In the shoes of the self

Nourhan Tewfik, Tuesday 17 Dec 2019

Nourhan Tewfik celebrates the tenth anniversary of the American University in Cairo’s Center for Translation Studies


I still remember sitting in on professor Samia Mehrez’s “Translation: Theory and Practice” graduate course some five years ago. We were a small group, four in total, including Mehrez. The course was our getaway to the field of Translation Studies, and especially its developments since the 1970s. We were assigned readings in literary and translation theory, and our weekly meetings were a chance for us to reflect on the debates in this budding field (especially scholarly attempts to challenge the terminology of literalness-fidelity-faithfulness-equivalence which had for too long characterised the practice of translation) as well as to learn an array of translation practices.

As the course unfolded over the next four months, it became increasingly clear to me that what we were undertaking was essentially an unlearning of preconceived understandings of translation, both in theory and practice. I had come to the course with a somewhat rigid understanding of translation as the literal conversion of words and meanings. I was actually fond of the almost mechanical essence of the practice of adaptation and was hoping the course would be yet another practical exercise in this conversion of texts. Little did I know that Mehrez—as both curator of the course and pioneer of the teaching, research and practice of translation—would challenge this rather sloppy identification on my part. Crucial to our meetings were lengthy meditations on the changing-changed role of the translator—described by Lawrence Venuti, whose work I became acquainted with in Mehrez’s course, as a “powerful agent for cultural change.”

The course went hand in hand with Mehrez’s own parallel work as founder and director of the Center for Translation Studies (CTS) at the American University in Cairo, with its double-lecture series: “In Translation” and the “Interdisciplinary Lecture Series” (as well as a plethora of initiatives, workshops and symposia in Egypt and abroad). If our course was where we came together to discuss the theoretical undertones of translation, the CTS lecture series was where a somewhat practical application of these thoughts could be traced. I remember quite well how by the end of the semester, the course had become a prism through which translation—textual or otherwise—could be thought, rethought, practiced, and revolutionized.


Flashforward to 2019: these early encounters with Mehrez’s philosophy of translation came to mind as I sat in the Oriental Hall of the AUC Tahrir Campus on 10 December to attent CTS’s 10th anniversary celebration. To commemorate this important moment in the center’s life, Mehrez collaborated with Egypt’s Al Kotob Khan publishing house to collect some 35 CTS lectures, which together constitute “less than one third of the speakers hosted”, in book form; the result is an anthology edited by Mehrez and titled In the Shoes of the Other: Interdisciplinary Essays in Translation Studies from Cairo (Cairo: Al Kotob Khan, 2019).

The anthology, over 400 pages, is divided into six thematic parts: Part I, “The Translator: Memories, Testimonies, and Reflections”; Part II, “Translation, Migration, and Identity”; Part III, “Literary Translation: Challenges and Opportunities”; Part IV, “On Carrying Across: Languages, Cultures, and Registers”; Part V, “Translation Across Disciplines”; and finally Part VI, “The Stage, the Screen, and the Languages In-between.”

In a preface, Mona Baker, Professor of Translation Studies ay University of Manchester, writes that the anthology “challenges the widespread disconnect between the professional world of translation and scholarly reflections on this vital component of social life by juxtaposing a variety of experiences from both worlds... Indeed, the anthology demonstrates quite clearly that the divide between the two worlds is largely artificial, and that few people belong categorically to one or the other. Featuring complementary and mutually enhancing scholarly and professional voices, it highlights the social, literary, and political relevance of translation in an increasingly interconnected world and will make an important contribution to challenging the widely held lay perception of translation and interpreting as routinized, uncritical activities.”

