Mohammed Albakry and Rebekah Maggor on Translating ‘Performance Texts from the Egyptian Revolution’

Last month, the United States’ National Endowment for the Arts announced that they had awarded 16 grants, worth $250,000, for translation projects, including a $25,000 grant for Mohammed Albakry and Rebekah Maggor to translate Tahrir Plays and Performance Texts from the Egyptian Revolution, a collection to be published by Seagull Books and distributed by the University of Chicago Press for the In Performance series. The expected publication date is fall, 2014:

Mohammed Albakry (MA) and Rebekah Maggor (RM) answered questions about the project.

???????????????????????????????Mohammed Albakry: First off, I’d like to say that my heart goes out to my beloved country at this difficult time. The 2011 popular uprising has been an act of inspiration for many theater artists and for me personally. I wanted this project to highlight the struggles, hopes and heroism of the valiant men and women who dared to dream and who inspired the world in 2011 by their peaceful popular uprising.  But the dream is turning into a nightmare; too much bloodshed and loss of innocent lives.  I have never been so worried about Egypt as I am now, but I am still hopeful that peace and reconciliation will prevail at this crucial moment of Egypt’s long, illustrious history. Following the news about Egypt is becoming almost unbearable  for me,  and I take refuge in the act of translation.  I don’t know if translation could make any difference, but that’s the only thing I can do.

Rebekah Maggor: Before we begin the interview, I’d like to say that our thoughts and prayers are with our friends and family in Egypt. As scholars and artists we often feel powerless during such brutal times; we can only hope that the simple act of translating these brave writers’ work will provide some complex and humanistic perspectives on unfolding events in Egypt.

ArabLit: So, first things first: What are the six texts, by which playwrights? Over what period of time were these pieces written/staged?

MA: This translation project “Tahrir Plays and Performance Texts from the Egyptian Revolution”, as the title indicates, engages with the divergent ways in which the Egyptian theater has responded to and participated in social and political change in contemporary Egypt. So most of the plays, with one exception, have been written and staged after January 2011 in State theaters  and Independent theatres throughout Egypt. The six texts we settled on so far are the following :

  1. “House of the Naffady Alley” by Mohamed Mahrous. This play was written and staged in 2008. Even though it preceded the 2011 revolution, the play does have revolutionary premonitions.

  2. “Tahrir Monologues,” a collaborative drama by Sondos Shabayek and others.

  3. In Search of Said Abu Al-Naga” by Ahmed Hasan Al-Banna.

  4. The Window” by Said Suliman.

  5. “Comedy of Sorrows” by Ibrahim El-Husseini.

  6. “No Dancing Allowed,”conceived by Hani Abdel Nasser & Mohamed Abdel Mu’iz and written by Mohamed Abdel Mu’iz

Maggor_thumbnailRM: In addition to the introduction and the translated texts, we will include an excellent essay on the history of censorship in the Egyptian Theatre by scholar and critic Nehad Selaiha, entitled, “The Fire and the Frying Pan.”

Regarding the period of time the pieces were written, I think it’s important to note that we define “revolutionary” as a work that challenges the entrenched political, economic, social, and cultural power structures of the existing order. In this sense, Egyptian dramatists have been writing “revolutionary” drama for years, even decades. Whether written before or after the start of the revolution, all the plays we chose demonstrate this longstanding theatrical tradition.

AL: How did you decide on these six? What were your main criteria in selecting them? What sensibilities do they share?

MA: Well, the selection process, which is still not quite over yet, has been a long process that entailed reading and evaluating several dozen plays as well as following Egyptian theater reviews and receiving some nominations from theater critics Nehad Selaiha and Ibrahim El-Husseini (who is also a playwright represented in the collection).

RM: We’ve also solicited texts and leads from the emerging generation of theatre artists and writers in their twenties, like journalist, playwright and director Sondos Shabayek and poet and activist Amor Eletrebi. We’re reaching out to artists from both within the established theatre circles as well as the fringe.

MA: There were many plays that I read and rejected right away because they were didactic, overtly ideological, or had weak dramatic structures. But there were so many good plays, too. In the end, I found many more strong plays I would have liked to include in this translation project than was possible. One of the main criteria in the selection process was diversity of voices and techniques, and I think we ended up with a  range of dynamic theatrical works with different textual and performance styles (documentary performance, ensemble story-telling drama, monodrama, and symbolic social realism).

