Egyptian translators working at Iqraa—the world’s first Islamic television channel—use a variety of strategies in subtitling Arabic-language preaching programs into English. These translators see their task as twofold: to act as “cultural mediators” responsible for countering perceived Western stereotypes about Muslims, on the one hand, and, on the other, to transmit as “preachers by proxy” correct and relevant religious knowledge to viewers when, at times, the Arab preachers they subtitle fail to do so. Translators feel authorized to contest through subtitles both external representations of Islam and internal interpretations of divine intent. Far from being just exercises in interlingual equivalence, subtitling is a form of moral critique motivated by both postcolonial and theological imperatives. These acts of translation, and their internal debate at Iqraa, exceed the familiar Euro-American antimony of fidelity and betrayal.
In 2011, a year into my fieldwork on Islamic television in Egypt, a small crisis erupted in the audiovisual translation center of Iqraa, the world’s first self-declared Islamic satellite channel. The translation center subtitled and dubbed the channel’s Arabic-language programs into English. The main workflow at the center was divided between Egyptian translators, who were responsible for creating English subtitles of the original Arabic programs, and foreign editors, who were tasked with ensuring that these translations sounded “native” in English. The crisis began when the translated script of a new program was assigned to Adam, a newly hired Muslim American editor.
Instead of editing the translation, Adam sent the center’s manager and head translator a scathing indictment of the whole premise of the series. Called Muslim wa aftakhir (Muslim and Proud), each episode of the program—shot in Nepal—featured observational footage of Hindu devotional rituals with on-location commentary by the program’s host, a young Saudi preacher. The program was slotted for broadcast on Iqraa’s just-launched sister channel, Iqraa International, targeting primarily anglophone viewers in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Adam told the manager that a more apt name for the program would be Muslim wa ahtakir (Muslim and Contemptuous). He felt that the Islamic preacher made Hindu worship sound “silly” and “meaningless,” with the implicit message being that all Hindus are destined for hell. “Even if one believes that all religions besides Islam are damned,” he wrote in his comments on the script, “is it advisable to announce this on international television?”
By contrast, the translation manager, Randa, felt that it was a moral imperative for an Islamic outreach (daʿwa) channel to extol the virtues of Islam. This imperative was also tied to the makeup of the intended audience—Muslims born in the West who might be ashamed of their religion due to its vilification in popular culture as well as non-Muslims who were interested in learning more about Islam.
“This isn’t a travel show, and we are not doing interfaith dialogue,” Randa complained to me. “We are calling people to Islam.” While there were contexts that called for an ecumenical tone, such a tone would be inappropriate on a program aimed at strengthening Muslims’ commitment to their religion and attracting others to it. At the same time, Randa agreed with the editor that the Arabic-language polemics of the program might be jarring to Western sensibilities; she was frustrated, however, by his refusal to “manipulate” the source text to render it more culturally resonant.
Unlike editors, Iqraa translators saw their task as twofold: to act as “cultural mediators” responsible for countering perceived Western stereotypes about Muslims through subtitles, on the one hand, and, on the other, to be “preachers by proxy,” transmitting correct and relevant religious knowledge to viewers, a task that at times necessitated departing from the content of the programs they subtitled. The first aim is the familiar one (to American anthropologists, at least) of making the strange familiar, or at least difference intelligible. The second aim involves exercising a moral thoughtfulness aimed at producing true religious knowledge and thus godly persons. To accomplish both of these aims, Iqraa translators drew in complex and sophisticated ways on a variety of resources, including biblical translation strategies, postcolonial theory, professional translation manuals, Euro-American cultural norms, Qur’anic moral imperatives, and their own life experiences. In pursuing both of these goals, translators saw themselves as authorized and qualified to appraise, debate, modify—in other words, critique—the ideas, textual evidence, and rhetorical devices used by Iqraa preachers in their original Arabic-language programs. Here the fact that the content being translated fell under the rubric of religious knowledge and that Muslims were translating this content had important implications for how translators conceived their relationship to the texts they worked with.
For Iqraa translators, “manipulation” of the source text was the skilled and sensitive enactment of the cross-cultural competence necessary for the successful accomplishment of these tasks. A recurring idea I heard from translators during my fieldwork was that they were translating not language (lugha) but culture (thaqafa). This required an ability to traverse and momentarily adopt a multiplicity of cultural viewpoints—including another culture’s view of one’s own culture—in order to determine the best way to translate a specific utterance. This ability was glossed as manipulation, a long-standing and heavily theorized concept in translation studies.1 To the editor Adam, however, manipulation sounded like a euphemism for lying. As will become apparent, Adam’s and Randa’s differing stances index distinctive epistemologies not only of authorship and meaning but also of critique.
As I will explore, the task of the translator was to faithfully convey the preacher’s words insofar as these words were faithful to God’s words. Meaning was fixed not by the authorial intention of the speaker, the preacher, but rather by his attempt to discover divine intention, an attempt that was inherently open-ended and inconclusive. Speech in this specific context was not a window onto an internal, individual subjectivity. The original text was not the original Arabic broadcast but rather the “message of Islam” as interpreted by each translator. Consequently, fidelity to God at times necessitated betrayal of the preacher in the form of textual interventions that bypassed the preacher’s Arabic speech to tacitly create a new, more correctly Islamic, program through the English subtitles. In this way, translation, I argue, was not only interpretive but was, furthermore, a practice of critique. This critique was both external and internal. It was external in the sense that it aimed to challenge non-Muslims’ criticisms of Islam in order to show the religion’s true nature to an imagined audience of religious neophytes. And it was internal in the sense that it was directed at other Muslims’, the preachers’, interpretations of Islam. In both cases, this critique was conducted from within the normative theological terrain of the Islamic tradition.
This is not the article that the translators themselves—who hold advanced degrees in linguistics and translation studies—would write about the issues involved in English-to-Arabic audiovisual translation. I do not attend here, for example, to how written English subtitles render either the formal linguistic structures of Arabic (e.g., gendered pronouns) or the conventionalized rhetorical devices of Arabic Islamic preaching (e.g., vocal dramatizations of referent shifts). Instead, my interest is in explicating subtitling as animated by specific, at times conflicting, translational ideologies, scrutinizing translators’ practices of critique for the pragmatic assumptions they embed about what communication is and how it works in the world.2 What, for translators, were both the social and individual consequences of using words in translation in particular ways? Answering this question involves looking at subtitles not on-screen but off.
Relatedly, my other aim is to use Iqraa’s translation practices as a salient site for foregrounding the internal fractures of Egypt’s Islamic revival after the new millennium. Translation was a site for the enactment of an Islamic reformist ethic attuned to both public representation and individual consequence. Yet notably, even while all the translators argued from within an Islamic frame, they espoused not a single “Islamic” translational ideology but a multiplicity of ethico-religious idioms, all claiming the mantle of the Islamic, to make sense of and justify their translation choices. In other words, the passionate contention that marks Islamic revivalism is mirrored in the disagreements and debates between Islamic media producers working at Iqraa, including translators. Indeed, as a production space, Iqraa in Cairo brought together professionals representing the entire gamut of politico-theological orientations constituting the country’s forty-year-long piety movement. The challenge for the Islamic media producers I worked with was how to negotiate these internal fractures, on-screen and off, while at the same time appealing to an audience external to them, an audience that in the case of the translators included non-Muslims and non-Arabic speakers.
