Translating Dissent: Abstracts
- Editor’s Introduction
- Part I: Narrating Revolution, Historicizing Revolutions
- Part II: Translation as Political Intervention
- Part III: Challenging Patriarchy
- Part IV: Translation and the Visual Economy of Protest
- Part V: Solidarity, Translation and the Politics of the Margin
Beyond the Spectacle: Translation and Solidarity in Contemporary Protest Movements
This chapter maps out the space of translation within the political economy of contemporary protest movements, using the Egyptian Revolution as a case in point and extending the definition of translation to cover a range of modalities and types of interaction. It identifies themes and questions that arise out of the concrete experiences of activists mobilizing and reflecting on what it means to work for justice, both within and across borders, and to attempt to effect change at home while conversing with others who are fighting similar battles elsewhere. I argue that if our networks of solidarity are to become more effective and reflect the values of horizontality, non-hierarchy and pluralism that inform contemporary protest movements, translation, interpreting, subtitling and other forms of mediation must be brought to the centre of the political arena and conceptualized as integral elements of the revolutionary project. Translators, likewise, must be repositioned as full participants within non-hierarchical, solidary activist communities.
Part I: Narrating Revolution, Historicizing Revolutions
A Wish Not to Betray: Some Thoughts on Writing and Translating Revolution
For a long time I was afraid and unwilling to write about the revolution, struggling with the impossibility of translating the immensity, intensity, and sometimes absurdity of the upheaval — within us and without — into words that make sense, that can convey something of the experience without reducing its unfathomability. What does it mean to write without betraying? Is it possible to bring such irreconcilable elements into a cohesive whole that nevertheless belies its own incoherence? That limns, somehow, the mechanisms of life, of being human, even in a time of senselessness? The struggle to explore a writing that contains these questions rather than submitting them to the tyranny of conclusions slowly began to assert itself as an act of resistance in the face of more dangerously simplistic narratives. These delivered headlines and soundbites devoid of experience and meaning, and filled to the brim with easily digestible answers, which not only gave a funnelled perspective to those watching from afar, but began to divide the city and its people into camps existing, almost, in different spheres: those attempting to engage with the revolution on an experiential level and those who tried to hide from it behind the shield of their television screens. This personal essay offers a chronicle of this struggle, exploring the role of personal narrative in attempting to translate an experience as all-encompassing as revolution.
Changing Frames and Fault-lines
The story of the Egyptian revolution carries a heavy burden. Its many tales travel across contexts and experience, within Egypt and beyond it, influencing movements and revolutions while building dreams and threatening them. Solidarity fundamentally entails sharing an interpretation of a story. How that story is told and re-told has political and historical implications that are as much about the current moment as they are about the future. Political events are hard to follow at the best of times, and solidarity is broken when the thread of a story is lost or events within it become subject to confusingly competing narratives. At stake is not only solidarity within the Egyptian revolution, but also a story of change and how it happens, or might. Over the past years I have worked with a range of forms and collaborators to engage in telling many of the stories of the Egyptian revolution. With each form and each language, each event and each audience, comes a framework within which those stories can be told and shared. In this essay I reflect on what I see as some of the key fault lines in translating events between contexts as a way of searching for the map that underlies so many shifting narratives.
Translation and Diaspara Politics: Narrating the Struggle at ‘Home’ and ‘Abroad’
As mobilization connected to the 2011 revolution continues inside Egypt and beyond its borders, the translation and narration of particular moments and actors shapes and further complicates various understandings of the struggle. This essay draws on the experiences and perspectives of British-Egyptian and Egyptian migrant activists in the UK to illustrate how and why they used translation as part of their mobilization online and at demonstrations in the UK and in Egypt. It also engages with translation in its broader sense as a way of understanding how groups within one movement in the UK contribute to the representation of Egypt’s continuing struggle. By focusing on the various ways in which the events that unfolded after 30 June 2013 are retold, the essay demonstrates the power of translation and narration to divide and the importance of understanding the various spaces and practices of diaspora politics to the contemporary global political context and to the continuation of Egypt’s revolution.
The Contemporary Epoch of Struggle: Anti-austerity Protests, the Arab Uprisings and Occupy Wall Street
Todd Wolfson and Peter Funke
This chapter examines the relationships, points of inspiration and contradictory dynamics that characterize the current epoch of social movement politics and global protests. The central argument is that with the progression of neoliberal capitalism since 1980, a shared logic of social movement politics has emerged. This logic spans from the Zapatistas and the Global Justice Movement, to the more recent ‘Arab Spring’ and occupy-type demonstrations. Originating in the Global South, this meta-logic has been globally transmitted, translated and adapted to particular locations and times. We argue that the new meta-logic thrives on multiplicity, emphasizes radical participatory democracy, the innovative use of new (and old) media, and the heterogeneity of political struggles.