RM: I agree with Mohammed that we actively sought out (and are still seeking) a diversity of perspectives on the unfolding political events in Egypt. We have selected pieces by men and women, emerging and established writers, with varying political and religious beliefs, who hail from a range of geographical and class backgrounds. The established writer Ibrahim El-Husseini (Comedy of Sorrows), for example, was born and raised in Sharkeya, Egypt and studied at the Arts Academy in Cairo. He has won numerous awards for his over twenty plays. On the other hand, Twenty-seven year old Sondos Shabayak, director and creator of Tahrir Monologues, comes from a journalism background and is a newcomer to the theatre scene. After the success of Tahrir Monologues she has been able, for the meanwhile, to dedicate herself full-time to creating theatre.

Equally important to finding a diversity of voices has been, very simply, good writing.  But how do you go about defining “good writing”? For me, the strongest works offer complex explorations of both specific and universal themes through compelling characters, evocative dialogue, and powerful and intentional dramatic structure (whether linear, non-linear, or impressionistic).

MA: The selected plays, in terms of their sensibility,  offer a breadth of complex dramatic responses to the January Revolution of 2011 and beyond. By grappling with their country’s reality, they bear witness to the tremendous transformations in Egypt before, during, and after the January 2011 Revolution. But they also address the cross-cultural themes of economic disparity, individual struggles, human rights, and collective awakening that speak not only to Egypt’s revolution, but also to recent protest movements elsewhere across the globe. As I just mentioned, however, the door for selection is not completely closed yet. I am still on the look out for one or perhaps even two newer  dramatic works. I hope to go to Egypt soon to check out the theater scene and collect materials for the critical introduction that will accompany this anthology.

RM: I’d like to emphasize the importance of the cross-cultural themes. As it turns out, none of the dramatists we selected are known in the West, nor have they generally sought a Western audience. When playwright Ibrahim El-Husseini joined me for the reading tour I directed of Comedy of Sorrows last year in the U.S., he expressed complete surprise that American audiences took any interest in a play about the intimate internal politics of Egyptian society. Yet our audiences connected deeply with Comedy of Sorrows on many levels. For example, one of the main characters, Doha, has spent most of her very privileged life unaware of how the “other half”, or the “99%”, lives. And this struck a very self-reflective chord with the American audience.  In writing for a predominantly Arab and Egyptian audience, El-Husseini and the other dramatists offer a nuanced insider’s perspective. Paradoxically, it is the local and intimate focus of their stories and the personal, political, and existential struggles of their distinctively Egyptian characters that create a powerful universality and potential for an enduring literary value of their work.

AL: Will they be published in a collection? Do you know where they will be staged?

comedyMA: Yes, the anthology, Tahrir Plays and Performance Texts from the Egyptian Revolution, will be published by Seagull Publications and distributed by University of Chicago Press. I also hope that many of the plays  will  receive staged readings and full productions in the U.S and elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Comedy of Sorrows (Commedia Al-Ahzaan) will be produced by Hybrid Theatre Works from August 21st to August 25th 2013 at HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Ave. NY. Hopefully,  some of the other plays of the anthology will get similar attention.

RM: I am thrilled that there will be a full production of Comedy of Sorrows in New York, starting next week. One of my main goals has been to get these texts up on their feet and in front of American audiences. There have been just a handful of significant anthologies of Arab drama in English translation published in the past twenty years. But very few (if any) of the translations in these collections received full productions in the U.S. Their exposure has been mostly limited to a fairly narrow group of scholars focusing on Middle Eastern studies or Arab literature. The works in our collection have already received some significant attention from the American theatre world.  Partly, of course, it’s because there’s an intense topical interest in Egypt right now. But, when the headlines subside, I believe there will remain a strong interest is these plays because they make an important contribution to a canon of excellent international drama.  In that regard, we’re very happy that the collection will be part of Seagull Book’s In Performance series. This unique series, edited by the incomparable theatre scholar Carol Martin, is dedicated entirely to contemporary international plays and dramatic texts, mostly in translation, written both by established and new playwrights.  The series is aimed at people who want to stage new work, and also at people who want to read diverse theatrical texts and/or study the ways in which local political and theatrical history can be understood in the context of globalization. To date anthologies published or under contract in the series represent Hungary, Russia, China, Poland, New Zealand, the US, Japan, South Africa, Israel, Turkey, and Romania. We’re delighted that Tahrir Plays will be in the company of these other important international anthologies.

