An interview with Samia Mehrez

Nazry Bahrawi

Photograph by Ahmed El Nimr

Already an accomplished literary critic, Samia Mehrez of the American University in Cairo, or AUC, looks set to re-invigorate the field of translation theory come February with the publication of her edited volume Translating Egypt's Revolution: The Language of Tahrir (AUC Press, 2012). Focused on Egypt's Jan 25 uprising and its aftermath, the book features writings in which "the revolutionary moment is read as a layered and open text", as Samia tells us. The book is set to open up a new discourse that will link translation theory to the Arab uprisings.

Samia is currently the director of AUC's newly established Centre for Translation Studies. A graduate of the University of California (Los Angeles), she taught at Cornell University for six years before joining the AUC in 1990. Samia's impressive array of intellectual endeavours include translations of the works of Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim and poet-painter Abdul Hadi Al-Gazzar, and the companion edited anthologies of translations The Literary Atlas of Cairo: One Hundred Years on the Streets of the City and The Literary Life of Cairo: One Hundred Years in the Heart of the City (AUC Press, 2010, 2011), but also such interesting academic books like Egypt's Culture Wars: Politics and Practice (Routledge, 2008, AUC Press 2010).

'Translating Revolution', the spring seminar that you ran at the American University of Cairo (AUC) was formerly titled 'Translation, Children's Literature and Cultural Representation'. At first glance, the change seems radical. Did you intend to start a module exploring wholly new issues?

The January 25 uprising in Egypt that deposed former president Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011 essentially coincided with the start of the spring semester at AUC, whose students, faculty, and staff were regular participants in the demonstrations and the initial two-week-long sit-in in Midan al-Tahrir (Tahrir Square) that had become the daily destination for thousands if not millions of Egyptians. On February 12, one day after Mubarak stepped down, the AUC re-opened its gates for the spring semester to the great dismay of many members of its community who felt that their daily involvement in the raw, unfolding historic events would be substantially impacted, diverted, perhaps even severed. Fortunately, faculty members were invited to design courses, practically on the spot, that would address various aspects of the Egyptian revolution that would step up the AUC community's interaction with events even if not directly on the ground in Tahrir. "Translating Revolution" was one of the courses proposed as part of this important initiative and has since provided the participants with a solid anchor in Egypt's continuing revolution. Many of the courses proposed for this initiative were last-minute but intuitively crucial courses that were meant to respond to an urgent collective need on the ground. In many ways therefore, "Translating Revolution" was itself a revolutionary course. It was at once spontaneous and motivated by a level of collective energy and commitment that were born of the moment. The course provided a crucial platform for all of us involved to continue to read "the text" of the revolution together, and to engage in understanding, coming to terms with, and translating it to each other and for each other. Obviously at the very heart of the revolutionary "text" lay the question of power: the overthrow of a corrupt and paternal regime that infantilised an entire people for far too long. Now they were determined to "grow up", even the actual children present in the thousands during the demonstrations with banners were claiming their rights.

The seminar attracted Egyptian and foreign students, undergraduates and graduates whose linguistic abilities and cultural competencies and experiences complemented one another, and who were all motivated by a desire to translate the revolution – as the title of the seminar promised – even though then it was perhaps not quite clear what exactly such a project might entail. The content of the course and the projects undertaken by the participants were decided upon collectively at the beginning of the term. My role as instructor was to inform these choices and projects through selected theoretical readings in the field of translation studies in order to broaden, re-define, and relocate the very notion of translation. The projects undertaken by the participants in the seminar are now a book that will be published by AUC Press in 2012 under the title Translating Egypt's Revolution: The Language of Tahrir. The contributors are: Amira Taha, Chris Combs, Heba Salem, Kantaro Taira, Laura Gribbon, Lewis Sanders IV, Mark Visonà, Menna Khalil, Sahar Keraitim, and Sarah Hawas.

photo by Laura Gribbon

The very idea of revolution is mired in the concept of agency. In the course description for 'Translating Revolution', you highlighted that students will also explore "the translator's role in society as an agent of social change". The first thing that springs to mind here is the translation of Dr Gene Sharp's list of 198 non-violent resistance "weapons", such as mock funerals and flags, that was distributed to demonstrators at Tahrir Square. How do you see this playing out in the Egyptian revolution?

