People of the Cave, by Twafiq Al-Hakim

Inspired by the Koranic parable of the People of the Cave, Tawfiq Al-Hakim wrote his play, The People of the Cave, which was first published in 1933.  However, Al-Hakim restricts the number of the people of the cave to three: Michelenia, Marnoush and Yamalikha (Maximillian, Martinis and Mackles according to the Christian sources[1]). Nonetheless, according to the Koranic narrative, he keeps the dog and the location of the cave (Al-Raqeem). Also, he chooses the Town of Tartous as the place where the story unfolds. Overall, the main events in Al-Hakim’s story do not collectively differ from the Koranic and the Greek narratives as far as why the three youths fled to the cave, how long they stayed in it, how they were discovered and how they ended up dying back in the cave where they were enshrined.

Nonetheless, Al-Hakim seems to have had a field day spinning a huge web of details, which not only enriches the dialog between the characters in the play, but also heightens the struggle between emotions and intellect, time and place and faith and disbelief. To this effect, Al-Hakim strips his characters of sainthood. He introduces them as average human beings whose worldly desires at times shake their faith and at other times firm it up. Despite the fact that the king, his entourage and the people of the city view them both as saints and living miracles, none of the three youths sees himself likewise. For instance, Michelenia kept looking for his lost love and Marnoush for his wife and son.

In Al-Hakim’s People of the Cave, time plays the most significant role. It paralyzes the three youths’ submission to reality as their sense of time continues to claw at their minds. They thought that they only stayed in the cave for a day or two. They were even ready to convince themselves that they stayed there for a whole month. However, staying for 300 years was quite inconceivable to them despite all evidence around them. Eventually, when they surrender to the fact that they spent 300 years in their cave, they feel disconnected with their surroundings and long for their past—a past that threatened their lives at the time. They go back to their cave.

To me, Al-Hakim’s genius in the People of the Cave clearly manifests itself in how he puts both his play’s characters and viewers in a time machine that rocked their intellects back and forth between past and present, faith and disbelief, happiness and sadness, love and hate and life and death. By the time the three youths died in the cave and Prisca was enshrined to die with them, the viewers must have been mentally and emotionally exhausted and were too numb to feel anything. They existentially accepted reality.

[1] Review the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.

The Revolt of the Young: Essays by Tawfiq al-Hakim, Mona Radwan, trans. (Syracuse, 2014)

Tawfiq al-Hakim (October 9, 1898 – July 26, 1987) was a prominent Egyptian writer and a visionary. He authored more than seventy plays, eleven novels and twenty-five collections of essays. Nonetheless, his most significant contribution was in the realm of theater. As Roger Allen laconically puts it, “The Revolt of the Young presents to its readers a voice from the past, one that seeks to offer comment and counsel to present generations of Egyptians in all their variety” (foreword xii).

According to Marwa Radwan, The Revolt of the Young’s translator, “by the time the January 25 Revolution (2011) took place in Egypt, [she] had already finished translating the book but was even keener on editing it and looking for a publisher” (xix). The book deserved to be available in English for those who are interested in Arabic literature (ibid). To her, and I agree, “this book deserves to be in the limelight as it predicts the revolt of the Egyptian and the American people socially and culturally if not politically in the twenty-first century” (xx). Not only did The Revolt of the Young foresee the Arab Spring, but it also continues to serve as a universal reference to the rebellious nature of the youth all over the world from the Vietnam War to the Wall Street’s sit-ins and France’s Housing Unrests. As Mona Radwan succinctly puts it, “his book inspires” (xxii).

In her English rendition of The Revolt of the Young, Marwa effectively coped with al-Hakim’s elevated and abstruse classical Arabic. She had to rid the target text (TT) of the many ellipses that al-Hakim used either to signify pondering or in place of commas.  Further, she also ridded the TT of the too many exclamation marks that al-Hakim profusely used. Additionally, al-Hakim’s erudite style caused the source text (ST) to include a myriad of cultural allusions to Western, Asian and Arab works and writers.  However, al-Hakim almost never cites the sources and rarely mentions the names of the writers fully. Neither did his ST include a bibliography. This required Marwa to insert many explanatory footnotes and add the years of publications of said referenced works. She did that, while keeping citations in the same manner al-Hakim wrote them to make her translation “more reader friendly” (xxi).

Evidently, Marwa’s translation has brought the author home to the English readership.  Overall, it is both domesticated and transparent.  Nonetheless, her translation seems to be better suited for the British readership.  This is clearly manifested in her word and idiomatic choices. For instance, she uses “lift” where Americans would use “ride.” To this effect, Marwa has done a magnificent job in making The Revolt of the Young accessible to the English readership. However, in doing so, much of al-Hakim’s writing persona was lost. Marwa could have stretched and bent the target language (TL) much farther to accommodate more of the ST’s foreignness.  After all, this would be my preference: a preference for which I am usually criticized of urging the easily distracted reader to strain to hear the voice of the original.

