Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 June 2011
Issue No. 1050
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lost and found in translation

How well can a revolution survive the language barrier? Rania Khallaf investigates

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Celebrations at Tahrir Square during revolution

A one-day symposium convened last week at the American University in Cairo (AUC) was aimed at discovering yet more dimensions to the 25 January Revolution and examining the challenges it poses to translation techniques.

The agenda at the symposium was a discussion of research and translation studies conducted at a spring semester entitled "Translating revolution".

The supervisor of the seminar was Samiya Mehrez, professor of Arabic literature at AUC's Arabian and Islamic civilisations department and director of the Centre for Translation Studies. According to Mehrez, the Egyptian Revolution of 25 January has produced an unprecedented proliferation of political and cultural documents, whether written, oral or visual, that together historicise in a remarkable way the momentous events that have unfolded since the first day of the uprising. These documents present a great challenge to any translator.

Sahar Keraitim presented an unusual study entitled " Moulid Al-Tahrir ; the semiotics of a revolution". Through a close reading of the historical centrality and the unique position of Tahrir Square, Keraitim tried to explore the extent to which Egyptians succeeded in translating their cultural heritage of the popular religious moulid (a saint's birth- or feast-day) celebrations that became an integral part of the semiotic processes and rituals that brought forth and sustained the birth, or the moulid, of the Independent Republic of Tahrir.

In this interesting paper, Keraitim drew a link between popular rituals of the moulid and some features of the revolution. She screened a video in which some demonstrators played the tabla (drum) and sang songs similar to those chanted at a wedding or a moulid. In her view, "This is the way demonstrators announced their 'divorce' from the political regime."

In another screening of a video, demonstrators sang songs on the rhythm of zikr (Sufi chant), using such typical words as " Allah hay" (God is alive), and then mixing them with the revolutionary slogan "Erhal, erhal" "Leave, leave!".

For Keraitim, a graduate student of the Middle East Studies programme, Tahrir Square was 'a place for a new Egypt, a talking landscape."

Commenting on this view, Hoda Abu Zeid, a translator, suggested that children could be an important common factor between a moulid and the Tahrir revolution: "Children go to a moulid expecting to have fun there, but they find it is only a place for older people practising ancient traditions. Again, they went to Tahrir Square hoping to mingle with older people and have fun at this carnival event, but it is true that many young people died during the clashes."

Discussing drama and performance, and the transformative discourses of revolution, both Amira Taha, a student in the department of political science, and Christopher Combs, a student at the Centre for Middle East Studies, agreed that the 18 days in Tahrir were shaped by intense and dramatic, discursive moments that included speeches, interviews, and communiqués by key players that had a crucial impact on events and public opinion throughout this historic event.

During their outstanding presentations, the speakers screened samples of transformative discourses by actors as diverse as Asmaa Mahfouz, former president Hosni Mubarak and activist Wael Ghoneim. These were analysed as theatrical performances where multiple levels of sign language were used by each speaker to shape the reaction of his or her target audience.

One of the most significant videos screened in this session was the one by Asmaa Mahfouz, the activist said to have sparked the revolution with the video she attached to her page on Facebook on 18 January. Taha stressed that the video has so far received 180.000 hits. Combs added that Mahfouz, an activist in the 6 April movement, was brilliant at evoking sympathy for the cause she presented.

"Mahfouz, an average Egyptian middle class girl, provoking Egyptian males into joining her to demonstrate against the regime, increasing the pitch of her voice, keeping a persistent tone and holding her arms at her sides to keep the audience focused on her message.

"Addressing a highly religious society, Mahfouz did not hesitate to share her phone number publicly, hoping that people would join her. She also used phrases like 'I need your protection,' and 'You should defend your honour,' to make her speech more appealing," Combs added.

Once the video on Mubarak's second speech was screened, many members of the seminar audience broke into laughter. Mubarak's affirmative cliché, "Dear brothers and sisters, dear citizens," rather than having the impact it once had, drew sarcastic comments from the audience. Combs commented that Mubarak's speech to the Egyptian nation "portraying a high degree of arrogance reflected in the scorn on his face."

"The apparent absence of press men and an audience during his speech signified his isolation from the Egyptian street," Combs added.

Taha also mentioned that the appearance of activist Wael Ghoneim on the popular TV show Ten pm on 7 February, the day he was released after being held by State the Security department for 12 days, gave the revolution a huge boost by presenting a positive image of him and other protestors.

Ghoneim, a university graduate and holder of an MBA from AUC and the creator of the "We are all Khaled Saied" page on Facebook, turned the path of revolution after his appearance on Ten pm. Taha added that by using such expressions as, "I don't need anything from anyone," by his unique dramatic performance, and by thus affirming that he was no hero, Ghoneim was able to convince a TV audience of millions that protestors were not mere thugs, as the official media was claiming at the time.

In another session that captured the interest of the audience who had convened in the Tahrir premises' small Armenian Room was entitled "Al-Thawra al-Daahika" ("The smiling revolution"). In this highly popular session, Heba Salem and Kantaro Taira discussed the challenges of translating revolutionary humour.

Salem, a teacher of Arabic as a foreign language at AUC and an expert in this field, gave an interesting presentation of her attempts to translate revolutionary jokes into English. The Egyptian revolution has been labelled the "laughing revolution" not only because of the flood of political jokes that were generated, but more importantly because of the very structure of the jokes themselves that were inspired to a great extent by both traditional and social media discourses, forms and languages, Salem and Taira suggested.

"Egyptians are well-known for their wit and humour; they use jokes like weapons against their invaders and occupiers. In the 1967 defeat duing the Nasser period, jokes were harsh and prolific. President Sadat himself was famous for telling jokes. However, over the last 10 years political jokes stagnated because people were too depressed to tell jokes," Salem argued.

"And jokes were more about sex and life in general more than dealing with politics," Salem said, adding that the revolution had recharged the Egyptian sense of humour.

"To translate a joke into English, we have to tell the background and social context and then tell the joke," Salem said in an amusing talk that drew attention to the difficulties of translating a punch line. As an example of the dilemma she told the joke: "After the Friday of Victory in Tunis and the Friday of Anger in Egypt, Qaddafi ordered that Fridays be cancelled in Libya." Definitely not so funny in English.

In the end of the highly-motivated seminar, Lewis Sanders and Mark Visona discussed the poetics of Tahrir Square in "Tahrir: The lyrical and poetic life of Tahrir". The slogans, songs, and poems that emerged and bloomed in the square served to sustain and transmit the message of the revolution. In the speakers' view, the poetic life of Tahrir provided a source of unity for Egyptians in all walks of life. They argued in their paper, however, that translating such literature into English presented an array of challenges to the translator. "Hence, we have attempted to situate these difficulties within the theoretical framework of modern translation theories in order to capture the soul of the revolution," they told the seminar.

According to Mehrez, these valuable studies will be updated and edited for publication in book form in near future. By the end of the seminar it was clear that these brilliant researchers should be admired for their sincerity and for their being so immersed in the puzzling poetics of our revolution.

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