I learned about the Muslim and Proud incident when Randa asked me to reedit one episode’s dubbing script to give the irate American editor an example of what successful manipulation looks like. My task was to mitigate the condescending tone of the preacher in the text I produced, while retaining his original intent of highlighting Islam as the only uncorrupted monotheistic religion. Apt tone, the evaluation of which was variable and not always explicitly articulated, was nevertheless very important to the Egyptian translators who cared a great deal not only about how Islam was represented in the West but also about how Muslims represented Islam to the West.
In assigning me this task, the manager mentioned my training in anthropology as invaluable to its successful completion. She thought she recognized in my discipline a kindred spirit—we were both, after all, in the business of making the worldview of one culture intelligible to another, both professionally trained to communicate successfully across “cultural divides.” Indeed, she did not give me any specific instructions on how to attenuate the preacher’s verbal disdain for Hinduism, but she was confident that I as an anthropologist would know how. Randa’s take on the affinities of anthropology and translation was by no means idiosyncratic—this particular equivalence is a common one within both translation studies (see, e.g., Hardwick 2000; Koskinen 2008; Wolf 2002) and anthropological reflections on translation (for recent contributions, see Rubel and Rosman 2003; Hanks and Severi 2014).3 The comparison between translation and anthropology is usually not only one of similar intent—to convey meaning cross-culturally—but, further, an ethical one where referential meaning can only be interlingually “carried across” once a stance is adopted that takes the cultures being translated seriously on their own terms.4
In a widely cited essay, Talal Asad (1986) locates the pervasive trope of ethnography as “cultural translation” within the disciplinary interpretive turn to culture-as-text. Situated within conditions of unequal power between languages and their associated modes of life, the authority of ethnographic cultural translation is predicated on the anthropologist being the arbiter of the “implicit meanings of subordinate societies” (ibid.: 163), meanings that members of these societies are not always in a position to contest or confirm. The politics of cultural translation, Asad shows, are inextricable from their wider sociopolitical contexts, ones marked by profound disparities of power, epistemic and material.
Iqraa translation strategies, motivated as we will see by both the professional and pious aspirations of translators, took shape within power-laden global-mediated regimes that also claimed to represent Islam through invocations of “uncovering” or “unveiling” its “real” meanings. These social texts—whether Hollywood films (Shaheen 2008), Western news coverage (Said 1981), or memoirs by (ex-)Muslim women (Abu-Lughod 2013)—constituted the imaginative horizons of both the translators and their (un)intended viewers. Within these frequently Islamophobic representational circuits, Islamic television channels were framed as problematic purveyors of religious-based hate and violence. Islamic channels were regularly targeted, for example, by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a Zionist organization that sends subtitled clips from Middle Eastern television channels to American news outlets and the United States Congress free of charge. Translation studies scholar Mona Baker (2010: 120) characterizes MEMRI as specializing “in circulating translations of carefully selected Arabic source texts to elaborate a narrative of Arab societies as extremist, anti-Semitic and a threat to western democracies.”
Iqraa translators thus felt that they had to be very careful with their subtitles as compared to their colleagues in non-Islamic channels. For them, subtitles were about reclaiming representational power within a context marked by political, economic, and military inequalities between Muslim countries and the West. They were about showing, in the title of the offending preaching program, how one could be both Muslim and proud of it. In this way, subtitles could contest prevailing Western discourses on Islam. But such subtitling strategies had to be themselves represented in specific ways. Indeed, translators sometimes used with nontranslators the terms transcreation or adaptation instead of manipulation in part because they were anxious that the negative connotations of the word manipulation in everyday English could lead to their translation strategies being seen as a cynical attempt to mislead. When Randa was invited to participate in a European conference focused on manipulation in translation, she worried that her presentation on Islamic audiovisual translation could be used to “tarnish” further the image of Muslims in and to the West despite manipulation being the explicit theme of the scholarly gathering.
This unease extended to my own potential re-presentation of Islamic television daʿwa in general and Iqraa in particular. During the early days of my fieldwork, Randa at times worried vocally about my own agenda in researching the channel—she later “confessed” (the word choice is hers) that her fears were allayed only when she watched a documentary film I had made on Muslim fashion designers in New York City. She judged the film an apt translation of the Islamic imagination of female modesty for an American audience. But Randa also judged me a religious novice who might, through my ethnographic writing, inadvertently incorrectly convey “the message of Islam” to an international readership.
Sites of Translation
The global circulation of Iqraa’s subtitles—and the anxieties this circulation engendered—was made possible by the channel’s satellite footprint spanning four continents. Iqraa is a transnational Arabic-language satellite channel with a production and administrative unit in Cairo. The channel was established in 1998 as the world’s first “Islamic channel” by Sheikh Saleh Kamel, a prominent Saudi tycoon who also possesses controlling stakes in the Arab Radio and Television (ART) group, one of the earliest Arab satellite television networks and a regional provider of entertainment channels. ART is a subsidiary of Kamel’s Dallah Al-Baraka, a megaconglomerate involved in a wide variety of industries and service provisions across the world. A consistent theme in Kamel’s public interviews is his desire to broadcast media that is “culturally authentic” and in keeping with “Islamic values” as a moral bulwark against the corrupting temptations of both unabashed Westernization and religious extremism. More specifically, Iqraa’s mission is to promote a “moderate Islam” (islam wasati) with the aim of simultaneously refuting Western stereotypes about the religion and the incorrect religious discourse espoused by some Muslim adepts themselves. As such, it is a channel geared at once to internal wayward religious revivalists, their external non-Muslim detractors, and the “ordinary people” presumably caught in the middle.
Within this general mandate of moderation, the Egyptian producers had much autonomy to pursue their own moral and creative visions, which reflected the wide diversity of the country’s Islamic revival. Indeed, a self-proclaimed key indicator of the channel’s moderation was its openness to broadcasting the programs of preachers adhering to the via media of different, at times mutually antagonistic, Islamic viewpoints and trends—whether those of Sufism, Salafism, political Islamists, or the state religious establishment represented in al-Azhar. Iqraa producers in Egypt were thus able to determine how to operationalize allocated capital and did so in ways that conformed to their own ideas about what “true Islam” was and how it should be presented on the channel’s screen. As we will see, this dynamic was also evident in the translation center.
The translation center was set up to subtitle into Arabic foreign (usually American) films acquired by ART and into English Egyptian films. By the mid-2000s, however, the translation center had a new role as ART’s subscription-based English entertainment channels foundered with the emergence of free-to-air channels in the region offering the same content; the translation center from then on worked solely on subtitling Arabic-language programs airing on ART’s Islamic channel Iqraa.5 The center had an even greater degree of organizational autonomy than other departments, since it recruited its own staff in Egypt and controlled the entirety of its operations once the Arabic-language video file entered the subtitling workflow.
