Translating “Frozen” Into Arabic

Great piece by Elias Muhanna for The New Yorker, on why Disney's Frozen has been translated into Modern Standard Arabic:

The Arabic lyrics to “Let It Go” are as forbidding as Elsa’s ice palace. The Egyptian singer Nesma Mahgoub, in the song’s chorus, sings, “Discharge thy secret! I shall not bear the torment!” and “I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me…” From one song to the next, there isn’t a declensional ending dropped or an antique expression avoided, whether it is sung by a dancing snowman or a choir of forest trolls. The Arabic of “Frozen” is frozen in time, as “localized” to contemporary Middle Eastern youth culture as Latin quatrains in French rap.

Why Disney decided to abandon dialectal Arabic for “Frozen” is perplexing, and the reaction has been mixed. Many YouTube viewers are annoyed, with some fans recording their own versions of the songs in dialect. An online petition has called for Disney to switch its dubbing back to Egyptian Arabic, plaintively wondering, “How can we watch ‘Monsters University’ in the Heavy Modern Arabic while we saw the first one in Egyptian accent that everybody loved…?”

How indeed? Or perhaps the real question is: Why? Why is Disney willing to commission separate translations of its films for speakers of Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish, European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, European French and Canadian French, but is moving in the opposite direction when it comes to Arabic? The answer cannot be that the dialect markets are too small. The population of all of Scandinavia is less than a third of Egypt’s, but is represented by five different translations of “Frozen.” There are nearly ten times as many Moroccans living in Casablanca alone as there are Icelanders in the whole world. The markets are there. What is missing is a constituency for cultural production in dialectal Arabic.

Muhanna goes on that there isn't much of a constituency calling dialect dubs of hit Hollywood movies, in contrast to what he describes as "an ideology propagated by linguistic purists in the region." I'd be curious to test out that theory – for instance see if the Moroccan film board would reject a dubbing of Frozen in darija. I suspect it has more to do with the low profitability of Arabic dialect market segments (because of high rates of piracy, etc.) and the dominance of the GCC market in business decisions about entertainment – and that market being used to MSA being used as a standard for dubbing (they finance it, after all).

Back to Basics

Our latest translation courtesy of the team at Industry Arabic is a column from former National Salvation Front spokesman Khaled Dawoud (he quit over his inability to continue dismissing the Rabaa massacre), which originally appeared here

Back to Basics

When the Tamarrod movement launched in early May and quickly moved to unseat President Mohamed Morsi, the goal was clear and simple: to call for early presidential elections -- once the man that many described as the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau's representative in the Presidential Palace had proved a failure at managing the country's affairs, with a similar incompetence shown by the rest of his organization as well. This constituted a threat to the future of Egypt itself and the cohesion of Egyptian society, and even brought us to the brink of civil war. Furthermore, those in the movement really did believe the Road Map, the whole July 3 production, and the pledge to swiftly return to the polls for free and fair elections that would grant popular legitimacy to the new regime.

Despite their belief that the Muslim Brotherhood had completely deviated from the revolution's goals, the stated aim of the parties and movements that rose up to defend the goals of the January 25 Revolution was never to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, imprison its entire leadership and ban them from political activity – and of course not to kill them and mow them down in the hundreds. The actors who are now moving in this direction belonged to a different current that is completely unrelated to the January 25 Revolution; they are the ones who have considered the revolution from the start to be a conspiracy to put an end to their power, influence and corruption, a conspiracy launched by the Muslim Brotherhood with support from Hamas, Iran, America and the whole familiar list. The current trend toward exclusion is backed by those who belong to intellectual currents that have always considered the Brotherhood's ideology to be an obscurantist project at odds with the principles of the Nahda and Egypt's progress toward joining the ranks of the European democracies. In my view, these people do not represent the majority in Egypt's secular parties of any orientation, whether liberal, leftist or nationalist, since to put it simply, Egypt isn't France.

