“The Impostures” is regarded as a classic of Arabic literature and a work of singular linguistic brilliance. Somehow Michael Cooperson’s recent translation has managed to match that brilliance. There is a temptation to write that Cooperson exceeded the original work by al-Hariri, but that would require a reading in the original Arabic, which far exceeds my humble abilities.
“The Impostures” is a centuries-old collection of 50 tales featuring Abu Zayd al-Saruji, who is a bit of a rogue and trickster who uses his wit and verbal skills to get out of trouble and to fill his stomach and purse. Though the stories are charming, part of what made al-Hariri’s texts so popular and able to stand the test of time is that his verbal play within the stories was nearly without precedent. Some of the original stories would contain puzzles or the tale would be told alternating between words that contain “i” and those that do not. The introduction to this translation goes into great depth to describe the cleverness that al-Hariri built upon his pages.
So what is a translator to do when the verbal acrobatics do not translate from Arabic to other languages? Give up in the face of the daunting recognition that much of what makes “The Impostures” great and unique is that al-Hariri tells some tales with strict rhyming schemes, which are lost when those words, in English, no longer rhyme? What Cooperson hits upon in an effort to capture the original wordplay is to translate the 50 tales in a different voice or style. This is no easy task.
Cooperson reflects upon the tone of the original tales and then tries to find an accent or storyteller who he believes best exemplifies what al-Hariri achieved in his tale. The result is “Impostures” told as Mark Twain would have written them or in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan. Trust me, I reread the introduction and the cover blurbs to make certain Cooperson was acting alone and did not have a team of writers at his behest. It is ambitious to undertake any translation of an entire text, but to translate that text into individual voices and styles while trying to remain true to the original text is a Herculean effort.
Granted, some of the translations are more effective than others, but that can be traced to individual preference. Chaucer can be difficult enough to read, let alone when serving as the means of delivery of an Arabic tale that was written hundreds of years before Chaucer.
al-Hariri stands as a giant of Arabic literature. After reading Cooperson’s translation of “The Impostures,” the translator is worthy of similar praise.
Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer in Spotsylvania.