September 2011

Egyptian Protest Slogans


Central Question: What kind of artistry does it take to translate a protest chant?
Slogan on the cover of Messages from Tahrir: MASRY—W AFTAKHAR (“Egyptian and ‘proud’”) hand-written in Arabic and English on a sheet of paper safety-pinned to a protester’s shirt; Editor’s justification for the quotes around “proud”: the sign-holder meant them for emphasis; Editor’s favorite protest sign: ASBU3 YA RAEES, W LA HATA TELEFOON (“A week, Mr. President, and not even a phone call?”); Last protest sign in the book: DO NOT LET YOUR REVOLUTION BE STOLEN FROM YOU, paper-clipped to an old photo of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser; Tweet from Tarek Shalaby on January 14, 2011: “WE WILL FOLLOW! RT @SultanAlQassemi: Tunisians are the heroes of the Arab world.”

Egypt’s 2011 protests have been fueled by the music of its slogans and chants, which have become a group exercise in the construction and reconstruction of meaning. Beyond Tahrir, a global audience has wanted to listen in, and two recent books have opened it up to English-language audiences: Tweets from Tahrir and Messages from Tahrir. The former is the first book in English to give voice to what happened in downtown Cairo’s main square, and early in the process its editors decided to forgo translation and use only tweets originally written in English. Editor Alex Nunns said that many of the Arabic tweets contained too much information for 140 English characters, and that “it would have looked false if some tweets had been really long.” Messages from Tahrir, on the other hand, is a photograph-heavy book that displays many of the signs and slogans of the square. Its editor, Karima Khalil, had no choice but to translate the sometimes-rhyming, often-humorous snippets of Arabic. In so doing, she confronted many of the difficulties of a translator of poetry. Poetry has its own linguistic concerns—surprise, echo, sound—but both verse and slogans often require that the translator work in tight, idiomatic spaces where there is little room to balance one part of the text with another, to lose and make up ground.

The gold standard of Arabic-English slogan translation is British Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif’s 2005 reportage for the Guardian on protests in Cairo. One of the chants might well have been “The soldier is oppressed in the army / He eats lentils and wears rags.” This translation adequately reflects the chant’s meaning, but it loses what makes it significant: the desire to repeat it. Soueif translated the chant instead as “A soldier gets a lousy deal / rotten clothes, one lousy meal”—something that you could shout over and over until your throat grew raw.

Humor is also difficult to rebuild in the target language. One protest sign that gave Khalil particular trouble reads, in popular transliteration: IR7AL YA BARID / MARATY WE 3EYSALI WA7ASHOUNY. Ir7al, or Irhal, is relatively simple. It voices one of the core demands of protesters across the Arabic-writing world, and has been translated widely as “leave.” While there are no capital letters in Arabic, Khalil chose to echo the sign-bearer’s insistence with “LEAVE.” MARATY WE 3EYSALI WA7ASHOUNY is also straightforward, a humorous aside echoed by many of the protesters: “I miss my wife and children.” Many added “I just got married” or “I just had a new baby.”

The trouble is ya barid. Ya, which serves to attract the attention of the subject, does not translate easily into contemporary English. It is sometimes rendered as “o,” but in novels and short stories it is usually omitted. Barid should be easy: it means “cold, chilly, unfriendly, phlegmatic.”There is no direct match in English, but there are many English words that similarly equate temperature and temperament. Still, in English, adjectives do this work, and it is difficult to credibly turn them into nouns. “Leave, you cold-hearted man” fails the sign-holder’s pithiness and sounds as though it might be calling for the end to a bad romantic relationship. “Leave, you cold-hearted bastard” is sufficiently pithy, but too boorish. “Leave, Mr. Icy” and “Leave, Your Coldness” take on the tone of a children’s picture book.

After consulting with friends and colleagues, Khalil decided to leave out the phrase ya barid entirely, and to focus on the core sentiment: “LEAVE. I miss my wife and children.” The sign’s humor remains, though the ironic intimacy of the shout-out to former president Hosni Mubarak is lost. This “translation by omission” is a more common strategy than most readers acknowledge, and one that may make many of us uncomfortable—but it is unlikely that translation would work without it.

M. Lynx Qualey

M. Lynx Qualey had a baby mid-February. His middle name is Tahrir.

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