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The Arab world in translation

I wrote this story recently for the Al Fanar site (a new site dedicated to covering higher education and academic and intellectual issues in the Middle East) : an overview of interesting developments and ventures in translation to and from Arabic. The article has an optimistic title, and certainly the interest in Arabic literature in translation -- which I have seen grow in the 10 years I've lived in Cairo -- is heartening to those of us who know how much great writing there is in Arabic, and who believe that a greater familiarity with it might nuance Western views of this part of the world. That said translation of other fields of knowledge, to and from Arabic, remains dispiritingly low. We included a list of references at the end of the article -- do write in to signal any others you think should be featured. 

New numbers on translations into Arabic

The eminent translator Richard Jacquemond spoke last night at the American University in Cairo's downtown campus (as part of the consistently interesting "In Translation" lecture series). Jacquemond has translated many prominent Arab writers, and most notably most of the works of Sonallah Ibrahim, into French. He also ran a French-government-sponsored translation program (from French into Arabic and vice versa) in Cairo in the 1980s. I went to see him speak mostly because I had so appreciated his translations of  شرف ("Charaf ou L'Honneur") and التلصص ("Le Petit Voyeur"). 

It turns out Jacquemond, who has already written a book on cultural politics in Egypt, is writing a new book on "the politics and poetics of translation" into Arabic. 

Jacquemond started out his talk by criticizing the well-known 2002 Arab Human Development Report claim that:

 The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates.

The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa'moun's [sic] time (theninth century) is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year. (AHDR 2002, p. 78)

These claim have been disputed, by Jacquemond and others. Critics have also pointed to the way they have been simplistically used to make the argument that if only Arabs had access to Western knowledge and values, they could solve their development problems. 

I agree with this point--there is something condescending, perhaps not in the report itself, but in the ways its claims have been parroted (no one laments the absence of translation from Arabic); and that comparison to Spain has been tiresomely repeated. On the other hand it's impossible to deny that there is a crisis in the creation, access and dissemination of knowledge in the Arab world; that translation (like many forms of cultural production) often requires state support and that all states have agendas. Personally, regardless of the state policies behind it or the media discourse surrounding it, I consider every (decent) translation a gift to someone, somewhere. 

In any case, Jacquemond estimates the number of books that have been translated into Arabic with the funding of foreign governments (mostly the US, Russia and France) and of national initiatives at 10,000 and the number of books translated by the market at 30,000. He estimates that today somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 books are translated into Arabic every year (that number is a big increase over the past, and over the Arab Human Development Report's estimate of 330). 

Taxi, translation and "true" literature

A few days ago, I attended the talk by author Khaled Al Khamissi and by translator Jonathan Wright at AUC. Wright--the former Reuters Bureau chief in Cairo--translated Al Khamissi's Taxi, and Youssef Ziedan's award-winning Azazeel.

The always up-to-date Arabic Literature (in English) has a selection and discussion of Wright's remarks, although the way they are construed makes Wright's approach to translation seem more casual than I believe it to be: Wright said he ended up translating Taxi "by chance," but also that he has always had an interest in translation; his self-deprecation and pragmatism doesn't mean he approaches translation with any lack of rigour or reflection (far from it). The issue of how to translate Islamic formulas came up, and Wright noted that he tends to translate them functionally. It's a valid point, because expressions such as "Insha-allah" or "La illah illa allah" ("God willing" and "There is no God but God") may be more accurately translated, not literally, but in terms of their quite varied contextual meaning. 

The issue of how to translate the different registers of Arabic--Taxi is written in Egyptian Conversational Arabic--was also discussed. Apparently, the Italian translator chose, for example, to use Italian dialect. Wright, after briefly considering using Cockney English, chose wisely not to replace Egyptian dialect with some form of English "dialect." 

