Translator Sampsa Peltonen on Why Hassan Blasim’s ‘God99’ Is Like Parkour

Finnish translator Sampsa Peltonen brought Hassan Blasim’s God99 Allah99 in Finnish — into translation in the country where much of the novel is set. He talks about why the novel is like parkour, and the challenges of translating a portrait of Finland that comes via Arabic:

It’s interesting, I think, that reviewers of the English translation of Hassan Blasim’s God99 (crafted by Jonathan Wright) seem to be thinking about what the Arabic might have been like vs. thinking about Jonathan Wright’s translation in front of them on the page, which is — to my eyes — fairly standard English. Are the reader / reviewers in Finland imagining Hassan’s Arabic in this way? 

Sampsa Peltonen: The fact that reviewers have a feeling they are actually reading Blasim’s Arabic is obviously indicative of Jonathan Wright’s high-quality translation! In Finland, I didn’t quite get reactions like that to my Finnish translation. One explanation could be the small size and relative marginality of our language community: Finnish speakers are well aware of the fact that international literature is translated, whereas English speakers sometimes almost seem to forget there are other languages in the world than just English. And they are also used to reading books written by Arab authors in English. Another explanation is the fact that Blasim is more and more famous as a Finnish writer, and at least book lovers know that he does not write or make public appearances in Finnish. So they know that his texts need to be translated for the Finnish audience to enjoy.

However, I did get loads of very flattering compliments from Finnish readers of Allah99 (as I translated الله99 in Finnish, using Allah in the title, not Jumala, the Finnish equivalent of God – this is another hugely interesting topic) saying how they had hard time believing something like this had originally been written in Arabic. I suppose this is just due to the heritage of Orientalism. People have this persistent idea that anything Arabic can be mystical, tantalising, fascinating, intoxicating, erotic… but not cheeky, unglamorous, unapologetically vulgar, obstreperous, gruff.

Yes, so: Why Allah99 and not Jumala99?

Sampsa Peltonen: I was kind of afraid you’d follow up on that one. 😀 😀

The very first file I created when I started this translation process in early 2018 was called “Jumala99”, “God99.” It seemed like an obvious choice, because الله is Jumala in Finnish, and then there are the 99 names of God in Islam etc. In normal text, I automatically translate الله as Jumala, unless the context dictates a different translation strategy. With this novel, I soon realised Jumala99 sounded, to my ears, and hey, I was pretty much the one to call the shots, a bit too proper and religion-y, whereas Allah99 had more of a trademark-y feel to it (I seem to have fallen in love with these adjective-y words). I also insisted there be no space in the Finnish title, since in the book, Allah99 is the name of a blog, and I thought Allah99 written like that looks more blog title-y (stop it, Simsim, stop it!).

Then there’s also the more delicate and difficult question of who uses the name/word Allah in languages other than Arabic. It seems to me that quite generally the non-Arabic-speaking Muslims, the more “fervent” (whatever that means) they are, the more probably they will insist on saying Allah, not God, in something of an attempt to dig trenches and choose sides, and in a process perhaps not completely unlike cultural appropriation in some ways. I’m maybe not proud of it (yes I am), but I did secretly enjoy the idea that choosing Allah instead of Jumala pisses some people off (it pisses them off for all the wrong reasons).

I also translated الله أكبر, in the context of a terrorist attacks, as Allahu akbar, not “Jumala on suuri” (God is great), much for the same reasons, because terrorists have, the way I see it, usurped this religious exclamation and use it to their heinous purposes. Obviously, I ran into a problem when at one point the narrator says he doesn’t want to be dragged into a debate about (amongst other things) الله أكبر or الله أصغر. This is of course a very powerful play on words in Arabic. I wouldn’t have been happy with a direct translation, and as I had already decided I’d use “Allahu akbar” in my translation anyway, I needed to come up with a new solution. I was chuffed (and readers have loved this) when I came up with “Allahu akbar versus Öyhöti ökbör” in Finnish. The idea was to create a contrast between the two, and the contrast here comes from the juxtaposition of A and Ö (in Finnish we say “from A to Ö”, not “from A to Z”, since Ö is the last letter in our alphabet), and “öyhöti” is derived from the verb “öyhöttää”, which means rowdy grumbling and unruly boasting, often in the context of populist rants. I hope that the somewhat surprising effect that this translation has on the reader is in some ways similar to the effect the original has on the Arabic reader. Namely, the way I see it, a translator of creative texts does not translate words, and does not always translate even ideas, but effects.

So you said on twitter that your first point of reference was parkour, an excellent analogyas now I imagine the text grunting, leaping over buildings, taking sudden and unexpected turns, dropping through someone’s kitchen window and running out the bathroom. When did this “parkour” idea appear to you? How did it appear in the text, or in your process? 

Sampsa Peltonen: Often when I start translating a new book (or at least a new author), I try to think of great books I have read that have some such stylistic features that they remind me of what I think my translation should sound like. I didn’t really come up with good benchmarks like this (Welsh wouldn’t be a bad one!), but then I remmbered how Hassan himself almost obsessively talks about الايقاع when talking about writing and life in general. I tried to look for things that would have a rhythm and a tempo that remind me of how I read الله99.