The evolution of the center’s mandate to being exclusively concerned with religious audiovisual translation took place under the watch of its manager, Randa, who brought to her job dedication, passion, and an attention to detail that continually impressed me. Randa oversaw a close-knit group of four full-time translators and editors and about half a dozen freelancers who worked from home. Iqraa’s translators—who were from middle-class urban backgrounds—all held bachelor’s degrees from Egyptian public universities, usually from departments of either linguistics or English.6 In addition, there were eight other staff members respectively responsible for cueing episodes, researching religious textual references using in-house computer databases, and coordinating the standard production cycle of cueing-translation-editing-revision that each episode of a program went through.
Cueing involves indicating the in and out times for each individual subtitle in a way that meets the “golden rule”—each subtitle should be synchronous with the verbal utterance it translates. The cuer divides a transcribed version of the original audio into the units to be subtitled, each audio usually five to six seconds in duration. The translator then creates the subtitles following the spatial constraints of the screen and the temporal constraints of the Arabic audio unit. Iqraa translators aimed at thirteen characters per second and no more than two lines of text, with each line accommodating up to thirty-five characters. This text was superimposed, centered, on the bottom third of the screen. Given these time-space constraints, the subtitling of Arabic speech into English text necessitated a translation that paraphrased and condensed rather than rendered word-for-word. The skill of the translator lay to a large extent in creating meaningful and coherent equivalents of the Arabic oral into English writing within these limitations and also within the unfolding narrative of the program itself, so that a viewer tuning in at any point could begin to understand its focus within a few subtitling units. At the end of the subtitling production cycle was Randa, who personally signed off on each episode subtitled.
The Cairo-based translators enjoyed great—indeed, virtually unfettered—freedom in determining how a program was translated. They had, however, little say in selecting which programs were flagged for translation in the first instance. These selections were the province of the channel’s managing director in Saudi Arabia. While formally the criteria for determining which programs were translated were tied to viewership rates, in reality programs were translated for a wider variety of reasons, such as kinship or friendship ties to the channel’s owner or individual requests by preachers. Translators would frequently grumble that such choices were “unprofessional.” For translators, the only valid reason to subtitle a program was that it met “the needs” of the target anglophone audience—imagined to be both second-generation Muslims and recent converts—for correct religious knowledge and relevant ethical edification. Some viewers would send what Randa fondly called fan e-mail to the translation center. I looked at approximately six months’ worth of these e-mails, and viewers based in anglophone sub-Saharan African countries sent most of the e-mails. Viewers based in Europe or North America sent very few, even though it was these viewers that translators most regularly imagined as the main subtitling audience. But in all cases, Randa was especially moved that many parents were using subtitled programs to educate their children about Islam in countries where, she explained, there was little by way of credible religious education. Translators thus imagined themselves at once to be “preachers by proxy” and “cultural mediators” for a subtitle-reading audience that was radically different from the audience of the program’s original broadcast in Arabic. They desired that the subtitling audience be as edified and entertained by Iqraa’s preaching programs as the Arabic-language audience was presumed to be.
Accompanying this desire was a high sense of professional pride. Randa often boasted that her team worked within parameters that were on par with the European Union’s guidance on International Standard Organization (ISO) 9001 requirements. (This is an internationally recognized and prestigious certification of “quality management.”) At the same time, the translators felt that their dedication to Islam motivated them to excel professionally because they personally believed in the religious tradition whose “messages” they were conveying. Translators worked hard to produce quality work because they considered that the excellence of their subtitles reflected not only on them as professionals but also on Islam itself. In their phrasing, they were nothing less than “ambassadors of Islam” to the rest of the world, a world in dire need of their translation efforts given geopolitics after the attacks of 9/11.
Translation as External Critique
The attacks of 9/11 catalyzed a major rethinking of the translation strategies best suited to fulfilling Iqraa’s da‘wa mandate. Most of the translators understood the US government’s declaration of a “war on terror” as a “war on Islam” and felt that the plausibility of such a war among ordinary Americans hinged on the representation of Islam by US media outlets (they cited Fox News as one particularly egregious example) as a civilizational other. They began to see their own existing translation strategies as contributing to this problematic othering.
Before 9/11, translators usually transliterated key Arabic terms—for example, writing Allah in English, instead of translating the Arabic word to God. Manager Randa described this as a “foreignizing” method that asked the non-Arabic-speaking, potentially non-Muslim, audience to decipher the meaning behind the Arabic words, rather than re-presenting those words in terms that made both linguistic and cultural sense to them. Randa spearheaded the gradual “domestication” of the subtitles produced by Iqraa, where the use of transliterated Arabic words was kept to a minimum and preference was given to translating the Arabic into what were seen as English equivalents. The shift in strategy from foreignization to domestication sought to reclaim, at the most basic level, the intelligibility of Islam to an audience that was presumed to include not only well-meaning if misinformed viewers but also, if intermittently, hostile ones. Such intelligibility enabled countercritiques of Western critiques of Islam, all the while being itself a critical rejoinder to the othering upon which Western critiques rested.
In using terms like foreignization and domestication, Randa was referencing a long-standing debate in the history of translation reignited with the postcolonial turn in translation studies. Historically, translation was conceived as an effort aimed, at the very least, at expressing equivalent meaning across two different linguistic codes. Debates in the literature often hinge on what happens to the original text as it is translated and what the position of the reader of the text is with regard to the original. A foundational essay by German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1992 : 149) presents the choice concisely, if starkly: “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible, and moves the reader toward him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author toward him.” The first method, favored by Schleiermacher, was associated with the German tradition of “ugly translations.” In contrast, the French model of “beautiful infidelities” prioritized elegance of expression in the target language over fidelity to the source text (Leavitt 2014). The metaphor of infidelity alludes to another common trope of translation as a form of betrayal, with observers frequently pointing to a shared etymology with the word treason. Relatedly, translation is regularly analogized to a type of violence, as a process that is inevitably injurious to both the form and the communicative intention of the original text.
Notions of “fidelity” and “betrayal” would continue to be central in postcolonial writings on translation even as theorists problematized the assumed transparency of languages as containers of meaning. Indeed, the long-standing tension would get new vigor with the publication of Lawrence Venuti’s influential The Translator’s Invisibility (1995). Venuti argued that the dominant translation norm of fluency/domestication—whereby according to him translators aim to erase, or render invisible, their own labor—is in fact “an ethnocentric reduction of the foreign text to target-language cultural values” (ibid.: 2). By contrast, Venuti calls for a foreignizing translation that registers the sociolinguistic differences of the source text from the target culture, thereby, he argues, challenging the norms of the latter. Within this framework, a “good” translation sounds like (reads like) a translation—it is nonidiomatic and nonfluent and leaves untranslated key words or phrases. For such postcolonial translation theorists, foreignization is a practice both of resistance and resistant to cultural imperialism.
Anthropologists thinking about translation in ethnographic writing have largely agreed. To take just one recent example, John Leavitt finds in ugly translations redemption for the native other. Translational “monstrosities,” he writes, “change ourselves and our readers” (Leavitt 2014: 215). But the a priori argument for foreignization is predicated on the assumption of a (con)textual vacuum; in reality, translated texts circulate alongside and against a vast array of other social texts that make the choice of domestication versus foreignization fraught and bound up with the specificity of power-laden contexts. Consequently, the question that preoccupied translators at Iqraa was, what were the stakes of the foreignizing approach, precisely for the native other, when ugly translations circulated in contexts marked by ugly feelings about this culture, when this culture was persistently depicted as itself a monstrosity?
