Cairo’s First Translation Slam: Communicating by Sound, Relationship, or Force?

What is a lonesome monkey? Did translator Trevor LeGassick ever eat a bean patty? What do Canadians think of when they think of arugula? These are a few questions that came up at Cairo’s first-ever translation slam:

By Elisabeth Jaquette

Adam Talib and Randa Abou Bakr grappled with these questions and more in Cairo’s first ever Arabic Translation Slam, hosted by the British Council on May 28. Talib and Abou Bakr went head to head over their translations of a passage from Yusuf el Rayya’s ‘Ashiq el-Hayy in a discussion moderated by Neil Hewison, Associate Director for Editorial Programs at the American University of Cairo Press. Adam Talib is Assistant Professor of classical Arabic literature at the American University of Cairo, and Randa Abou Bakr is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cairo University.

The night began with a reading of the original Arabic passage followed by Abou Bakr and Talib’s translations, as audience members had the chance to follow along in print. Hewison said he hoped the evening would illuminate how and why translators make certain linguistic choices and what they go through when they tackle a text.


Much of the discussion revolved around how to handle cultural content, such as references to a certain brand, or colloquial, idiomatic expressions. What does a translator do with the phrase allah ya wareeki, or the author’s mention of a pack of Cleopatra cigarettes and a bundle of girgeer?

Round 1:

Arabic: أشعل سيجارة كليوباترا، ولم يلق عود الثقاب في المنفضة التي سحبها معه إلى غرفة النوم، وضعها على الكومودينو، ومدد طوله على السرير

Talib: He lit a cigarette—a Cleopatra—but rather than toss the matchstick into the ashtray he’d brought to the bedroom with him, he set it down on the bedside table and lay back on the bed.

Abou Bakr: He took a cigarette out of his local cigarette pack and lit it up, but did not cast the match in the ashtray, which he took along to the bedroom. He put the ashtray on the nightstand and stretched out on the bed.

Why remove the word ‘Cleopatra’ from the text, asked Hewison, and what cultural significance does it retain when you keep the word? While Abou Bakr felt it important to preserve the cultural content of idioms, brand names didn’t hold the same cultural currency for her. “Not all of the cultural background of a text is important, and I don’t try to reproduce every bit of it. I reproduce it when it’s related to a larger worldview of the author, but when it comes to a brand of a cigarette, I try to avoid confusing the reader. In the end you’re communicating the mindset of the author and the worldview that informs a literary work – you don’t have to see that in particular words like Cleopatra or girgeer. When I say cultural content, I mean the way those people think, their attitudes towards women, phrases they use that would betray a certain worldview – things like tameyya have less to do with this than a idiomatic expression does.”

Talib, who included the word ‘Cleopatra’ in his translation, noted that these decisions are often simply intuitive. “I couldn’t have done this another way. Any time I encounter a brand name or something like this I try to shoehorn it in. It never occurs to me to do something else. It’s instinctive; I just do it. What’s relevant about Cleopatras? It might be interesting for someone reading in Canada that Egyptians call their cigarettes Cleopatras, but what’s relevant for the text is that it’s the cheapest brand of cigarettes.”

Yet in the end, including the word Cleopatra doesn’t convey that information, he confessed. “If anything, what I’ve written is misleading, because one expects that this sounds extra exotic to Canadian reader – he may think the character is smoking a Cleopatra like it’s a Cuban cigar. What I do is a stylistic choice but it’s not actually communicating the relevant information.”


Joining the discussion, translator Humphrey Davies spoke eloquently in support of keeping such words in the text, regardless of their ability to convey accurate or relevant information. “I feel strongly about the value of having Cleopatra there as a word irrespective of whether it conveys information, because I think as a reader you are putting together a world in which these people live, bit by bit, as you read every text, with every fragment. The more specific a word is, the more it helps you to construct that world, that imaginative world. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the fact that they are these cigarettes are the cheapest, which I agree is a relevant consideration. Words have a certain magic – there is something about them that sticks in your brain, especially when they are words like Cleopatra. They resonate, somehow. You don’t know why exactly they are resonating or what it is they are conveying to you, but it is part of that process of creating an engagement with that world you’re trying to enter into. I think it’s very important to keep the specificities.”

Round 2:

Arabic:         !الله ما يوريك

Talib:           God spare you!

Abou Bakr: Oh lord! Freakish stuff!

Talib and Abou Bakr espoused different strategies with regards to idiomatic expressions. “I generally don’t try to preserve the religious dimension of everything in the passage – but at the same time I’m not one of those translators who try to make Arabs read like French secularists,” said Talib. “I don’t de-Godify the Arabic text. But the danger is that keeping all the religious references can play into the stereotypes that a foreign reader might have about Arabs.”

