English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Jonathan Wright, whose translation of Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ won a Writers in Translation award in 2013, and in 2014 was the winner of the International Foreign Fiction Prize.
Once I was sitting with Marwan waiting for a coffin to arrive. We were eating sunflower seeds. We had waited a long time and were about to give up hope and go back home disappointed. But then the death car loomed on the horizon. We ran after it like happy dogs and were betting on who could beat the car, when it finally stopped in front of Marwan’s house. His mother came out screaming hysterically. She ripped her clothes and threw herself in the pool of mud. Bassem, who was standing next to me, stood stock still and stared in a trance. His big brother noticed him and pulled him into the house. I ran back home, into my mother’s arms, crying in torment. ‘Mummy, my friend Marwan’s dad’s died,’ I sobbed. She said, ‘Wash your face and go to the shop and fetch me half a kilo of onions’.
–Excerpt from The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright
Interview by Grace Hetherington
Blasim has said he is not interested in preserving the beauty of standard Arabic in his writing. Is it easier to translate the colloquial Arabic he uses into more natural English than it would be with standard Arabic?
Just to clarify, Hassan doesn’t write in Iraqi or any other colloquial form of Arabic, except for a few words of dialogue here and there, on which I sometimes have to consult him. He writes in his own stripped-down, bare-bones version of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Arabs accustomed to more conventional forms of literary production find it odd, even unsettling, but linguistically it’s still MSA. If I may put words into Hassan’s mouth, and I have heard him discuss this several times, I believe his position is that language is merely a medium for conveying images and ideas, so the form is irrelevant. To go back to your question, yes, it does make it easier to translate. I’m a hard-core Chomskyan and Hassan only confirms my views on language. When people speak or write without pretensions, as Hassan does, the message comes through loud and clear in any language. Of course cultural specificities sometimes occur, even with Hassan, but they are usually peripheral and manageable.
Blasim’s work has been banned in several Arabic-speaking countries, including Jordan, and he has received death threats over its publication. What factors do you take into account when taking on the work of authors such as Blasim, which is considered controversial in some parts of the world?
I feel fairly immune from the atmosphere of bans and threats. I haven’t heard that anyone has objected to or banned the English versions. As far as I understand it, some publishers have been reluctant to publish Hassan’s work because of some of the religious, or rather irreligious, references, and he was naturally reluctant to make compromises. Censorship remains a real problem in the Arab world but I suspect the censors are fighting a losing battle. It often happens that a book is banned in theory but is sold openly at many bookshops. Few governments are now willing to invest heavily in stopping the flow of books. Most of them have other dragons to slay.
Surrealism and black humour are recurring themes in the collection. Do these concepts differ markedly in Iraqi and British culture, in Arabic and English? How do you translate them?
I would hesitate to draw any clear dividing line here between Iraqi and ‘British’ (Euro-American?) culture. It’s noticeable that the majority of Hassan’s literary and cultural references are not Iraqi, or even Arab. They include Kafka, Passoa, Fuentes, Camus and Tarkovsky. There’s that perceptive reference of Hassan’s to a Scandinavian who’s surprised that the narrator has read Kafka in Arabic. The narrator remarks quite correctly that it’s no stranger than reading Kafka in Finnish. The cultural environment in the Arab world has been flooded with outside influences for the past 150 years, not least through old-fashioned imperialism. The interface is fairly porous, but mainly one-way – into the Arab world. Stories such as Hassan’s just were not written in Arabic 150 years ago. They are intrinsically hybrid and modern. So if I were to talk about the concept of surrealism in Iraqi culture, I’m not sure where I would start and how I could possibly separate out the strands of influence. Latin American literature, for example, has had a massive influence on Arabic literature since the 1960s and many of its themes have been fully assimilated and internalised.
The stories in The Iraqi Christ are shocking and transgressive. What do you think causes this reaction? Do you think they are more shocking for Iraqi or British readers?
This is a hard one because I haven’t in fact discussed Hassan’s stories with any Iraqis other than Hassan, as far as I remember, certainly not in depth, and literary criticism in Arab media tends to be rather perfunctory and descriptive. I see Hassan’s stories as the product of his own fertile imagination, the horrific modern history of Iraq and the traumas of 21st century transnational migration, an important theme in Hassan’s work. The violence, physical and psychological, can be shocking in itself but Hassan often manages to make it more so by anchoring it in the real world, through everyday details and casual, plausible sub-plots.
Describe The Iraqi Christ in three words.
Cruel deceptive chaos.
Jonathan Wright studied Arabic at Oxford University in the 1970s and has spent 18 of the past 30 years in the Arab world, mostly as a journalist with the international news agency Reuters. His first major literary translation was of Khaled el-Khamissi’s best-selling book Taxi, published in English by Aflame Books in 2008.