WWB: Can the two of you talk about how this Ibn Arabi’s Small Death came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation?
Mohammed Hasan Alwan (MHA): I wrote this novel while I was pursuing my last year of my PhD program in Ottawa, Canada. Writing a dissertation can be very intermittent process as I had to stop and wait for feedback from my supervisor. This waiting time extended to days or weeks sometimes. During these days, I used to redirect my energy toward writing the novel. And if you ask me if there is anything in common between my academic papers in management and the novel, it is the extensive research both required.
William M. Hutchins (WMH): I was first asked to translate a sample of the novel. Then I was asked to translate more of the novel by the novel’s agent, Jessica Papin (Dystel). To qualify for a National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation, I had to wait to complete the translation until I received that grant. Then I was ill for several months early in 2021 and did a poor job proofreading. Fortunately, I recovered fully and was able to correct multiple galleys properly last fall, thanks to our editor Dena Afrasiabi.
WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?
WMH: First: starting and stopping. Second: this novel is profound in two different ways: rich in allusions to historical events and richly thought-provoking.
At least for this novel, Mohammed Hasan Alwan chose the approach that Naguib Mahfouz made famous: novelist and translator have different jobs, and therefore are in different lanes. Part of my assignment as the translator was to adjust the text, very slightly, to the needs and horizons of English-speaking readers.
WWB: Mohammed, your novel is a fictionalized account of the life of a Sufi saint, Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, from his birth in Muslim Spain in the twelfth century until his death in Damascus. It follows his travels from Andalusia to Azerbaijan, through Morocco, Egypt, the Hijaz, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. Could you tell us a bit about what led you to Ibn Arabi in the first place, and at what point you began to think, “This would make for a great novel?”
MHA: The life of Ibn Arabi has never been told completely in the books of history and, hence, I thought it is a great opportunity to imagine the missing parts and fictionalize the main character. The missing parts account for more than 90% of his life. The areas to be covered by fiction were enticing to me. One main aspect that attracted me to learning and writing about Ibn Arabi is his constant traveling during the times when traveling wasn’t that safe or easy. I thought he was in search for something meaningful and, thus, he was exposing himself to conditions he hoped would light the way for a coming revelation.
WWB: Bill: You’re a professor of Arabic, of course, but what did you know about the figure of Ibn Arabi before you began this work? I wonder if you could tell us a bit about the process that many translators go through, which is often having to research entire time periods, entire figures who are, if not necessarily obscure, perhaps forgotten. Can you tell us about your research process for this novel?
WMH: I am a professor emeritus in the Philosophy & Religion Department of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, and have taught introductory courses in philosophy and religious studies here for decades, including Islamic thought courses and Sufism. I learned much of what I know about Sufism from Professor Wheeler Thackston during a year I spent at Harvard and from my dissertation advisor, the late Professor Fazlur Rahman. This novel was a better fit for me than many other works I have made a good faith effort to translate. That said, I think this is my first translation to come with its own “Translator’s Brief Bibliography.”
Mohammed Hasan Alwan and William H. Hutchin’s Ibn Arabi’s Small Death is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.