I reviewed Taxi back in 2008 here on the blog. It's a lovely little book, and had a big success in Egypt and abroad (particularly in France). It was interesting to me to note, however, how the book's reception in Egypt--where a debate ensued over whether it was a work of literature proper, rather than of reportage or sociology--has been interiorized by its author. Al Khamissi was at pains to describe Taxi as a "literary text," one that was entirely his imaginative creation. That's not quite how the book presents itself--the narrator, in the introduction, states that "for years I've been a prize customer for taxis..I'm one of those people who likes to talk to taxi drivers...this book contains between its covers some of the things that happened while I was in their company between April 2005 and March 2006." When I interviewed the author years back, he gave me the impression that his fictionalized dialogues were based on actual conversations--a fact supported by the specificity of the voices and situations he conjures.

After the success of Taxi, Al Khamissi has been at pains to present himself as a Writer, capital W. This seems to include retroactive re-interpretation of his work: Taxi clearly has a sociological goal, but Al Khamissi today insists it should be discussed "from a literary point of view." He also recently published a "proper" novel--Safinet Noha ("Noah's Ark")-which however has not received the same attention and praise as his earlier work  [Ed. Note: I've been informed that the new novel has actually sold twice as many copies as Taxi; I haven't read widely enough to say with any certainty what the critical reception has been] and he noted that his next novel will be written entirely in Classical Arabic. Given the cultural context in Egypt--the fraught divide between high and low culture, between literature and reportage, Formal and Colloquial--it's hardly surprising that Al Khamissi should become defensive about his commercial success and want to position himself as a "true" artist. But it's too bad, because what was fresh and affecting about Taxi was exactly its lack of pretensions, its combination of genres, and its pitch-perfect rendering of "unliterary" voices. 

Wright, Khamissi at AUC today

As part of AUC's series of lecture on translation, Taxi author Khaled al-Khamissi and his English translator Jonathan Wright will be giving a talk today at AUC's Oriental Hall at 6pm (thankfully, at the Downtown campus.) Theme will be "Translation and its afterlife."

I'm really looking forward to hearing Jonathan's take and hear about the projects he's now working on. The last lecture, by Humphrey Davies, was very good.

Links for Dec.26.09 to Dec.28.09

Get Elected; or, al-Baradei Tryin’ (Part 1 of ???) « THE BOURSA EXCHANGE | TBE translates that ElBaradei interview from al-Shorouq. ✪ Could the Mullahs Fall This Time? - The Daily Beast | Interesting ruminations on whether Iran is near a revolution and the importance of Ashura as a symbol of the fight for justice. ✪ Op-Ed Columnist - The Big Zero - NYTimes.com | Economically, the decade produced nothing. ✪ The Angry Arab News Service/وكالة أنباء العربي الغاضب: Saudi Wahhabi Physiognomy: this man should be teaching at KAUST | Funny. ✪ Rasheed el-Enany on modern Arabic lit: not quite a Renaissance | Al-Masry Al-Youm | "I think the status of translated Arabic literature is better than it's ever been." ✪ Two Hamas members killed in Beirut explosion | Unusual... this attack was in a safe, Hizbullah-controlled area. ✪ Activists appeal to Mubarak over entry into Gaza - Yahoo! News |
Egypt said it would prevent their passage because of the "sensitive situation" in Gaza and warned Monday of legal repercussions for anyone defying the ban. Around 1,300 international delegates from 42 countries have signed up to join the Gaza Freedom March which was due to enter Gaza via Egypt during the last week of December.
Exclusive excerpt from Joe Sacco’s groundbreaking new book: Footnotes in Gaza | I'm awaiting my copy of this book from this great cartoonist. ✪ Sic Semper Tyrannis : Men on Horseback | Pat Lang on the Afghan policy war inside the Obama administration. ✪ Ardebili's laptop - Laura Rozen - POLITICO.com | Iran holding hikers and others because US holding Iranians? ✪ Anis Sayigh: and Israeli history of letter bombs | Angry Arab has an interesting post on the Israeli use of letter bombs against civilians. ✪ Officials Point to Suspect’s Claim of Qaeda Ties in Yemen - NYTimes.com | Rather suspicious, this Yemen angle at a time when people are trying to confuse the Huthis and al-Qaeda... ✪ The Lives They Lived - Ben Ali - The Chili That Shaped a Family - NYTimes.com | Sausages and chilli, served to Obama by an Indian Muslim Trinidadian. ✪ Mainstreaming the Mad Iran Bombers | Marc Lynch | Lynch on NYT op-ed's call for war. ✪ The Nevada gambler, al-Qaida, the CIA and the mother of all cons | The Guardian | "Playboy magazine has revealed that the CIA fell victim to an elaborate con by a compulsive gambler who claimed to have developed software that discovered al-Jazeera broadcasts were being used to transmit messages to terrorists buried deep in America."
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Translate this!

