Rebuilding that Old Tower of Babel, A Talk with Michael Cooperson

Today, journalist and translator AJ Naddaff launches his series of talks with translators of premodern Arabic literature, which he tongue-in-cheek calls “Untranslateable”:

The bi-monthly series will appear here and at his substack, where you can subscribe.

By AJ Naddaff

According to the Moroccan literary critic Abdelfattah Kilito, the ancients “unconsciously endeavored to make their works untranslatable.” He goes on to write that one of the best examples of this “untranslatability” is al-Hariri’s maqamat, a book in which every sentence seems to suggest, “No one can possibly translate me!” Of course, this is belied by a translator like Michael Cooperson, who recently received the Sheikh Zayed Award for his Arabic-to-English translation of al-Hariri’s Maqamat (the English title: Impostures). The work is also longlisted for the National Translation Award.

In his introduction, Cooperson himself quotes the Moroccan philosopher Abdessalam Benadbelali as saying that the untranslatable “is not something that cannot be translated, but rather something that can be translated infinitely many ways.”

In his groundbreaking work, Cooperson transforms Arabic wordplay into English of his own, employing 50 distinct literary styles and registers, ranging from imitations of authors such as Geoffroy Chaucer, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolf to global varieties of English, including Singaporean creole, Scots and Nigerian English, as well as the use of jargons, such as management speak, legalese, and thieves’ cant.

This email exchange with Cooperson has been slightly condensed and modified, with selections from this article, republished with his permission. 

AJ Naddaff: What’s is the purpose of translation?

MC: Rebuilding that old Tower of Babel. If you know a global language or two or three, you don’t often come up against something you need to read but can’t. But think about what it feels like when you stumble across a web page in Russian or Chinese or any language you don’t know. The brute fact of being excluded isn’t simply frustrating; it’s unsettling. (At least it is for me.) But then you fire up your Google Translate, or your Chinese- or Russian-speaking friend comes along and tells you what you’re looking at. Even if it turns out to be something useless or banal, it no longer feels so truculent or implacable. 

If I can take “translation” here to include interpreting:  some of my most satisfying experiences have been as an interpreter. You get to clear up, in real time, a situation where misunderstanding might be disastrous (and where machine translation may be useless or impractical).  I just love it when the incomprehension disappears. Sadly, many situations where interpreters are needed are high-stress ones for the participants, and the news you have to convey is often bad. But still, if eliminating the language barrier can help redress the inequality of power inherent in such situations, then it’s worth doing. Translating literature is far removed from this kind of instant explanation, and to that extent less gratifying, at least in the short term.

AJN: In a December 2010 interview with AUC Press, you said that a ‘good translation’ is one that people actually read. More than ten years have passed, but still I want to re-ask this question because I think it’s always worth revisiting: What makes a good translation?

MC: I’m going to be blunt and say: domestication. I don’t deny that aggressive exotification of the Nabakovian kind has its place for certain purposes, but once it makes its point (which it does pretty quickly) the charm wears off.

AJN: Before we get into al-Hariri, can you tell us about this literary genre known as maqamat?

For the following answer, Cooperson directed us to an excerpt from a May-June 2021 Harvard Magazine essay he wrote on al-Hariri:

MC: “Maqamah means “time or place of standing”; originally it meant a speech delivered while standing in a public place, as opposed to one made while sitting comfortably with friends. Around the year 1000, a precocious young author named al-Hamadhani applied the term to several short stories of his own invention. His hero, a con man called “the Alexandrine,” claims to be able to do everything from improvising verse to bringing corpses back to life. The stories themselves—which might be called “impostures” in English, to honor their trickster hero—are written entirely in rhyme, and feature clever references to the Qur’an, ancient Arabic poetry, and other well-known texts. Al-Hamadhani’s impostures earned him the nickname “Wonder of the Age,” a title implying that it would be a good long time before anyone managed to produce anything half as entertaining.”

