Q&A with Michael Cooperson, Translator of Shalaby’s ‘Time Travels’

Yesterday, Adam Talib—translator of Khairy Shalaby’s The Hashish Waiter-shared his thoughts on Shalaby and translation. Today, Michael Cooperson (translator of Shalaby’s The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets) talks literary time travel, long nights of smoking and drinking, and how he’d read TTTOTMWSPAS post-Jan25.

ArabLit: Khairy Shalaby, while relatively popular and well-respected in Egypt, has not had nearly the traction in translation as other Egyptian novelists of his generation, such as Bahaa Taher, Sonallah Ibrahim, Mohamed al-Bisatie, Ibrahim Aslan, Gamal al-Ghitani, Radwa Ashour. Why do you think that is? Do you think he’s more difficult to transmit in English than other well-known writers of his generation? Do you think he’s harder to “get” for someone outside Egypt?

Michael Cooperson: Good question.  Let me confess that I am no expert in modern Arabic literature, nor have I read much else by Shalaby.   TTMWSPS (and let me also say that I hate the English title, but AUC Press insisted on the long and miserable literalism) strikes me as the sort of thing my Cairo friends used to come up with during long nights smoking and drinking in any of our favorite spots:  “Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a guy who could travel in time?”  Everyone present would add something, and the story would get longer and more absurd, and by 4 AM would come to seem a work of genius; but if you could somehow look at a transcript of the whole conversation the next morning, with the words sitting dead there on the page, the performance would seem disjointed, surreal, and only occasionally funny.

AL: What would your elevator pitch of رحلات الطرشجى الحلوجى be?

MC: This is a time-travel story, but different than any other one I can think of, since it explores what it feels like to have no real home anywhere in time.

AL: How would you describe the appeal of رحلات الطرشجى الحلوجى? Or rather, how would you describe its appeal for you?

MC: One answer is specific to my experience in Egypt.  I spent a lot of time there in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and if I know anything about modern Arabic, it’s thanks to the friends I made there.  Almost all of them were writers, poets, translators, musicians, or artists of one kind or another.  One friend, Usama Khalil, told me about Ustaz Khayri’s novel.  There is of course nothing I can do to repay the kindness of so many people, but I hope that by translating a book that my friends admired, I have managed to give a little something back.

A second answer is specific to my interest in time travel.  I’m currently writing a book on time travel as a literary device, and to answer your question, let me quote a bit from the introduction:

Fans of time travel enjoy talking about so-called time paradoxes.  One of the most striking of these has to do with the history of the form itself.  Although Herodotus, the Talmud, and other pre-modern books contain stories where characters seem to travel in time, real time travel—being physically present and able to act in a time not one’s own—is a distinctly modern invention.  It is odd that the genre based on the “monstrous” and “absurd” should be so closely associated with modernity, which in so many ways is all about regulation and rationality.   One way to explain this paradox is to say that history is never visible, but it never goes away either; and the only way to make it visible is to break with what literary critics call the realist mode of representation.  What this means in practice is that time travel stories draw on very old ways of telling, including travelogues, ghost stories, and visions of the afterlife, but use them to deal with modern predicaments, including the predicament of modernity itself…

There is something addictive about this trick of using the uncanny to touch the real. For me, the rush comes at that moment when the traveler steps out of the time machine, worm hole, Tardis, or whatever, and into a new, strange, and densely detailed world where he or she has no right to be…

AL: You had mentioned before that you didn’t think this particular novel had the witty use of language of a Fagoumy poem, for instance. And yet humor seems like the driving force of the novel. If a reader is not getting the humor, is he missing the point of it, the reason to keep turning pages?

MC: Another good question. For me, the humor is not the only or even the main reason to keep reading; it’s the time travel.  And Ibn Shalaby’s adventures are not always funny: many of them end badly.  So a reader looking for the proverbial barrel of monkeys is certain to be disappointed.

AL: Jokes are particularly difficult to translate, as the time it takes to unpack can diffuse the element of enjoyable surprise. Were there parts you thought wouldn’t come across to some casual non-Arab readers, for instance the absurdity in the first chapter of Hasan Ibrahim Hasan and Naguib Mahfouz signing a guestbook together? Did footnotes ever cross your mind?

I am tempted to agree with an earlier remark of yours to the effect that instead of trying to translate jokes one at a time, one should write a new and funny book that stands in some to-be-determined relationship with the original.  If were going to translate this particular book again, I’d probably try it that way.  But even in the translation I did produce, I don’t think footnotes would have helped.  As your question suggests, by the time the reader looks up who Hasan Ibrahim Hasan and Naguib Mahfouz are, the moment for laughter has passed.  What my translation does have is a glossary, as per AUC Press policy; so if one does want to know who those people are one can look them up.  Here I think the Press is right:  the original isn’t festooned with distracting scholarly marginalia and the English shouldn’t be either.

AL: In the Afterword, you called the text “subversive.” Can you expand on that a little?

Arguably, Egyptians who aren’t professional historians think of the Islamic past as (1) the glorious repository of national virtues, or (2) a period of tedious misery, to be forgotten as soon as possible.  We might call the first an Islamist trope and the second a developmentalist one.  TTMWSPS sets these two discourses against each other in a way that is unusual and (I would suppose) disconcerting for Egyptian readers, since it challenges two of the most reflexive and deeply-rooted presumptions they have about who they are.

AL: Would you read it any differently now, post Jan. 25, than you did before?

MC: There are several passages where crowds gather and march on the residence of one or another emir, demand change, and get it.  There is even one bit where Ibn Shalaby says something to the effect that Egyptians as individuals are powerless, but if they join together they are unstoppable.  At the very end he also says that nothing ever really changes in Egypt; I fervently hope he got that part wrong.