The highly-anticipated debut novel by award-winning Iraqi author, Hassan Blasim, is here. Behind the process of bringing God 99 from Arabic into English for the first time is translator Jonathan Wright. We asked Jonathan some questions about his work as an Arabic translator and his relationship to Hassan’s work.
God 99 is not the first book by Hassan Blasim you’ve translated – you are also the translator of his short story collections The Madman of Freedom Square and the award-winning The Iraqi Christ. What have you noticed, if anything, that has evolved in Hassan’s work, particularly from the short form to the longer debut novel?
There have been several shifts in his focus. Naturally, after more than a decade of living in European exile, Hassan has started to write more about the migrant experience and slightly less about the traumas that Iraqis in Iraq have had to experience over the last forty years. There has also been a shift away from the merely physically macabre towards a focus on the long-term psychological effects that hardships have on people.
The change in format has not had such an obvious effect: Hassan is still very much an old-fashioned storyteller and God 99 is a storyteller’s novel – stories within stories and in sequence and linked loosely to the other stories in the text. A recent development in Hassan’s work is his enthusiastic embrace of colloquial Iraqi as a medium for writing literature. Hassan has always defied the peer pressure in literary circles to conform with the requirements of Modern Standard Arabic, which is an artificial language that is no one’s mother tongue.
Now, he has gone a step beyond God 99 and written a novella in colloquial Iraqi, possibly the first prose work of this kind ever published. I’ve been learning colloquial Iraqi rapidly so that I can translate it, I hope.
What are your main takeaways from reading and translating God 99? What do you think the novel is conveying, how does it do so, and what is its importance?
God 99 is quite a ramshackle collection of disparate elements, strung together rather loosely. It covers a lot of ground, with scenes set all the way from Iran, Iraq and Turkey to eastern Europe and then Finland, Sweden, Belgium and Germany, even Iceland. In the tradition of Arabic-language storytelling, many of the characters are inventive, adventurous and often socially marginalised in some way or other. Much of it is nominally in the form of interviews, which gives the interviewees a chance to expound on a whole range of subjects, but there are also narrative-driven stories with conventional structures. It covers many of the themes that matter to Hassan – injustice, racism, cruelty, kindness, religious conservatism, literature, music, sex and so on.
How do you think your own experience as a correspondent in the Middle East, and as a journalist more broadly, has informed your interpretation of Hassan’s work?
I’m really not sure I ‘interpret’ Hassan’s work, but it certainly helps to know something of the modern history of Iraq and the region as a whole.
How do you see your role as translator: do you think you become another kind of storyteller alongside Hassan? Have you re-shaped the text into English as a new form, or do you think of yourself as more of a background figure, a messenger for this narrative?
My approach has always been to try to get inside the writer’s head and then write the story the writer would have written if they had chosen to write it in English. So I always ask the writers a lot of questions. Of course, there’s an imaginative leap involved here, but the approach works for me as a starting premise. So yes, it does feel like writing a story but without the hard parts – inventing the characters and the plot. It’s possible that many translators are just aspiring writers who depend on a foreign-language text to provide them with the material they need to sustain them.
Have you experienced problems with not being credited as a translator before? What are your thoughts on the current #namethetranslator movement and continued conversations around translator visibility?
I’m a little sceptical about assertive translators, to be honest. To me, writing a novel that works is such a miracle compared with the rather more mundane task of translating one that for translators to pose as ‘second authors’ strikes me as extremely pretentious. Better for us to see ourselves as meticulous craftspeople, more like draughtsmen or cabinetmakers than creative geniuses. But I do think translators should be judged rigorously for the quality of their work. In the world of Arabic-English translation, there have been too many Arabic turns of phrase leaking into the English without good cause, and this has helped to turn off some potential readers.
Do you have any advice for emerging Arabic translators?
Start by doing excerpts and samples and touting them around. Look for a text that really excites you and that deserves whole many months of your life, and then try to promote it. You have to enjoy the process of translation, the pleasure of solving a puzzle in a pleasing way, because the payment alone probably won’t make it worthwhile.
If you had to describe Blasim’s writing to a reader who hadn’t encountered his work before, how would you summarise it?
It’s a bit of a romp from place to place and character to character, from the serious to the frivolous, all driven by an indefatigable energy and vitality.
Jonathan Wright is a British journalist and literary translator. He joined Reuters news agency in 1980 as a correspondent, and has been based in the Middle East for most of the last three decades. He has served as Reuters’ Cairo bureau chief, and he has lived and worked throughout the region, including in Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Tunisia and the Gulf. From 1998 to 2003, he was based in Washington, DC, covering U.S. foreign policy for Reuters. For two years until the fall of 2011 Wright was editor of the Arab Media & Society Journal, published by the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University in Cairo.
He has translated three titles for Comma: Hassan Blasim’s The Madman of Freedom Square (2009), The Iraqi Christ (2013) and God 99 (2020). In 2014 he was awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize alongside author Hassan for his work translating The Iraqi Christ.
God 99 by Hassan Blasim is published by Comma Press and out now in paperback.