In the Mailbag: Seductions of Translation in Egypt

Well, the DHL guy doesn’t actually have a bag. But he came around yesterday with Shaden Tageldin’s Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt tucked up under his arm.

Last night, I read the book’s “overture.” In Tageldin’s reading, Edward Said’s Orientalism gives us a purely oppositional relationship between (colonial) domination and (colonized) resistance, whereas she is particularly interested in the come-hither, the eros of the dominator’s discourse: the “translational seduction.” (She also writes about Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti’s underwear, which is fun.)

It has recently become a common trope that Arab societies don’t translate “enough”; Tageldin cites Umberto Eco’s 2001 call to “counter the assaults of Islamic ‘fundamentalism’ on the West by bringing Arab and Muslim students to the West to ‘study [its] customs and practices.'”  She also rolls her eyes at the 2003 Arab Human Development Report, which spuriously claims that Arabs have translated one book for every million translated by a (very overworked) Spaniard, or something like that.

Her conclusion, she says, “examines a 1929 exchange between the Egyptian literati Taha Husayn and ‘Abbas Mahmud al-‘Aqqad that centers on two interrelated questions. First, between conquerors and the conquered, who translates whom more, and why? Second, is cross-cultural translation motivated by love or war?”

This is rich ground, and I look forward to reading the whole book. Of course, it’s outside of Tageldin’s scope, but it makes me reflect immediately on the world of children’s books in Egypt. I asked people, recently, to help me estimate what percentage of Arabic children’s books sold in Egypt are translations from English, French, and other languages. I got answers ranging from 20% (surely much too low) to 99 percent (I don’t think this was serious). Whereas the number of children’s books translated into English each year is surely less than a percentage.

There are a myriad of reasons for this: a push and a pull from Western commercial characters (Barney! Dora!), translation subsidies, high-quality literary productions coming out of rich nations. The end result is a stifling of local children’s-lit production. There are a good number of children’s books available in Arabic, and that’s great. But how many were written by Arabs, reflecting local sensibilities? No, that’s not the important question: How many of them build a local reality, an Egyptian understanding of the world, a true Egyptian self?

Certainly there are authors, like Rania Hussein Amin and Walid Taher, who work hard to do this.

Also in the mailbag (or under the DHL guy’s arm):

Habibi, Craig Thompson. Reading this 1,001 Nights-inspired onslaught of rich calligraphy and Orientalist imagery was a bit like eating 10 chocolate cakes at a sitting. I believe it was Manan Ahmed who pointed me in the direction of asking how much Arabic Thompson had learned for the project (he told Mother Jones  “just enough”) and the book does have some “just-enough” understanding of the cliches and tropes it’s trying to play with. Unfortunately, most Egyptians probably won’t be able to judge for themselves. Thompson has said part of his project is “playing” with the Qur’an, much as he played with Christianity in his previous graphic novel, Blankets. For this reason and others, I’m going to guess that the censorship office is not going to give this one a green light.

Bye Bye Babylone Beyrouth 1975-1979, Lamia Ziadé. Haven’t opened it up yet, other than to flip through, but the drawings look pretty cool.

The Arrogant Years, Lucette Lagnado. King Farouk’s era as a “lost Golden Age”? Hunh. How do we define a “golden age”? One in which some few very wealthy people had very nice lives? (And do “the arrogant years” really end?) I’m just a few chapters in, but feeling skeptical. Looking to pair this with reading Andre Aciman’s Alibis, two books by Jews who spent time in Egypt.


  1. Thanks for the enticing post, Marcia! One clarification, however: while Mahfouz’s work often was compared to that of Balzac and Dickens, he actually found Dickens unreadable. In my overture, I refer to a 1990 interview by the _Sunday Times_ of London in which Mahfouz had been asked to comment on his relationship to Western literature. Mahfouz spoke of Egyptian culture at large, not of himself per se: “Yes, we know Western literature here. In fact, we love it too much.” Further, in my (brief) reference to the _2003 Arab Human Development Report_, I do not so much contest its statistics as interrogate its bedrock assumption: that Arabs don’t translate “enough,” as you say. The report’s quantifying energies elide the qualitative impact that translation historically has had on Arabic literature and thought. –Shaden Tageldin

    1. Ah, well, you should contest its statistics. Or I suppose Richard Jacquemond has already done so; in any case, all the Mickey comics books translated in a year would way more than 10 Spanish elephants balanced on the head of a pin. But yes, Spain has probably still translated more Dean Koontz and Danielle Steele than Egypt. Although I’d argue we get more bad American TV!

      Look forward to seeing you in November– M.

      1. I certainly question the statistics cited in the _2003 Arab Human Development Report_, but my book (on nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Egypt) focuses on other issues entirely, so an actual analysis and empirically grounded contestation of those statistics lies outside its scope. Richard Jacquemond has indeed done that work; Samia Mehrez also has powerfully critiqued the 2003 Report. As for Mickey and his ilk, the translation of children’s literature opens up a whole set of fascinating questions! Thanks for your provocative reflections on that topic. And look forward to seeing you in November as well! –Shaden

  2. as the author of THE ARROGANT YEARS and the Man in the White Sharkskin Suit — which takes place much more in the Farouk era actually — i did want to make one small point if i may, and that is that if the old monarchy era benefitted only a few then please consider the plight of the overwhelming majority of Egyptians SINCE the revolution of 1952 and for that matter the one of january 2011 — i would point out that in addition to the unbelievable poverty crushing misery lack of opportunities and lack of hope that accompanied a SIXTY-YEAR military takeover there was also far less political debate and freedom under the colonels than under Farouk or for that matter Fouad; and more to the point egypt had been a multicultural society that once embraced Jews and Christians along with Muslims — and these managed to be together quite contendedly — but look at it now — the jews are gone, a community of some 80,000 had to flee and now the Christians aren’t faring too well either; and that is why i refer to a Golden Era — a time when Cairo was considered a world-class city, which it is not now and hasn’t been since by any stretch of the imagination — lucette lagnado.

    1. Yes, as someone who lives in Cairo and is raising my children here, I am acutely (acutely!) aware of this city’s major problems. But perhaps the notion of “world-class” is a bit fraught, without an accompanying analysis of power structures & money.

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