Alyson Waters on The Colors of Infamy by Albert Cossery

Posted on October 18, 2011 by Scott Esposito

We're celebrating the release of the newest volume of TWO LINES, Counterfeits, which you can buy right this second direct from us, on Amazon, Powell's, and just about everywhere else. To mark the new book we'll be publishing interviews with some of the translators who have stories and poems therein. This is the second and it's with Alyson Waters, who translated an excerpt from The Colors of Infamy by Albert Cossery (the whole book will be published eventually by New Directions). This is Waters' second Cossery, and it joins books she's translated by René Belletto and Eric Chevillard (forthcoming), two of my favorites, plus numerous more.

As a bonus, Alyson will be at our NYC Counterfeits launch event with Luc Sante and a bunch more great people at McNally-Jackson on Nov 9. We're fortunate enough to have the event be part of The Bridge's fall lineup!

Scott Esposito: We're here to talk about your excerpt from The Colors of Infamy, which comes from the third novel by Egyptian-French writer Albert Cossery to be published in the past couple of years. Cossery, who died in 2008 and did most of his writing decades ago, has become something of a sensation lately, with these new translations getting rave attention in a lot of leading periodicals. Why do you think Cossery has caught on so much?

Alyson Waters: I wish I could say that he’s moved into best-sellerdom, but that would be overstating the case a bit! I think that Cossery’s a great writer, and maybe it’s taken some time for people to realize that here—an Egyptian author who writes in French translated into English is not everyone’s first choice as a “go-to” book. We’re fortunate to have wonderful publishers like New Directions and New York Review Books who took a chance on publishing these translations in the last few years, although some of his work was translated into English decades ago, but it’s all gone out of print. I started translating The Colors of Infamy for the pleasure of it some seven or eight years ago, but it wasn’t until I won a PEN Translation Grant for the book that publishers sat up and took notice. I was lucky that Barbara Epler of New Directions wanted me to translate A Splendid Conspiracy as well. And now, in addition to The Jokers, brought out last year in Anna Moschovakis’ translation, New York Review Books is bringing out a revised version of a translation by Thomas Cushing of Proud Beggars that was originally done in 1981. It would be nice to think that all this interest has to do with the Arab Spring, and that may be true right now as far as new readers are concerned, and I hope interest continues to grow. But those of us who have been pushing for Cossery to have a bigger presence in the English-speaking world have been doing so for about a decade, some even longer. He’s got a wicked sense of humor, a very appealing anti-work/anti-capitalist/anti-materialist philosophy that goes with our current recession mood, I think, and a rather cynical—though some might say accurate—view of the benefits of any revolution for the poorest of the poor—all of which can be seen quite clearly in The Colors of Infamy.

SE: Cossery lived the first two decades of his life in Egypt before moving to France, where he did all of his writing. Was his written French influenced much be the time he spent in Egypt?

AW: Cossery was a prolific reader of French novels in his youth—he was schooled in French in Egypt. But his daily life, his interaction with people around him, took place in Arabic in his formative years, and all his books are set in the Middle East, and all except one, in Egypt. He always said he was an Egyptian writer who happened to write in French. The French he writes in is fairly standard; of course, like any writer, he has his idiosyncrasies, his idiolect if you will, lots of hyperbole, and a continual use of simile and metaphor that play on really sly, funny comparisons. That being said, in his dialogue he has a lot of fun with what are supposed to feel like direct translations from the Arabic, with phrases such as “By Allah!” and “Peace be with you,” and “Effendi” and “Bey” appearing now and again for “local color.” It was an interesting challenge from a translation point of view to keep that distinction between narrative voice and dialogue, without making the dialogues too stilted or odd in English; but they are stilted and odd to the French ear, too, and so that had to be retained.

SE: In your translator's introduction to the excerpt we're publishing, you mention Cossery's "extremely dense, baroque" sentences, as well as the very heavy irony that he writes with. Did you have any particular challenges getting this book into English?

AW: Did I say “heavy” irony? I shouldn’t have. Not much in Cossery is “heavy.” But yes, his sentences can be very alambiqué, as one says in French, which can mean both convoluted and over-subtle—so “baroque” in the sense of extravagant and flamboyant, definitely. In addition to the challenge that I mention above, which involved the help of some friends who speak both French and Egyptian Arabic to make sure I wasn’t missing anything in the dialogues because I am not, alas, an Arabic speaker, Cossery uses an abundance (some might say plethora) of adjectives, adverbs, and adverbial phrases that are far from “minimalist.” The opening passage of Colors, where Cossery is setting the scene of a dilapidated and chaotic Cairo (which he calls by its Arabic name, Al Qahira) provides a wonderful example of how his writing imitates the twists and turns of Cairene alleys, and the pandemonium of traffic, pedestrians, and crumbling buildings, all juxtaposed higgledy-piggeldy beneath the sweltering sun—as a translator you have to meander with him, plow through the obstacles he puts in your path, to get the rhythm of his sentences right.

SE: Lastly, The Colors of Infamy was Cossery's final novel, completed in 1999 when he was nearing 90 years of age. Did you notice any change in his style, perhaps over his 1975 novel A Splendid Conspiracy, which you also translated?

AW: Colors is a very compact novel; Cossery really cuts to the chase in this book (A Splendid Conspiracy is about 215 pages in English; The Colors of Infamy comes in at about 90). There’s a kind of urgency in Colors—it was, as you say, his last book, and one has the sense that he really wants to get everything he thinks into it about the themes that have always been important to him: the joys of male friendship, the hatred of the rich and powerful, his affection for the poor, and his respect for them. While there are plenty of humorous scenes in Colors as well, they take up less of the book than they do in say, Proud Beggars (1961) or Conspiracy (1975). But I can’t say that I sense much of a change in style per se. Cossery was very true to himself, and I think he found his voice very early on, perhaps really during or right after his first book, the collection of stories called Men God Forgot in English. It’s a voice that served him, and us, very well.