Globalizing dissent, Egyptian civil society, and the limits of translation

Globalizing dissentBy Ahmed Refaat
Mada Masr, 15 March 2015

I first heard Mona Baker two months ago in a workshop organized by the Imaginary School Program at Beirut, the art space not the city. It was called: “Prefigurative politics and creative subtitling.”

During the three-hour event, Baker briefly summed up what she discusses more elaborately in her research project, “Translating the Egyptian Revolution,” which “examines the language-based practices that allow Egyptian protesters to contest dominant narratives of the revolution and, importantly, to connect with, influence and learn from global movements of protest.” At the end, Baker announced that a three-day conference would be held at Townhouse’s Rawabet theater along the same lines that she had been presenting.

Last week, I attended the conference, which had come to be titled: “The Only Thing Worth Globalizing is Dissent.” In the introductory text included in the program, a differentiation was made between translation in its narrow sense (“rendering fully articulated stretches of textual material from one national language into another”) and broad sense (“the mediation of diffuse symbols, narratives and linguistic signs of varying length across modalities, levels of language and cultural spaces, without necessarily crossing a language boundary”). Both were included as the topic under examination in the conference.

Organized by Baker, writer and PalFest coordinator Yasmin El-Rifae and Mada Masr, and funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, the conference line-up included six plenaries and 13 panels involving more than 35 speakers. Most of the contributors were European and Egyptian, as were their audiences. The three-day event came as a contribution to an already reflective moment in Egyptian civil society: A moment of questioning the flow of footage, institutions and practices that came after the revolution of 2011.

Questioning the visual

Visual anthropologist Mark Westmoreland, co-editor of the Visual Anthropology Review, contested the idea of the visual as being “essential” and “transparent.” He started his talk by asking: What is a global image of dissent? As exemplary answers, he scrutinized the familiar picture of Tahrir Square from above, as well as the well-known pictures from Tiananmen Square taken from an aerial perspective, describing them as “disembodied” and carrying an artificial intelligence algorithm. He favored a more “embodied” visual content from the events’ participants  what he called “recording as resistance”  and screened the famous video of a young man standing in front of a police vehicle with its water hose. As such images are more situated and discursive, he argued, they provide a deeper translation of what’s happening.

On the same panel, Claire Cooley, an MA/PhD student in Middle Eastern languages and cultures at the University of Texas at Austin who lived and worked in Cairo from 2010 till 2013, challenged the authority that came to be imbued in the pictures and footage provided by citizen journalism. The incident of the mistaken identity of Neda Agha Soltani in 2009 during the Green Movement in Iran “shows the dangerous degree to which citizen journalist footage can be misinterpreted and used to further particular political agendas.” Cooley praised Jafar Panahi’s non-film titled This Is Not a Film (2011) because with its unexpected twist it provides an explicit interrogation of the process of filming and how an illusion can be created from a set of images that claims to be “transparent.”

The illusion of equivalence and the battle over the signifiers

One of the hottest topics discussed at the conference was the translation of conceptual terms in Egyptian civil society. In a panel carrying the name “Translating Conceptual Landscapes,” three speakers — researcher and urban planner Sherif Gaber, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights’ gender program director Dalia Abdel Hamid, and intercultural relations PhD candidate Barbara Quaranta — questioned the discourses through which concepts are communicated and translated from and into in the Egyptian human rights field.

Gaber argued that a new language is being formed in urban studies in Egypt. This language resists an easy translation of concepts that are rooted in a “Western” context. He gave as an example the Egyptian word “geera” (roughly translated as “neighborliness”), a word that he said “might have older histories or roots within Egyptian culture.” He argued that easy translations of exported notions such as “gentrification” carry with them the history of their original contexts related to private property, so fall short of signifying complex local actualities.

Abdel Hamid talked about the ongoing feminist struggle to challenge the morally charged terminologies used for the horrific sexual violence targeting women. Abdel Hamid used the example of the group sexual attacks that happened around Tahrir between 2012 and 2014. The term “taharosh gamaay” (group sexual assault) is now more familiar than it was before, but its introduction into the Egyptian language came after long discussions to designate the precise term that would best describe these acts. The Tahrir events were an opportunity to also defy the terminologies in the current Egyptian penal codes, such as “moral assault” and “indecent exposure.” This success came as part of a chain of efforts to create a gender-sensitive discourse around violence against women. Abdel Hamid also mentioned older successes like the word “taharosh” (harassement), which was introduced to replace the neutral “mo’aksa” (which means “violent flirtation” in best cases).

During the discussion, Gaber commented on the work of local gender activists, suggesing that they are using a “Western” lexicon that was developed through the study of the subject rooted in a “Western” context.