The scholarship on the relationship between ritual and politics has shown that traditional rituals and symbolic practices are the potential "lifeblood of revolution" that can provide an impetus for change and a powerful tool for delegitimisation. Most of the chapters in Translating Egypt's Revolution engage these non-violent resistance "weapons". For example, chapter I (Mulid al-Tahrir: Semiotics of a Revolution) reads and translates the reappropriation and revolutionisation of traditional mulid-like rituals and festivities that characterise both demonstrations and sit-ins in Tahrir and elsewhere. Anyone who has been in Tahrir during the initial, memorable 18 days and later throughout the past months will no doubt have noted the festive, creative, uplifting ambience that has dominated the midan (square) even during repeated confrontations between the protestors and the security forces and military police. They will also have noted how the general dispositions of the actors in the midan bore many traces of the popular mulid (a revered or religious/spiritual figure's birthday celebration), a traditional form of carnivalesque festivities that has been celebrated in Egypt for hundreds of years and whose rituals, enacted by multitudes of demonstrators, were marshaled, politicised, and revolutionised during the massive protests and sit-ins to sustain and transform the impetus and impact of revolt. Indeed, the chapter argues that one of the vital inspirational and organisational sources for the tactics and strategies of life in Midan al-Tahrir during the initial days of the revolution and well beyond was precisely this historic familiarity of the millions of people who came to the midan with the codes of conduct during these extended and elaborate rituals and festivities of the popular mulid celebrations. Once the protestors achieved a critical point of strength and mass density and support that needed to be sustained over an extended period of time within the reclaimed midan, the experience and legacy of the mulid in Egyptian culture and history became a very salient and useful one. Despite initial resistance from various activist groups against the presence of peddlers and street vendors in Tahrir who are normally an integral part of mulid celebrations, it quickly became clear that the celebratory mulid-like energy that installed itself in the midan would become one of the most effective didactic experiences for millions of Egyptians alongside a whole spectrum of creative tactics of mass protest within the midan, all of which effectively transformed traditional ritual into an inciting mode of revolt.

Part of your module's aim is to archive and translate materials – slogans, jokes, speeches and communiqués – related to the Egyptian revolution. Another part incorporates translation theory as a lens to interpret the process of translating the Egyptian revolution. Does the upcoming book lean more towards the former or the latter?

I believe that at the heart of the forthcoming book lie two questions: how does one translate revolution, and what does it mean to produce revolutionary translation? The project therefore leans towards a theoretical reading of the process of translating revolution even as the contributors engage the translation of revolutionary texts (poems, songs, jokes, banners, slogans, blogs, etc.) that have decidedly remapped and redefined the contours and meanings of both public culture and public space. Given the range and scope of the material and its different linguistic registers - and referential worlds - these cultural, visual, and performative products present a great challenge to any translator not just at the immediate linguistic level but more importantly – and herein lies the real challenge – at the discursive, semiotic and symbolic meanings of revolution at both the local and global levels and contexts. We could call it "thick translation", in which the revolutionary moment is read as a layered and open text. At the core of our conversation is the understanding that translation is not simply a linguistic process of exchange or transfer between two individual texts, but rather a contextual operation that requires mediation and negotiation between texts within their cultural contexts. Translation is therefore engaged and undertaken as a perpetual process of decoding and recoding, in which the translator transcends the purely linguistic level to one of creative transposition. This liberating understanding of the processes that lie at the heart of translation problematises and surpasses the notion of full equivalence between language systems. As Roman Jacobson argued more than half a century ago: synonymy between languages is never possible, for signification and meanings are always culture bound; hence the impossibility of sameness in any translation. The challenge for any translator therefore is to negotiate and operate within that space in-between as she or he carries across a text from a source to a target language, culture, history, and context. This understanding of the centrality of difference not sameness in translation allows us to go beyond arguments about loss and gain, fidelity and betrayal, to come to think differently about the very task and role of the translator, as well as the very meaning and urgency of translation itself, specifically within this revolutionary context.

Back in 2007, you pointed out the difficulty of translating gender by plugging into the debate between Egyptian philosopher Hassan Hanafi and feminist Hoda Elsadda. In a nutshell, Hanafi thinks gender discourses are a Western import while Elsadda believes that gender is a concept deserving of universal recognition. As you reflect on that piece now, what is your take on this?

I still believe that the positions that were articulated in the piece I wrote on Translating Gender still hold even after the revolution. Despite the fact that the initial Tahrir moment promised a hopeful and different conversation around gender issues, I feel that given the current impasse and setback in the revolutionary momentum this potentially liberating conversation has been put on the backburner. We may indeed be witnessing a relapse into a discourse on gender that relegates it to imperial conspiratorial design. But let me also add that the "million woman march" in Tahrir that coincided with International Woman's Day last March was simply a bad translation.

