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Translating Egypt Yesterday and Today

Egyptian playwright Ibrahim El-Husseini’s play Comedy of Sorrows (Comedia al-Ahzaan) recently held its US premiere in New York, performed as part of Hybrid Theatre Works at HERE theater.

El-Husseini’s original Arabic script is constructed with the particulars of language in mind. Characters converse in the Egyptian dialect, heavy with cultural puns and wordplay, while monologues, the internal thoughts and memories of individual characters intended only for the audience, are delivered in Classical Arabic.

The English translation leaves a great deal out. As critic Hani Omar Khalil noted in his 2012 review of an earlier reading of the translated play, El-Husseini never intended Comedy of Sorrows to be performed for a western audience or in the English language. While the literal English translation by Rebekah Maggor and Mohammed Albakry refreshingly avoids much of the jargon and jaded language used to classify events in the Middle East, the play’s language does not communicate the nuances, the histories or the subtexts of the events of January 2011. 

This question of translation, and its role in artistic expression, is raised by Alex Ortiz, co-editor with Rayya El Zein of ArteEast’s Spring 2011 issue of Shahadat. The issue, titled Signs of the Times: Popular Literature of Tahrir,examines the visual language of the eighteen days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square from January 25 to February 11, 2011. As Ortiz discusses, “The internal rhyme and rhythm of the Arabic language – and in particular the Egyptian dialect – can turn the slogans…into wordplay, refer to the long tradition of Arabic poetic meter, or evoke a somber and sacred line from a holy religious text. All of these linguistic specificities never quite make it through into English.” However, there is also that which Ortiz insists is “instantly understood by millions around the world.”

Similarly to Comedy of Sorrows, where audiences witness translated speech, here readers consume translations of an intimate use of cultural language, this time of the visual/literary variety.  

Add to both of these pieces the layer of time, and we have yet another lens of translation: while the characters in Comedy of Sorrows struggle through the initial hurdles of revolt, the audience is well-aware of the fact that by 2013 the excitement of the revolution has been dampened by Morsi’s short-lived, disappointing presidency, the escalating violence following his removal, further military take-overs and curfews. Ortiz’s description of “post-Mubarak Egypt” is now even more transitional: post-Mubarak-post-Morsi, yet pre-solution.

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