In Other Words: You Translate Mine, I’ll Translate Yours

Please blame me for the childish sexual innuendo in the headline, not Al Masry Al Youm.

At first glance, Gretchen McCullough and Mohamed Metwalli seem perfectly cast for their roles: she, the hard-working prose writer in a neatly pressed shirt, and he, the bohemian poet. But despite – or because of – their differences, they form an unusual and successful translational partnership, the latest fruit of which was McCullough’s bilingual short story collection “Three Stories from Cairo” translated by Metwalli and launched last month at Zamalek’s Diwan bookstore.

McCullough researches her stories. She cuts things out of newspapers, particularly Egyptian cartoons, and keeps notebooks full of them. “She is industrious,” Metwalli says, rubbing his face. “I envy that.”

Metwalli writes when inspired, when the poem becomes urgent and he feels he must get it down on the page. He doesn’t walk to the poem, he says. He waits for it to materialize.

McCullough’s Texas-accented speech is slow and measured. She listens attentively and waits a few beats before she speaks. Metwalli, on the other hand, delights in letting his words race out, playing with synonyms and sayings. At the Zamalek book signing, his remarks made audience members alternately giggle and shift uncomfortably in their seats.

McCullough is an instructor at the American University in Cairo and evinces a sense of duty about her work. At times, she seems to envy Metwalli’s free spirit. As to why he’s translated some of her stories but not others, she said, “Mohamed doesn’t do things unless he likes them.”

When interviewed after their book signing, McCullough attempted to treat every question seriously. But Metwalli laughed off several reporters. He seemed to find two young female reporters particularly amusing, and later did an imitation of one who’d asked, of McCullough’s book, “Excuse me, but is she saying bad things about our culture?”

They are not always the mischievous poet and the serious prose writer. Metwalli’s poems are in many ways more serious than McCullough’s playful stories. And Metwalli is particularly earnest when discussing which poets are (and aren’t) worth reading.

Their translational partnership started in 2008, not long after they met through poet Maged Zaher. McCullough has helped to bring a number of Metwalli’s poems into English, and he has translated several of her short stories into Arabic. Metwalli’s “The Story of Light” recently appeared in translation at The Brooklyn Rail. Go on; keep reading.