Translating the Revolution

“The poetry of this revolt is not reducible to a text that can be read and translated in words, for it is also an act in and of itself.”

The Egyptian revolution has presented us with a number of intellectual challenges, not least the question of how to interpret events that seemed as globalised as they were localised. Although the uprising was a distinctly Egyptian expression of anger and frustration, many outside the country’s borders were also able to ‘live’ the revolution, following events in real-time using satellite telivision and social media sites. In this respect, it was truly the first of its kind. When Egypt’s internet connection was cut off, internet users across the world were able to ‘do their bit’ for the revolution, creating dial-up connections that could be accessed by Egyptians.

And yet for the non-Arabic speakers among us, we were experiencing nothing more than a revolution in translation. We heard so much about the warmth and humour of the uprising but could never truly understand the sentiments expressed through the chants and signs that assaulted the senses in Tahrir Square. In February, the American University of Cairo (AUC) decided to tackle this issue head on, announcing a new course entitled ‘Translating the Revolution‘. Dedicated to exploring challenges posed by the written, oral, and visual sources that now historicise the events of January and February, the course is sure to produce some fascinating material for non-Arabic speakers.

For those who are interested, there are a number of excellent accounts detailing the challenges faced by translators during the Revolution. Here’s a taster of a piece over at Arab Literature in English on the work of Karima Khalil, the editor of the forthcoming Messages from Tahrir:

Khalil notes, in an email, that she was challenged by a sign that read دمي في رقبتك. She did not opt for the literal translation (“my blood is on your neck”), but instead the more comfortable “my blood is on your conscience.” She said that she didn’t find it ideal, but added that it was “the closest I could get to the implicit meaning of ‘my blood is your responsibility’ that is inbuilt in ‘ra2abtak.’ I mean, ‘my blood is on your neck’ gets one nowhere and ‘my blood is on your hands’ is not quite right either.”

The literal translation of “my blood is on your neck” does take the reader outside his comfort zone, evoking a space and context beyond the words on the sign. While it may take a little decoding—since the expression in English is slightly different—the new body part (neck instead of hands) enlivens the English language and makes us think about responsibility in a different way. However, it also moves away from the directness of the sign, which does not have this linguistic “strangeness” in Arabic.

Elliot Colla has also written an excellent essay about the use of protest chants and the translation challenges these pose, do have a look.


One comment

  1. Brilliant piece, Louisa, on a favourite topic of mine! Have you come across Monocle magazine? I think you’d like it – in the Christmas issue they had interviews with several diplomats, one of whom is a translator in Middle East peace talks. He was saying how the fact that there is no real equivalent for “compromise” (with positive connotations) in Arabic (I think) is a huge obstacle for mutual understanding and aims.

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