The anthology comprises essays by scholars, practitioners and artists across different fields. Its contributors’ list includes: Abdel Megid El Mehelmy, Adel El Siwi, Ahmad Ali Badawi, Anwar Moghith, Basheer El Sibai, Behrouz Boochani, Chenxi Li, Claude Audebert, Dav id Kanbergs, Denys Johnson-Davies, Dina Heshmat, Eleanor Ellis, Ellen Kenney, Elliott Colla, Emad Abou Ghazi, Fawwaz Traboulsi, Ferial Ghazoul, Fernand Cohen, Hakan Özkan, Heba El-Kholy, Humphrey Davies, Jennifer Pineo-Dunn, John Verlenden, Justin Kolb, Khal ed Al Khamissi, Khaled Mattawa, Leila Aboulela, Lisa Anderson, Mahmoud El Lozy, Mai Serhan, Marcia Lynx Qualey, Margaret Gilligan, Mohamed M. Tawfik, Mona Baker, Mona ElNamoury, Nora Amin, Omid Tofighian, Rana Issa, Randa Aboubakr, RehabSaad ElDomiati, Samia Mehrez, Samuel Dinger, Tahia Abdel Nasser, Waleed Hammad, Zeinab Mobarak and Zheng Zhong.

The 10 December event opened with a welcome note by Mehrez in which she dwelt on how the center’s early years overlapped with an important historical juncture in Egypt, namely the January 2011 uprising: “The revolutionary energy that accompanied the early years at the center infused it with a determination to resist and persist despite institutional and budgetary constraints. In doing so it has opened up uncharted territory beyond the confines of academic programmes and has widened the parameters of its engagement with translation, as well as its regional and global networks.”

Mehrez went on to reflect on what was essentially a decade-long exercise in renegotiating the meaning of translation: “For ten years we have endeavoured to foster a very broad and inclusive understanding of what translation means and how it impacts so much of what we do.  We have curated and hosted lectures from fields as diverse as postcolonial theory, gender studies, media and film studies, linguistics and minority languages, political science, history, visual arts, law, photography, dramaturgy, diplomacy, urban studies, creative writing, literary criticism, and of course, translation and translation studies.”

Mehrez’s opening remarks were followed by a panel discussion, which in her own words, was put together to celebrate the field of translation studies itself. The six-speaker panel included Lisa Anderson, former president of AUC, who sent a pre-recorded video of her note; Emad Abou Ghazi, Egypt’s former Minister of Culture and Professor of Archival Studies at the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University; Mona Baker, Professor of Translation Studies at the University of Manchester; Anwar Moghith, Professor of Philosophy at Helwan University and Director of the National Center for Translation; Ferial Ghazoul, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo; and finally Humphrey Davies, the prominent Arabic-English literary translator.


In her recorded note, Lisa Anderson described CTS as “a testament to the urgency and importance of understanding—or, at least, trying to understand—that is at the very heart of the mission of an institution like the American University in Cairo... As all translators know, and as everyone whose words have ever been interpreted or translated knows, understanding is always and intrinsically imperfect. Translation makes one humble. But the trying—the effort itself—to understand is also among the most noble human endeavours.”

Translation, Anderson went on to explain, is at the core of the AUC experience because “the university, its faculty and students alike, are deliberately and self-consciously operating in two languages, in two cultural worlds, in two traditions of literature and art and music... For virtually everyone at AUC, daily life is an exercise in repeated micro-translations.”

For his part, Emad Abou Ghazi gave a presentation in Arabic titled “Translation into Arabic in Egypt: A Historical Perspective”, in which he presented a meticulous survey of individual and state-led translation initiatives and projects in Egypt beginning with the rule of Muhammad Ali and continuing all the way into the early 2000s.

Abou Ghazi ended his presentation with an affirmation of translation’s multiple contributions to cultural revivals: “If translation has historically enabled many a cultural renaissance around the world, it has only become more crucial in the age of globalisation and in the wake of the information and communication revolutions. It has become a prerequisite for bridging the knowledge gap between societies.”

Issues of accessibility and the pressing need to develop translation practices that engage with society were at the heart of Mona Baker’s talk, titled “Translation and Interpreting Studies: Past and Future Trajectories”: “I would argue... that in order to connect our academic work with the social spaces in which translation and interpreting function outside the ivory tower, and to demonstrate how consequential translation is in the real world and in the academy at large, we need to adopt a broader understanding of translation and develop a realistic discourse about our object of study, one that is meaningful and accessible to scholars in other disciplines as well as members of the public.”

