Slavomír Čéplö, aka bulbul, recently gave me a copy of Michael Cooperson’s translation of al-Hariri’s Maqāmāt, called Impostures (see this ancient LH post); the publisher’s blurb says:

An itinerant con man. A gullible eyewitness narrator. Voices spanning continents and centuries. These elements come together in Impostures, a groundbreaking new translation of a celebrated work of Arabic literature.

Impostures follows the roguish Abu Zayd al-Saruji in his adventures around the medieval Middle East-we encounter him impersonating a preacher, pretending to be blind, and lying to a judge. In every escapade he shows himself to be a brilliant and persuasive wordsmith, composing poetry, palindromes, and riddles on the spot. Award-winning translator Michael Cooperson transforms Arabic wordplay into English wordplay of his own, using fifty different registers of English, from the distinctive literary styles of authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolf, to global varieties of English including Cockney rhyming slang, Nigerian English, and Singaporean English.

I’ve barely begun exploring it, but it’s absolutely delightful; here’s the start of Imposture 40, “Iran go Brágh”:

Arthur O’Hannan reported:

I was just after puttin’ it before me to ride the breeze out of Tabroís. ‘Twas no place for a spalpeen, let alone a lord, for there wasn’t a soft heart or an open hand in it. So ’twas cuttin’ me stick I was, and lookin’ for fellows to travel the road with, when who should I meet but Buséad of Searúg and he wrapped in a coat amidst a women’s prashameen. “How are you getting on?” I asked. “And where are you going, with all your care?

He pointed to one of the ladies. With her pookeen drawn back from her face she was as fair as May, but she was looking scunnered and no mistake.

“I married herself,” says he, “for to wash off the clat of lonesomeness and comfort me on the shaughraun, but from that day out ’tis nothing with her but the heart-scald. When it comes to me rights, she puts the pot in the tailor’s link, and I to thole more than a body can bear. Now the breath is barely in and out of me, just enough to sing the ullagone. So we’re a-kempin’ to the Brehon to ask him to show Murrogh to the one in the wrong. If he sets things right between us, well and good; otherwise, the divorce it is, and many a dry eye after!”

I will never be in a position to judge to what degree that’s an accurate rendition of the Arabic, and frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. It’s pure pleasure to read.


  1. Amazing to think Arabic can leap up and twirl and do this thing.

  2. It sure is!

  3. John Cowan says
  4. Nitpick: it’s not Nigerian English, it’s Nigerian Pidgin English, aka Naija.
    Confession: I tried to read al-Hariri once. Gave up after like three pages, it was hard.

  5. Jen in Edinburgh says

    ‘Iran go bragh’ kept me laughing for at least a minute before I could recover enough to go on.

  6. Lars Mathiesen says

    @bulbul, you are however credited in the translation!

  7. ‘Iran go bragh’ kept me laughing for at least a minute before I could recover enough to go on.

    Yes, it was when I saw that in the table of contents that I fell in love.

  8. Lars,

    indeed I am, Michael is a friend of mine and he consulted me on a specific subject. The translation is all his, though.

  9. ə de vivre says

    I knew this sounded familiar… Turns out I heard it mentioned on the Bulaq podcast, which I may have heard about here, but if not I enthusiastically recommend.

    Has the word “maqam” been discussed on LH before? In the title it’s translated as “impostures,” but I first came upon its Turkish loan “makam,” the word for a musical mode. Ye olde wikipedia says the core meaning is “station,” which makes sense since, more than a scale, a maqam is a kind of outline for melodic development, or stations for the melody to pass through. In Turkish a makam is defined by its “seyir” or path, which I’m guessing is another Arabic loan, and maybe is used to talk about maqam in Arabic too.

  10. Has the word “maqam” been discussed on LH before?

    Apparently not, though it’s been mentioned once or twice. I wouldn’t say “Impostures” is a translation, more a substitute title (which makes sense, since “Modes” or “Stations” wouldn’t draw many potential buyers).

  11. ə de vivre says

    But who could forget the famous collection of qasida “Maqām fi Maqām” by Da’ud Bawwī?

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    Mode to Mode is indeed among his best work.

  13. Surely the only appropriate English dialect into which to translate “maqam” would be Sunderland.

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