Translating Egypt’s revolution: introducing an anthology of essays

The forthcoming volume, Translating Egypt's Revolution, draws on the interdisciplinary nature of the field of translation studies today as it seeks to describe and explain the myriad ways in which the Egyptian people wrested back control of their public space and public culture in 2011. Come and debate their findings at an event at the University of East London on Thursday night.

Samia Mehrez
13 March 2012

This article is a preview of the book Translating Egypt’s Revolution, due out by The American University in Cairo Press in June 2012. Translating Egypt’s Revolution is the culmination of research and translation work conducted by researchers and students of varying cultural and linguistic backgrounds who continue to witness Egypt's ongoing revolution. They have selectively translated chants, banners, jokes, poems and interviews, as well as presidential speeches and military communiques. Samia Mehrez and her colleague Laura Gribbon will discuss their findings this Thursday, March 15th at 6:30pm at a public event at the University of East London, find out more.

The successive waves of the January 2011 uprising with its initial mesmerizing eighteen days in Tahrir have had a dramatic, immediate, and continuing impact on Egyptians and their relationship to space (both public and private; real and virtual) as has been witnessed in unprecedented online social networking, campaigns, and solidarities, as well as mass demonstrations, repeated sit-ins, and persistent protests despite the heavy cost in human life. This newfound power of ownership of one’s space, one’s body, and one’s language is, in and of itself, a revolution.

Over the past thirty years the Mubarak regime, which continues to be reproduced by the ruling military junta in post-January 2011 Egypt, has exercised increased control of both public space and public culture. These constraints have been orchestrated through the enforcement of emergency laws that legitimated detention and torture, the erratic but relentless censorship of freedom of expression, the privatization and dismantling of physical public spaces, as well as the depopulation of the city center. Such policing measures of public space and culture have minimized the possibilities of collective political activism and mobilization, thereby stifling and constraining oppositional and democratic movements for decades.

The January 25, 2011 uprising has unsettled these measures and policies and continues to resist oppressive counter-revolutionary attempts to dispossess the people of their newfound freedom. The eight chapters in this volume translate this new language of tahrir (liberation) and how Egyptians have articulated their ownership of space, body, and language through a myriad of creative performative and cultural practices whose semiotics, aesthetics, and poetics have not only inspired parallel uprisings worldwide but have also created sustaining solidarities as well as challenging resistances to the unfolding text of Egypt’s revolution. In doing so, all the contributors are committed to a thick translation of these cultural practices that engages the language(s) of Tahrir at both a horizontal and vertical level in order to render a synchronic and diachronic reading and interpretation of Egypt’s ongoing uprising.

During the early stages of this project, the contributors initially selected, read, and collectively translated some of this material from chants, banners, slogans, jokes, poems, and street art to media coverage, interviews, video blogs (vlogs), presidential speeches, and military communiqués. They predominantly worked in groups and as partners, not as individuals. This is to say that their translations, even in the chapters undertaken by a single author, are the outcome of this collective and perpetual conversation and understanding not to mention their sense of collective ownership of the translated texts.

The range and scope of the cultural, visual, and performative material, and its different linguistic registers and referential worlds, presented a great challenge to any translator, not just at the immediate linguistic level, but more importantly at the discursive, semiotic, and symbolic levels within the local and global contexts. Not only did the contributors call upon their plurilingual and pluricultural backgrounds, experiences and locations, but they have equally called upon their own academic disciplines to inform their task of translation. They have deployed insights and perspectives from across the fields of literary theory, cultural studies, comparative literature, philosophy, gender studies, Arabic literature, Middle East history, political science, journalism, anthropology, and, of course, translation studies. In so doing, they were compelled to rethink the limits of their own disciplines and, in the process, were equally empowered by translating across boundaries and beyond linguistic, cultural, and disciplinary borders without surrendering to the homogeneity, transparency, and dominance of the monolingualism of the target language, English. This volume therefore engages and reflects the interdisciplinary nature of the field of translation studies and its multiple directions in research and analysis.

What follows is from the Introduction to Translating Egypt's Revolution: The Language of Tahrir, edited by Samia Mehrez, to be published June 2012.

Chapter 1, “Mulid al-Tahrir: Semiotics of a Revolution,” by Sahar Kreitim and Samia Mehrez explores the newfound relationship between Egyptians and public space as well as the emergence of resignified subjectivities that developed during the initial eighteen days of revolt in Tahrir through translating the multiple significations and connotations of the word mulid (in colloquial Arabic)/mawlid (in formal Arabic), which means ‘birth.’ The chapter explores how Egyptians succeeded in translating and revolutionizing their cultural heritage of mulid celebrations—a popular celebration of the birthday of a venerated spiritual figure—which became an integral part of the semiotic processes and rituals that brought forth and sustained the birth (mawlid/mulid) of the “Independent Republic of Tahrir.”