This controversy is ongoing and it may be helpful to check Joseph A. Massad’s recent contribution, in which he scrutinizes the use of a language rooted in a “Western” conception of the individual subject in Arabic gender studies and activism. In my opinion it’s also indispensable to check out Egyptian political theorist Amr Abdelrahmane’s reply (in Arabic) to Massad’s critique. Abdelrahmane argues that Massad’s “ethnographic blindness” keeps him from comprehending the development of an Arab feminist lexicon that is in conflict with its colonial context rather than just being a mere adaptation of a colonial narrative over the subject. He also says that the meanings of such adopted terms are in a constant reshaping process out of that state of conflict.

On the same panel, Quaranta argued that the assumption of equivalence in translation, which assumes that all meanings are translatable between languages, is illusionary. Not just that, but it’s used politically to hide asymmetrical power balances. She presented an introduction to her PhD, which deals with the meanings of the concept of “democracy” when translated into other languages and cultures. As democracy is considered the only acceptable form of government and held to be a universal value, the concept can no longer be questioned. For Quaranta, the Egyptian revolution could be interpreted as one of the many processes of redefining of the “Western” political notion of democracy. This kind of process is particularly interesting since “it views translation as a communicative cultural process and the notion of meaning as a changing, context-bound, negotiable concept.”

History, herstory and the practice of gender-sensitive translation

Transfeminist and queer activist Leil-Zahra was invited to talk but denied access by the Egyptian authorities, so the plenary was done over Skype. First, Leil asked Baker to be referred to using the pronoun “they.” Baker struggled with this shift at first, but then adjusted very well. Leil suggested that “But where are the women?” is a question raised when Western audiences face a non-white context. For Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution, Leil initially collected photos of women involved in the revolution and uploaded them to a Facebook album. Then the project developed into a collection of videos of women translating their first-hand experiences into a counter-narrative to one that was appropriating their voices. Leil said history is usually written from the perspective of leaders, who usually are white men (as the word itself shows: his-story), and an alternative might be “her-story.”

Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution was translated into English and then Spanish. Spanish, like Arabic, is not gender neutral when it comes to plural pronouns. So Leil and their Spanish translator, Ethel Monzon, coined words for a more inclusive gender perspective, at least in the written language. “Todas” and “todos” are the masculine and feminine for “every” or “all” — their Arabic equivalents would be “kolohom” and “kolohon.” And because we choose to use the masculine plural when we talk about mixed or even sometimes female groups, they tried to reach a more inclusive formula: “Tod@s” as inclusive for both genders (as it includes the “o” and “a”). But then the issue of gender binary arises: What about other genders and non-conformed genders? So the word “todxs” was introduced to include everyone.

Alisa Lebow, a feminist reader in film studies, asked Leil if by focusing on women they contribute to their marginalization. This is another ongoing conversation in feminist and gender activism. Leil admitted to the point in general, but also commented that when gender is left without a focus, it’s usually subsumed in heteronormative standards.

The pros and cons and the problematic use of English as a bridge was further discussed by Monzon in a separate panel titled “The Politics of Language and Translation.” Drawing on her experience translating the Words of Women videos from English, her talk evolved around ways of localizing international English and situating translation. She talked about the disadvantages of English in light of its colonial history, but also about the potential localizing it might provide. She suggested that some words can be preserved from the original language. Examples she gave included the Arabic words “baltageya,” frequently translated as “thugs,” which doesn’t really convey its contextual meaning, and “feloul,” usually translated as “remnants of the old regime.” To deal with this ongoing dilemma, Manzon drew on feminist thinker Donna Haraway’s concept of situated knowledge. She encouraged the idea of admitting the limits of translation, and said translators should have the right to explain the context of the material they’re translating.

Critical reflection

As mentioned, The Only Thing Worth Globalizing is Dissent had more than 20 sessions, so this is far from being a comprehensive take on the whole thing. Among other discussions, Anny Gaul and Jonathan Guyer talked about translating satire and how to provide an intertextual meaning in a translation, while Lina Attallah, Ahmed Ragab, Mostafa Mohie and El-Rifae formed an interesting panel on journalism as an act of translation, discussing the effect of the new, non-expert players on the field. Sherene Seikaly, founder of online publishing platform Jadaliyya, discussed the genealogy of the revolution, linking our understanding of the term “people” to other revolutions in our history, with a specific focus on 1977, or what’s often called “the thieves’ uprising.”

The idea that this is a time in which Egyptian civil society, after the rollercoaster we all have all been on since the revolution, is rethinking its practice in terms of language used does not imply that critical voices didn’t exist before. It’s merely that the current moment is now more convenient for a critical reflection on the practices of the last four years.

Correction: The transliterated word “geera” in this article was initially mispelt as “giha.” This was fixed on March 15.