The literary criticism web site the Quarterly Conversation runs a feature called "Translate This!" It lists publishers' and translators' suggestions. There were only three from Arabic, copied below:
Translator KAREEM JAMES ABU-ZEID: The single Arab author I believe to be the most in need of translation is the Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber, born in 1972. He has published a host of novels in Arabic, several of which have been translated into French, yet none of which have been translated into English. He captures the life and spirit of the city of Beirut in unforgettable ways. Darwish translator FADY JOUDAH: I’d like to see the poetry of the Palestinian Ghassan Zaqtan in English, especially his latest collection, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me. He has been one of the leading Arab poets for the last decade or so, and has been hailed by Mahmoud Darwish as an important figure in Arab poetry. Zaqtan is also a recognized novelist, but perhaps that would come later, after we have come to appreciate more completely his first love, poetry. Also, the poetry of Syrian Muhammad Maghut and Egyptian Amal Donqul should be made more available in English (I don’t know of any book-length translations of their work); as well as the novels of Palestinian Ibrahim Nassrallah (especially “The Birds of Caution”). Poet and translator JEFFREY YANG: I’d recommend Kitab al-Hayawan (”The Book of Animals”) by Al-Jahiz. From the ninth century, it’s a multi-faceted, multi-volume book about animals that begins with a passage in praise of books and, as Paul Lunde describes it, “is by no means conventional zoology, or even a conventional bestiary. It is an enormous collection of lore about animals—including insects—culled from the Koran, the Traditions, pre-Islamic poetry, proverbs, storytellers, sailors, personal observation, and Aristotle’s Generation of Animals.” But this is by no means all. In keeping with his theories of planned disorder, he introduces anecdotes of famous men, snippets of history, anthropology, etymology, and jokes.
Do you have suggestions of your own? Tell us! (link found at the Words Without Borders).
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Links for 11.25.09 to 11.26.09

Le journal hebdomadaire | Abou Bakr Jamai's imagines a letter from a Sahrawi. ✪ For Jews, roiling Yemen no longer place to call home | On persecution of the less than 350 remaining Yemeni Jews. ✪ MyMemory - Machine translation meets human translation | Uses records of translations to provide best one possible, Arabic possible. ✪ BBC iPlayer - Document: 23/11/2009 | BBC radio show on Britain's role in the Oman coup of 1970. ✪ AFP: Court jails Moroccan rights activist over drug case | Outrageous imprisonment of whistleblower for denouncing official corruption. ✪ Yemeni refugees caught up in Middle East's forgotten war | World news | The Guardian | Is it forgotten if the Guardian and others keeps on talking about this war, though? It's more that most of the world doesn't care. ✪ Q&A: Iraq war inquiry | UK news | guardian.co.uk | Interesting info - and note, no such inquiry in the US... ✪ Joe Sacco | The Observer | Interview with the cartoonist author of "Palestine" and "Footnotes form Gaza." ✪ Le Figaro: Uri Davis, Juif et dirigeant palestinien | About an Ashkenazi Jewish Israeli who converted to Islam and joined Fatah. ✪ Is Everybody Disappointed In Obama? | TPMCafe | Because he's a coward, that's why. ✪ Who's Paying?: The Case for More Transparent Policy Discourse | Stephen M. Walt | "Not surprisingly, the exposure of Galbraith's dealings has caused some controversy in Iraq, though remarkably little in Washington." ✪ SHE2I2: Egyptian court upholds comic book ban, fines creator & publisher | "Metro" ban upheld. ✪ Marwan Barghouti: Peace talks with Israel have failed - Haaretz | "I do not see that there are fundamental political differences between Fatah and Hamas." ✪ Morocco relishes dual identities - Variety | On Morocco's film industry. ✪ Public Service Announcement | Center for a New American Security | Andrew Exum stops blogging. I understand him...
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Those girls of Riyadh!