Chapter 2, “Of Drama and Performance: Transformative Discourses of the Revolution,” by Amira Taha and Chris Combs translates some of the most decisive and influential discursive and performative moments that shaped the early drama of the unfolding text of Egypt’s uprising. By drawing on analytical tools from the fields of translation, performance, and gender studies, as well as social movement theory, the authors translate—at both the linguistic, semiotic, and performative levels—selections from these transformative moments that impacted millions of Egyptians on social and conventional media networks by such diverse actors as activists Asmaa Mahfouz and Wael Ghoneim, former President Hosni Mubarak and General Mohsen al-Fangary, among others, molding and shaping the reactions of publics during various decisive moments of the uprising.

Chapter 3, “Signs and Signifiers: Visual Translations of Revolt,” by Laura Gribbon and Sarah Hawas reads and translates the throng of revolutionary banners and signs whose visual immediacy both established the demands of protesters and responded to the emerging political discourse as it unfolded, thereby becoming, in and of themselves, a translation of the awakening of public consciousness and a remarkable and fearless articulation of the right to language. The authors trace how these visual public signs inscribed a narrative of resistance that drew on various symbols and layers of historical, cultural, and political memory to write the story of a people in revolt.

Chapter 4, “Reclaiming the City: Street Art of the Revolution,” by Lewis Sanders IV draws on the concepts of striated and smooth space in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus to translate the politics of street art of the revolution as “a performance and product of aesthetic smoothing that resists the dominant striated narratives of the state.” As the author argues, street art becomes a way for Egyptians to reclaim and reappropriate urban space, and provides “a new understanding of the city as rightfully belonging to the people.”

Chapter 5, “al-Thawra al-DaHika: The Challenges of Translating Revolutionary Humor,” by Heba Salem and Kantaro Taira focuses on the various problems and issues but also the subtleties, ambiguities, and subversive referential worlds that surround the translation of humor from a source to target culture and the extent to which notions of ‘fidelity’ and ‘equivalence’ may not necessarily ‘carry over’ in translating humor across cultures.

Chapter 6, “The Soul of Tahrir: Poetics of a Revolution,” by Mark Visona and Lewis Sanders IV shifts our attention to the aesthetics of a different register of language of Tahrir namely the polyphonic tapestry of the lyrical and poetic life of the midan that served to sustain the transcendental effect of the revolutionary experience and unite Egyptians from all walks of life through chants, songs, and poems. As the authors translate selections from this open epic of Tahrir, they situate individual texts within a larger inter-textual poetic context, reading the singular poem or song in the source language as one that draws on a myriad of other texts at a structural or thematic level.

Chapter 7, “The Army and the People Are One Hand: Myths and Their Translations,” by Menna Khalil addresses the question of how to translate the use of slogans in simultaneous support and opposition to the army from January 2011 well into the time of writing in August 2011. Egyptians have chanted “Al-gish wa-l-sha‘b id waHda” (‘The army and the people are one hand’), but they have also chanted “Ya ‘askari y abu bundu’iya, inta ma‘aya walla ‘alaya?” (‘You, soldier with a rifle; are you with me or against me?’) and “Al-sha‘b yurid isqat almushir” (‘The people demand the removal of the field marshal’), among many other chants, songs, and banners with and against the ‘askar (military), all in less than two months from the beginning of the uprising in January, 2011.

Chapter 8, “Global Translations and Translating the Global: Discursive Regimes of Revolt,” by Sarah Hawas seeks to understand the discursive politics of translating Egypt’s uprising by simultaneously situating its adaptations and appropriations as well as its deliberate mistranslations within a global neoliberal moment. By focusing on a limited number of sites of translation, the author investigates the political possibilities and stakes inherent in (mis)translating the Egyptian Revolution as she attends to what gets left out, compressed, managed, and (re)packaged in the concurrent processes of reification, reinterpretation, and reframing of Egypt’s uprising within a globalizing context that not only “depends on and requires the localization and containment of citizenship” but imposes a dominant “imaginary whose constituents include, but are not limited to: cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, diversity, democracy, pluralism, co-existence, and most intriguing of all, tolerance.”

Through the very choices of topics and texts, as well as our conscious “visibility” and location as translators, these chapters also bear testimony to the politics of selection that implicate us (as individuals and as a group) in a very particular “version” of the revolutionary text in translation. Many other layers have yet to be translated: narrative literary texts that bear eyewitness representations of the uprising, emerging forms of graphic and visual humor, the open epic chants of the revolution, translations of Islamist and of Coptic discursive and performative representations of revolt, the language(s) of electoral politics, to mention only a handful of subtexts. Given developments on the ground, and the discourses surrounding the very meaning(s) of Egypt’s revolution, both local and global—not to mention the ongoing contest over public space, freedom of expression, public culture, and cultural production—there is no doubt that this early collective and selective effort represents but the beginning of many more “versions” of the revolutionary text that have yet to be translated.


From the Introduction to Translating Egypt's Revolution: The Language of Tahrir, edited by Samia Mehrez, to be published June 2012. Copyright © 2012 by the American University in Cairo Press (www.aucpress.com).

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