The Difficulty of Translating Protest: My Blood Is on Your…

Quotes around "proud" probably not the best option.

The chants, slogans, and signs of the 2011 Egyptian revolution have been fodder for translation (and translation theorists) since the first protests on January 25.

In late January, Elliott Colla wrote an essay about the use of protest chants—and the difficulties in translating them—for Jadaliyya. This linguistic challenge is also part of the coursework of a new spring class at the American University in Cairo, Dr. Samia Mehrez’s “Translating the Revolution.” And the protest signs in particular are the subject of a forthcoming book, Messages from Tahrir: Signs from the Egyptian Revolution.

Colla addressed the difficulty of translating chants for a foreign audience, noting that, “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.”

The forthcoming Messages from Tahrir, edited by Karima Khalil, preserves some of this performity, as it is primarily a collection of photographs. Still, the network of meanings and the “aliveness” of the signs are difficult to capture in such limited spaces.

Khalil notes, in an email, that she was challenged by a sign that read دمي في رقبتك. She did not opt for the literal translation (“my blood is on your neck”), but instead the more comfortable “my blood is on your conscience.” She said that she didn’t find it ideal, but added that it was “the closest I could get to the implicit meaning of ‘my blood is your responsibility’ that is inbuilt in ‘ra2abtak.’ I mean, ‘my blood is on your neck’ gets one nowhere and ‘my blood is on your hands’ is not quite right either.”

The literal translation of “my blood is on your neck” does take the reader outside his comfort zone, evoking a space and context beyond the words on the sign. While it may take a little decoding—since the expression in English is slightly different—the new body part (neck instead of hands) enlivens the English language and makes us think about responsibility in a different way. However, it also moves away from the directness of the sign, which does not have this linguistic “strangeness” in Arabic.

A direct translation also has the unfortunate consequence of, for some readers, exoticizing the Egyptian struggle.

Khalil didn’t detail why “my blood is on your hands” didn’t feel quite right, although each phrase links out to a different tangle of meanings, and the back of the neck carries a number of emotions that the hands do not.

When author Ahdaf Soueif translated Egyptian protest chants for The Guardian in 2005, she also abandoned this sort of local flavor in favor of a British-English colloquialism. Fuul, bey, and even lentils disappear:

العسكري مظلوم في الجيش …. ياكل عدس و يلبس خيش

A soldier gets a lousy deal/rotten clothes, one lousy meal

يا سوزان قوللي للبيه: طبق الفول باتنين جنيه

Hey Suzanne tell the lord: even beans we can’t afford

Indeed, for Khalil’s book, she said, “I was most concerned with approximating their meaning and general spirit and in keeping the tone of the book quite colloquial.”

A recent blog post from Dr. Mehrez’s course looks at a few chants in-depth, working at the exceptionally difficult task of preserving (some of) their rhythm and meaning in very tiny spaces.

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8 comments

  1. Thanks for posting this thoughtful post. Re the your question under the cover photo, I suspect he thought putting quotes around “proud” would give it emphasis….

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  2. Thanks for this thoughtful evokation on the problematic of translation. Ironically, given other recent conversations, translation is not outside theoretical quandries but within their realm. As Althusser confirmed for us the word ‘theory’ comes from the Greek word for the practice of seeing and viewing. That being the case, your thoughtful response shows that any practice of translation is at best partial. But rather than accepting that partiality as a failure, your response is more generous and looks at the very medium and at times the mode of expression. That is very ethical and considerate. It is even more difficult when dealing with the task of everyday use of Arabic. Chants are part of oral culture and while oral culture has its own written rules and conventions concerning what is proper, they are in their mode–‘ammia (colloquial) Arabic–a challenge for critics who know the language but trained to respond to more formal concerns of their field.
    Thanks again for letting us know what is on the horizon. I think you should know that in response to a panel for the MLA conference in 2012 (the one on postcolonialism and alternative modernities) I had suggested that it was these very revolutions that were a living example of translation-in-action. I suggested that the way they were being spoken about in and across and beyond the region of the Arab world was at issue. Of course, treating the revolution as an example of postcolonial literary form did not sit well the people deciding who would get invited to speak on the panel. I did not get selected.

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  3. Man, times have changed in Arabic translation. I feel like when I was translating in undergrad and grad school in the late ’90s, anything but straight up “My blood is on your neck” would’ve been taboo. I always suspected this literalism was bound up in a certain need to prove you really _knew_ Arabic and all its complexities. It really ruined some translations of great books, unfortunately. It blew my mind when I took a translation seminar with William Weaver, and he showed how much he played with Italian.

    Anyway, great to see this concise post about all the translation issues at work, and on such a current topic.

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      • And this:

        I had problems with Calvino because he thought he knew English. He would fall in love with English words. Every now and then he would fiddle with a sentence in his English. At one point he fell madly in love with the word feedback, and he didn’t realize that in America feedback is like closure or spinning out of control, something you hear constantly on television. It’s jargon and cliché, and you can’t use it anymore. The word is dead to literature, but to him it was new and fascinating. He thought it was fun and so he kept putting it into this story where it really didn’t belong, and I kept taking it out. Finally the last proofs came, and I took it out definitively. And I’m sorry to say he died before he had the book in his hands, so he never knew that I’d done this to him.

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