When Is Revolution Untranslatable? When It’s Fast and Funny

Dr. Mona Elnamoury attended the Eleventh Cairo International Symposium: on “Creativity and the Revolution” and shared her observations about the translatability of the funny bone. 

By Mona Elnamoury

If the Egyptians are known for one thing, regionally, it’s for their humor. The Egyptian is ibn nukta (the son of a joke) and dammu zayy il ‘asal (his blood is like honey) and dammu khafiif (his blood is light). If you found that these translations didn’t resonate in English, then you are tuned in with Bahaa Mazid, a professor of linguistics at Sohag University, who spoke about the humorous aspects of the Lotus Revolution.

Mazid is concerned with the lighter side of the revolution — namely, humor — which is both an index and a tool of creativity. Humor was around before, during, and after the January 25 revolution, both as an method of eliminating complex emotions by bringing them to the fore and as a subversive critique of tyranny, corruption, and repression. Mazid argues that this side of the revolution is almost untranslatable, much like the above expressions, which mean, in essence, that the Egyptian is innately funny.

But what do creativity, humor, and revolution have in common?

In the first day’s panel, entitled “Creativity and the Revolution,” authors Mohamed Aly Khair, Sahar Almougy, Ezz Eldin Choukri Fishere, and Yehia Mokhtar all agreed that revolution is itself a creative act based on subverting an existing system. This is what Mazid thinks, too. To him, humor is creative. Revolution is creative. And creativity is often revolutionary — and occasionally funny.

But humor has reasons of its own, of which Mazid gives three: relief (in tense situations, such as unpredictable Tahrir square, humor relieves the tension), incongruity (in humor, two unpaired ideas are often paired) and finally superiority( by making fun of something or someone we feel we have control over it).

“Subversive political humor” is part of being Egyptian. The characteristics of revolutionary humor are spontaneity and promptness. The jokes and comments are right on the spot. They are heavily intertextual, as they cite folk culture and allude to texts and events. They are rhythmic.

Bahaa mentions as an example ‘asa7bi/ ‘asaħbi — a distortion of ya Saaħbi (hey, my friend) — a caricature that has become a meme since the outbreak of the revolution, making critical and satirical comments on almost every aspect of Egyptian social, political, and cultural life. The character, with whom many facebookers are familiar, is a youth whose features can be easily seen on the streets.

I see ‘sahbi as a genius comical invention to represent the lower middle class and even the lower working class with a slightly malnourished look, a particular accent, and the funny hair style. However, I do not see him as belittled in the jokes. In fact, the way he criticizes the inconsistencies around him, and, as Mazid says, pairs the unpaired together, makes him a stronger character and shows him as the upcoming rebel in a wave yet to come.

Other examples are the witty comments about Mubarak like this one : “Ɂirga3 yaa rayyis yirDiik ya3ni nikhtaar illi yħkumna yirDiik” (Come back, Mr. President. Do you like to see us electing our ruler?) Of course, the sarcastic Egyptian here is making fun of the old days when Egyptians could not elect their president. Egyptians, it seems, have been used to lack of democracy so much that it now can hurt. Also, we have this one funny comic, “ Ɂirga3 yaa rayyis mish laa2yiiin 2ism li mħaTTit ramsiis fi l mitru” (Come back, Mr. President; we cannot find a name for the Ramses Metro Station ).

Mazid argues that this one is very funny, mock-heroic and very typically Egyptian. The Ramses station used to carry Mubarak’s name. The name was removed after the revolution. During his regime, Mubarak ordered the transfer of the statue from the central station.

But perhaps the most untranslatable ones are the street flirtations that spread at that time. Some of which are translated by Mazid here:

أنا مش بتاع “فترات انتقالية”.. أنا بتاع استقرار يا جميل…
I am not into transitional periods. I am into a settlement (I like to settle down, beauty).

واحشني وحظر التجوال حايشني
I am missing you but the curfew is stopping me.

خدي الاجنده ونسمي بنتنا شاهنده
Take the agenda and let’s name our baby girl Shahindah.

الجميل تحرير ولا رد الجميل
Hey beauty, are you liberation or gratitude (Tahrir or those who feel grateful to Mubarak)

تحرير ولا مصطفى محمود يا قطة
Hey kitten, where do you belong: Tahrir or Moustafa Mahmoud

الشعب يريد رقم تليفونك
The people want to have your telephone number

احنا أسفين يا مزه
We are sorry, chickie.

These are the most deictic expressions. They are still translated, of course, but do they have the same effect of wit and laughter? Inevitably we will end up with thick translations in order to catch the humor but the instant wit will be lost in the process.

Dr. Mona Elnamoury is a lecturer at the faculty of Arts, English Dept., Tanta University. She also teaches at the MSA in the faculty of Languages and Translation, and has translated Ursula LeGuin into Arabic. She also writes.