A few weeks ago Gamal Al Ghitany (the novelist and editor of Akhbar Al Adab) wrote a column about Arabic best-sellers. He was talking about a general trend, but he focused on the novel "Banaat Riyadh" ("Girls of Riyadh") which has been a best-seller in the Arab world and has recently come out in English. Al Ghitany talks about how Arabic literature, after 9/11, has become of interest to the West, and how Arab writers have (consciously or unconsciously) met a prospective Western audience's particular demands. "What is required?" he writes. "What's required is a peek into this society which seems closed to Westerners, and in which women occupy a particular place..." Al Ghitany describes "Banaat Riyadh" as "a modest, ordinary work from an artistic point of view" but he says, according to the "new literary standards" it's a "treasure trove, starting with the title." Al Ghitany wouldn't mind the work's commercial success if it weren't taken for a direct indication of its literary value so that, he writes, a British newspaper mentioned the work among a list of "six essential works to understanding Arabic literature."    While I share Al Ghitany's frustration with voyeurism and sensationalism, and with the generally quite superficial and misinformed Western coverage of Arab culture, I've actually heard some pretty good things about "Banaat Riyadh." No one says it's a masterpiece, but three women friends whose taste in books I trust have told me they greatly enjoyed it. I haven't read it yet (it's part of a big pile of books on my shelf that I often eye with guilt) but based on what I've read about it, it sounds like the author exploits the desire to see into the life of women in Saudi Arabia in conscious, funny and perhaps subversive ways. And she seems to use different dialects, registers, and languages to great effect.    Anyway, this column reminded me of the controversy that has surrounded Marilyn Booth's translation of "Banaat Riyadh" into English. Booth has written at length about the ways the author and publisher changed her translation without consulting her. She gives many examples in this article in Translation Studies (unfortunately not free to the public) of the kinds of changes that were made. I have to say that based on the examples she gives it certainly looks as if the changes flattened the narrative voice she'd created into something more formal and less charming. For example, here is the opening passage as Booth translated and as it was eventually published:  
Ladies, Girls, and Gentlemen: Get ready, because you are about to rendezvous with some of the most explosive scandals and noisiest, wildest all-night parties around. Your correspondent - and that's moi - is going to lead you into a world that's closer to you than any of your minds can imagine. It really exists. We all inhabit it but we are not really livingit. After all, we all tend to believe in whatever we find easy to swallow and refuse to accept the rest.4  
The published version is as follows:   
Ladies and Gentlemen: You are invited to join me in one of the most explosive scandals and noisiest, wildest all-night parties around. Your personal tour guide - and that's moi - will reveal to you a new world, a world closer to you than you might imagine. We all live in this world but do not really experience it, seeing only what we can tolerate and ignoring the rest. (Alsanea 2007, 1)  
Booth says she favoured keeping the flavour of the Arabic voices over creating a text that might be more accessible to a Western audience. Characters in the novel use English words in the midst of their Arabic; Booth had kept this by writing, for example, "soo falguur," to show how a character might throw the expression "so vulgar," with an Arab accent, into a sentence in Arabic. In the final text it was just spelled "so vulgar," giving no sense that in the original it was actually a borrowed expression from English. She also kept Arabic idioms and translated them literally, rather than looking for English approximations; this was also changed. And certain references that were considered too culturally specific were omitted alltogether.   Booth advocates keeping the text "strange" enough to challenge the reader to learn more, on his or her own, about the culture it comes from. She also is clearly an advocate for greater appreciation and understanding of the creative work of the translator. It would make for an interesting debate if the author of "Banaat Riyadh", Raja' Al Sani', would respond. 
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Links January 20th and January 21st

Automatically posted links for January 20th through January 21st:

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