AL:  Why are you interested in translating theatre (vs. other genres)? What do you think you need to bring to translating theatre, that makes it different from prose texts, poetry, other genres?

MA: I am deeply interested in translation and translation studies in general, and I’ve published translated short fiction from Arabic before. But Comedy of Sorrows  (COS) was my first experience with translating for the stage.  That was a collaboration with Rebekah who also directed a dramatic reading of the play for Harvard University’s  Radcliffe Institute in March 2012 . That could have been the end of it, but I liked the experience and the challenge of working with drama. Encouraged by the positive reception that COS got,  I wanted to expand the project into an anthology. Now being awarded the NEA Translation Fellowship is a wonderful encouragement and validation for this project.

RM: I was also encouraged by the reception of Comedy of Sorrows and I was very happy that Mohammed expressed an interest in continuing the collaboration. This whole project began with a commission from Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute — they solicited a proposal for a performance to open their 2012 conference “Women Making Democracy.”  Initially I was going to commission a theatre colleague in Cairo to work independently on the translation of Comedy of Sorrows. However — and this is quite an amazing story — I discovered quite by accident that my old friend, Mohammed Albakry, who had been my Arabic tutor at Alexandria University over 15 years ago, was now a professor of Linguistics at MTSU, just 40 minutes down the road from Nashville, where I was teaching at Vanderbilt. Mohammed agreed to co-translate Comedy of Sorrows with me and thus this very unexpected and welcome reunion launched our current collaboration. This work is very different from Mohammed’s previous translation work, but I think our combined skills — Mohammed is a linguist and native speaker of Arabic, and I am a playwright, director, and theatre scholar with a working knowledge of Standard and Egyptian Arabic – assure playable theatrical translations.

MA: I would  say that translating dramatic literature — just like other literary genres — requires the same sensitivity to both the source and receiver languages. What is different is that in theater translation, the text is only one part of the larger theater discourse. A theater text, beside  being a written mode of dramatic fiction, is also a performance text that requires the translator to capture and  preserve what theater commentators sometimes call  the ‘language body’ of the dramatic text. In translating drama, more than other genres,  one has to meet the added demand of speakability or  playability, otherwise the actors would struggle with lines that  may sound stilted or not quite natural.

Another point that the theater translator from Arabic to English in particular has to take into account is the gap between the fusha and ammaya (the standard and vernacular varieties of Arabic) and the difference of what is considered theatrical in the Egyptian versus the American contexts. In Egyptian drama, for example, heightened emotionality and melodrama tend to be more common. Finally, I always have to remind myself that a theater audience doesn’t have the benefit of seeing reference annotations or explanatory footnotes on the stage. A dramatic text, perhaps more than prose texts, needs to be as self-contained as possible. Having said that, I have to concede that some translator’s notes might be necessary, and indeed unavoidable, and could be helpful in making certain things clear for directors and actors, but any paratextual material should be kept to a minimum in a translation meant for the stage.

AL: This question is for Rebekah: Why translate vs. focus solely on your own work?

RM: I started translating as a way to inspire my own writing. Of course I’m always reading plays as a source of inspiration, but I think there are three ways to form a truly intimate relationship with a text — act it, direct it, or translate it. Each is a way of interpreting the text and provides a deep knowledge of every aspect the work from its overarching philosophy to the stitching behind its dialogue. I started translating Arab drama in particular because I find the contemporary works so much more relevant and interesting (thematically and structurally) than most contemporary American playwriting. With some notable exceptions, much of our new dramatic writing engages a kind of quasi-subversive identity politics. We’re not writing a great deal of really “revolutionary” work. Contemporary U.S. playwrights also tend to (again, with some notable exceptions) stick within a narrow kitchen-sink naturalism, or perhaps venture into some quirky “magical realism.” The remarkable theatrical spectacle, amalgamations of prose, poetry and song, and ensemble storytelling that the plays in our collection employ are considered utterly “experimental” in the American theatre. We have a great deal to learn from these Egyptian artists.

