Tag Archives: arabic

Translation problems

I don’t know enough about law, or technology, or the Arabic language for this shit. When I was a volunteer translator, I had a folder in my documents marked, semi-jokingly, ‘ABOVE MY PAY GRADE’ for all of the translations which required more than usual amounts of caffeine, spasmodic scrolling through Hans Wehr, and the last resort of the underqualified, plugging the whole thing into Google Translate and then rearranging what comes out into some kind of sense. When I actually started getting paid, I renamed the folder ‘HUMAN RIGHT$ DOLLA’. Slowly, I am becoming a good translator. Slowly.

Translation has taught me words in English: usufructuary, to yaw, Secure Sockets Layer. It has shown me a whole heap of enjoyable, even quaint differences in expression and syntax between Arabic and English. (To take into consideration, in Arabic, becomes ‘to take into the eye of consideration,’ which I like.) In the way that studying advanced French taught me never to end an English sentence with a preposition (for what is merely sloppy in English becomes impossible in French), translating advanced Arabic texts has taught me new ways of thinking about gerunds, passives, apposition, relative pronouns, and so on, which I will not go into here, because it will be dull. (Gerunds, though! They need a special mention. Arabic can sometimes be a mess of gerunds, as though there is no other way to express an idea. It can be neat, an incredibly elegant and concise way to express complicated concepts, or it can be repetitive and stale. After a day spent with Arabic I find myself inserting gerunds into English which should not be there. ‘The mentioning of it is forbidden,’ that kind of thing.)

I still don’t want to be a translator when I grow up, but I am enjoying being one at the moment.

When I translate from English to Arabic, it is of course much, much harder. No amount of dictionaries, grammar books, or Google T can fill the gaping hole where a native command of the language is lacking. I formulate clauses and then Google them in Arabic to see if anyone has written anything similar. I do this, painstakingly, for every sentence I write, casting my net over the Internet, searching for someone whose words chime with my own. My supervisor at work says my English-Arabic translations are ‘strange but serviceable’. Some of them, he says, are better than a native speaker’s efforts. I silently thank all the denizens of the internet who just happened to be writing about probable cause or the frequency spectrum in Arabic, in the same words as me, and who, as before, saved my ass.

I am compiling a glossary so that the next translator who takes over from me at my organisation can save some time finding accurate translations for things like ‘rocket-propelled grenade warhead’ or ‘universal jurisdiction’. It is divided up into sections: medical, legal, security, espionage, prisons, weapons, and so on. Finding a good word for the glossary is very satisfying. I now have three different types of knives, five different guns, and a plethora of small arms including chains and sticks. It is a morbid little list. Each word recalls the case, the particular translation, from whence it came; the word for drug poisoning, for instance, inevitably reminds me of the Essam Atta press release I translated, after Atta died in prison from having bleach pumped into his mouth and anus through rubber hoses. The Ministry of Interior claimed that he had ingested drugs and died of poisoning. My translation work is the last stage in a process where each stage becomes more refined, more removed from the original violence and horror of the thing.

In October, I volunteered for a website which was gathering testimonies from witnesses to the Maspero massacre, and then translating them into English. This translation work presented an initial problem for me in that all the testimonies were in transcribed Egyptian Arabic, so my dictionary was little use and I often had to read them out loud to figure out what they were saying. Rendering colloquial expressions into English was difficult and the results felt awkward. I didn’t know what level of expletives were permitted: I shied away from ‘I’m gonna fuck you up,’ sticking with the slightly milquetoast ‘I’m gonna mess you up’.

I was not at Maspero. I was in a friend’s apartment in downtown, far away enough to be assured of my safety, perched on his balcony reading Twitter. In the days that followed I watched the same videos and saw the same pictures as everybody else: the woman clutching her dead fiance’s hand, the heads smashed in, the horrifying videos which emerged later, the close-up shots of APCs running people down. These images of Maspero stuck with me, like I imagine they did for many other people. It was a horrific event, a horrific time afterwards, and of course I was upset and disturbed by it.

Yet it was translation, in the end, which really got to me. It was only after I began translating testimonies that I began having nightmares about Maspero. I would sit at my desk with all the simple comforts of work around me: a soft light, a cup of tea, maybe a blanket over my knees, and I would begin. Each testimony would begin the same way: we were marching from Shubra, and it was a lovely day. As I typed out my translation, my stomach would begin to tighten, for I knew what was coming, the point at which – not death, but the possibility of death, would start to seep into the text. Somehow, I would find myself on the Corniche, right inside the videos and photos I had seen; among the howling darkness, the blood and teeth and brains, the bodies jerking epileptically under the wheels of APCs. I would reach the end of the translation, look up from my laptop, and steady myself with a hand against my desk; reassuring myself that I was still here, in the light, and still breathing.