For Iqraa translators, foreignizing translations made the Arabic content seem incoherent, childlike, and even extraterrestrial in a reception context that greatly militated against a sympathetic reading of Islamic preaching programs. Foreignizing translations made possible the perpetuation of source-culture misperceptions about the target culture, since they left in the original terms that may have entered the source-language lexicon in highly selective ways. For instance, translators felt that the nontranslation of an Arabic word like jihad served not to subvert the target cultural norms about what Muslims believe in—that Islam is a “religion of war,” for example—but to reinforce them in glossing over the other possible contextual meanings of a word like jihad (e.g., not “armed struggle” but “personal struggle”). Domestication of language was thus in an important sense a domestication of otherness aimed at challenging negative appraisals of Islam by non-Muslims. “I didn’t want us to sound like aliens,” Randa explained. “I didn’t want to reconfirm the stereotypes. I wanted to show that we are normal people, that we have much in common.”7
With this in mind, Iqraa translators appropriated textual strategies usually associated by theorists (and like-minded anthropologists) with ethnocentrism and domination to speak back to the negative representations of the source culture by the target culture. Randa, contra Venuti’s prescription, adopted a domestication strategy precisely as a counter to the representational othering that the previous strategy of foreignization had left unchallenged.8 The production of what translators glossed as “idiomatic” subtitles became the normative standard of what “excellent” and “successful” translation looked like. An anglophone target audience ideally should read such subtitles without having cause to consider that they translate a prior, non-English text. By contrast, foreignizing translations indexed an amateurness and a lack of source-language mastery that marked the subtitles in some fundamental sense as awkward approximations of English, rather than “just” English.
These representational burdens of translation were intimately entwined to theological obligations. For Randa and other translators at Iqraa, apprehending the “truth” of Islam was predicated on making the religion intelligible to those yet to embrace it. The moral imperativeness of such intelligibility hinges on positioning the assumption of potential commensurability within the given resources of the Islamic tradition, namely, the Qur’an and the prophetic example. The domestication translation strategy was therefore normatively located as internal to Muslims’ own religious tradition. Translators cited in this regard the Qur’anic verse “And never have We sent forth any apostle otherwise than [with a message] in his own people’s tongue, so that he might make [the truth] clear unto them” (14:4).9 The message of Islam was one that could—indeed must—be conveyed within the idioms of the people it was addressed to. Iqraa translators viewed Classical Arabic as the best language available to humankind, a view common across the region and intimately tied to the Qur’anic avowal of Arabic’s centrality to its revelation (Haeri 2000, 2003). But they equally believed in human diversity, linguistic and otherwise, as itself indicative of divinity, following the Qur’anic verse “And among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colors” (30:22). And what mattered here was not the particular form of the language but what it communicated.10
At the same time, to speak another language is to understand another point of view or mode of life and also to at times see yourself as you are seen by others. This type of moral thoughtfulness, or the capacity to think otherwise, was crucial to becoming a competent translator. In the early days of my fieldwork in the translation center, a senior translator, usually Nawal, would give me feedback on my edits. After what was for me a particularly frustrating feedback session, I asked her at what point did she stop making my rookie mistakes, such as rendering literally Arabic proverbs or not textually flagging in English Qur’anic verses as such. Nawal said that happened when she stopped translating for herself: “In the beginning, you don’t see the cultural other or the religious other, so you are speaking from your point of view alone. You are translating as if you are talking to yourself, to the people living here in Egypt with us.” She credited working with the foreign editors as helping her to be able to think otherwise. Nawal said they would come to her saying they did not understand her translation, so she would have to rephrase it to explain it, and then she began to get into the habit of asking herself, “Is this understandable? Will others get it?” “Once I gained this awareness,” she went on, “I was willing to change and to think from others’ point of view so that I can get my own message across better.” The assumption of the possibility of mutual comprehensibility is what enables criticism of miscomprehension or, indeed, of deliberate misrepresentation.
A small group of translators at Iqraa did not always agree with the center’s official preference for domestication. Their reasons echoed those of postcolonial critiques: domestication was injurious to the source-language culture. One translator put it to me in this way:
I am not going to use words to make it easier for the target culture at the expense of the source culture. We are going to present Islam the way it is, and if the viewer wants to know more, he has to do research; we are not going to pamper or spoon-feed him. If I am watching a program on physics, but I don’t actually understand physics, that’s too bad. Some might say it is best to simplify, but if simplifying comes at the expense of the source [culture], that is a problem.
For this dissenting translator, the danger was not that the Qur’an or Islam would continue to be unfamiliar but that its distinctive theological claims—and therefore its divine truth—would be grossly misrepresented through being rendered familiar. Using “Jesus” for the Qur’anic figure of ‘Isa would elide the ways in which the latter—son of Mary and prophet of God—is very different from the former in the Islamic creed. This elision was problematic because of the translators’ perceived moral responsibilities to impart through their subtitles correct religious knowledge. Of course, the translators championing domestication equally cared about fidelity to Islamic theology and its accurate conveyance to others—but they reasoned that this should be accomplished using terms and names that were recognizable to non-Muslims even as they were given new definitions and content in use. In other words, “Jesus” could come to pragmatically signify the Qur’anic ‘Isa.
Iqraa translators explicitly debated these issues among themselves through modes of reasoning that invoked ethical claims—grounded in religious texts—about what “true Islam” demands. In an online Iqraa discussion on “Islamic translation,” a dissenting translator put his frustration with the domestication policy in strong terms. “I am tired of pampering our viewers and spoon-feeding them,” he wrote. “We should now IMPOSE our dear Arabic culture and help it muscle its way through to our audiences.” This translator was linking the use of Arabic linguistic forms (in transliteration) to the transmission of Arabic culture itself, a culture that was in danger of being lost to viewers through a translation tailored to their own sociolinguistic references. Randa immediately disagreed with this model, making clear the metapragmatic norms underlining domesticating translations. “For communication to be successful,” she wrote in response, “one needs to make sure to deliver clear messages. If we are to propagate Islam, we need to try to speak in the tongue of those we are trying to present the message of Islam to. All prophets spoke the tongue of the peoples they preached to, which I believe is the right approach. Communication is not a fight, where one tries to impose on another; it’s a genuine attempt to be understood.”
In this sense, the task of the translator at Iqraa was similar to the task of the preachers they subtitled—the preachers translated Qur’anic stories and tales of the prophets into a vernacular idiom (colloquial Egyptian, for example) aimed at rendering such stories closer to the everyday experiences of their viewers. Similarly, domestication aimed to create what Tarek Shamma (2009: 109) in a different, although related, context has called a “shared ground of experience.” Language, correctly manipulated, creates a world in common; the problem with the foreignization approach was that it rendered it a mere medium for describing a world presumed to be radically different while ironically insisting on an irreducible relationship between meaning and form.
