By Tzar Wilkerson
Bill Hutchins is a respected figure in local academic circles for his time as a Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State, for his long list of international awards and honors (Elizabethan Society and Manuscript Society at Yale, C.A.S.A Fellowship at the American University in Cairo, First Prize for Fiction, 1987 and 1991, Crucible), and particularly for his acclaimed translations of Arabic texts.
Hutchins gave us some background on how he became involved Arabic language and literature: “I graduated from college fairly young and some friends got me a job teaching high school in Lebanon for a year. So when I was there people said ‘Well, you’ll wanna learn Arabic, won’t you?’ and I said ‘Well, yeah I guess’. So I learned enough words to get around town. But Arabic is one of these languages that is kind of like a whole family of languages because there are different dialects that differ from each other substantially in different parts of the Arab world. It began as ‘Well, why not?’ but it’s become a lifelong experience.”
Now, in his retirement, Hutchins has been able to devote more time to his translation work, which he affectionately refers to as his “side-hustle”. At his home in Todd, NC, Hutchins is hard at work on yet another translation of a prestigious Arabic novel, for which he recently earned his third and final National Endowment for the Arts literature translation grant (three being the limit for the competitive program).
Hutchins’ most recent translation project, Mohammed Hasan Alwan’s A Small Death, is a novel that has made waves in the Arab literary community. A spiritual coming-of-age story of one of Islam’s greatest mystics, the novel won the tenth International Prize for Arabic Fiction and has never been translated into English.
Hutchins explained, “This novel is what the Saudi Arabian author has imagined that this medieval mystic Ibn Arabi would’ve written if he had written an autobiography. It’s kind of like a Muslim alternative to St. Augustine’s Confessions.” Alwan himself was chosen in 2009 as one of the 39 best Arab Authors under the age of 40 by Beirut39, an international collaborative project that celebrates promising Arab writers.
Hutchins says that he hasn’t received much guidance from Alwan as far as the translation, so research has been a big part of ensuring the accuracy of the historical novel. However, Hutchins stressed that A Small Death is less a historical account, and more a first-person tale of adventure, following Ibn Arabi’s journey across the medieval Middle East. “In Arabic it’s 591 pages, so it’s a big book but it’s written in short chapters – lots of little slices of medieval life. It’s a historical novel, but it’s very much a lived experience, not a tedious history text.”
While the novel has yet to be picked up by a western publisher, both Alwan and Hutchins are hopeful that the work will soon gain the international exposure that it deserves.
When asked how he’s liking the retired life, Hutchins said “I’m actually having fun. People sometimes will say ‘What are you doing? Are you gonna travel?’ But for years I’ve had this gig – I’m part of the gig economy now.”