Impressive Arabic translational improvisations and impostures

« previous post | next post »

Since 1979, being in a department that proudly called itself "Oriental Studies", a distinguished component of which was Arabic Studies, I had often heard of "maqama" and was quite aware that it was a virtuoso literary form:

Maqāmah (مقامة, pl. maqāmāt, مقامات, literally "assemblies") are an (originally) Arabic prosimetric literary genre which alternates the Arabic rhymed prose known as Saj‘ with intervals of poetry in which rhetorical extravagance is conspicuous.


Now, a new rendering of al-Ḥarīrī's masterpiece of the genre by Michael Cooperson, titled simply Impostures, attempts to convey in English the wild exuberance of the language of the original:

"Fiction: Fifty Approaches to an Antic Arabic Masterpiece:  The Maqāmāt shows off all that Arabic can do. This translation shows off English in the same flattering light."  By Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal (June 26, 2020)

The WSJ review begins thus:

In the preface to his English-language version of Ovid’s Epistles, John Dryden identified three categories of translation: Metaphrase, or the word-for-word shift from one language to another; Paraphrase, where liberties on the sentence level are admissible if they best preserve the original meanings; and Imitation, where the translator “assumes the liberty, not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion.” Imitation allows for virtuosity but traduces its source, which is why Dryden champions the golden mean of Paraphrase.

But what if there were a literary tradition where virtuosity—lyrical showboating, verbal pyrotechnics—was the whole point? One such form is the maqāmah, created in the 10th century by the Arabic orator al-Hamadhānī. “Maqāmah” roughly translates to “an occasion for standing,” and it refers to the art of freestyle improvisation. Like a slam poet or an emcee in a rap battle, al-Hamadhānī was renowned for his ability to extemporize verses and speeches under various formal constraints. He might invent a poem without using a commonplace word or letter of the alphabet, for instance, or recite an address backward.

In his shadow, the Plato to his Socrates, was al-Harīrī of Basra (1054-1122), whose refinements to the genre were born of a conspicuous weakness: al-Harīrī couldn’t improvise to save his life. Instead, he shut himself in a room and over many years produced 50 maqāmāt that not only surpassed those of his predecessor but are together thought to be the greatest work of Arabic literature not called the Quran.

To see what techniques Cooperson employs to mimic the varying voices of the Arabic text, including its profusion of paronomasia, you have to read the rest of the review.  Better yet, read the book.

Incidentally, the WSJ review by Sam Sacks is itself a tour de force.

Impostures is part of the Library of Arabic Literature published by New York University Press, a number of whose editors and authors were graduate students in Oriental Studies when I came to Penn and are among the leading lights in Arabic Studies today.

[h.t. Mark Metcalf]


  1. jhh said,

    June 27, 2020 @ 10:23 am

    The article is behind a paywall, and my school's data base seems to have about a 10 day lag on articles from the Wall Street Journal :( Thanks for giving us a first-taste of the article, which certainly looks fun!

  2. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    June 27, 2020 @ 6:59 pm

    download the article if you want:

RSS feed for comments on this post