Following her appearance at the Literary Translation Centre for London Book Fair 2013, Samia Mehrez writes about working collaboratively on the book Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir, which uses multiple perspectives to translate the linguistic and cultural meanings of the recent momentous events in her country

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the revolutionary spirit in Egypt has manifested itself in an unprecedented production and proliferation of cultural materials, whether written, oral, visual, or performative, all of which have decidedly remapped and redefined the contours and meanings of both public culture and public space. Since January 2011 there has been a radical transformation of the relationship between people, their bodies, their language, and space; a transformation that has enabled sustained mass convergence, conversation, and agency for new publics whose access to and participation in public space has for decades been controlled by an oppressive, authoritarian regime. This newfound power of ownership of one’s space, one’s body, and one’s language is, in and of itself, a revolution. Indeed, the ongoing culture of revolt and its new forms and media of expression continue to inspire a plethora of publications, both locally and globally.

Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir (AUC Press, 2012) is one such example, representing the collective work of graduate students in a seminar that I taught at the American University in Cairo in Spring 2011, immediately following the fall of Mubarak. The seminar was part of an important university-wide initiative that attempted to respond to an urgent pedagogical need to sustain the students’ engagement in and with the revolutionary moment. The largely improvised seminar attracted Egyptian and non-Egyptian students whose linguistic abilities and cultural competencies and experiences complemented each other in ways that were important and helped them maintain an informed comparative perspective on their task as translators. The participants, here future authors of the collective book, came to the task of translation with their own histories, understanding, and perspectives on translation all of which intersected throughout: there was the poet, the musician, the technical translator, the journalist, the photographer, the security translator, the activist, the creative writer, and the teacher. They had all experienced and lived through the revolution in Egypt and were all motivated by their  desire to engage the layers of revolutionary narratives and to translate these fields of meaning to each other and for each other in an attempt to understand, situate, and contextualize the historic events that enveloped them.

Given the revolutionary context of the seminar itself, its content and pedagogical format, as well as the projects undertaken by the participants, were decided upon jointly at the beginning of the semester. The participants read, and collectively translated material ranging from chants, banners, slogans, jokes, poems, and street art to media coverage, interviews, blogs, as well as 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. The class blog that they had created at chronicles the processes of translation in which they were collectively engaged, the myriad of problems, issues and challenges they encountered, how they resolved them, and why they chose such solutions.   Some of their comments addressed the division of labor among participants in each group and how, in working together, they had developed an awareness of the translator’s subjectivity, an appreciation of their difference and diversity that lay at the forefront of decision-making, and the interactive process of translation that remained incomplete without a profound appreciation and navigation of audience. They did all this with the full conviction that they had collective ownership of the translated text and that their collaborative endeavor was not at all final, but, like the revolution itself, was open to more conversation and more reflection. More importantly, they came to confront their task of translation as one that implicated them in an ethics of selection: what gets left out, what is brought in, and why; how does one justify such choices, and how their “visibility” as translators implicated them in the politics of translation. 

Given the scope of the material and its different linguistic registers, and referential worlds, these documents and manifestations presented a great challenge to any translator not just at the immediate linguistic level but more importantly – and herein lay the real challenge – at the discursive, semiotic and symbolic meanings of revolution at both the local and global levels and contexts. As the participants continued to work as groups they came to realize that behind each text they were translating lay a myriad of other texts that had to be translated before that singular text in the source language could be carried across to the target language. Here, the task of the translator(s) is to “carry across” the different narratives and layers of the revolution as part of a complex set of dialectical relationships with other texts (political, economic, social, and religious) that exist outside its immediate “readable” boundaries. This is what I call thick translation. All the chapters in Translating Egypt’s Revolution engage thick translation in ways that have not only compelled the contributors to re-think the limits of their own disciplines but have equally empowered them in their role as translators re-writing across boundaries and beyond borders, whether these be linguistic, cultural, or disciplinary. Furthermore, the very choices of topics and texts they have translated bear testimony to the politics of selection that implicate them (as individuals and as a group) in a very particular “version” of the revolutionary text in translation, one of many more that have yet to be translated.

Contributors to the volume: Amira Taha, Chris Combs, Heba Salem, Kantaro Taira, Laura Gribbon, Lewis Sanders, Mark Visona, Menna Khalil, Sahar Kreitim, Sarah Hawas, Samia Mehrez.

About the Author

Samia Mehrez isProfessor of Arabic Literature and Director of the Center for Translation Studies at the American University in Cairo.She has published widely in the fields of modern Arabic literature, postcolonial studies, translation studies, gender studies and cultural studies. She is the author of Egyptian Writers between History and Fiction: Essays on Naguib Mahfouz, Sonallah Ibrahim and Gamal al-Ghitani, AUC Press, 1994 and 2005 and Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practice, Routledge 2008, AUC Press 2010. Her edited anthologies A Literary Atlas of Cairo: One hundred Years in the Life of the City and The Literary Life of Cairo: One Hundred Years in the Heart of the City in which she translated the works of numerous Egyptian writers are published by AUC Press 2010, 2011 and in Arabic by Dar Al-Shorouk, Cairo. She is the editor of Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir, AUC Press, 2012. She is currently working on a translation from Arabic into English of Mona Prince’s memoir, Ismi Thawra (Revolution is My Name), forthcoming in 2013, and a book-length manuscript tentatively titled The Making of Revolutionary Culture in Egypt.