For domesticating translators, linguistic diversity compelled a particular ethical orientation toward others, one of taʿarruf, or “mutual knowing,” as referenced in the verse “[We] have made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another” (Qur’an 49:13). Intercultural communication was a practice valued by God—it was up to humans to learn each other’s languages to make it happen. To be clear, the shared ground of experience for translators did not operate according to a sort of ecumenism whereby all religious traditions are held to be “equally true” or even essentially the same. Translators regarded the historical religion of Islam as the final revealed and most perfected one and took religious difference, as we saw in the opening pages of this article, quite seriously. But God does not will that all human beings be Muslim, and human beings, Muslims included, must find a way to act in common despite not practicing and believing in common. This was less about finding a nonreligious language from which to speak, a way of overcoming religious difference, than about using religious language and imaginaries to meet ethical standards held in common despite religious difference.
In this way the second part of the oft-quoted taʿarruf verse becomes important for translators: “Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him” (Qur’an 49:13). Comprehensibility and mutual knowing were not only divinely obligated goods in themselves but also ends to establishing the right conduct fostered by God-consciousness. The cultivation of such a consciousness, in turn, hinged on knowing the “true message” of Islam. And this meant at times taking on directly others’—including Muslims’—distortions of it, as I illustrate by turning to the relationship between translation and internal critique.
Translation as Internal Critique
The translation strategies I have detailed so far hinged on an attempt to find culturally resonant equivalence, whether on the representational or theological plane, with the aim of providing an implicit critique of the negative appraisals of Islam imagined to be prevalent in Western societies. In addition, Iqraa translators saw their subtitles as an exercise in another type of critique, one directed at other Muslims.
In a second essay on translation, Talal Asad (1995: 327) makes an important distinction between the practice of translation and the practice of criticism—the latter, to be coherent and responsible, must be conducted within the terms of a shared tradition (see also T. Asad 1993). Thus “the original text constrains in a way that a translation of it does not; that while one argues about the original one cannot, as a translator, argue with it” (Asad T. 1995: 331). Of course, the possibilities for arguing with the text hinge on the position of the translator vis-à-vis the original—much of postcolonial translation theory assumes that the translator comes from the target-language (colonizing) culture rather than the source-language (colonized) culture (see also Niranjana 1992: 84).11 But Iqraa translators located their subtitles within the moral horizons of the source culture while at the same time, as we have seen, articulating with the norms of the target culture as a means of resisting, rather than succumbing to, the hegemony of Anglo-American discourses about Islam for an English-speaking audience. Their subtitling practices created what translators described as “parallel programs”—that is, the original Arabic-language program and the English-subtitled one. This was only possible—and, crucially, morally responsible—because of what the original text was and of who was doing the translating. The specific nature of their work gave Iqraa translators a moral responsibility that would have been lacking if they were translating what they called “ordinary” (i.e., nonreligious) content.
At face value, translators’ concern for making Islam “attractive” did not always offer an alternative reading of what “good” looks like, but at times took Western valuations as normative. For example, one day Nawal, one of the older translators in the center, was working on an episode where the preacher was listing all the reasons people should marry, noting that of these love was the least important. Nawal came over to my workstation to ask me to watch this part of the episode with her. “Westerners are going to hear this talk and think that Muslims are mutakhlifin [backward],” she moaned. By this point in my fieldwork, I had gotten to know Nawal and her family quite well. She had married her husband of thirty-five years not because she was in love with him, although she had certainly liked him, but because he was her first cousin, kind and honest, and she felt he would take good care of his family. From what I could tell, she was quite happy with the marriage and always spoke highly of her husband. Nawal’s expressed hesitancy with translating this text, then, was not because her own ideals or experiences contradicted what the preacher was proposing, but rather because they contradicted the norms of the target culture—or rather confirmed them with regard to what Muslims were like when it came to spousal intimacy.
But is accommodation to Western cultural values the only way to understand this textual intervention? What happens if we shift the focus from the inequality of languages and their associated lifeworlds to the interpretive position of the translator herself vis-à-vis the specific content she is translating?
As we continued to watch, the preacher elaborated that a man should be especially grief-stricken at his wife’s death because then a major source of his hasinat (divine recompense for good deeds) was eliminated. This is because, he explained, women are weak and need their husbands to look after them, thereby causing the latter to accrue hasinat. Again, Nawal hesitated. This time, she emphatically disagreed with the preacher’s characterization of women as always weak and dependent, dismissing it as Islamically incorrect. But she also worried aloud that such a characterization dovetailed with Western stereotypes about, if not Muslim women, then at least what Muslim men thought of women. In the end, Nawal decided to use the time-space of the preacher’s utterance about wifely death and hasinat to write the following subtitle: “Women enjoy a special status in Islam. / Those who support them receive God’s mercy.” From Nawal’s perspective, there was nothing doctrinally incorrect about this translation. Women do in fact hold a “special status”—which was the preacher’s point. However, while he provided some particularities of this special status—women are weaker than men and therefore more dependent—the English translation was deliberately ambiguous about what it is that makes women “special,” especially since all gender referents were dropped in the choice of “those.”
As with most of the other translators, the basis of Nawal’s self-authorization as a proxy preacher stemmed from her self-identification as a pious Muslim—one, in fact, in no need of the religious guidance offered by most of Iqraa’s programs and preachers. The translators I worked with held in low regard many of the preachers they subtitled, citing basic mistakes in their Qur’anic recitation, their dubious commentaries on Qur’anic verses, or their faulty citation of prophetic sayings with weak chains of transmission. Translators told their family members to always take with a large grain of salt anything they heard from television preachers. Somewhat paradoxically, this content required great deliberation and care precisely because it was so dubious while being categorized as religious. The content also needed extra scrutiny because its intended audience, in the case of both the Arabic original and the English translation, was imagined as religious neophytes in great need of basic Islamic knowledge.
My point is that Iqraa translators believed that working with Islamic programs made the source text, what the preacher was saying, subject to critique. They contrasted this with subtitling what they glossed as a “technical text,” something like a computer or medical program—in those cases, they had to translate with a total “faithfulness” to the source text, without much consideration or attention to the accuracy of what was actually being said. With preaching programs, however, the task of the translator was not to “literally” translate but rather to attempt to understand the meaning behind the speaker’s words and to rephrase it in a manner appropriate for the target audience. This meaning was fixed not by the intentions of the speaker but rather by the intentions of God and the Prophet, whose words both the preacher and the translator were interpreting, the preacher in Arabic audio and the translator in English written subtitles. While these two interpretations co-occurred on the television screen, the need for another interpretation in English arose because the subtitler felt the Arabic interpretation of “religion” (al-din) was erroneous.
Both of these interpretations were grounded in the collective authority of past commentaries, but the otherworldly consequences of interpretation were individual. Religious programs were thus also different from technical ones because the translators would be morally responsible for their further dissemination through subtitles in a qualitatively different way—they would be responsible before God. The translator, as the last person having altered the words before the scale of the audience is widened, was left as the person most responsible for words even as the original continued to simultaneously exist as Arabic speech.