Part II: Translation as Political Intervention
Text and Context: Translating in a State of Emergency
This essay explores some of the problems associated with activist translating in revolutionary historical moments like the one that began in Egypt in 2011. Using my experience of working as a subtitler with the radical video collective Mosireen in 2012/13, I reflect on how the process and experience of translating in a state of emergency – when the state mobilizes its arsenal of violence on the streets – profoundly shapes how we think about terms like ‘profession’ and ‘objectivity’, and about the roles of both translator and audience in building effective cross-border virtual solidarity networks in real time. I also broadly distinguish between what I see as two closely related and equally urgent modes of political translating work: crisis and building. While the former is defined by transposable and widely-circulating spectacles of violence and resistance, the latter seeks to mobilize the broadest possible array of socially embedded source texts (tracts, statements, press conferences, testimonies, manifestos, analysis) in order to fully territorialize the spectacle and give it political meaning. I argue that building effective and sustainable international solidarity networks absolutely depends on this kind of multi-directional, territorializing translation work, particularly at this time, when militant popular movements are exploding across the globe.
Ethical Reflections on Activist Film Making and Activist Subtitling
This essay reflects on a number of issues from the perspective of a filmmaker who has been deeply involved in the events unfolding in Egypt since January 2011. The issues in question concern the creative input of translators and the extent of their ownership of a work to which they have contributed voluntary labour, how and why subtitles may be taken into consideration from the very beginning of the process of making a film or a video, and the ethical contours of the activist filmmaker/subtitler relationship. As a filmmaker, I have a very clear line dividing my work as an activist making videos for a collective such as Mosireen, which I do anonymously and without claims to ownership, and my other work that I make as an artist or independent filmmaker. With videos I produce for a collective, I am always open to anyone suggesting or even adding or changing elements of the film, as long as within the group we know we share the same political agendas and goals. Within this context, do subtitlers have the same right to intervene as others? Have filmmakers like myself been taking them and the dynamics of the subtitling process into consideration as we produce our videos? The essay reflects on these issues and their implications for the principles of equality and solidarity that drive activist collectives such as Mosireen.
What Word Is This Place? Translating Urban Social Justice and Governance
Alongside the political transformations that Egypt has witnessed since 2011, there has been a concomitant transformation within Egyptian cities and a wealth of civil society initiatives seeking social justice in the urban environment. Architectural and planning practices, local NGOs and rights groups have sought new languages and new terminology to deal with the phenomena on the ground and to intervene in shaping the new landscape. Issues of language arise particularly clearly in attempts to translate new concepts in urbanism into Arabic, concepts such as the right to the city, participatory planning and budgeting, and various descriptions of public space and rights to access. Public space is often described in Egypt as ‘state land’, resting ownership and control within the government, with detrimental effects. Direct translations of ‘public space’ are unwieldy and lack resonance. At the same time, Arabic terms often have no ready equivalents in English. These terms have older histories and roots within Egyptian culture, and many are now attempting to deploy them to advance contemporary social justice demands. This chapter seeks to examine some of the nomenclature around urban social justice and urban governance in Egypt, looking both at the challenges of translating contemporary international concepts into Arabic, as well as the opportunities for unique activism afforded by words and concepts that are specific to the Arabic language.
Translation and the New Poetics of Egypt’s Revolution
Tahia Abdel Nasser
The poetry recited in 2011 in the context of the Egyptian revolution, and its later translation into a variety of languages, contributed to local and global understandings of that historical moment. This essay examines some of the ways in which new poetic production in 2013-2014 extends and reconfigures the revolutionary movement in Egypt, the difference between the new poetics and the poetry inspired by the 2011 revolution, and the effect that translating new poetry concerned with the events that have been unfolding since 2011 can have on global understandings of the unfolding narrative of the uprising. I argue that the poetry of Tahrir published in 2013 renews the revolutionary ideals epitomized in the poetry that appeared in 2011. The poetry of Amin Haddad, as a case in point, translates the dreams and aspirations of Tahrir, resituated in 2013 and 2014 with the publication of a new volume. I examine Haddad’s poetry against English translations of poetry since 2011 and argue that translation of this new poetry is an ethical and political act that simultaneously reads and registers the iterations of Tahrir and the developing narrative of revolution in the contemporary local poetry scene.