The Bloody Journey by Ibrahim Isa

In his 707-page novel, The Bloody Journey[1], Ibrahim Isa weaves history into drama as he retells the events of the greatest sedition in Islamic history whose immediate result was the murdering of the third rightly guided caliph, Othman b. Affan, whereas the Muslim nation is still suffering its long-term repercussions.  Overall, the author’s language mimics the language of the first half century of the Islamic calendar. This comes as a direct result not only of the too many narrations that the author ferreted out of old history books and inserted in the novel, but also as a consequence of the author’s long attachment with those books. Their style rubbed off on his.

To a great extent, Isa succeeded in creating live characters whose hallmark is humanness. Their being companions of the Prophet (S) or even his wives (R) (aka mothers of the believers) did not shield them against human deficiencies such as bias, lack of foresight, misjudgment, foul temperament, greed, vendetta, etc. None should overlook the fact that Othman b. Affan, a human, had his own share of mistakes and misjudgment, too. Yet what the reader will never forget is how a great companion like Othman b. Affan whom the Prophet (S) had given the glad tidings of his place in paradise and whom he assured the permanence of his status of the divine reward was reviled by a sizeable number of the companions and Aisha (R).

Othman was sieged in his house, starved with his family and eventually massacred as he was reading the Koran while fasting. His body was left for three days, before it was buried in the Jewish graveyard in Madinah by Nathan: a Jew who looked like Othman whom the latter was always taunted and reviled by his name[2]. So much for being one of the ten whom the Prophet (S) announced their admission to paradise!

[1] The literal translation of the title is the Blood Journey.

[2] Othman was called Nathan by some of the companions and Aisha (R).

Now that you are here, go back!

Governments are increasingly becoming less welcoming towards potential immigrants, and are not only trying to restrict immigrants from entering, but are also attempting to deport many who have already entered the country. For a multiplicity of reasons, Europe, the United States, and even Canada, seem to have developed a similar attitude towards the issue of immigrants and refugees coming through their borders: they do not want them.

This attitude is usually promoted through flagrantly flawed allegations and inaccurate generalizations (e.g., “Illegal” immigrants are a burden; are a threat to the “cultural” landscape of “our country”; are potential terrorists; and so on). This post attempts to point out some immediate consequences of using the above bogeyman arguments as a basis to formulate social policies.

Should a social policy be a measure to solve a problem or address a need “that cannot be addressed by the system as it is” (Barley’s lecture), studying the problem objectively is the only way to provide adequate answers. Otherwise, a compounding problem is likely to occur. As a result, looking at the issue of immigration through an us-versus-them prism or framing its discourse by painting its components with the same brush must be avoided.

Recently, the hatred narrative has heavily informed the making of social policy, be it measures taken against immigrants (whether documented or undocumented) or turning a blind eye to oppressive regimes in return for keeping their people within the borders of their countries (e.g., all countries on the southern edge of the Mediterranean basin).  Suffice it to say that the DACA workers and students have landed the INS deportation list. In the middle of that, translators and interpreters are trying to make sense of nonsensical, let alone unethical, policies. Should the above not be indicative of chaos rather than a reflection of a well thought-out policy, I definitely do not know what is.



Thoughts on Immigration and Translation

Generally speaking, the sense of being an immigrant fades away as time elapses.  Actually, it is replaced by the sense of full citizenship among the US-born generation.  And this is where the narrative takes a dichotomous turn.  On one hand, the sense of ownership to the country of birth surpasses that of the country of origin.  On the other hand, the inclination to write off the fresh off the boat (FOBs) becomes stronger. Subsequently, those who were immigrants in the past discriminate against today’s immigrants—basic group psychology!

As for how society views translation, this largely depends on the topic of the translation.  When translation occurs on a need basis, be it technical or commercial, it is usually viewed as use-and lose-service—very utilitarian!  It is even worse in literary translation.  Suffice it to say, the English speaking world is mainly interested in literature that is originally produced in English. It should not surprise you to know that only 3% of the total literary print in the English-speaking world is translation.

Additionally, and I hate to break it to you, although translators, among other language service providers, are gaining respect and recognition as established and needed professionals, they are still seen by many as second-class professionals.  Rarely their names are mentioned on the books they translated, and they are excluded from receiving royalties. As for how to change this, it is changing already.  Just be patient!


History…Pastry…Both Are Shapable

Can a discourse develop in absence of historical facts?  No brainer…it absolutely can.  Actually, you needn’t look very far to cite an example. Just listen to President Trump.  A discourse is more or less a narrative.  You can “rhetoricize” it, stuff it and craft it any way you want.  Nonetheless, taking history into account has always been part of discourse development.  Generally, “history” serves as the prime persuasive component of a reasoned discourse. And here lies the problem.

Unless an oxymoron, historical facts constitute a small, if not minuscule, portion of history.  The rest are happenings that could be interpreted in different ways.  Manipulating historical events is customary in creating discourses and counter discourses. Ultimately, the context, the political climate and the craftiness of incorporating “history” into a given discourse is what determines its success.

Yet, it is naïve to assume that history can dispel myth, for history could be a myth itself.  For instance, and against all odds, America has gone down in its history not only as “the land of the free” but also as “the world champion of democracy.” Try to reconcile that with America’s recent history with slavery and current racism and her being in bed with oil-producing dictatorships as well as apartheid Israel.