This general norm encompassed fine-grained distinctions. A book on atheism by an atheist should be “faithfully” translated because a Muslim’s intention in reading such a book would be, presumably, to find out how atheists really think in order to more effectively debunk them. But working for an Islamic outreach channel entailed a different translation strategy, because while viewers tuned in to learn more about Islam, they actually did not know very much about religion, even as they were invested in the authority that accrued to Islamic preachers by being on television. Translators here had a responsibility to make sure that what was being promoted as “Islam” on-screen was in fact Islamic. But they only had this responsibility because they possessed the requisite religious knowledge (in their estimation) to be able to critically evaluate what the preacher was saying and because what he was saying was itself an interpretation of God’s words as revealed in the Qur’an.
This approach to translation is not idiosyncratic. The thirteenth-century Arabic dictionary Lisan al-Arab defines a translator, a mutarjim, as an “interpreter of language,” mufassir al-lisan, literally “of tongues.” As Islamic studies scholar Brett Wilson (2014) shows, in Muslim contexts practices of interpretation, tafsir, and translation, tarjama, defined each other and were often difficult to distinguish. He traces how this constitutive relationship had important consequences for Qur’anic translations in the modern period, with Islamic scholars grounding the legal reasoning behind the permissibility of Qur’anic translation in an equivalence between tafsir and tarjama. The two discursive practices carried a similar risk of error, for both the interpreter and the translator must make a discretionary choice about apt meaning and “maybe the chosen meaning is what God intended and maybe it is not” (ibid.: 211). Within subtitling on Islamic television, this historically significant dynamic of acts of translation as always already acts of interpretation (to put it in the form of the postmodern truism) unfolds beyond the actual words of the Qur’an to words about the Qur’an.12 The relevant question, then, is less the degree of equivalent correspondence of the translation to the original text, that is to say the preaching program, and more its conformity to God’s will as interpreted by each translator through the mediation of Qur’anic revelation. This theory of translation made its practice a space of argument and debate not only, to use Talal Asad’s terms, about the text but with the text.
As I have already intimated, these translational contestations had personal otherworldly consequence. Translators’ subtitles carried great potential rewards in the hereafter, based on the popular belief that helping to “bring a person to Islam” (a gloss for conversion) ensured one a place in paradise. Less dramatically, there was also thawab (heavenly recompense) to be gained from partaking in a project that was centrally concerned with calling fellow Muslims to be more faithful practitioners of their religion, which was what translators understood to be the mission of the channel. Some translators were quick to point out, however, that the thawab accrued from their work was contingent on a personal determination of intention, or niya. Only a related bundle of intentions really “counted”—for example, the desire to please God or glorify Islam—when it came to accruing thawab. It was often difficult, moreover, to maintain such divinely efficacious intentions in the face of a demanding work routine, a fact that greatly troubled some translators, including Yara.
Yara was one of the youngest and most devout employees of the translation department and the only one who had not previously worked for another media company. Yara told me that she had always made the connection between having English skills and using them for daʿwa purposes. While she was still a university student, she had sought out the opinion of a professor she trusted about the religious permissibility of working in translation after graduation. The professor told her that it was fine from a religious point of view as long as she was not translating content that went against God’s law (sharʿallah). But Yara knew that as an employee she would not be able to pick and choose what content to translate, so she decided to put the idea of working in this field out of her mind as a far-off possibility. A few years later, however, she chanced upon the job advertisement for her current position at Iqraa and successfully applied.
But just a few years into the job, Yara was anxious that she was not fully accruing the thawab that could potentially come from doing this type of work because her intentions were no longer so clear-cut. She told me: “In the beginning, I would start an episode with the explicit intention that this program should benefit someone and be of service to Islam. . . . I started getting busier and busier and having a larger workload, [and] my only focus now is meeting the deadline. I am not doing anything wrong, but I don’t have the right intention to get thawab either.”
Not all translators expressed such heightened anxiety about thawab—many were happy to feel that in general they, as employees of a daʿwa channel, were working “in the service of Islam” (fi khidmat al-islam), regardless of whether or not they explicitly formulated this intention before every episode subtitled. Indeed, most times the goal animating translators was not that of accruing thawab but that of avoiding its opposite—dhunub, or “sins.” This avoidance was at times determinative of what was translatable and what was not. Translation choices within this general religious imperative were further contingent on distinctions related to the specific utterances under consideration. For example, translators could not translate ideas, rulings, or statements of belief that they felt to be religiously incorrect if such discourses were presented as rulings that might be taken up by viewers in their daily lives. Here is how Yara parsed it for me:
Let’s say a preacher says that the hijab (headscarf) is just a cultural habit and is not a religious obligation. That is of course false. But I will translate what he said and make sure to put some linguistic markers around the statement [for example, prefacing the statement with “I believe”] so that the viewers understand the statement as one person’s opinion. But let’s say the preacher talks about an issue as if it is a religious ruling—for example, he says a fiancé has the right to see his betrothed’s hair. I can’t translate that at all.
Like the statement about the headscarf, this last statement contradicted the consensus among Islamic scholars on this issue—however, unlike the first statement, this statement was not just (albeit falsely for Yara) descriptive but also potentially prescriptive. Yara could not translate it because doing so would make her morally liable for the sin incurred by a viewer who then demands to see his fiancée’s hair.
Now, I do not want to give the impression that Iqraa translators were continually attempting to subvert Islamic preachers’ intended messages through their subtitling practices. In addition to the “technical” manipulation imposed by the time-space constraints of the subtitles that I discussed earlier (or for that matter by the formal linguistic properties of Arabic), translators had a variety of purposes in mind when subtitling. One purpose was keeping the attention of viewers for the entire duration of an episode. Translators assumed that their audience was “fickle”—viewers will quickly switch the channel if they find the program boring. Accordingly, one of the translator’s key jobs was to produce stimulating copy, which could mean departing at times from what the speaker is actually saying. Many of the older preachers especially reiterated key points or details a number of times throughout a thirty-minute episode; while this was a common rhetorical technique within the genre of a religious lesson (dars din), which was what most of the programs were, translators described it as “tedious” for non-Arabs.13 On the third or fourth repetition, translators usually ignored what the preacher was saying and introduced new material—for example, a particular vivid detail within the Qur’anic story the preacher was relaying that they knew independently or a summary of what they understood to be the moral point (qima) of the story, a point that the preacher himself may never have mentioned. Other interventions include correcting in the subtitles a prophetic saying or Qur’anic verse the preacher mangled, correcting dates or place-names, or attenuating empirically dubious assertions about, say, the way global financial markets work.
At times, however, translators were frustrated not by a preacher’s elliptical or long-winded manner, or even his factual inaccuracies, but by the very ideas he was expressing, regardless of the valuation of such ideas by a Western audience. It is at these times that translation became, most explicitly, a form of internal critique. Here the fact that translators saw their work as daʿwa, a moral responsibility for which God will hold them accountable, is key.