Baker also reflected on recent developments in the field, especially focusing on the impact of globalization on both the understanding and practice of translation: “Globalisation has empowered both translators and non-translators to experiment with new ways of bridging the language and digital divide and to reconfigure the relationship between service providers and service users, leading to further blurring of boundaries between different types of actor and between translation and other types of text production.”

The future of translation, however, remains marred by challenges: “In terms of the future of the discipline and the profession, I would expect ethical considerations to occupy an increasingly central place, reflecting a broader concern with ethics and accountability in society at large. More attention is also increasingly being given to the threat to the profession posed by new technologies and practices, such as machine translation and crowdsourcing. The impact of new media cultures and new technologies on all aspects of translation and interpreting is among the most promising, and most pressing, lines of research in the field.”

State intervention in selecting translations and developing translation policies was the topic of Anwar Moghith’s presentation, titled “Translation Policies, Translation Politics,” which he delivered in Arabic. According to Moghith, the Egyptian state was highly present in “three major historical phases during which translation flourished... The first of these was marked by the introduction of modern sciences to Egypt, and shepherded by Nahda intellectual Rifa’a al-Tahtawi. The second was the era of the ‘Thousand Books’ initiative associated with writer Taha Hussein, which made classic texts of the global intellectual tradition available to Egyptian readers. The third phase began with the Supreme Council of Culture’s launch of the National Project for Translation, which was succeeded by the National Centre for Translation, an independent body...

“In each of these three phases, the government emerged as a key player in the field of translation, intervening in a variety of ways. But the contemporary history of translation in Egypt can also help us to understand translation in the framework of the free market, far from the involvement of the state.”

Ferial Ghazoul’s presentation, titled “Translation: A Passion for Knowledge and a Yearning for World Culture”, dug deep into the happiness-sadness paradox that constitutes the core of any act of translation: “Translators are amateurs, not in the sense of being unskillful or incompetent, but in the etymological sense of the term. Amateur comes from Latin, amator, which means lover. And like lovers, translators experience suffering and bliss. They would not exchange their state of unrequited love for any other state of being. Borrowing the words of the Sufis, they would say: ‘If the Sultans knew of our state they would fight us with swords for it.’ The pleasures of translation are mixed with the agonies of finding the right tone, the correct correspondence, and the parallel syntax.”

Translation is imbued with various pains, the most agonizing of which is that of “understanding”: “The prerequisite understanding of how meaning is trapped in a discourse is what the translator needs before such meaning can be transferred to another language or medium.”

The panel ended with a heartening presentation by Humphrey Davies, titled “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!” in which he described the current position of Arabic to English literary translation as “fundamentally stronger,” adding that the “quality and importance of Arabic literature [is] much more widely recognized in the English-speaking world.” According to Davies, one major “indicator” of such an improved position is that “the most recent list of works in the ‘World Bookshelf’ published and supported financially by PEN UK, the British arm of the world-wide writers’ association, contained 24 books, of which 4 were translations from Arabic; only Spanish scored an equal number and other languages were represented by smaller numbers.”

An array of “milestones” reportedly paved the way for such developments, starting with Naguib Mahfouz’s award of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981 and the success of the translation of Alaa Al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, all the way to the founding of publications and ezines dedicated to Arabic literature in translation, the establishment of more literary prizes, and finally the increased availability of skillful translators.

In this regard, 2019 can be seen as yet another successful year for Arabic-English literary translation, explained Davies: “In May, Marilyn Booth’s translation of Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies won the International Booker Prize, the first time that an Arabic novel has won a major prize in competition with works from other literatures in English translation. Finally, it was announced a few days ago that Leri Price’s translation of Khalid Khalifa’s Death Is Hard Work is a finalist for the USA’s National Book Award... All of this amounts perhaps to saying no more than that Arabic literature has gained a toehold in the English book market. But that toehold is significant.

“It means that the existence of a thriving, modern Arabic literature is recognized outside of the academy; that that literature is afforded respect; and that it is read outside of its home territory. And that is something new, and something to celebrate.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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