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Bukra il-hureyah

Last exam tomorrow! Links links links:

All eyes are back on Gaza

Roundup of flotilla commentary from the Arabist

Priorities in the wake of flotilla killings: Gaza, then inquiry

Deported flotilla activists tell of Israeli mistreatment

US official: flotilla activists were ‘clearly seeking a confrontation’

The US should step aside for Turkey

Ibn Kafka on the ‘arms’ found aboard the flotilla (in French)

NATO’s growing crisis over flotilla attacks

Video report on (lack of) protest in East Jerusalem

How Israel enables terror

What’s the point of the Gaza blockade?

No-one seems surprised at Obama’s silence

Hamas says the Rafah crossing is open…

…but not much is happening, according to the Guardian

The Egyptian opposition just can’t get along

‘Skirmishes’ did not undermine Shoura elections, says interior ministry

Shoura results to be declared on Thursday

MB to lend support to ElBaradei?

Taliban suicide bombers attack Afghan peace conference

The decline of Israel’s military power

How do you translate insha’allah?

Israel’s war against non-violence

Hamas must take initiative now

ElBaradei speaks on flotilla and Egyptian democracy

New Saudi marriage contracts ask age of bride

Analysis of the recent Algerian cabinet reshuffle

Iranian govt prepares for protests as students demonstrate

How to end the Gaza siege

Coalition negotiation continues in Iraq

Leading AQIM figure surrenders in Algeria

America and Turkey: friends to frenemies

Why the Afghan jirga will fail

Lifting the siege in Gaza and Cairo

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Mesha’al, ElBaradei, and the Bulaq Dokrar Crazies

All my colloquial exams are over and I’m back to studying pure MSA – I’d forgotten how beautiful it is. Last push through until Thursday then insha’allah I’ll be back to posting more expansively…

Mesha’al: ‘The Americans contact us, but are not brave enough to do so openly’

Everyone’s favourite former IAEA chief takes a stroll in Old Cairo…

…delivering verbal smackdowns to nearby journalists…

…but is he losing momentum?

Freedom flotilla en route to Gaza

UK attemps to change universal jurisdiction law that is keeping Israeli politicians away

Infiltration of Iraqi police force leads to fear of US departure

‘The Bomb Iran Crowd’ from the Arabist

From nights at the circus to the Bulaq Dokrar Crazies: the Egyptian gap between rich and poor

The failure of the American liberal arts model in Iraq

Arabic literature: is no translation better than a bad translation?

One of the greatest songs by one of the greatest bands of the 80s. yaa Westerberg, bHibak.

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Two days’ worth of links

I’m going to London tomorrow to do battle with the Iranian embassy, so here are links ktiiiir until I get back:

Clinton gives Iran cold shoulder over fuel deal, Iran is all ‘whatever’

Brazil and Turkey’s foreign ministers defend the deal in the NYT

Israelis pray for the health of the rayyis masrii (egychronicles points out: no-one lives forever!)

Lessons from South Africa for Israel and Palestine

Archaeology threatens Palestinian homes

Conversions to Islam increase in Dubai

The intersection of Zionism, liberalism, and nationalism

Oh, Thomas Friedman. Wherefore art thou syndicated?

Hizbollah threatens Israeli ships, apparently now have a navy?

Brazil and Turkey: emerging powers

Obama’s Iran policy is ‘sleepwalking’

‘Radio divorce’ in Egypt offers support and advice

Musicians’ boycott of Israel is a blunt weapon

Robert Fisk gets on his high horse, actually makes interesting points

Maliki on Iraqi-Syrian relations: ‘things have improved’

Muslim Brotherhood member says G-Mubz’ succession is impossible

Government officials jailed over Cairo rockslide

The US tries to reach out to European Muslims, with predictable results

Changing attitudes in Saudi Arabia shown by recent attacks on religious police

Bibi invited over to the White House for tea, possible diplomatic smackdown

Hizbollah disarmament – the answer is in political discourse

Islam and images of the Prophet – how forbidden is forbidden?

Controversial ya3nii criminal and corrupt

Obama will only sporadically focus on foreign policy in runup to elections

In defence of Scherezade – Egyptian Chronicles on why 1001 nights should not be banned

US should accept final offer, warns Iran

A new low for CNN

Hizbollah’s new museum in South Lebanon

Iraqi airways declared bankrupt

West Bank rabbi bars women from standing in elections

Egypt uses defamation laws to prosecute activists

Israeli outrage over Palestinian boycott of settlement goods

Who in the world will be the next rayyis masri, asks NDP

Israeli jets bomb Gaza in night raid

The Arabic reading summer challenge. It’s on!

Hariri asked (politely) why he doesn’t disarm Hizbollah

Iranian morality crackdown continues

Egyptian foreign minister sues journalist over op-ed

And…Kanye and Cam’ron are a good combo:

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Nasr Company on strike, Iranians on the lash, and Saudi women on the road?