Part III: Challenging Patriarchy
Translation and Solidarity in Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution
Translation has been an integral part of Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution from its very first stages. Subtitling the speech of the women interviewed into a variety of languages is not just an issue of disseminating information and making their unique experiences accessible to as many people as possible, but is part of a broad expression of political commitment that assumes different forms. First and foremost, it is part of a wider postcolonial and feminist commitment to allowing the subjects themselves to shape their own voices and representations. Speaking in Arabic, the women translate their first hand experiences into a discourse that counters the widespread appropriation of the voices of both women and people of colour, which have traditionally been constrained and distorted by patriarchal, xenophobic and racist interpretations and streamlined into simplistic generalizations that oscillated between imposition and exoticism. Making subtitles into a wide range of languages an integral part of the project is a further step towards empowering Egyptian women by connecting them to networks of rebellion across borders. Subtitles extend the messages of empowerment to other locales, make local political struggles visible to other protest movements, and further foster international networking and solidarity. This essay offers a critical account of both levels of translation as they evolved in Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution.
On Translating a Superhero: Language and Webcomics
Experiencing the Egyptian revolution as a teenager meant living through a period of history that witnessed my generation both shaping and being shaped by momentous events. This dynamic also impacted a webcomic I created in June 2013, at the age of eighteen, originally in English and later in both English and Arabic. The current essay reflects on the role played by language and translation in radically transforming the content of this webcomic, whose purpose varied as its audience grew and encompassed different constituencies. Though challenging, the experience of translating the comic into Arabic proved very positive. I suddenly found myself free to talk about the unsung heroism of Egyptian women, their activism, Egypt’s failings and strengths. What had started out as a joke intended to challenge sexism and liberal feminism suddenly became a much more complex venture, partly because translating the comic into Arabic made it go viral that much faster. My audience did not just diversify, it expanded rapidly.
An Archive of Hope: Translating Memories of Revolution
This essay offers an analysis of issues related to the translation of memories of resistance of women who participated in protests since 2011 in Egypt for inclusion in a web archive created and managed by the Women and Memory Forum. It argues that stories and testimonies are powerful modes of activism in the struggle over the collective memory of a particular group or country. They complement and/or contest official narratives and potentially construct counter-narratives of dominant histories. However, the archiving of these stories, which may be conceptualized as a process of translating memories to a wider audience in a structured manner for ease of access, is not straightforward or innocent. Archives have been described as “tools of the powerful” that seek to normalize, standardize and impose order; they are “the manufacturers of memory and not just merely guardians of it” (Harvey Brown and Davis-Brown 1998:21-22). Archives are necessarily entangled in the construction of hegemonic narratives as well as counter-hegemonic narratives that potentially shape the future of a given group, country or nation.
Part IV: Translation and the Visual Economy of Protest
Translating Emotions: Graffiti as a Tool for Change
During the Egyptian revolution, art sublimated violence and translated emotions. Music, theatre, video art, graffiti and cartoons were just a few examples of media of protest that overtook the streets and cyberspace. Strong emotions brought about intense creativity, and in the process artists and laymen alike provided us with exceptional examples of how to express dissidence and solidarity aesthetically. Focusing on graffiti, I engage with examples of collaborative creative protest and my own contribution to them, and treat the palimpsests that emerged out of the interaction among graffiti artists and between them and the public as a form of visual conversation. The main focus is the ’Tank vs Biker’ wall, which started with Ganzeer’s iconic painting of a military tank and a man on a bike carrying a bread board on his head. Moving on to my own ‘Thousand Times No’ and ‘Some People’ campaigns, I tell the story of how I paid tribute to the ’Tank Wall’ by spraying stencils from both campaigns on it. With more artists painting on the wall, and some of their contributions whitewashed or defaced, I returned to the wall with another campaign, ‘Rebel Cat’, my attempt to feminize the act of rebellion.
Democratic Walls: Street Art as Public Pedagogy
This chapter explores the potential of street art as a means of gaining voice and political capital, and the connections between Egyptian and other traditions of street art. Constructing an argument for artists to see their role as that of public educator, it highlights a major concern for street art in contested spaces, namely, the danger of falling into what Freire (1970) describes as a ‘banking pedagogy’, where the values are drawn from a limited source and deposited onto a community without consultation or inclusion. The discussion draws on an open dialogue with some of the Egyptian artists who create street art in Cairo, political muralists from Northern Ireland, and those from each context who live with the visual residue of revolution. I argue that despite several similarities, particularly between Republican mural art and the paintings of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, unlike the paintings of Northern Ireland, Egyptian street art constitutes a series of palimpsests that exemplify a democratic process of visual inquiry; that there is a life and possibility to this work that is missing from the murals of Northern Ireland, which have become prisoners of history.
