Inspired by the unprecedented amount of cultural materials produced by the Egyptian revolution, students in the course titled Translating Revolution at The American University in Cairo AUC have collectively authored a book that sheds light on the various layers of meaning in revolutionary rhetoric. In Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir, students translated everything from chants and jokes to interviews and military communiqués to provide a comprehensive analysis of the revolutionary spirit that emerged from Tahrir Square. The book, published by AUC Press in May 2012, is now available in bookstores.
“The book goes beyond the immediate meaning of these revolutionary, cultural manifestations to probe their contextual signification and offer ‘thick’ translations that enrich our understanding of events on the ground,” said Samia Mehrez, course instructor, professor of Arabic literature and founding director of the Center for Translation Studies. “Each contribution offers a deeper meaning of the most basic translation that requires an in-depth knowledge of Egyptian history, politics, urban space and life, as well as economic cultural realities.”
Each of the eight chapters addresses a vibrant and essential aspect of the revolution. In the chapter, “Al-Thawra Al-Dahika (The Laughing Revolution): The Challenges of Translating Revolutionary Humor,” Heba Salem, senior Arabic language instructor at the Arabic Language Institute, and Kantaro Taira, graduate student in the Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations, focused on the challenge of translating jokes that arose during the revolution.
“Egyptian humor is unique because there are very few people who are able to make fun of themselves like Egyptians do,” said Salem. “Since humor was a main component of the revolution, we would not be accurately narrating the revolution if we ignore these jokes.”
The Egyptian revolution presented an inundation of political satire that posed a unique challenge to translators. “The content of a majority of the jokes involves the Egyptian social, political and cultural context outside the text of the joke itself,” explained Taira. “It is an immense challenge for translators to capture the immediacy and humor in these jokes when the target language’s culture does not necessarily have any equivalent.”
In the chapter “Signs and Signifiers: Visual Translations of Revolt,” Sarah Hawas and Laura Gribbon translated visual aspects of the revolution, including banners, signs and placards used during the initial 18 days of the uprising. “The immense amount of collective labor that went into so much writing –– big and small, short and long –– was an explosion in cultural output in contrast to decades of censorship, policing, and silencing in which many ordinary Egyptians themselves participated,” said Hawas. “The existence of these materials is revolutionary in itself.”
The authors place the translated signs within their social context, focusing on how they are not only used as an articulation of public demand, but as organizational tools to enable protestors communicate with one another. For example, the translated sign that reads, “I used to be afraid. Now I am Egyptian,” embodies a history of oppression and lack of national belonging that needs further explanation for the reader.
According to Mehrez, the authors of each chapter utilized a process of “thick translation,” which moves beyond word-for-word translation to extract a deeper meaning of each sign, joke, poem or chant. “We were interested in the more complex level of translation that I call thick translation,” explained Mehrez. “By employing this technique, each of my students acted as mediators with their topics, traveling back and forth between cultures and histories to best convey what happened during the revolution to the reader.”
The students’ enthusiasm for the project prompted Mehrez to seek the publication of their work. “I presented the idea to them and said that if we can put in the energy and time that such a project requires, we could create an excellent, collaborative book,” she explained. “They were willing and eager to take the challenge.”
In order to test the quality of their work, Mehrez organized a one-day symposium to solicit feedback on the progress of each independent research project. “The symposium was tremendously successful,” noted Mehrez. “It was then that we decided we had enough original and interesting material to bring to the level of a published book.”
Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir features the work of Chris Combs, Laura Gribbon, Sarah Hawas, Sahar Keraitim, Menna Khalil, Samia Mehrez, Heba Salem, Lewis Sanders IV, Amira Taha, Kantaro Taira and Mark Visona. Copies are now available at AUC Press locations and bookstores in Egypt.