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

Michael Cooperson is a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the translator of Khairy Shalaby’s recent modern Arabic novel The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets (AUC Press, 2010). He is also the author of Classical Arabic Biography: The Heirs of the Prophets in the Age of al-Ma`mun (Cambridge 2000), and translator of Abdelfattah Kilito's The Author and His Doubles: Essays on Classical Arabic Culture (Syracuse 2002).

AUC Press:
What is the story of The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets?

MC: The hero, Ibn Shalaby, or Son of Shalaby, bounces from one historical period to another while remaining fixed in space. His visits the founding of Cairo in 969, witnesses the fall of the Fatimid dynasty to the Ayyubids in 1171, and spends a good long time in the Mamluk period as confidant to sultans and emirs. His wristwatch tells him the date according to the Islamic calendar, so he always knows what period he has dropped in on, by he cannot choose when to leave or where to visit.  He spends a lot of time trying to escape whatever predicament he lands in.

AUC Press: Was this modern Arabic novel particularly challenging to translate into English?

MC: Yes.  For one thing, Ibn Shalaby meets a number of historians, who speak in passages taken from their works.  These speeches are full of now-forgotten words, at least some of which seem to be reproduced for their exotic effect rather than in the expectation that modern readers will understand them. A translator can render such words with equally obscure ones in English, and in the few cases when I have found an obscure word that means the same thing as the Arabic, I have used it. But I have generally preferred to translate the historical passages in a slightly archaic but still clear English.

AUC Press: How did you manage to reflect the linguistic effects of colloquial and Modern Standard Arabic that Khairy Shalaby uses intermittently to mark the time travels of his hero?

MC: The passages in colloquial Arabic did pose another kind of problem. The dialect is the everyday spoken language of the country and there is of course nothing inherently funny about it. But it is uncommon to see it written down, especially in books about history. So when the speaker is a fifteenth-century historian, the dialect seems comical, apart from what it actually says. 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, but it is hard to imagine an alternative that would sound any less odd.

Even the Modern Standard Arabic used for ordinary narration poses a problem. Standard Arabic is primarily a written language and is rarely used for spontaneous verbal communication. Translated literally, it often comes across as stilted and unnatural, especially in dialogue. In some cases I have addressed this problem by changing dialogue to indirect discourse. In other cases, I have simply toned down the language, trying to make it as flat and neutral—that is, as much like Modern Standard Arabic—as possible.

AUC Press: How well do Egyptians know the contemporary Egyptian novelist Khairy Shalaby?

MC: Every time I told Egyptian friends that I was working on the translation of Shalaby’s novel, they said that he was one of their favorite writers and it was about time he received more attention.  And it's not just the intellectuals who say so. Several years ago, I visited him to interview him about the book.  On the way, the taxi driver was having trouble finding the address, and asked me who I was going to see.  When I told him, he said, "Why didn't you say you were going to see Ustaz Khairy!" and found the place quickly by asking people in the street.

AUC Press: How closely did you work with the author to clarify passages or words in the Arabic manuscript while working on the translation?

MC: I consulted with him constantly regarding the original texts he was quoting and the typographical errors that appeared in the Arabic text.  His son-in-law, Hatem Hafez, answered literally hundreds of questions as well.  Without their help, I could never have finished the translation.

AUC Press: Are you concerned that a non-Arabic-speaking reader would not fully understand such a novel without some prior knowledge of the historical periods and names referenced in the novel?

MC: The author has described the work as a fantasy, so I suppose one might read it as a sort of surreal tale; it isn't really a historical novel in the strict sense of the word.  The editors at the Press put together a helpful concordance of dates and a glossary of terms and figures, so readers who feel disoriented will have somewhere to turn.  But the book is about disorientation anyway.

AUC Press: Do you think that some Arabic words are simply not translatable into English (for example, because they have so many meanings, because they are ambiguous to begin with, etc.)?

MC: The same is true of words in any two languages.  In any event, one translates whole sentences, not single words.  The problem is usually stress, rhythm, flow, etc., not single words.

AUC Press: What do you consider to be a ‘good’ translation?

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

AUC Press: You teach Arabic at UCLA. How interested are your students in Arabic literature?

MC: Our Arabic language classes are full to bursting.  Relatively few students stick with it long enough to read literary works in the original, but those who do are a truly impressive group.  Adam Talib, who has just translated Mekkawi Said's Cairo Swan Song for AUC Press, got his undergraduate degree from UCLA.

To read more about The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets and order it online, click here.

Khairy Shalaby, born in Kafr al-Shaykh in Egypt’s Nile Delta in 1938, has written seventy books, including novels, short stories, historical tales, and critical studies. The Lodging House (translated in English by AUC Press, 2008) was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2003.


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