One time Yara was working on an episode featuring a preacher who stated that the daughter of Huda al-Sha‘arawi (one of the great figures of Egyptian feminism; 1879–1947) had a child out of wedlock. Yara was very troubled by this claim—not because she believed it, but because she doubted its veracity. She spent a couple of hours online searching for any sources to corroborate this claim and asked me if I had ever come across any in my academic readings in Egyptian history. When Yara could not find any supportive evidence, she decided to leave untranslated this particular utterance. Otherwise, as she explained, she would be complicit in the serious sin of slander through further circulating this potentially false assertion through subtitles. Although the Qur’an promises that people will be held accountable for every word they utter (50:18), there are specific categories of speech—such as slander and backbiting—that are particularly morally repugnant. Backbiting is likened to the abhorrent act of eating human flesh (Qur’an 49:12). While Yara was not the originator of the unverified claim that Sha‘arawi’s daughter was a zanniya, a “fornicator,” she felt her subtitling of the Arabic speech would render her just as morally culpable as the speaker. As we will see, her translation choice in this instance was entwined with wider assumptions about authorial responsibility and the relationship between translation and critique that were not shared by Iqraa’s foreign editors, even when the latter shared the substantive criticisms of the translators.
Critique and Accountability
One way the Iqraa translation center aimed to produce successful subtitles was to be itself a site of multiple cultural viewpoints, as embodied in the editors of different nationalities who made up an important part of its staff. Another way was to retain editors whose individual biographies reflected multiple cultural influences. Being Muslim was neither an implicit nor an explicit criterion for hiring—the most important formal qualification was being a native English speaker. At the same time, the translators I worked with were most impressed by anglophone converts to Islam, who were at once the most sought-after employees and the most elusive to find. Being Egyptian American, I was regularly called on to help recruit such editors, since translators correctly assumed that such persons would be within my network of academic researchers and foreign students in Cairo. In fact, Adam—the irate American editor who objected to the premise of Muslim and Proud—was one of my recruits. Randa was ecstatic when he expressed interest and was prepared to offer him an above-average rate for his work.
The judgment that the best editors were Anglo-American converts to Islam was based on the assumption not only that such individuals would be intrinsically “sympathetic” to their adopted religion but that they would also intuitively know how to translate programs in a way that would resonate with non-Muslims—or at the very least not offend them. Having a “foot in each world,” they would know how to communicate across religious and cultural differences. This positive valuation was not, then, merely about possessing superior linguistic skills (in fact, all the translators at Iqraa had near-native, if accented, fluency)—it was about possessing a type of cultural fluency that allowed one to discern intuitively what sounded “right” culturally and what did not.
When I asked one translator if he thought of the editor’s job as “improving the image of Muslims,” he quickly corrected me: “You have to differentiate between stereotypes about Muslims and ones about Islam. I am not bothered if some Americans think that some Muslims are ignorant or extremist, because this is actually true. But what I cannot tolerate is attributing their actions to Islam itself. Islam doesn’t teach the things both some Muslims and Americans think it does.” The decoupling of Islam as a religion from its practice by individual Muslims was a common move among contemporary Islamic revivalists in Egypt. While this type of essentialism is usually theorized as oppressive and totalizing (see, e.g., Young 1990), it was precisely the assumption that Islam had a fixed meaning that worked to open up a discursive space for transformative interpretations of its message to meet the contemporary needs of a wide-ranging, transnational audience. Because Islam belonged to no one place or time, it could be part of every place at any time. Subtitles, and the foreign editors tasked with working with them, were important mediators of this transformation.
But at times, precisely what made editors so valuable—their extralinguistic fluency—became a liability, since it worked to undermine the editors’ appreciation of the center’s subtitling strategy as a legitimate form of critique. As we saw in the opening pages of this article, Adam’s expectations about what should be said in public about other religions clashed dramatically with the Egyptian translators’ expectations that their mission was to extol Islam as God’s final revealed religion. This clash of expectations was frequent enough for Randa to e-mail a memo to all the editors asking them to keep their opinions about the content to themselves and to not let them influence their approach to the subtitles. But the problem was not so much that the editors had, like the translators, an evaluative stance toward the content they worked with but rather that they had a different evaluation of what made for a “good translation” of this content than the one advocated for by Randa.
Like Adam, other foreign editors expressed an anxiety about working on some of Iqraa’s programs. One American editor, Charlotte, told me that sometimes she would ask herself if she was “doing the right thing” or “helping to make the world a better place” by editing programs that she felt to be sexist and ignorant. “It would be one of these sheikhs who might have memorized the Qur’an, but he has no wisdom, he has no knowledge,” she elaborated. “And I would think, ‘Ugh, why am I doing this?’ And I would tell Randa that this is a crappy program; it is very negative, a very particular version of Islam, and—pardon me—this man is ignorant.”
Charlotte, similar to Adam, insisted that Iqraa should not be airing such programs in the first place. However, since the channel was, then the only appropriate thing to do would be to, in her words, “get a good translation of what the preacher is actually saying.” She continued: “He wants to say x, y, and z and have people start throwing tomatoes at the screen, then I am going to let him. Let him say what he wants to say and let the people at home decide.” Charlotte imagined that the task of the translator was to convey the speaker’s intentions in linguistic equivalents that matched the original as closely and literally as possible within the time-space constraints of the subtitle. Any other kind of translation amounted to what she pejoratively called “whitewashing.”
Editors like Adam and Charlotte argued passionately about the programs—whether they were right or wrong, boring or compelling. But they did not go so far as to argue with them in the sense of responding to the content with new content intended for the same screen. For the editors, the preaching programs were an original source text that had to be faithfully, publicly conveyed, even if privately lampooned. They were operating through an epistemology that views translations as replacements of the original through the further presumption of the stability of meaning across the movement from one linguistic code to another. In other words, their anxiety about manipulating the subtitles was informed by their sense that because the English translation stood on its own precisely through standing in for the original Arabic, both had to mean the same thing.
This concern with, or understanding of, individual authorship and autonomy was different from how the Egyptian translators were thinking about matters. For them, subtitles had an authorial autonomy that was limited not by the autonomy of the preacher but by the autonomous authority of divine revelation.14 The original Arabic program was merely an interpretation of the real original source texts, the Qur’an and its embodiment in the prophetic example.
Subtitling practices at Iqraa worked through a complex and perceptive appraisal on the part of the Egyptian translators as to both the representational and theological burdens engendered by the global circulation of their subtitles. This appraisal was informed by the perceived needs of an audience overwhelmingly imagined as Western, even if Muslim, and governed by a general principle to transmit only correct religious knowledge. Fidelity to God could and did at times, however infrequent, demand a betrayal of the preacher being subtitled. For translators, this was a moral imperative, since the original Arabic-language program was in the end, like its subtitles, merely an interpretation of the ultimate source text of divine revelation. Within this setting, translation not only was enabling of critiques of external representations of Islam but was itself a form of internal critique directed at other Muslims. Here the stakes of translation were not just getting it right linguistically or even pragmatically but getting it right by God, for which translators as individuals would be held accountable in the hereafter. But what God wants, and how best to convey this to others, was deeply contested from within the Islamic tradition as lived and understood by Egyptian participants in the country’s Islamic revival and from without by the foreigners they interacted with. Indeed, the assumptions enabling these kinds of translation strategies as a moral practice were not shared by most of the foreign editors, who, while also adopting an evaluative stance toward the preaching programs they worked with, hewed to a different notion of authorial intention and associated translation ethic. Subtitling in Islamic television thus became at times a site of struggle between competing epistemologies not only of translation and mediation but also of critique.