Pharaonic Street Art: The Challenge of Translation
This essay engages with the work of Alaa Awad, a prolific Egyptian street artist who drew graffiti on the walls around Tahrir Square between 2011 and 2013 using ancient Egyptian styles and themes. In replicating pharaonic murals in a space that was literally the epicentre of the political uprising in Egypt, Awad provided a quintessentially Egyptian narrative of street protests, yet one that was also exotic and indecipherable to Egyptian spectators and passers-by, given his use of hieroglyphic codes and references to ancient Egyptian symbolism. Having reproduced temple murals on the street, Awad arguably decontextualized an art form used to support the status quo and glorify the ruling pharaoh. His murals spoke from the perspective of the Egyptian people living through their uprisings, triumphs and bereavement. He had, as one scholar put it, shaken up everything Egyptologists have been studying for centuries. Yet, by using hieroglyphics and indecipherable symbols, was Awad really speaking to the Egyptian street, or had he created a barrier between his audience and his work? Was his street art revolutionizing the concept of Pharaonic art or was he merely feeding into what one scholar described as an orientalized, tourist-centric vision of Egypt? Had his message been lost or did it evoke new meanings in translation?
Translating Egypt’s Political Cartoons
Political cartoons present a daily snapshot of the gut reactions to current political and social issues. With each Egyptian newspaper publishing about five cartoons daily – and some papers up to a dozen – a range of perspectives is conveyed through punchy imagery and text penned in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. Since the 2011 uprising, a new cartoon renaissance has swept Cairo, with a variety of new comic zines and exhibitions, among other media. This chapter reflects critically on the translation of Arabic political cartoons, both in broad and narrow terms. The questions I address include the following: How does one translate humour and satire? How does one convey symbols that are rooted in local contexts (and thus illegible to outside audiences)? How does one communicate the immediacy of a political cartoon’s punch line without diminishing from its semantic meaning? The word karikatur, which can be defined as either ‘political cartoon’ or ‘caricature’, is used to frame my interrogation of the multiple meanings of each illustration. Interpreting ‘translation’ broadly, I examine the utility of cartoons as a mechanism for communicating Egyptian politics to an international readership. In terms of interlingual translation issues, I explore political cartoons as self-contained mini texts packed with homegrown symbols as well as cultural creations that engage with music, film and other pop culture genres.
Part V: Solidarity, Translation and the Politics of the Margin
An interview with Philip Rizk
I chose to interview Philip Rizk for this collection because I consider him one of the most critical and articulate voices to emerge out of the vigour and ensuing trauma of the past few years in Egypt. He is as un-institutionalized as almost anyone can be in a modern society, and perhaps it is his positioning outside most mainstream institutions, including academia, that gives him a unique vantage point, one that allows him to do more justice to the complexity and passion of the revolutionary landscape in Egypt than most. Importantly, he is able to do so in English, the language in which the global public is continually subjected to an avalanche of ‘expert’ analyses and streamlined narratives, and in which ‘native’ commentators who support such narratives are prioritized and the many powerful and critical voices available in Arabic filtered out.
This interview was conducted by email, over a period of several, turbulent months, starting at the end of September 2014 and concluding at the beginning of April 2015, less than a month before submitting the manuscript to the publisher. Like the events and issues it engages with, it started – and continued – from a position of uncertainty and instability. As in Khalid Abdalla’s contribution to this volume, the uncertainty is not glossed over, not a source of despair; its acknowledgement is what allows voices like Philip’s to remain critical and open to other views and possibilities. As every day brought in new developments, competing narratives, unexpected perspectives on ‘old’ stories in Egypt, Philip revised and tweaked his answers, and may want to revise them again in the future. For now, this is a record of one activist’s reflections, at a specific point in time, on a broad range of issues, including the relationship and tension between the local and the global, the centre and the margin, the politics of language and articulation, and what forms of ‘deep translation’ and solidarity we need to continue the battle against our oppressors.
Moments of Clarity
Omar Robert Hamilton
Omar Robert Hamilton is a filmmaker, writer and cultural organizer working in documentary and fiction. He helped found Cairo’s Mosireen collective and works on the documentation, archiving and the visual record of the Egyptian revolution in various ways: after making dozens of short documentaries he’s currently editing a feature documentary from the archive. He helped found the annual Palestine Festival of Literature, which seeks to challenge Israel’s various apartheid policies and the international discourse surrounding them. His latest fiction short, Though I Know the River is Dry, premiered at Rotterdam and went on to win some good prizes. He writes semi-regularly for Egyptian journalism collective Mada Masr and occasionally for the London Review of Books blog and is now working on a novel about the parts of the revolution you can’t capture in the archive. And once that’s done he plans on concentrating on another part of the world for a little while. www.orhamilton.com