Text and Context: Translating in a State of Emergency

Samah Selim


This essay explores some of the problems associated with activist translating in revolutionary historical moments like the one that began in Egypt in 2011. Using my experience of working as a subtitler with the radical video collective Mosireen in 2012/13, I reflect on how the process and experience of translating in a state of emergency – when the state mobilizes its arsenal of violence on the streets – profoundly shapes how we think about terms like ‘profession’ and ‘objectivity’, and about the roles of both translator and audience in building effective cross-border virtual solidarity networks in real time. I also broadly distinguish between what I see as two closely related and equally urgent modes of political translating work: crisis and building. While the former is defined by transposable and widely-circulating spectacles of violence and resistance, the latter seeks to mobilize the broadest possible array of socially embedded source texts (tracts, statements, press conferences, testimonies, manifestos, analysis) in order to fully territorialize the spectacle and give it political meaning. I argue that building effective and sustainable international solidarity networks absolutely depends on this kind of multi-directional, territorializing translation work, particularly at this time, when militant popular movements are exploding across the globe.

Samah Selim is Associate Professor in the Department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures at Rutgers University, USA. She co-directs the literature module of the Berlin-based postdoctoral research programme Europe in the Middle East; the Middle East in Europe and is a member of the Mataroa Research Network, a Greek initiative bringing together scholars, activists and culture workers for a radical, commons-based Mediterranean. Her academic research focuses mainly on modern Arabic literature. Selim is also an award-winning literary translator.  Her interest in translation has taken new directions with the beginning of the 2011 revolution in Egypt. In 2012 she joined the Mosireen collective’s video subtitling unit and has since been doing freelance translation and subtitling on social media and for Egyptian left political organizations.