Neither Foreignizing Nor Domesticating: On Translating Arabic Plays into English

Mohammed Albakry recently published “Between the Human and the Foreign: Translating Arabic Drama for the Stage,” in which he discusses the particular obstacles of translating Arabic drama into English. It’s a different kettle of fish, after all, from translating Arabic poetry or prose:

It’s not a journey that is often taken — translating Arabic theatre into English. Compared to the number of Arabic novels and memoirs that have recently been appearing in English translation each year (20-30), and poetry collections (5-10), the number of dramatic works translated and published (0-1) is very small.

Indeed, Albakry notes that audiences seem to focus instead on Arab-American theatre, which has seen a boom in the last decade, and which has been treated as a sufficient “window” on Arab countries and cultures. This has stood in place of an interest in strong, compelling theatre written from a different linguistic and cultural vantage.

Yet, because of its rarity, when news came out about Tahrir Plays and Performance Texts from the Egyptian Revolution, a colllection of plays translated by Albakry and Rebekah Maggor, there was wide interest. In addition to a full production of Comedy of Sorrows at New York’s Hybrid Works Theatre in 2013, readings have been staged at various theatres and university campuses. They are still ongoing: A reading of They Say Dancing is a Sin will be staged at Barnard College next month.

As Albakry notes, the theatre translator has particular challenges. Chief among them: The theatre translator much less control over the final product, as the director and actors are also co-translators, of a sort. Directors have a thousand ways of altering our perception of a play, for better and for worse. In one reading of the Tahrir Plays, Albakry writes, performers used a “fake ‘Arab’ accent, which created an artificial distance between the play and the audience.”

In his article, Albakry spends time with Lawrence Venuti’s “domestication v. foreignization” paradigm, arguing that the “foreignizing” effects work more for European texts, where the reader might fall into a domestic dream and fail to notice the foreignness of a work. With an Arabic work, he says, the text is often already perceived as so “foreign” that an emphasis on foreignization (use of Arabic words or grammatical constructs, or other techniques that underline strangeness) can serve to make the work into yet more of a distant, forensic experience and less of an artistic, aesthetic, or communal one.

This is yet more important in a staged work, he argues, where the text “has to make the point right away and has no second chances.” There is no re-reading a sentence here, no searching for the footnote, although perhaps the power of the actor’s will can make us understand what would otherwise be strange.

Albakry notes that, in his translations, he tries to “avoid any calculated discursive moves that could make the Arabic source texts sound more alien in English.” Further, he said, “I try to avoid the various ways in which the texts could be misinterpreted or exoticized.”

In the end, certainly, it’s not possible to predict how any given reader might mis-perceive a text, and probably not possible to out-think a reader or viewer’s bigotry. Albakry focuses in particular on outthinking viewers’ bigotry when it comes to religious terms and formulas.

One of the plays — which will be read at Barnard next month — could be called Dancing is Haram. Albakry gives several other title choices in addition to this first option, which he calls the “foreignizing” one. However, “Dancing is Haram” is perhaps not so much a “foreignizing” option as a different sort of domestication, as “haram” has become a recognizable English word, particularly associated with conservative websites, which are full of Arabic words to which they assign new, narrow meanings: haram, jihad, madrassa, fatwa, dhimmi.

Other tite options Albakry mentioned included “Dancing is a Sin,” “Dancing is Forbidden,” “Dancing is Prohibited,” “Dance Not Allowed,” and the winner: “They Say Dancing is a Sin.” Albakry’s choice both sounds more fluid and shakes off the yoke of word-for-word translation while managing to evoke a larger part of the title’s meaning.

In the case of translating shaheed, Albakry notes that he gives the word a “stealth gloss,” by saying that the man was “a martyr, a war hero.” Instead of letting the word “martyr” stand alone, with the English-language associations of an Arab martyr, it brings in some of the reverential connotations with the phrase “war hero.”

Albakry writes that, in the end, instead of “giving a glimpse” or “providing a window into Arab culture and reality,” he hopes that the translations in Tahrir Plays will “extend a full invitation into the world of the texts and the culture of its people.” Although that, I suppose, will also be up to the directors, actors, and everyone else involved in bringing these plays to audiences.

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