Hutchins Recognized by Peers for ‘Stunning Translation’ of Nomadic Saharan’s Book

Published Friday, November 6, 2015 at 11:42 am

By Jesse Wood

Dr. William Hutchins, an App State professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, recently received the National Translation Award (NTA) from his peers in the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA).

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Book cover of Hutchins’ translation of Ibrahim al-Koni’s The New Waw: Saharan Oasis

The National Translation Award is the oldest prize for a work of literary translation.

“It’s super neat because I’ve been doing this for decades actually, and I’m so used to being patronized: ‘That’s a nice hobby isn’t it,’” Hutchins said, brushing off the haters. “But to win a national award, competing with all the languages for the prize award, [and to have ALTA which] is like my club recognize me, it’s extremely satisfying.”

The award was for Hutchins’ translation of Ibrahim al-Koni’s The New Waw: Saharan Oasis (Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, 2014) from Arabic into English. In announcing the award, ALTA dubbed the work a “stunning translation.”

“William M. Hutchins’ translation of New Waw: Saharan Oasis masterfully channels the poetic rhythms of Ibrahim al-Koni’s tale of a group of Tuareg, struggling with their evolution from a nomadic tribe to a settled community and the tensions that inevitably arise,” said NTA judges Jason Grunebaum, Anne Magnan-Park and Pamela Carmell in their statement.

Hutchins, who speaks Arabic and French, graduated from Yale University in ’64. He obtained a master’s degree in philosophy in ‘67; and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages with a concentration in Arabic and Islam in ’71 – both at the University of Chicago.

Hutchins sits in front of  three Arab poets on a bus in Doha, Qatar.

Hutchins sits in front of three Arab poets on a bus in Doha, Qatar.

Hutchins said that he began translating works during graduate school in Chicago. Later on while teaching at the University of Ghana in West Africa from ‘74-‘77, Hutchins and his advanced students translated Egyptian plays in class. Several years later, Three Continents Press in Boulder, Colo., published Hutchins’ first book-length translations – two volumes of plays by playwright, Tawfiq al-Hakim.

While Hutchins was Head of Arabic Studies in Ghana in 1975, Playboy magazine published his first translated work, “Boasting Match over Maids and Youth” by al-Jahiz. Hutchins would go on to have dozens of translated works published, including what’s considered his best-known translation: the Cairo Trilogy by Egyptian Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz.

“This trio of novels is widely regarded as one of the finest works of fiction in Arabic literature, and Hutchins’ translation is the principal version available in English (published by Everyman’s Library, among others),” ALTA explained.

Other Arabic authors whose works Hutchins has translated include Ibrahim ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Mazini, Muhammad Salmawy, al-Jahiz, Nawal El-Saadawi, Muhammad Khudayyir, Fadhil Al-Azzawi, Hassan Nasr and others.

In addition to the recent award from ALTA, Hutchins is a recipient of a U.S. National Endowment for the Arts grant in literary translation in 2005 and the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for the translation of A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal.

At the time of the latter award, judges called Hutchins’ translation of A Land Without Jasmine a “gripping page turner from a gifted and original storyteller … superbly translated … an enjoyable English read and at the same time preserving the soul of the original.”

Literary translation, which is what engages Hutchins, and entering a phrase into Google or flipping through a language guidebook, which anybody travelling to a new place might do, are as far apart as the East and West.

“You need to find the author’s voice,” Hutchins said.

For Hutchins, the Arabic language has a “mathematical appeal” that is structured in a way that is different from English and French, and depending on how intricate the work, Hutchins said one page of translation might come to him in 15 minutes or it could take a couple hours.

Through his work, Hutchins noted that he’s had the thrilling opportunity to meet “incredible authors” and bring their works to a wider audience in the West.

“I don’t translate stuff I don’t like,” Hutchins said. “These novels or plays, I really like and am hopeful somebody else will too.”

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