Arabic, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.

Erdogan to Iran for nuclear talks

It’s going to take a lot to get America talking about Israel

Iraqi election recount offers no new result

Arabic children’s literature adds a new dimension to the fusHa/3amiyah conundrum

Chomsky denied entry to Israel

The NPT conference trundles on

David Schenker tackles the SCUD issue; hilarity ensues

A new vision for Cairo

Iranians party in Armenia

Mariah Carey to perform at the Pyramids. Apparently has a big Egyptian fanbase

The Maghreb’s lack of ‘asabiyya

Gazan farmers need protection to bring in their harvest

Nasr Company chemical workers announce strike, win concessions (in Arabic)

Muslim Brotherhood members to be tried in absentia

Saudis may capriciously let women loose in cars. Madness

Translators as movie stars?

Video bonus: iiiiiiiiii would step out of the rush for you…

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3amiyah, G-Mubz, and strong horses

Limited time today as work has piled on top of me but here are some good links from the last 48 hours or so:

The place of colloquial Arabic in literature

Press freedom in Egypt – business as usual

Abu Mubarak?

An amusingly breathless article on Iraqi Airways’ new Baghdad-London link

The new, moderate Hamas?

US companies cutting ties with Iran

Syria playing the field again

Gamal Mubarak’s big day out

Secularism in Lebanon

Gamila Ismail takes on El-Qasas (Egyptian MP who called for shooting of protesters), wins

Israel-Iran alliance? (probably not…)

Strong horse diplomacy

Part of a series of videos expressing support for the upcoming 2 May demo in Egypt. (I think I met this guy in Cairo?) (In Arabic)

And just because it’s the best thing I’ve seen on Youtube in a long while…

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Mawt al3rabiyah

Well, how is this for a depressing thought. The hours in the library wrestling with case endings only to find MSA going the way of Latin? Insha’allah, I guess, we will see.

It’s certainly true that learning MSA can feel like a Sisyphean task. Having spent six months on it, arriving in Cairo was something of a shock. ‘3Tlah?’ said one guy I met. ‘You’re here on 3Tlah? You speak like a textbook. Igaazah, habibi, igaazah. That’s how we speak in Egypt.’ A few days later, rattling off what I thought was a beautifully turned colloquial sentence I was somewhat disheartened to hear an Arabic-speaking friend commenting to another: ‘Yeah, hear that? She’s speaking MSA. It’s what they teach them at university.’

So on the street chatting with the shabaab MSA can feel somewhat – OK, totally – irrelevant, and if you want to learn to speak like a proper baladi then you’re going to have to free Arabic from the classroom and take it to the shaari3. But there are still valid reasons for learning MSA, both for Arabs and Western students of Arabic like myself.

As Whitaker points out, MSA is ‘a practical means for Arabs from various countries to communicate with each other’; though he argues that news media is a ‘limited’ arena for this communication, it’s surely the most important and growing ever more so as the Middle East’s media networks, both official and unofficial, continue to rapidly develop. It’s also a practical means for non-Arabs to start communicating with the region on a more equitable level. MSA is understood everywhere (even if you sound like a textbook) and can be great for getting started before you pick up the dialect. Feeling slightly foolish aside, learning MSA helped a lot on the streets of Cairo; the gulf between MSA and colloquial often isn’t that huge and what I had learned was a good jumping-off point for then adapting my language to a more informal register. When I go to Damascus I’ll have to swiftly unlearn the Egyptian I picked up and start speaking like a Syrian, but with the basics of my MSA in place it shouldn’t be too difficult.

I’d argue, too, that MSA has an intrinsic value that makes it worth learning. The relative usefulness or uselessness of something is too often used as the only criteria for its worth as a subject – yet we never hear of complaints over Cambridge English lit students studying medieval dream poetry, arguably even more of a niche than MSA. The intellectual exercise of studying something so well-constructed and complex as formal Arabic is challenging and develops you in all sorts of ways. Learning MSA has actually improved my written English, with the necessary scrutiny over grammar and syntax forcing me to reconsider how my own language works.

The cultural worth of MSA is similarly not to be discounted. When you learn case endings in Arabic (one of the hardest bits of MSA – and one of the least ‘useful’) you discover that the Arabic name for case marking roughly translates as ‘making it proper Arabic’. All the old truisms about it being the language of the Qu’ran, the language that has held together a region for hundreds of years, don’t need to be reiterated. It’s one of the richest and most beautiful languages there is and it is by no means dead – Whitaker points out the abundance of loan words but I see this instead as evidence of the flexibility and suppleness of the language. Arabic is not dying, but adapting. Insha’allah.


insha’allah – if God wills

3Tlah/igaazah – both mean holiday, apparently one is more formal than the other!

shabaab – guys

baladi – literally ‘of the homeland’, suggesting colloquial and earthy (!) Arabic

shaari3 – street

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