I will add that it’s sometimes quite difficult to convince English-speaking audiences and fellow theater artists to approach Arab drama in translation as they might approach any good international drama in translation — as an opportunity to form an intimate connection with another culture, while at the same time illuminate the audience about its own situation. On the rare occasions when Arab drama in translation is staged in the U.S., it’s usually produced (and advertised) as a kind of guided tour to a foreign land, one that operates according to a very different logic than the audience’s own society. An audience lured to the theatre by contact with a sensational foreign culture, often overlooks the possibility of a self-reflective understanding of the text. For the translator, one of the most distressing symptoms of this exoticization is the performance of the text with “Arab accents.” Imagine — you’ve just toiled for months to create an elegant, playable English translation that brings this text closer to the English-speaking audience, and suddenly this “foreign” accent hurls it miles away from them. It also sounds downright silly because most people with thick foreign accents don’t tend to speak with grammatically correct elegance, or by contrast with slang-filled colloquial speech. I’ve never seen actors perform a translation of a new French play with a French accent, so it seems ridiculous to use an “Arab” accent with a translation of a new Egyptian play.

I am delighted by the outpouring of interest in the plays in our forthcoming collection, but I’m concerned by the various ways in which these texts can be misinterpreted and Orientalized. When an audience is driven by what scholar Margaret Litvin terms “ethnographic curiosity,” they look to the playwright as “native informant,” which reinforces a rigid hierarchy between East and West.  I hope these translations encourage stirring and unexpected English-language productions and inspire a more integrated way of thinking about the relationship between our societies.

AL: How do you plan to work together in translating these pieces? What did you learn in translating Comedy of Sorrows together?

MA: As the primary translator on this project, I produce the first draft. After identifying the linguistic and stylistic features of the originals, I attempt in my first  translation draft/s to create parallel dramatic effects in English. But I still consider my first draft more as a reader-oriented draft that Rebekah can work on polishing to bring  it closer  to a stage-oriented text. I then get to work on revising the text later to ensure that it doesn’t contain any inaccuracies and that it remains faithful to the original.  This is what worked for COS and it is the process that we would like to replicate for the larger NEA-funded project. Part of the NEA funds will also enable me to organize staged and dramatic readings (there is already some interest expressed by different campuses and theater groups) to get a feel for how the texts sound in the mouths of actors. There is quite a difference between imagining what the text sounds like in my own head  and actually hearing it delivered by good actors.

RM: First, I want to say that it’s a pleasure to work with someone like Mohammed who has such an etymological, grammatical, and over-all deep linguistic knowledge of Arabic and English. So, my process begins by sitting down with Mohammed’s first, meticulous, “readerly-oriented” draft, alongside the original Arabic text. I bounce back and forth between Mohammed’s translation and the original Arabic to create a second translation draft, which is the playable script. We then work together on creating the final draft.

MA: Now, to undertake a collaborative work like this one, one has to share the same vision with the person with whom one is collaborating, and that’s  definitely the case here. Our vision is to produce accurate and playable texts while avoiding the various ways in which these texts could be misinterpreted and Orientalized. Still,  as in any collaboration, the process is not always smooth and there are bound to be occasional disagreements. This, however, often leads to a fruitful discussion and changes that are ultimately beneficial to the project. I don’t think one has to be a theater practitioner  in order to translate drama, but it is a great help to work with someone from inside the theater world.

RM: I agree that there’s a healthy tension in our collaboration. I’m completely oriented towards the stage—my actors and my audience. I’m at home with the unnerving ambiguity of good dramatic dialogue. As a playwright, I’ve experienced first-hand the horror of actors and directors misinterpreting my dialogue. It’s painful. As a younger writer I’d rewrite (and overwrite) lines that had been misinterpreted in a rehearsal or performance. And that killed the rhythm of the scene and killed the character’s voice.  Of course, there are always going to be mediocre actors and uninspired directors who will misinterpret and butcher your work. On the other hand, there are divine actors and virtuosic directors who can, if you leave them room for interpretation, bring your work to places you’ve never imagined possible. In working on translations, I tend to lean towards that kind of open, rhythmic ambiguity and Mohammed leans towards clarity and faithfulness.

I’ll often notice, when comparing the original Arabic text and Mohammed’s first English draft, that he’s added a choice adjective or subtle explanatory phrase here and there. My gut instinct is to cut them out and let the dialogue speak for itself. Of course the American audience has a different base of assumed knowledge, so I do have to admit that some clarifications are necessary. As Mohammed mentioned, hearing the text read aloud by a good actor ultimately settles many of these differences.


    1. I will read with interest. Thanks for the tip!

Comments are closed.