AJN: I want to talk a bit about Hamadhani versus Hariri—“the original” versus “the copy”. I recall the movie Certified Copy by Iranian writer and director Abbas Kiarostami, wherein a British author argues that in art, issues of authenticity are irrelevant because every work is a copy of another form. Every society approaches questions of originality from different standpoints. Besides mentioning al-Hamadhani in his preface, al-Ḥarīrī alludes to his predecessor in the maqamahs. How did the society of Hariri perceive his works (was it in dialogue with Hariri)? and would they have been acquainted with Hamadhani? Was / is originality overrated here?  Or was al-Hariri really better?

For the following answer, Cooperson also refers to the May-June 2021 Harvard Magazine essay :

MC: “[al-Hariri’s] own answer would probably be that he upped the stakes when it came to intricate wordplay. One of his hero’s speeches can be read forward or backward, giving a coherent meaning each time. Two of his fire-and-brimstone sermons (a much-practiced genre) contain only words without diacritical dots—meaning they use only half the letters of the Arabic alphabet. And several stories are composed using words of double meaning, such that the text can be read twice and mean something entirely different each time. Accompanying all these flourishes are rhymes, riddles, and palindromes, some of which extend to seemingly impossible lengths. No wonder, then, that al-Hariri literally tore his hair out to produce his Impostures.”

AJN: Can you talk specifically about your translation of the Maqamat of al-Hariri with regards to how you were thinking about translating this text, the challenges, and how that thinking evolved with time until the culmination of your published book? When did al-Hariri first cross your mind and who was particularly supportive when it came to undertaking this seemingly impenetrable book? 

MC: As first conceived by Philip Kennedy, LAL was going to be a collection of literary works, roughly congruent with the pre-modern corpus of adab.  As we got started, though, the books that people actually wanted to do turned out to be much more varied: we were putting out everything from legal theory to cookbooks. I’m glad we did: one thing we intended to do was highlight the diversity of the tradition.  But the Board was ready to include more adab in the strict sense of the term. Everyone loves a good maqāmah, and there aren’t any good renderings of them into English, so they were a natural choice. Bilal Orfali and Maurice Pomerantz were working on al-Hamadhānī, so he was taken, leaving al-Ḥarīrī–and, of course, a hundred other maqāmah-authors, but I didn’t know much about them and so couldn’t get too excited about trying to put them into English. And Ḥarīrī had been on my mind since the ’80s or so, when I pulled a copy of his Maqāmāt off the library shelf for the first time and tried to read it. The first thing I saw was *lamma ghtarabtu ghāriba l-ightirāb, from the beginning of the first episode. After figuring it out (not a short process!) I wondered how on earth you might convey it in English. So there we are in Abu Dhabi three decades later, and I volunteer to try al-Ḥarīrī.  Shawkat Toorawa, who shares my love of rhyme, and of introducing readers to the playful elements of the turāth, was especially supportive.

AJN: Was it difficult to pitch your project on the Maqamat of Hariri to the board of the Library of Arabic Literature and how did you eventually persuade them to accept (if there was any reluctance in the first place)?

MC: If there was hesitation, it may have been over the fact that I’m no poet, and my colleagues know it. Fortunately, al-Ḥarīrī isn’t either. No one ever quotes his verses, and with good reason: he’s no Mutanabbī.  What he is good at, though, is writing verses that use unlikely rhymes, or use no dotted letters, or can be read forwards as well as backwards.  This, it turns out, I can do (and so can anyone, really; it just takes time.) I think the LAL folks weren’t all convinced right away that the 50-different-styles approach was right, but I think I persuaded them that the idea of constraint captures something essential about al-Ḥarīrī’s project. And yes, some experts don’t like it: Professor Geert Jan van Gelder, for example, has shared his objection that a reader of Impostures learns all about English but not much about Arabic. He’s right, of course; though I’d say that one does learn that medieval adab has a lot in common with Gertrude Stein, Vikram Seth, the OuLiPo, or anyone, really, who does odd things with language; and that may be a fresh and useful insight for many readers.

* By the way,  lamma ghtarabtu etc. went into English as “sling a leg over the back of beyond,” à la Mark Twain (Impostures 1.1).

AJ Naddaff is a multimedia journalist and translator pursuing a MA degree at the American University of Beirut on Arabic literature & Near Eastern Studies.