Translator and academic Elliot Colla – whose translation of Adonis' essay titled Ambiguity appeared in our last issue – wrote this about the difficulty of translating the Egyptian revolution's protest chants for a foreign audience: "The poetry of this revolt is not reducible to a text that can be read and translated in words, for it is also an act in and of itself." Do you agree with this reading?

Absolutely! Indeed one of the spectacular aspects of the revolution has been the epic-like nature of the chants – open verse to which new lines are added collectively as the revolution unfolds throughout the nation – not to mention the number of poems by young and established poets in spoken Egyptian and formal Arabic, as well as songs (old, reclaimed patriotic ones, as well as new pop and hip-hop). Chapter IV (The Soul of Tahrir: Poetics of a Revolution) in our forthcoming book looks at the polyphonic lyrical tapestry of tahrir (liberation) that manifested itself since the beginning of the uprising in January. It is this lyrical polyphony that characterises it as "the soul of Tahrir", whereby suddenly poetry that was believed to have receded in face of the avalanche of narrative literature prior to the revolution, has come back to occupy the forefront of revolutionary cultural production.

Let's talk about your own views of the Egyptian revolution and its impact on culture. One of your recommendations has been to rethink the way cultural institutions in Egypt are structured: "In the past these institutions served the state and not the people. They benefited the elite. Culture should be at the service of the people." Yet it is also under the ambit of such institutions that the novelist Naguib Mahfouz became the first Arab to win of the Nobel Prize. Given that Mahfouz is also renowned for his sense of folk literature, as you have showcased in your book The Literary Atlas of Cairo, how do we reconcile this with the charge of elitism you have observed?

Not at all! It wasn't state institutions that won Naguib Mahfouz the Nobel Prize. It was sheer hard work on the margin of these state institutions. I could go into a very lengthy discussion here but it suffices to say that Mahfouz's work in its entirety was never published by state cultural outlets; it was published by Maktabat Misr, which is a privately owned enterprise. The rights were later bought by Dar al-Shorouk, another privately owned publishing house. Furthermore, to say that Mahfouz was "renowned for his folk literature" is to misrepresent his lifetime project. Mahfouz was an author of and from the middle class. His representations of that class were actually constrained by the level of language (formal written Arabic) that he consciously and deliberately adopted till the very end. He deliberately avoided the use of Egyptian Arabic in his novels, even in the lengthy dialogues between his characters. Mahfouz's novels circulated among an Arab cultural elite and he was only popularised through cinematic adaptations of his works.

But to answer your question: the statement I made, and that you cited in your question with regard to cultural production in post-revolutionary Egypt, was prefaced by another more important statement. I argued that the basic demands of the revolution "Bread, Freedom, Human Dignity" needed to be applied to the cultural field itself, so that young experimental artists as well as new unconventional and unrestrictive venues for cultural production needed to be supported in this revolutionary moment.

The January 25 uprising produced a plethora of public performances, sketches, street art, graffiti, poetry, and chanting that all sprung up through independent artists and groups in and around Midan al-Tahrir in a manner that redefined the very role and place of cultural production that is the subject and focus of several of the chapters in our forthcoming volume. This was culture of the people for the people, all inspired by Tahrir. It was in the aftermath of this jubilant creativity that Egypt witnessed its new public art festivals that are significantly called Al-Fann Midan ('art is a midan') in more than one reclaimed public space in thirteen cities throughout Egypt, the first of which was held in Midan Abdin, across from Abdin Palace, which had always been a state-guarded space. This would have been unheard of and quite unthinkable given the former regime's restrictions on the use of public space. The re-signified space of Midan al-Tahrir therefore also led to a re-signified relationship to public space(s) in general, not to mention the performers (predominantly from Tahrir) and the nature of performances as well as the audiences that overwhelmingly come from neighborhoods that had been denied such cultural participation under the elitist and commoditized cultural practices, policies, and politics of the former regime.

An interesting focus of AUC's 'Translating Revolution' seminar is the idea of translating revolutionary humour. In translation studies, there has been little focus on translating humour. Can political humour be translated?