With this expression and others, Abou Bakr tended to preserve the meaning of the original Arabic over finding a corresponding English phrase. “There are different strategies when do you choose to translate colloquial and idiomatic expressions,” she said. “You can translate it literally, but it wouldn’t carry the meaning – on the other hand something more close to the meaning doesn’t sound colloquial. You could find an equivalent expression, but that would be foreignizing the text, which I don’t like to do as a philosophy. If you provide an English idiom without the Arabic cultural content it’s a pity, because you lose something in the process. You have to make choices as to what you’re going to reproduce in the target text, because you can’t reproduce everything.”


Hewison concluded the discussion by asking Talib and Abou Bakr about their fundamental approach to translation: “Is it to make the reader feel that they are reading about an unfamiliar culture – not to bring them into any kind of comfort zone? Or is it to make the book read like a text that was written in English, which happens to be set in the Arab world?”


“I try to make the reader the most comfortable; I try to be the La-Z-Boy, business class translator,” said Talib. “I try to make it as easy for someone with no experience of the original context to pick it up and enjoy. I prettify, I simplify – at a minimum, without actually changing anything. At the same time I have a very heavy hand in my use of language. I think I have a personal style – when you read the translations, they read a lot more like what I write than the way the original authors write. Arab writers will use more metaphors than English writers and if you’re going to make readable English, you’re going to have to lose some of that. One day we’ll get a point where Arabic literature is seen sufficiently respectable and they can do that, but until that time, when a woman lets herself go, she can’t be ‘a wild mare breaking out of the stable’ – she can’t, not in my translation, not in 2013. It just doesn’t work. If we had a few more Nobel Prize winners, if we had a movement like magical realism, you could do that, but until then it’s just not a right that Arab authors have in translation.”

Abou Bakr embraced a different strategy. “I would translate a metaphor like that, because it reflects something about the culture, what they think about women. It might not be appealing to a western audience, but to me – who cares. I think of literary translation as an act of cultural exchange and I think of the text as communicating the culture it came from, and that is usually the thing I care about most about translation, which is why I tend towards foreignizing the text for the target reader. I don’t go with the comfort principle because I want the target reader to make extra effort at understanding and communicating with this culture, which is why I think the text should reflect the source culture. At the same time I like to be as invisible as possible as a translator.”

“There was this maligned generation of translators who weren’t particularly good writers, who wrote clunky text that turned people off Arabic literature,” agreed Talib. “That’s the kind of stuff I was first exposed to, and I rebel against it – I try to the greatest extent possible to write in an informal register of smooth, fun English. If you actually want the ideal reader to actually notice significant differences between their cultural background and the background in which the book was produced, you’ve got to make the book as readable as possible in order for the reader to get to those points. A big problem is that people don’t finish reading Arabic literature, or they don’t read a second book because of the quality of the English.”

At times, Hewison chimed in with the publisher’s perspective. “I generally prefer to produce texts that are a comfortable read for the English reader,” he said. “You can still have plenty of cultural color in there – if people are wearing galabeyyas and sitting down to eat girgeer and so on, it comes through in the text. But I don’t like the idea of throwing obstacles in people’s way. Anything that trips the reader up is to be avoided.”


Translators in the audience brought up other aspects of language that didn’t arise for those on stage. Wiam el-Tamami mentioned the importance of considering the musicality of language, arguing that “readability might have less to do with meaning – understanding literal meaning – and more to do with music and rhythm and flow. Junot Diaz, for example, creates a language of his own, a mix of English and Spanish, and we don’t understand what he’s saying, but the music and magic of the words really means something. We apprehend text and language in different ways, not just on this level of literal meaning but also on so many other levels. I think if you manage to get that flow and rhythm by transposing it into a natural English while keeping some of the natural Arabic – tameyya and girgeer and galabeyyagirgeer means something, even if you don’t know what it means, the sound of it tells you something. Including Arabic words is not necessarily tripping up the reader – it’s creating an independent world and creating a language within each book, each text.”

The audience’s lively discussion around Talib and Abou Bakr’s texts proved that each and every word in a translation presents a choice. Even when approaching the same goal, like reproducing the original Arabic’s cultural content, each took a widely different tack, which in turn resulted in two very different texts. While translators are often said to be doing their job best when they remain invisible, unfelt within a text, it was refreshing to see them take the stage for a night and shed light on the intricacies of their craft.

Elisabeth Jaquette is a graduate student in Anthropology at Columbia University and a 2012-13 CASA (Center for Arabic Study Abroad) fellow at the American University in Cairo. She has been based in Cairo since 2007, where she runs an Arabic-English book club and tweets at @lissiejaquette.

 You can still:

See the video of the whole evening and read the original and two translations online.