Webcomics and the Art of Translating Tamer Hosny Lyrics

Should comix be translated, like a fixed literary text, or are they sometimes interpreted, like an oral performance?

By Katie Logan

Photo: Katie Logan.

Imagine all the sounds a door can make: perhaps it slams shut or whooshes open, clicks with a lock, or slowly creaks. How would you represent those sounds visually in a comic? Now how would you represent them in Arabic, French, or English?

These are the kinds of questions to which comics creator Deena Mohamed and literary translators Sawad Hussain and Nariman Youssef devote their time. At Tuesday’s “Comics Translation Workshop” at SOAS University of London, co-sponsored by the Shubbak Festival and Africa Writes, the three opened by asking participants to generate a list of multilingual onomatopoeias produced by phones, cars, birds, and elephants, and to think about how these shift based on the sounds available in different languages.

“That’s what Deena has to think of whenever she writes sound effects in her comics,” Youssef told the group.

The workshop was accessible to participants from a wide variety of backgrounds, ranging from translation novices who’d tagged along with friends to professional translators, and from native Arabic speakers to new students of the language. Youssef and Hussain facilitated the workshop featuring Mohamed’s work, specifically because she writes in both English and Arabic. She started her first full-length graphic narrative, Shubeik Lubeik, in Arabic in 2015; the full trilogy will be published in Mohamed’s own English translation in 2021.

“What does the title mean?” a participant asked.

“It’s sort of a fairytale word, and you’ve just described my first [translation] problem,” Mohamed said, comparing it to hocus pocus or abracadabra. The translation of this kind of expression is particularly difficult, because even though the general idea can be conveyed to the target language (as Shubeik Lubeik could be “your wish is my command”), the deeper meaning is rooted in the phrase’s sonic qualities and cultural history.

Although the English translation of Shubeik Lubeik is still without a title, Mohamed is no stranger to translating graphic material. Her webcomic Qahera, which features a Muslim female superhero, initially began in English because she didn’t intend for the endeavor to be a long-term one and because Tumblr, her initial platform, didn’t have Arabic support.

“I knew [Qahera] was Egyptian but it wasn’t immediately clear in the comic,” Mohamed said. “Once I translated it, I realized Egyptians are reading this too . . . As it progressed, it became more and more Egyptian because I could do it in Arabic.”

Rather than translating from English to Arabic, though, Mohamed opted to begin writing in Arabic first. Throughout the workshop, she emphasized that the language one writes in matters, because it makes an immediate claim about audience: “It’s not that I was bothered by translation so much as that it’s stuff that’s not meant for you . . . I didn’t want to be giving [Egyptians] secondhand content.”

Now, she typically writes first in Arabic while keeping in mind potential challenges that could impede an English translation, a process she considers inherently bilingual because of the way she thinks carefully about cultural references and words without clear equivalences: “No matter how tempting it is, I have to think, ‘Oh wait, I’ve got to translate this.’”

Youssef and Hussain walked participants through a range of technical, linguistic, and contextual concerns that arise when translating comics. Mohamed shared an earlier panel from Qahera, in which Qahera hears the misogynistic Tamer Hosny song, “Si Al Sayed.” Whereas the Arabic version of the panel features musical notes and a few phrases from the song that would be recognizable to Egyptian audiences, the English version uses a description of the song. Blaring from the computer comes words like “MISOGYNSTIC LYRICS” and “Almost as bad as ‘Blurred Lines.’” Participants responded to the differences in translations, noticing the ways these differences led to shifts in punchlines and wordplay, as well as the necessity of flipping surrounding panels, so that they read from left to right for English-speaking audiences and right to left for Arabic-speaking ones.

Above all, Mohamed prioritizes the reader: “The most important thing about comics is you never want someone to feel confused. If a comic seems effortless, that was a really big effort on the part of the creator.”

Once Mohamed explained her translation process to participants, Youssef and Hussain challenged the workshop to create their own translations from Arabic into English. “Usually when you’re translating, you want to emulate the same reaction from the source language to the target language,” Hussain said.

Participants worked with short Arabic-language comic strips that Mohamed designed for the non-profit HarassMap, which enables women to report experiences of sexual harassment in Egypt. HarassMap’s comic strips use situations that would be familiar to Egyptian readers, like a teacher pressuring a student to enroll with him for additional—and expensive—private classes, or a waiter pouring water at a table without asking first if diners would like to buy the bottle, to teach readers about consent.

Although most strips were only three or four panels with small speech bubbles, workshop groups identified all kinds of challenges in translation, from maintaining a similarly direct and informative tone in English to translating the comics’ specific cultural contexts. Mohamed, Youssef, and Hussain offered additional suggestions and revisions for the translated panels. Ultimately, the workshop persuaded participants to think of translation as what Mohamed calls “adaptation or interpretation,” processes in which meaning is lost, gained, and transformed as it moves in and out of languages and cultural contexts.

Sad to have missed out? Africa Writes returns with another all-levels translation workshop, also facilitated by Sawad Hussain and Nariman Youssef, this Sunday, July 7. “Translating Comic Strips from North Africa” will take place from 1:00-2:30 p.m. at the British Library.

Katie Logan got her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin, where she also taught classes including “The Rhetoric of Mourning” and “Arab Literary Travels.” She is now in the Department of Focused Inquiry at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research focuses on contemporary Arabic and Arab Anglophone literature, memory, migration, and women’s and gender studies.