In the past, we learned that history is biased, for the victorious gets to write it. As “Globalization” shifts from interdependence to competition, everyone gets to write history. This introduces history to a new landscape, let alone changes its typography. History is no longer written after a fight has been concluded, but rather it is written by the contenders during the fight.  The contender with the craftiest narrative wins. In short, history is no longer an aftermath. It has become a strategy! To me, a translator is a text reproducer.  Her ability to reproduce an accurate text is predicated on her awareness of the given discourse, its interplay with history and where it falls from other discourses.

My two cents,



We are not all living on the same street

All the way from genetically modified cotton seeds to “how do you like my new t-shirt? I bought it on sale from TJMAX,” a whole world of production, shipping and consumerism exists.  As it is impossible to count all the endeavors that go into each one of the fields/steps above, it is not nearly as impossible to identify the systems through which these endeavors interconnect.  To me, these systems are basically economic (both macro and micro: e.g., marketing, enterprise revenue and balancing a checkbook after a customer makes an individual purchase at a store), industrial (e.g., seeding, cropping, building machines, and so on) and sociopolitical (where people fall into a full continuum that ranges from enslavement to employment).

As needs and hopes continue to inform the human behavior, human beings have always reacted to realities that extended far beyond their localities.  Nowadays, the difference is that these realities have become more immediate.  There is no denial that the world is becoming more interdependent, where the word “globalization” has reached a new horizon.  It is no longer reflective of or synonymous with world’s interdependency, but rather “[Globalization] has become an instrumental term put to work in shaping as well as representing the growth of global interdependency” (Sparke, p.5).

Although Globalization may correctly mean that the world has become a global village, it certainly does not mean that we are all living on the same street.  Some of us are in the slums toiling to slightly increase their below-average caloric intake, while some of us are dying out of surfeit.  This is one systemic difference that not only threatens the harmony of the textile production but also that of the entire globe.

On Writing and Editing: A Self-assessment

As a linguist, I have always been intrigued by how languages work.  From a finite number of letters and sounds, an infinite amount of words, expressions, and sentences come to exist.  My fascination with languages embarked me on a never-ending journey of reading and writing.  Nevertheless, my language training and my multilingual background caused my approach to reading to be far more liberal than my approach to writing.  I am much less fastidious, if not entirely indiscriminate, regarding what I read than how I write.  Early on, I discovered that good writers aim to convey their message and not to merely express themselves.  Albeit message conveying and self-expressing are not mutually exclusive, the former beholds the reader—not the author—as the main beneficiary of the writing exercise.  This course affirmed this life-enduring principle.

Editing for Translation coursework tested my writing and editing repertoire.  During the course, I became aware of my strengths and shortcomings. My diligence, consistency, “writerly ear,” ability to analyze literature, familiarity with professional and academic writing, and working knowledge of other writing manuals came in handy.  Nonetheless, I needed to overcome multiple challenges.  “Good enough” has not been good enough for me during the first few weeks of the course. However, I now can see the amount of stress from which this “standard” relieves the editor. I also became aware that, as an editor, I work for the author with the best interest of the end user (the reader) in mind.  Subsequently, it became clear to me that my role is to enable the author to keep her voice and yet help her get her message across to the reader more compellingly.  This controlled my urges to rewrite for the author.

I faced other challenges as I worked on my editing assignments.  I overlook some minor details. A commendable editor cannot afford much of that.  I, too, tend to spend disproportionate amount of time and energy on researching minor issues, which could be otherwise addressed through “quick fixing.”   Nonetheless, the course helped me systematize my editing approach through developing an “editorial plan of action” (Kathryn Scholz).  Further, the course provided me with concrete understanding not only of how to put the text through different phases of editing and proofing but also of how to manage the whole project.  In other words, not only I became better able to trim the tree but I also know where it is in the forest.

To me, editing and writing is a non-arrival journey.  As a result, I do not expect a course, regardless of how rigorous it is, to make me or anyone for that matter a good editor overnight—practice will. However, this course enabled me to identify where and how I need to hone my editing skills.  I definitely need to become more familiar with Chicago Manual of Style (my new holy bible), fine-tune my stylistic editing approach, widen my constrictive (aka “prescriptive”) approach to grammar, tighten my time management scheme, and center my editing on acting as a fair broker between the author and the reader.  The journey has just started both for me and my students.

Arabic to English Translation: A Quick Review

I enjoyed translating just about all the texts to which we were assigned during the course.  Luckily, I had read all of them in the past and been strongly acquainted with their authors’ works.  The textbook author seems to have a preference for using excerpts written by Egyptian authors!   Nonetheless, I love literary translation, particularly translating fiction, the most.  I believe being a fiction nut has contributed a lot to such an inclination.

Having said that, I must mention that I am not a big fan of translating scientific texts.  I have consistently turned down every translation job that required me to translate over-specialized scientific texts.  In my opinion, those texts are better translated by bilingual professionals in their respective fields.  I do not mind editing the translations though.  This class helped me fine-tune my writing skills in both languages, especially in the area of cultural transfer.