The arselongness (if that’s a word? if not, recklessness :-D) of the text made me think about how the traceurs (as I believe parkour aficionados are called) keep plunging forwards all the time, almost like just past their tipping point, foolhardily hopping over things, dashing and ploughing into walls. Parkour is also often practised in urban places that smell of piss and fast-food and where you need to watch out you don’t step on broken glass or used condoms. I liked the idea a lot, because sometimes reading Blasim is a bit like that. Not everything makes sense, sentences run into each other, there are mistakes, sometimes a storyline seems to be cut short just because Hassan gets bored of telling it because he has already come up with a new idea; however, just like how parkour is beautiful to watch, like raw, elemental dance, Blasim’s text sometimes takes one’s breath away with unexpected beauty (one example of such a passage is in the chapter “Life is Steam,” where a horrible scene of anal rape Blasim paints a beautiful picture of pigeons first captured inside a sheet, then set free, flapping their wings in the dark, and the emptied sheet floating on the river like a ghost).

How was the process of translating God99 / Allah99 different from translating Blasim’s stories? 

Sampsa Peltonen: Translating Blasim has become more and more rewarding, because I have learnt to know him better and better over the years, so I think and hope I understand better how he sees things, how his sense of humour works. This was the first time, by the way, that I have written a translator’s foreword. It’s difficult to say exactly why we decided to do that, but that is what we decided between Hassan, the publisher and myself. I genuinely believe the novel stands on its own and doesn’ need crutches or anything, but there was a little bit of a feeling, maybe, that the novel is a bit like a shoe that fits really well and looks proper snazzy, but it is a bit difficult to put on. That is why I called my foreword a shoehorn. Had I been more daring, I might have called it lube. Apparently we were wrong, because readers in Finland generally loved it and didn’t have a hard time at all slipping their foot inside this shoe! (Oh no, I just got painfully self-aware of what this shoe-analogy sounds like when one thinks about it from an Arabic point of view…)

There was one clear aha moment for me concerning the translation method. We translators are usually meticulous and keep checking and re-checking every detail. It is always challenging to keep on being meticulous *and* create a sense of spontaneity (if that is what the text calls for, and they often do, contemporary texts in particular, I’d say). What in Blasim’s texts is exhilarating to some and surely exasperating to others is its almost excessive spontaneity and devil-may-care attitude, to the point that there can be inconsistencies and even mistakes in the text, because who cares when it’s so urgent to keep telling stories! At some point I was re-reading my translation and noticed there is a tendency that my text can be a bit too house-trained, so to speak. There was this one passage where I had used, in my first draft, a grammatical structure I wasn’t quite sure was 100 % kosher, so I had marked it with an asterisk with the intention of checking reference material to make sure it’s ok to say like that. But then it struck me: “No, I’m not going to check it. This is what I blurted out in my draft, the meaning is there, the intention is there, the urgency is there, so why not let it just be.” I hope I was able to reflect the original text’s blurted-outness by doing something a bit daring like that.

I can’t make anything of the GoodReads reviews in Finnish except that readers seem very engaged by the book and there seem to be a lot of them. Well, and I google translated HUI MITEN HIENO! because I liked the sound of it. What aspects of the book most draw their attention? 

Sampsa Peltonen: Hui miten hieno is “Yikes, how great.” Readers generally seemed to enjoy the recklessness of the style and the way this book throws light on the emotional dimensions of the minds of people who have gone through a lot – without reducing them to simplistic victims, or sums of their shortcomings. Many people seemed to find it refreshing to read a book where there isn’t a clear dichotomy between the good guys and the bad guys. There is something very human, despite Blasim’s tendency to be a bit gloomy and macabre. Reader and reviewers alike extolled the language, which was naturally very flattering to me, and I take great pride in having been able to serve Blasim’s recipe with Finnish ingredients in such a way that dinner guests find it moreish and come back for seconds!

 Did your manner of reading the novel change at all as you worked on it? The way in which you imagined its structure, its characters, heard its music? Are there any particular images (particularly of Finland) you think particularly evoke the book? To me, I’ve been searching google images to find what the inside of grungy Finnish bars might look like ….

Sampsa Peltonen: I’m sure Finnish readers perceive this novel very differently from the English readers. Well, firstly, obviously,because they won’t read the same book (the original and the translation are always two different books), but also because there is so much there a Finnish reader finds familiar. Readers in any other country have two “exotic” dimensions to deal with: the Iraqi/Arabic one and the Finnish one, whereas for us, the Finnish dimension is familiar. It came to me as a bit of a surprise that this particular thing was actually pretty difficult from a translation point of view. I have translated contemporary fiction from the Arabic for years, so I have developed some sort of strategies for creating Arabic universes in Finnish. But all of a sudden I had to find a way to write about my own world in Finnish – but coming from Arabic, and taking into consideration, I won’t say the Arab gaze :-), but the point of view of someone who hasn’t lived here all his life.

One scene I feel evokes something essential about this book is the one that takes place in the chapter called Mr. Palomar, when Hassan Owl plays a game on a slot machine called Emma. That reminds him of the Finnish folks song about a lass called Emma. In the slot machine, you win the jackpot if you get five lanterns in a line; the lanterns remind him of the scary lantern-lit nights in Baghdad. I think this sums up the way immigrants (for want of a better word) often describe their chaotic and “noisy” existence: when you have one foot in the old country and another in the new country, you are bombarded with stimuli that evoke one thing within the context of your past in the old home country, and another thing within the context of the new country of adoption. No wonder it can get exhausting, almost like having to live two lives simultaneously inside one’s head.