The title of Chapter V in Translating Egypt's Revolution encapsulates this problem: "Al-Thawra al-Dahika: The Challenges of Translating Revolutionary Humor." As you can plainly see from the title itself, the authors decided to maintain the Arabic "Al-Thawra al-Dahika" (the laughing revolution) that had become a label for the Egyptian revolution not only because of the avalanche of political jokes that it has generated and continues to generate, but more importantly perhaps because of the very structure and instant dissemination of the jokes themselves, which to a great extent parodied both traditional and social media discourses, forms, and languages. Maintaining the Arabic was a strategic move through which the authors wanted to foreground the tension between humor and its translation(s). Political humour is always embedded in a political culture and history that are both key to understanding and appreciating the subtleties, ambiguities, and subversive referential worlds of the political joke. This chapter explores the challenges of translating Egyptian political jokes of the revolution and the extent to which notions of fidelity and equivalence may not necessarily 'carry over' in translating humor across cultures. Interestingly, the co-authors of this chapter are an Egyptian instructor of Arabic and a Japanese graduate student in Arabic literature. Their very partnership in this particular chapter further accentuated the challenges of translating humor from one culture to the other. These are issues they explore throughout their contribution.

One of the main issues that have emerged with regards to the post-revolution landscape in Egypt is the role that al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin, or the Muslim Brotherhood, will play in shaping politics and society. Some have raised the spectre of religious fundamentalism taking root. The Brotherhood themselves have downplayed this, saying that western governments have overhyped the Brotherhood's influence. Based on your translation of revolution documents and other materials, how do you think this will pan out?

I think that we have to wait and see how the Ikhwan will translate themselves as a political force now that they are a legitimate and plurivocal/multilingual political entity and not a monolingual "underground" movement. As you rightly indicate, we are already witnessing a proliferation of voices, positions, strategies, and alliances. In addition, the region offers more than one model of translation for the Ikhwan: from Turkey to Iran and everything else in between. It is also important to remember that translation never occurs in a vacuum, it always needs to be placed in a political, historical, and cultural context. I believe that the Brotherhood is aware of these politics of translation.

Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif uses Arabic words sparingly in her translations into English, as she believes that translation must be free from "foreignising" terms because these constitute "stumbling blocks to empathy, to entering the spirit of the book". As a literary and translation critic, do you agree with Soueif's view?

In Arabic, the word "translation" is itself a foreign word, "tarjama", referring at once to translating the other, but also, and significantly in this context, to translating the self (the word for autobiography in Arabic is also "tarjama"). So, "foreignising" here is not to be regarded as a "stumbling block" but rather as a genuine attempt at translating oneself as different and not the same. To claim that translating Arabic words into English is "to facilitate understanding" is therefore self-effacing, actually self-denying, specifically in face of the English language with its colonial and imperial history. Having said this, I believe that Ahdaf Souief's project is one in which she foreignises the English language itself not just by deliberately adopting literal translation from the Arabic but also by arabising English language syntax and structure. It is in this sense that her work is a veritable and radical translation (tarjama) of the self.

You once penned a review of the Egyptian movie Bahibb Issima (I Love Cinema) in which you called it a bold move on the part of cultural producers in Egypt to enable "the Coptic community to become a real and active participant in the public sphere". Will the revolution revolutionise multiculturalism?

Sadly, I answer this question on Monday October 10, just one day after the unruly attack by the military police on peaceful, predominantly Coptic demonstrators marching from the neighborhood of Shubra, where there is a heavy concentration of the Coptic population, to the state television building in Maspero to demand accountability for the burning of a church in the governorate of Aswan approximately one week ago (see Sarah Carr's detailed and graphic rendition of this massacre on her blog "Inanities"). Demonstrators were shot with live bullets and crushed to death by army vehicles. Official accounts have put the death toll at 24 and the injured at 329. I'm certain that many have already seen the daunting images, testimonies, and accounts that have been posted on the net. Obviously this is not the first time the Copts have been attacked since the beginning of the revolution. Scandalously the official scenario each time has been the same: alleged conspiracies against national unity, infiltrators, baltagiya (thugs) of the former regime, and so on and so forth. And each time, those responsible have not been identified or punished!

What is heartening, despite all of this violence, discrimination, and injustice is the genuine anger about these events and the solidarity with the Copts that we have witnessed from Muslims. Obviously, this is not true of all Muslims. But still many are determined to propel the Coptic question to the forefront and to put it squarely on the agenda, especially given mounting anxieties about the future powers-to-be in Egypt. The scene today at the funerals of the Coptic martyrs inside and outside the Cathedral with thousands of Copts and Muslims chanting together, culminating in a massive march towards Midan al-Tahrir was at once very moving and definitely symbolic of the determination and visibility of an active Coptic community in the public sphere that is a necessary and indispensible partner in Egypt's post-revolutionary future.