William Hutchins on ‘The New Waw’: ‘To Pull the Living Novel Through the Linguistic Curtain’

Over on Qantara, a discussion of Ibrahim al-Koni’s The New Waw, which — in William Hutchins’ translation — won the 2015  National Translation Award. Also, a discussion with Hutchins (with outtakes below):

new_wawTo take pleasure in Ibrahim al-Koni′s ″The New Waw: Saharan Oasis″ (2014) is to embrace its strangeness. Reading al-Koni through the lens of William Hutchins′ English translation is like appreciating a new and unfamiliar music, with odd-seeming tonalities and sometimes jarring rhythms.

The novel, published in Arabic in 1999, begins with the arrival of migratory birds. The book′s nomadic desert-dwellers, in contrast to settled peoples, rush out to meet them. When the birds – or ″winged people″ – leave, just one elderly specimen remains behind. This bird′s demise foreshadows the death of the group′s leader, which in turn triggers unforeseen changes for the human flock.

This is the fourth of al-Koni′s novels that Hutchins has translated. The prolific US-based translator says that he′s generally ″wary of ′global′ novels that seem to have been written expressly to appeal to Westerners.″ ″The New Waw: Saharan Oasis″ is decidedly not that. It follows neither conventional characterisations nor timelines and seems to expand in multiple directions as it follows the group.

There is much to appreciate in al-Koni′s strangeness. Although the Libyan novelist′s work has been available in English translation for more than a decade – starting with his magical “Bleeding of the Stone” (2003), translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley – he′s only now finding acclaim.

Hutchins says that he was ″incredulous″ when he learned in October that ″The New Waw: Saharan Oasis″ had won the 2015 National Translation Award, presented by the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). This wasn′t al-Koni′s only major English-language recognition in 2015. Al-Koni′s oeuvre was also longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker International, an honour shared with only nine other writers around the world.

The source of Al-Koni′s difference is not just his language, which takes its inspiration from classical Arabic texts. It′s also the desert setting, religious syncretism and the poetry of the Tuareg people. As in much of al-Koni′s work, landscape and animals are not mere background. Part of what he contributes to world fiction is a new lens on the relationship between human, animal, spirit and landscape.

Core tension: nomadic versus sedentary

″The New Waw: Saharan Oasis″ examines the essential tension between desert nomadism and sedentary existence. The leader dies and his people build a tomb for him. A female soothsayer is installed to listen for the dead leader′s messages and a building is erected around her and the tomb. This tomb becomes a ″peg″, holding the community in place. It leads them to dig a well, after which the surroundings grow greener. Caravans come, foreigners settle in and walls are built around the community. A community with deep traditions finds itself changing. Keep reading on Qantara.

From the interview outtakes:

Does your philosophy background have anything to do with [your interest in al-Koni’s work]?

William Hutchins: Yes, of course, and I teach various religious studies courses including an “African Thought” course.  I welcome the intellectual challenge that I find in al-Koni’s novels.  Some of them focus on the problematic relationships between Tuareg and Bambara cultures.

Are you more drawn to work that has philosophical intrigue?

WH: Perhaps not more drawn, but definitely drawn.  I also adore the frolicsome humor of al-Mazini and al-Azzawi.

How do you find the next book you’ll translate?

WH: I feel an obligation–barring some disaster with an author–to translate another book by an author I have translated, but this practice can start spiraling out of control.  I want readers to understand that this author is not a one-hit wonder.

Are you ever trolling through bookshops?

WH: For my “Egyptian Tales” book, which is out of print, I bought every short story collection by an Egyptian author I could find in a Cairo Bookstore that year.  I very much wanted to translate a story by Gazbiya Sdiqi for that book and translated two of her stories; but she refused me permission for reasons she did not care to articulate when I had tea with her.  I was asking Egyptian friends that year to suggest authors too.

Do you have a favorite al-Koni?

WH: I have to date translated 450 of the 700 pages of al-Majus, which I am translating as “The Fetishists” for various reasons.  He says it is his masterpiece, and I agree.  There are more important female characters than usual and more extensive development of characters like the dervish. The publication history of the English translation is complicated and (appropriately I guess) full of angst.  It is definitely on my list of must-finish-before- I-die projects. (The Cairo Trilogy was on that list long ago.)  I like his Marathis Ulis a lot and the second volume of his multi-volume novel about Tripoli.  I am a sucker for any of his novels with a Sufi edge.

What makes a great translation? 

WH: I honestly don’t know. It is not necessarily the elegance of the language of the translation.

I am satisfied with my translation work when a reviewer writes with excitement about the novel, even if that reviewer, who usually does not know Arabic, trashes the translation.  I want to pull the living novel through the linguistic curtain.