Anubis, The Seven Veils of Seth, and his Oasis Trilogy: New Waw, The Puppet, and The Scarecrow. I am currently halfway through translating his 700-page masterpiece, al-Majus.

I am drawn to his novels by their emotional intensity, intellectual challenge, and relevance to contemporary life, even though they are often set in mythic times in the Sahara.  Translating his work is both a huge responsibility and a grand adventure.

WWB: Can you tell us about a particular challenge/problem you've come across translating your writer's work and how you resolved it? Alternately, what's something you learned from translating this writer [that has stuck with you to this day]?

WMH: Occasionally, al-Koni uses anaphora to good effect with the side effect of challenging the translator, because the same Arabic word will be used repeatedly in a couple of pages but with slightly different meanings each time.

Since Ibrahim al-Koni is Tuareg and many of his characters are as well, I need to send him a list of characters for each novel for his corrections. Tuareg names that have been transliterated into Arabic script do not come effortlessly into an appropriate English spelling.  I am still learning more about Tuareg culture, and this has been a precondition for translating his novels.

Al-Koni typically writes in an elegant literary Arabic that verges at times on the gnomic, and echoing--if not reproducing--this style in English is challenging.

In al-Koni’s works, myths are not decorative fantasies—they are models for understanding contemporary issues, dilemmas and events.  At the risk of upsetting some readers, I occasionally drop in a pop-culture word to help make this point

WWB: What trends or recurring themes do you see in the literature you translate?

WMH: For me as a literary translator from Arabic to English, one recurring issue is the difficulty of finding a publisher for what I think is an excellent novel.  I currently am looking for a publisher for at least four completed translations of novels.

One trend, at least for me, is my old-is-new again realization that Arabic serves as a literary language for a number of authors who are not Arabs or who are Arabs but come from very different areas, environments, and cultures.  Ibrahim al-Koni is a Tuareg, and Zuhdi al-Dahoodi is a Kurd, for example, although both write in literary Arabic. The settings, character, and style of the novels of the Tunisian authors Hassouna Mosbahi and Hassan Nasr, the Sudanese author Amir Tag Elsir, the Yemeni author Wajdi al-Ahdal, and the Iraqi writers Mohammed Khudayyir from Basra and Fadhil al-Azzawi from Kirkuk all differ dramatically.

Another trend is an interest in a character that hovers between the angelic and demonic—whether al-Koni’s many different versions of Seth/Wantahet or the demonic angels of The Last of the Angels by Fadhil al-Azzawi.

At least in the sense of a phenomenon found in the writing of two different contemporary Arab authors who do not appear to be linked in any special way, a third trend may be a prismatic or Cubist approach to storytelling as in Basrayatha by Mohammed Khudayyir and in Return to Dar al-Basha by Hassan Nasr.  

As a translator of Arabic literature, I deeply appreciate the kindness and trust of the authors I translate.  If their work was not so brilliant, my work would not amount to a hill of beans.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Ibrahim al-Koni's "The Right Course," translated by William Maynard Hutchins (WWB's July 2006 Issue)

More interviews with 2015 Man Booker International Prize finalists

Published May 18, 2015   Copyright 2015 Eric M. B. Becker

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