Participants at the Michigan Society of Fellows colloquium, the University of Michigan’s sociocultural anthropology workshop, and New York University’s Kevorkian research workshop provided crucial comments on and collegial engagement with this article’s central claims. At NYU, Marwan Kraidy was a generous discussant. Lila Abu-Lughod, Jatin Dua, Tejaswini Ganti, Faye Ginsburg, Bruce Grant, Michael Gilsenan, Michael Lempert, Nicholas Limerick, Ram Natarajan, and Andrew Shyrock each gave insightful feedback on various iterations of this article. Bambi Schieffelin’s detailed written suggestions were invaluable, as were those of the anonymous reviewers. I am grateful to my colleagues and friends at Iqraa for allowing me to share—and translate—their worlds. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from Arabic are mine. I have used pseudonyms throughout and changed identifying details. This article is based on research and writing supported by the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Fulbright-Hays Program, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation, and the Michigan Society of Fellows.
Translation studies is a vast and varied field, and I make no pretense of covering its associated literature in this article. An excellent edited volume bringing together essays considered foundational to translation studies is Lawrence Venuti’s The Translation Studies Reader (2000). For an influential articulation of manipulation, see Hermans 1985.
This focus takes its cue from the language ideologies literature. See the foundational volume Schieffelin, Woolard, and Kroskrity 1998.
John Leavitt (2014) argues for an even more intimate affinity, positing that the history of translation studies mirrors the history of anthropological theorizations of difference. However, despite both the common (and much critiqued) trope of ethnography as translation and the long-standing disciplinary concern with how to translate in ethnography, until recently there was a relative paucity of ethnographic accounts asking “How do people do translation?,” in the phrasing of a review of the literature by Susan Gal (2015: 226), who questions “what insights are gained if those objects [of ethnographic attention] are the translation practices of others.” Work within the anthropology of Christianity has been exceptional in this regard, producing detailed ethnographic accounts of biblical translation practices in missionizing contexts (MacLochlainn 2015; Handman 2010; Hanks 2010; Meyer 1999; Schieffelin 2007). Contemporary Islamic translation ideologies and practices have not had the same ethnographic scrutiny, although recently historians have turned their attention to Qur’anic translation as social praxis (Wilson 2014; Zadeh 2012). For historical and literary examinations of translation in Islamic contexts, see also Euben 2008 and Ricci 2011.
As Cristiana Giordano (2014) argues, translation is central to anthropology in its preoccupation with the question of (in)commensurability attending alterity. In her ethnography of the politics of cultural translation and migration in Italy, she challenges us to think about the ways in which the distant space of difference can itself be, for both anthropologists and translators, generative of bonds and connections.
For a full account of the profound structural transformations precipitated by satellite technology in the Arab television sectors, see Kraidy and Khalil 2009. In 2011 Iqraa International launched with ambitions to eventually broadcast in seven languages. During my fieldwork, the new channel was broadcasting a limited amount of original content in English but mostly relying on dubbing and subtitling into English and French selections from the original Iqraa’s existing Arabic broadcast archives.
Not all Egyptian national universities offer translation as a specialization at the undergraduate level. At Cairo University, for example, would-be translators obtain degrees in English literature, although they are able to take a “practical course” to acquire basic translational skills. By contrast, students pursuing bachelor’s degrees at Helwan University can specialize in translation and linguistics. At the undergraduate level, course packets could include articles from key American and British sourcebooks on translation. At the graduate level, students read articles and monographs by influential translation theorists such as Eugene Nida, Hans Vermeer, Baker, and Venuti as well as their Egyptian professors’ Arabic-language overviews of translation theory (e.g., Enani 2003) and more technically oriented translation manuals.
This motivation predates the current geopolitical moment. The earliest English translations of the Qur’an were galvanized by a desire to counter negative portrayals of Islam, for which Qur’an translations by foreign Christian missionaries in the Arab region served as a significant vehicle. Brett Wilson (2014) shows how Qur’anic translation has historically been the subject of passionate debate in the Muslim world, including in Egypt. While most Qur’an translations were proscribed as late as the 1930s, this view began to change dramatically as Egypt saw increasingly institutionalized missionary activity in the country that worked through distributions of translated Bibles. Muslim reformists within al-Azhar and beyond began to view translations of the Qur’an as indispensable to spreading the “true message” of Islam.
Venuti developed his ideas partly in contradistinction to Nida’s dynamic equivalence (i.e., domestication) school of translation, itself theorized by Nida within the context of biblical translation. This was the dominant framework advocated for within Egyptian translation courses. Dynamic equivalence, and its close cousin pragmatic equivalence, strives for “a naturalness of expression” in the target language so that “the receptors of a translation should comprehend the translated text to such an extent that they can understand how the original receptors must have understood the original text” (Nida 2003 : 36). At Iqraa a favorite example of this was finding appropriate English substitutes for the Arabic “red camel,” itself an archaic Bedouin reference used by Saudi Arabian preachers, to indicate something of great value.
English translations of Qur’anic verses are by Muhammad Asad 2003 .
While current Muslim orthodoxy holds that the Qur’an’s miraculous inimitability lies in both its Arabic-language form and meaning, several premodern jurists, including the eminent Abu Hanifa, the eponymous founder of one of the four still extant schools of Islamic law, held views at odds with the presumed absolute indissolubility of form and content conventionally thought to govern the Qur’anic text. Abu Hanifa argued that since the miracle of the Qur’an resides in its divine meaning, ritual prayers should be conducted in vernacular languages if the worshipper did not know Arabic (in Wilson 2014: 13–14). For an insightful and detailed analysis of the implications of such legal rulings for the premodern production of vernacular Persian translations of the Qur’an, see Zadeh 2012.
Two recent contributions to translation theory, based on analyses of modern Egyptian literary and political texts, challenge the hoary binaries of colonized/colonizer so central to postcolonial studies (Tageldin 2011; Litvin 2011).
I hasten to note that the translators I worked with did not believe that the possibility of multiple interpretations meant that there could be no misinterpretations or, for that matter, mistranslations. The need to manipulate the source text arose precisely because this text was thought to be incorrectly representing the “message of Islam.”
Different programs were also tedious for the translators themselves in ways that were often explicitly tied to the preacher’s Arabic dialect. For example, translators felt that the language of Egyptian preachers was “easy” (sahla) and “light” (khafifa), while that of Saudi preachers was “heavy” (ti’ila).
Niloofar Haeri shows in her ethnography of Egyptian-language ideologies about Arabic how the textual practices of “correctors” at newsmagazines also complicate ideas of authorship. She traces how the regulative power of the correctors over print texts was legitimated through the unquestioned authority of Classical Arabic as the language of Qur’anic revelation (Haeri 2003: 69–70). While Iqraa translators had a similar respect for Classical Arabic, their authority to make changes in translation derived not from any structural expertise with respect to this language—which the television preachers at times spoke in—but rather from their claim of being “preachers by proxy” and the moral responsibility this entailed.