Jonathan Wright is shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for his translation of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to Ahmed Saadawi’s work?
Jonathan Wright (JW): I came across the book after it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. I was struck by its powerful evocation of downtown Baghdad at the peak of the sectarian violence that followed the American invasion. It portrayed convincingly the intimate lives of ordinary Iraqis who were the main victims of this violence. It also addressed the fate of the Christian community and the networks that connected politics, the media, money, and violence. I thought many English-language readers would welcome a chance to look at the post-invasion disaster through Iraqi eyes, in a way that was personal rather than polemical. It is striking that the Americans hardly feature in the book, except as a ghostly background presence that it is wise to avoid.
WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you’d done?
JW: Ahmed Saadawi is a journalist by training and the novel has many of the virtues of good journalism. It’s strong on character and narrative. That makes it easier to translate. The dialogue does contain a fair amount of colloquial Iraqi, which is not a language I speak or know well. So I did need to consult Ahmed on some of those colloquialisms.
WWB: What are you reading now, or which writers from the language and literary tradition you translate do you think readers ought to pay attention to as potential future MBI winners?
JW: I’ve been reading God 99 by Hassan Blassim, a novel by another Iraqi author. Unlike Ahmed Saadawi, who continues to live in Baghdad, Hassan has lived in exile in Europe for many years, along with many of the most prominent Iraqi writers. All these writers face a dilemma in one way or another—how do they make the transition from writing about Iraq, which is no longer a daily lived reality, to writing about their new lives in exile? Hassan is making the transition rather successfully. Although his novel does contain many scenes set in Iraq, much of it describes the Arab-Islamic community in exile and their interactions with the societies around them. I’m also translating a novel by Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere, an Egyptian academic and former diplomat who is prolific and widely read. It’s almost a thriller, about a high-minded lawyer who goes rogue and gets caught up with an Osama bin Laden-like organization in Sudan. I’m reluctant to identify MBI candidates as I’ve never understood the criteria by which these prizes are judged and awarded. I might add that as a translator into English I feel the need to read widely in English, to keep in touch with how other writers and translators use our language. So I’ve also been reading The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, my fourth Eliot novel.