Burnaby Hawkes’s translation of Ahmed Magdy Hammam’s “The Hemingway Man” (خدعة هيمنجواي) was shortlisted for the 2021 ArabLit Story Prize.
Before the winner is announced at the end of this week — October 15 — we talk with each of the translators about their choices, technique, process, and (sometimes) teamwork:
How did you first come across Ahmed Magdy Hammam’s work, and what made you decide you wanted to translate it? How are you able to keep up with the literary landscape in Cairo from Canada? How do you discover new books?
Burnaby Hawkes: I first met Ahmed during the heated political events which would later become the Arab Spring—in Cairo in early 2011. Later that same year, I read his novel Pains of the Jackal (أوجاع ابن آوي) and was fascinated by it. He has a unique way of putting into words what most people are shy to discuss. I remember that I had him a long phone call with him back then, and expressed my love for that novel. We have been in touch ever since. Translating his work has always been on my mind. When I read his short story “The Hemingway Man,” I knew I must translate it into English. I am very glad that I did it.
Keeping up with the literary landscape in Cairo has never been easier thanks to the Internet. Ever since I left Egypt in 2014, I have managed to keep my relationship with the literary community of Egypt as if I were still there. We live in very special times in human history.
I often discover new books by recommendations. One perk of having so many writer friends is never struggling to find your next read.
What first struck you about this particular story?
BH: “The Hemingway Man” struck me as a very good representation of how art could seep into our souls and change our perspective on reality. The protagonist of the story is a girl who becomes obsessed with a man she thinks is the epitome of a Hemingway character. This is unique in storytelling, as most fiction nowadays is either plot- or character-driven. The “Hemingway Man” is theme-driven, which is, again, unique.
As you approached the story, or as you edited your translation, what were some of the primary challenges you faced? What did you want to make sure to carry across (or rebuild, or adapt) into the English—in terms of tone, style, diction, voice—and how did you work on doing it?
BH: That’s a very good question. Yes, I did run into some challenges translating this story. The most prominent was the different expectations for the reader when it came to basic cultural definitions. Love, for instance. In Arabic culture—and “The Hemingway Man” does abide by it—being in love does not necessarily mean more than being infatuated with somebody. The same goes for the widely different connotation the word government evokes in different cultures. In the Middle East, people pronounce the word “government” with either a pride or utter dread—since the word stands for the political regime of the country at large. In Canada, government means taxes, transportation, and renewing your passport, that’s it.
Speaking of tone and rhythm, Arabic boasts long—super-long—sentences that can go on for paragraphs or pages if you like. Arabic diction tends to be exuberant, sometimes with over-the-top expressions with analogies that are obsolete in English. I had to make a lot of adjustments to convey to the English-speaking reader the same meaning by using different words.
What do you think is distinctive about Hammam’s voice?
Hammam’s voice is distinct in being daring and light-footed at the same time. His prose is smooth and his characters are vivid yet quiet. I like how his protagonist—the girl in “The Hemingway Man”—never descends into a vociferous soliloquy or snaps at other people. She soldiers on throughout the story. And that is literary talent.
You’re also a writer—does translation shape your understanding of your own style or choices? Do you see writing differently when you are working as a translator, vs. when you are working as a writer?
BH: Translation made me understand language much better. When I write, I tend to go into a semireligious lockdown where I pound out thousands of words a day and finish the book in a matter of months. Editing that rough first draft takes much longer, of course; but by then the meat of the story has been laid down on paper. When I translate, however, I have to be very slow, choosing every word with utter care. I have noticed that ever since I began translating others, my fast-and-dirty first drafts are becoming much and much better. I am becoming a better writer without realizing it.
Also, you are a writer who has shifted languages—first you wrote in Arabic, and now you write your works in English. Does this change your perspective as a translator, do you think?
BH: I have been writing in English since I was a kid; English, after all, has always been my primary reading language and the language of my education. When I was living in Egypt, writing in Arabic was a choice more than my natural inclination. I wanted to write to my local community. And I did that. My two Arabic novels (Assiutstan City and Sonquor’s Crime, published under the pen name Michael Prince) were well received, but I knew I would soon leave Egypt, so I did not follow them up with a third Arabic novel. In 2012, I started my master’s degree at the American University of Cairo, which further distanced me from the Arabic language. And in 2014, I left for the United States then to Canada, where I became a researcher for the NATO Council. I have been writing professionally in English ever since. My novel The Haze—a spy thriller about the Egyptian Revolution—came out in 2020 to more acclaim than I would’ve anticipated. It was featured in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews and received excellent reviews elsewhere. My bilingual readers have told me that I am at my best when I write in English, so that’s what I do.
This translingual experience has changed my perspective, of course. I became aware of the merits and limitations of each language. Arabic is a very beautiful-sounding language with exuberant old expressions, aphorisms, and sayings. English, in contrast, is a pithy, straight-to-the-point, and open language. My job as a translator—and as a writer—is to bridge the gap between these two.
The winner of the 2021 ArabLit Story Prize will be announced October 15, 2021 at 2 p.m. UTC+1 . That’s 9 a.m. EST, 2 p.m. UK, 3 p.m. Berlin and Cairo, 4 p.m. Amman, 5 p.m. UAE.
Yesterday: 2021 ArabLit Story Prize Shortlisted Translators Maissa Tanjour and Alice Holttum: On the Value of Co-translations
Tomorrow: A talk with shortlisted translator Dima El-Mouallem
Egyptian author Ahmed Magdy Hammam was born in 1983. He is a journalist and author, and his short-story collection The Gentleman Prefers Lost Causes won the Sawiris Cultural Award in 2016. He was also shortlisted for the Asfari Award, organized by the American University in Beirut, in 2019. He lives in Cairo and works as a journalist and editor for Al-Dostor newspaper.
Burnaby Hawkes is an Egyptian-Canadian novelist, translator, and former political analyst for the NATO Council. Hawkes has two Arabic novels published in 2011 and 2020 (Merit Publishing House, Cairo), but now writes exclusively in English. His website is at: www.burnabyhawkes.com.