A Spectrum of Possibilities: A Conversation with Michael Cooperson on His Translation of al-Ḥarīrī’s “Impostures”

October 4, 2021   •   By Joe Amendola

MICHAEL COOPERSON IS a professor of Arabic at UCLA and an acclaimed translator of classical Arabic texts. His latest work, Impostures, is a wildly imaginative transculturation of classical Arabic poet al-Ḥarīrī’s seminal 12th-century Maqāmāt. Al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt is a work of maqāmah, an Arabic literary form that literally means “assembly,” combining rhymed prose with verse. The result is a rich, evocative demonstration of the Arabic language’s possibilities and intricacies.


Al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt consists of 50 sequences, all involving a clever roguish figure by the name of Abū Zayd. A swindler, thief, and fraud, Abū Zayd marshals his command of the Arabic language on the unwitting in order to play tricks and gain personal rewards. Because of the exhaustive nature of Abū Zayd’s language games, al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt became a tool to teach people the Arabic language as Islam spread throughout the world in the medieval period. However, because of its reliance on the uniqueness of Arabic prose and verse, the work has long left translators largely stumped. After initial attempts at straightforward translations, scholars eventually arrived at a more effective method, that of transculturation: leveraging the intricacies of one’s own language and culture in order to dutifully capture what is so exceptional about the original.


In Impostures, Cooperson masterfully achieves this transculturation by traversing the vast scope of the English language and choosing distinct styles for each particular sequence. He employs the English literary canon in order to achieve this — the first “Imposture,” for instance, is in the style of Mark — as well as corporate middle management memos, Old New York crime dictionaries, and dense legalese, using different global English dialects throughout the world for various episodes.


Cooperson received Sheikh Zayed Book Awards’s 2021 translation prize for his achievement. We spoke about his efforts in transculturation below.


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JOE AMENDOLA: The scholar Matthew Keegan has done work on al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt as well. Keegan made a point that maqāmah were partly intended to train readers how to interpret more difficult texts, including the Qur’an. How does Keegan’s point relate to your own study of Arabic? And how does it relate to the spread of Arabic as a global language as it spread out from the Arabian Peninsula to the rest of the world?


MICHAEL COOPERSON: Matthew and I take a slightly different view of this. Matthew, as you said, emphasizes how reading a difficult book like the Maqāmāt is supposed to make you a better reader of fundamental, foundational religious texts. And I’m sure he’s right. But the part of it that I emphasize is the role that a text like this plays for people who are learning Arabic as non-native speakers. Because before you can get to the point where you’re even reading and understanding the Qur’an, and other kinds of religious texts, you actually have to learn the language first. One of the things that’s really weird and counterintuitive about this culture is that I think that people actually learned Arabic, once they reached a certain age, from books like this, which is a bit like learning English from Finnegans Wake, or some other kind of highly contrived and elaborate text.


It’s not something that would seem to make sense right off. But we have manuscripts of the Maqāmāt where you can see people scribbling the meanings of words in the margin. So they’ve got this text — the same text that we have, with the same 50 stories — and above certain words, they’ll write those words’ synonyms. So we know that people who weren’t native speakers were actually learning Arabic using this book. That, to me, ties in with the notion that once you have a global language, two things happen: one is that a lot of people who couldn’t communicate before suddenly can. So you have, you know, people from Nigeria, people from New Zealand, people from Ireland, from Scotland, from the United States, who are all able to communicate more or less easily.


But then at the same time, people all have their own regionalisms, accents, and local knowledge. They’re pulling the language in different directions, so you have these different varieties, different Englishes. The thing about Arabic is that it tried really hard for a long time to kind of keep that down to not let people sound different. So people from Morocco or Central Asia were supposed to be speaking the same language. In some cases, they could and did communicate; they were able to achieve relationships, whether personal or scholarly, or whatever it is, across this huge distance, thanks to this obsessive fixation with standard error. But at the same time, we know that in real life, when they were at home or in the street, they weren’t speaking the same Arabic as each other. So I wanted to replicate that on some level in translation.


Impostures is a translation of al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt. The maqāmah genre is meant to show off what Arabic can do as a language through rhymed prose and verse word games like palindromes programs, things like that. As you note in the introduction to the book, it has made its translation quite difficult throughout the centuries. Can you trace the history of various attempts at translation, or transculturation? How did you manage to arrive at your approach? 


