Translation, Adaption And The Meaning Of Modern Arab Literature

Cairo International Book Fair, 2009
Cairo International Book Fair, 2009
Laura Gribbon

CAIRO — Amid shifting copyright and publishing norms, adaptation and translation of existing works is as contentious an issue today as ever in the literary world. The questions are particularly relevant for the Arabic novel, both for its recent and not-so-recent history.

Many have accused Ahmad Mourad of reproducing characters from Naguib Mahfouz in his novel 1919 (2014), and borrowing from Peter Burger's New Zealand film The Tattoist (2007) in writing Al-Fil al-Azraq (The Blue Elephant, 2012). There has also been much discussion about the influence of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club (1996) on Ahmed Alaidy's An takun Abbas al-Abd (Being Abbas al-Abd, 2003).

Going back to the late 19th and early 20th century Arab renaissance, critics questioned whether the Arabic novel itself merely mimicked a European genre.

But the novel's journey into Arabic was actually "clandestine, meandering and mischievous," Professor Samah Selim argued during a recent Cairo lecture entitled, "The People's Entertainment: Translation, Adaptation and the Novel in Egypt."

Established by Khalil Sadiq in 1904 and published until 1911, The People's Entertainment included at least 80 novels and short stories. Selim says around 12 were originals, 13 were close translations of foreign-language novels, 27 were adaptations citing an original author, and the remainder are not attributed but loosely based on French or English fiction.

Certain adaption processes make the novel an "adaptable, anarchic and popular genre," Selim says.

She cited Arsène Lupin, French writer Maurice Leblanc's fictional character, whose adaptation in Arabic was a way of drawing on older forms of local popular knowledge. Similarly, the first Arabic version of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) was published in 1838 anonymously and followed by a host of other adaptations.

Imitation and adaptation were the norm everywhere before 18th-century Romanticism emerged, Selim points out, along with the parallel emergence of nationalism in Europe.

Discussion around Arabization, Egyptianization and creative adaptation were prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with texts commonly presented as "authored by," "rendered by" or "from the pen of" in pieces seen more as a "textual voyage" than a fixed moment of ownership, Selim says.

She explains that some 20th-century Arab authors even published their own original stories as translations, because the genre was so popular.

Selim challenges the notion this was pure obsession with the "foreign."

Domestic critique

Firstly, the foreign novels selected for adaptation often contained an implicit critique of global modernity and predatory capitalism, which coincided with Egypt's catastrophic 1907 stock market crash. In this way, European and American cities, particularly Paris, were stripped of their specificity and came to symbolize the global system and a cultural voyage beyond merely the self and the other.

Secondly, Lebanese author Jurji Zaydan drew parallels between the European novels of the 19th century and oral Arab storytelling traditions, such as The Thousand and One Nights.

Manuscript from 14th century of The Thousand and One Nights. Photo: Wikipedia

Adaptation has always been part of the development of new genres, Selim argues. And although the power relations in the colonial and post-colonial context are problematic for translations and adaptations like those in The People's Entertainment, and might prejudice people against them, they can also be used to subvert these power relations by destabilizing the original.

In a theory of mistranslation developed in The Translators of the 1001 Nights (1936), Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges emphasizes the "importance of the displacements that occur when one goes from original to translation, and how these displacements create the potential for new and unexpected meanings."

Growing interest in Arab lit

Of course the adaptation of references beyond the local is never a one-way endeavor. A global interest in modern Arabic literature has increased in recent years. Most English-language academic syllabi are still obsessed with European and American canonical authors, but the Internet and increasing diaspora communities are introducing Arab writers and filmmakers into the mix.

A new generation of Arab storytellers, some of whom have arisen from blogging and film writing, are playing with creative notions of adaptation, for example Muhammed Aladdin (The Gospel According to Adam, 2006), Rajaa Alsanea (Girls of Riyadh, 2005), and Alaidy. Some are bilingual, and their subversion of traditional forms of narrative structure is changing the ways in which Arabic literature is read and understood.

Meanwhile, in downtown Cairo last month, a few hundred young people gathered for EGYcon — a localized version of Japanese Cosplay, in which fictional characters are re-enacted. This is part of a phenomenon of global youth culture, but was also adapted to the local context.

The fact that translation and adaptation are, as Selim says, "the most basic, if largely invisible, mechanisms in the production of new genres, devices and motifs across literary cultures," is evident not only in the circulation of fiction, but also in wider popular culture.

* Samah Selim’s talk can be viewed here.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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