Dear Translation: Less Theory, More Style

I like translation theory as much as the next person. Well, probably more than the next person, depending on where I’m seated at the table.

Is translation an act of war or peace? Should one domesticize or foreignize? How to render the differences between fos’ha (literary Arabic) and 3ameya (colloquial)? Religious terms? Proverbs? Punctuation?

These are all perfectly interesting questions. And I was grateful for Michael Cooperson’s translator’s afterword in The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets (رحلات الطرشجي الحلوجي), a novel penned by the rascally Khairy “Ibn” Shalaby.

The problems this text sets before Cooperson are many: The narrator—a modern-day pickles and sweets vendor, a buffoon, a thinker, a writer—is dropped into many different historical periods. He meets with historians and history-makers, outdated manners of speaking, and both antique and vulgar storytelling methods. For me, Khairy’s project is reminiscent not so much of the time-travel fiction Cooperson mentions in his afterword but of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. (Summary: Hank bonks head, wakes up in King Arthur’s time. Things go well for him, and then implode.)

However, unlike Hank’s, Ibn Shalaby’s technology never seems to pan out (the foreign-made tape recorder runs out of batteries at a crucial moment, a U.S.-produced Samsonite suitcase loses its luster). The innovations he’s left with are new ways of buffooning borrowed from Adel Imam and other contemporary Egyptian comedians, and crass 20th century jokes.

As translator, Cooperson must do a good deal of code-switching: from a “high” Arabic spoken by historians of yore to the cafe Arabic thrown about by Ibn Shalaby.

In his afterword, Cooperson notes: “This effect can be reproduced to some extent by using informal English. Yet there are few kinds of informal English not marked as particular to one or another country, ethnicity, age group, and so on. In my translation, some lines of dialogue will doubtless have a strangely American ring….”

This is surely true, although as an American-English speaker, most the Americanisms (save an excessive “bro” or “willya”) didn’t phase me. I found the switches from high to low diction sometimes stiff, but usually good for a smirk.

Indeed, I don’t take issue with any of Cooperson’s stated choices. I like what he says in a December 2010 interview with AUC Press, in response to the question: “What do you consider to be a ‘good’ translation?”

There’s no end of theory about this.  But I’d have to vote for the one that people actually read.

Unfortunately—although I have actually read The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets (and may, who knows, re-read it along with the Arabic)—I cannot enthuse about it or claim that I dashed with delight through the delicious prose. Yes, some of the book’s stop-and-go is due to its plotting and pacing. But many of the situations Shalaby sets up are hilarious. Some of the dialogue Cooperson constructs is quite enjoyable. And the prose is fine, not bad. What’s missing is…the love of language, the flow, the fun, the flair.

Uncle Khairy Shalaby is a well-loved writer. When his Istasia was placed on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlist but not the shortlist, a number of writers—including IPAF shortlistee Miral al-Tahawy—raised a wee hue and cry.

Cooperson acknowledges Shalaby’s importance, and seems to appreciate the great uncle of Egyptian literature. In his afterword, Cooperson talks about a “dream-like quality” in some of the book’s time shifts. But this dream-like quality doesn’t come through in the narration.

Now, to quote Mahmoud Darwish via ArabLit reader Bibi: “a translated poem is no longer only property of the author, but also of the translator, who has likewise become its poet. And it’s of very little importance to know whether the translated piece is superior or inferior to the original.”

Many things are important in assessing a translation. However, it’s of key importance to know: Is the artefact delightful in-itself? In this case, no, not really.

Would ‘less theory’ really do us any good?

No, I can’t possibly be asking for less theory.

Translation theory is a young field, and important, and in any case I find it charming and illuminating. I suppose what I might be asking for is a greater separation of theory and style, just as Ahdaf Soueif (for instance) must have her literary-theory hat for penning certain texts, and her “writer-who-tries-not-to-think-too-much-about-what-she’s-doing” hat for others. And I want more style. Lots, lots more style.

I’m not asking for every translator to be Jabra Ibrahim Jabra or David Colmer or Boris Pasternak or Ezra Pound.

But, well, more or less.

Read the interview:

AUC Press eNewsletter: Michael Cooperson Reveals Challenges of Translating AUC Press Novel set in Medieval Egypt


  1. GREAT piece Marcia. Ya halawa!

  2. Hello from the translator! My thanks to the (uncredited) reviewer for the thoughtful comments. In principle, I agree with the demand for more style; the problem is in the practice. There are Arabic writers–Bayram al-Tunisi, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, Ahmed Fu’ad Nigm–who make me laugh at loud at their verbal cleverness. Ustaz Khairi, at least in this novel, didn’t have that effect on me. Should I have made him sparkle more in English than he did for me in Arabic? From the review, I gather that I should have. Certainly I too prefer sparkly books over non-sparkly ones. But the sparkly book, unfortunately, is not the book he wrote. At least, I didn’t think so. I liked the book for other reasons (mostly because I like time travel). I’d be interested in second opinions from anyone who has read the original. Does it have “the flow, the fun, the flair”? And if it doesn’t, would a translation that sang in that key still be a translation?

    1. Michael,

      Thanks for posting a comment.

      Unless otherwise noted, everything on the site is by me. I haven’t picked up this book in the Arabic, largely because I’m overloaded with texts and Arabic is slow-going for me. Would that I could read just as quickly in Arabic….

      I suppose if the prose doesn’t strike one as enjoyable, that’s…hm, its own translating challenge, and an interesting issue in and of itself. Humphrey is regularly accused of over-beautifying Al-Aswany. Did he do a mis-deed? (Some seem to think so.) Is it still a “translation”? (Why not?)

      Generally, I have shied from criticizing a translation unless the sentences really didn’t make sense in English or I’ve looked at the original and found my disappointments were founded; here, I did not, as I suppose I was (in the moment) more interested in the idea of sparkly translation choices than the actual text per se.

      Can you translate Nigm so that he keeps his fun?

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