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 He meets with historians and history-makers, outdated manners of speaking, and both antique and vulgar storytelling methods.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