If you look at the different translations into English, or into various languages, there are two main ones: one is to just write down the content — that is, what the text says. Unfortunately, that’s what was done in French. There’s a well-known Arabic-to-French translator who’s done many classical Arabic works, and this was his approach. He simply says, “Here’s the content.” He’ll even have footnotes like, “This rhymes,” or, “This was a pun,” which to me is a cop-out.


For translations of the Maqāmāt that have been successful in their respective languages, we can look to the Hebrew, German, and Russian ones. The medieval Hebrew translation spawned a whole genre of travel writing that is based on the Maqāmāt and is one of the foundations of classical Hebrew literature. The German translation was done by a very well-known 19th-century Romantic poet, and is one of the foundations of German romantic literature. The Russian translation is actually a well-known book among Russian readers and was apparently a best seller in Russia at some point. It keeps the rhymes, the puns, the palindromes — all the features of the original. So, in Hebrew, in German, in Russian, when the translator took this tack of transculturation, of actually replicating the puns and the jokes and the wordplay as best they could using the resources of their own languages, what you got was something people actually picked up, read, and enjoyed.


On the other hand, the word-for-word translations — which exist in French, English, and several other languages — have never made a mark. No one’s ever heard of this book in English, unless you are a scholar of medieval Arabic literature. So as I went to translate it, I thought, You know what? Even if what I do is crazy and bad, at least someone will have heard of it, and then someone else can do a better job. To make your mark, you have to try something different than this timid word-for-word approach.


How did you go about finding the best fit for a particular sequence and imposture? Were some more difficult to find a fit for than others?


It was an interaction of two forces. The first was those examples of English that everyone finds amusing and memorable and impressive. I think about that Gilbert and Sullivan song about the Modern Major General, which actors like to recite very, very quickly. And I thought, You can’t show off English unless you have a modern Major General moment somewhere. And then, obviously, you need Chaucer, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Jane Austen — the big names. So part of it was knowing that there were certain boxes I had to check if I was going to properly display a spectrum of possibilities in English.


The other force was the themes of the stories themselves. The idea was to find a match between the styles that I wanted in English and the themes of the original. Sometimes the theme of the original sent me in a direction that I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. For example, one of the episodes has a speech: when you read it from beginning to end, it means one thing, and if you read it from the end backward, it means something else. I thought, What do I do with that? Turns out there was a comic writer — well known in the 19th century but totally forgotten now — called Jerome K. Jerome, whose name is reversible. So I translated the speech in the style of Jerome K. Jerome. So it was really a matter of finding themes and matching them with that aforementioned list of writers. When drawing from that list, I used different attempts to look at the range, possibility, liveliness, and creativity of different varieties of English, so that meant going beyond the traditional literary canon. 


You are, of course, a scholar of Arabic, but in the course of completing this work, what did you learn about English and its dynamism and intricacies?


From a historical perspective, there was this real break that happens around World War I where — for reasons I think we can probably speculate about pretty fruitfully — collective consciousness changes in a way that is really marked. You can read Margery Kempe and Chaucer all the way through to the end of the 19th century, but suddenly right around 1915 or so, something cracks. That just became really obvious to me in a way that it just wouldn’t have otherwise.


From a linguistic perspective — and I’m not a linguist, but I read a lot of linguistics — you see that the notion that some varieties of English are standard or correct is purely social. There’s nothing more expressive, articulate, or better suited to describing reality about one form of communication as opposed to another. I was hit with that between the eyes as forcibly as possible. There used to be this little pamphlet that the UCLA linguistics department used to put out every four or five years, the “UCLA slang book.” Undergrads who were trained by linguist Pamela Monroe would compile a dictionary of their own slang. And I remember the 2008 or 2009 edition of it actually had in it a range of vocabulary rich enough to replicate what is considered to be the most verbally complex form of writing and the Arabic language. People my age are always supposed to deplore the alleged inarticulateness of young people. But no — people who are 19 and 20 actually have as many words at their disposal and can make as many specific distinctions of meaning as the greatest writer in the Arabic language. Now I really do understand that every language has in it an absolutely complete range of expressiveness. I thought I knew that, but no, I really know it now.


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Joe Amendola is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in The Outline, Thrillist, and The Stony Brook Press.