NEA Literature Fellowships

William Maynard Hutchins

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(2012 - Translation)

from The Winged People by Ibrahim al-Koni

[translated from Arabic]

What?  Didn't you say the sky and birds prove God's existence?
--Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Article IV, Section 244


For as long as he could remember he had listened for counterpoint in the bird's song.

In fact, after many seasons had elapsed and the gullies had experienced numerous floods, he felt certain now that this hidden bird's polyphonic skill was the secret reason he had been fascinated with it over the years.  The bird's gentle, soft call, which reminded him of wind whistling through reeds, could not be transcribed in any script nor could the tongue mimic it.  It began as a faint murmur, and then a mournful cooing immediately chimed in and rose to a robust melody that sounded like the vibrations of the imzad's1 lone, mournful string harmonizing with a second, lower string.  These two then blended together to create--sadly, mournfully, and lyrically--an epic that told the entire desert's story.  The secretive call constituted an equally secret message.  The song, which could not be recorded by an alphabet or even pictographs and which thwarted any attempt by a tongue to imitate it, began with a soft, mild, mysterious, nebulous murmur that stirred longing and that--as it grew ever louder--breathed life into concealed embers, sparks that have always been the wayfarer's law and that have always served as the religion of the wasteland's inhabitants, who, since their birth, have never stopped searching for what the wasteland has hidden.  The bird's call suddenly became polyphonic as another concealed bird joined in, and then this new voice keened a different ballad.  The two melodies created a counterpoint and harmonized to become a single tune, a new carol.  Then the song changed course and soared into another realm, transforming the bare land and extending its expanse.  The wasteland's temptation grow ever more intense, and the desert promised a new reunion, an everlasting one that was born the same day the wayfarer was and that burst into existence the same day he did, even though the wayfarer would depart and wander off while the promise remained.  The eternal temptation endured as a hint of an impossible reunion and functioned as a huge snare to lure wayfarers to the desert and to life by flaunting a promise--of an oasis and of a reunion--that would never be fulfilled.  In the newly expanded distance, delight triumphed and the heart overflowed with ecstasy.  The body quivered with a dance-like tremor, because a glow had appeared on the horizon, because a torch had cleft the dark recesses of the pale, eternal horizon, appearing for a brief glimpse as a flash of lightning, and this was a sign the wayfarer had craved for a long time and had struggled endlessly to observe.   Then the stern, hostile, eternal emptiness supplied a signal like sparks of revelation, and he saw what he had never seen in that expanse and discovered what he had never been able to find; in fact, he discovered what he had not wanted to find.

So how could his frail body keep from trembling ecstatically?  How could a tear of longing not spill from his eye?

1. The imzad (amzad) is a bowed, single-stringed Tuareg instrument traditionally played by women.

Excerpt in Arabic

About Ibrahim al-Koni

Ibrahim al-Koni, who was born in Libya in 1948, has published more than 70 volumes in Arabic, most of them novels. He depicts desert life with great accuracy while drawing on the mythology of his Tuareg people. A resident of Switzerland since 1993, he has won multiple awards for his novels. Al-Koni spent his childhood in the Sahara desert but later studied literature in Moscow, where he also worked as a journalist. His novels The Bleeding of the Stone, Gold Dust, Anubis, The Seven Veils of Seth, and The Puppet have been published in English translation.  

William Hutchins, who teaches in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. His translations appear in Words Without Borders, InTranslation at Brooklyn Rail, and Banipal Magazine of Modern Arabic Literature. The Arabic novels he has translated include Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street, and Cairo Modern by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor Books), Basrayatha by the Iraqi author Muhammad Khudayyir (Verso), The Last of the Angels (The Free Press), Cell Block 5 (Arabia Books), and The Traveler and the Innkeeper (American University in Cairo Press) by the Iraqi author Fadhil al-Azzawi, Return to Dar al-Basha by the Tunisian author Hassan Nasr (Syracuse), and Anubis (The American University in Cairo Press), The Seven Veils of Seth (Garnet), and The Puppet (Texas) by Ibrahim al-Koni.

Photo by Leila Jackson

Translator's Statement

I started to learn Arabic in 1964 when I taught for a year at the Gerard School for Boys in Sidon, Lebanon. I soon had a spoken vocabulary of about a hundred words that sufficed to get me to Beirut but that failed miserably when I visited Cairo. I was in an ad hoc class for foreigners, and we learned about one letter of the alphabet a week. My first attempt at translating Arabic literature was in graduate school when I attempted to translate some of the epistles of al-Jahiz. These were too hard for me, and it was 20 years before I would publish them. When I taught Arabic at the University of Ghana in Legon, I used some plays by Tawfiq al-Hakim with the advanced students and started translating plays with them. This adventure grew into a two-volume collection of his plays that Three Continents Press published.            

Conditions for literary translators of Arabic have improved greatly since my early days. One thing does not seem to have changed: no matter how many different publishers release one of my translations, it is often still painfully tedious to find the right editor for the right text, and the process can literally take years. American publishers typically will not offer me a contract until they have seen the entire translation of an Arabic novel. So then I end up with eight completed novels in translation in search of a publisher. The Internet and e-mail have made contact with Arab authors relatively easy (except for situations like Yemen today, etc.), and this has made a huge difference in the variety of authors I translate and hopefully the accuracy of my translations. One preoccupation that has stayed with me from the start is the desire to translate a number of works by any author to give English speakers a sense of the range of that author's interests. I am not opposed to making money, but most of my works seem to end up being pro bono, because I like the text and the author.            

This award means a lot to me.