[Interview] A Word From the Translator

The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim

Translated by Jonathan Wright

A word from the translator:

You worked as a journalist for Reuters for about 30 years. It’s been said that this has influenced your approach to translating, and also your style, which seems to suit these stories as well as the novel Taxi, by Khaled Al Khamissi (2008).  The two are very different, but also very real (although The Madman often features surreal or fantastical elements).  Which did you find the more challenging?

Taxi was definitely the most challenging, mainly because it is written in Egyptian colloquial rather than literary Arabic. Although we do have a superb dictionary of colloquial Egyptian, far superior than for any other Arabic colloquial, it was a surprise to me how much of the vocabulary and how many of the idioms have not been recorded. Hassan Blasim, by contrast, although his narrative style and subject-matter are innovative (and this presumably accounts for the lukewarm response of Arab critics to his work), his diction is well within the mainstream of literary Arabic. The Madman  posed some tricky problems in projecting the right degree of ambiguity between reality and fantasy, but this was more of an editing problem than a translation problem. Fortunately, Blasim was open and cooperative about making the fine adjustments needed. This was especially easy because the Arabic text itself did not exist in any final version.     

A recurrent theme is the impossibility of escaping from the trauma of war and other nightmare situations, in psychological terms.  It’s not always clear whether an event referred to actually took place (in the story), or derived from the character’s imagination – does that matter, do you think?

It doesn’t matter to me. At the risk of sounding pedantic, in the end ‘sense-data’ are all we have, as the empiricist philosophers realized several centuries ago. Besides, I found that Blasim’s melding of ‘fact’ and ‘imagination’ was a very effective way to convey the trauma and disruptions of war, tyrannical government and the alienation of exile, which are the three main themes of Blasim’s work, which themselves reflect Iraq’s disastrous recent history. In The Reality and the Record, for example, it’s clear that even if the ambulance driver did not really spend months in captivity as a hostage, the experiences he went through picking up the victims of outrageous violence from the streets of Baghdad were enough to make him imagine such experiences. Similarly, in his story of the Iraqi immigrant who adopts the name Carlos Fuentes, the excess in the narrative serves well to convey the psychological confusion of a man whose past literally comes back to haunt him. I can’t see it matters much whether Carlos Fuentes really does jump out of the window.      

Clearly equivalence between Arabic and English terms can be problematic. Which words or expressions did you find most difficult to translate, or which ideas most difficult to convey?

It may sound counter-intuitive (or provocative) to say so, but I don’t find that the semantic match, mismatch or overlap  between English and Arabic terms is any more problematic than between terms in any two languages (say English and French). In a Chomskian way, I find the similarities between languages rather more surprising than the differences. For example, it has become a mantra of recent Arabophobe commentators that the rather limited range of tenses in Arabic, compared with Indo-European languages, somehow restricts expressiveness. But as a translator, I don’t usually have to ponder whether to use, for example, a conditional or a continuous tense to translate an Arabic text which may not mark such distinctions.  At the level of vocabulary, I find I am learning from experience that sometimes the conventional dictionary definitions are not always apt. Take the Arabic semantic cluster expressed by the root thr (the adjective taahir, for example, usually translated as ‘pure’). At first, I thought this might be a culturally specific concept, possibly influenced by religiosity, which modern Europeans had largely abandoned. But gradually it dawned on me that the English word ‘innocent’ fills a semantic space which closely matches that of ‘taahir’, though I don’t think you will find that match recorded in many dictionaries. In other words, the inadequacy is in the dictionaries. That said, there are some culturally specific concepts which are problematic and I would not be the first Arabic-English translator to bring up the proliferation of religious diction in Arabic dialogue. As a translator, each of these has to be judged in its context – is the speaker using the religious expression (‘Praise be to Almighty God’, or ‘There is no god but God’ for example) with or without conscious religious intent? In other words, are they not just conventional social lubricants with specific communicative functions, rather than assertions of faith? That’s a judgment call the translator has to make.         

This interview was originally commissioned in 2010 to celebrate 5 years of the Writers in Translation programme. 

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