Translating Signs & Banners

For our third assignment in ‘translating revolution’ at the American University in Cairo, we chose to examine a selection of the thousands of banners and signs that were deployed across Egypt by protesters during recent events.  Many of the protesters came armed with banner making materials and signs, conscious they were on display, whilst others wrote on whatever they could find to hand at the time.

The banners construct a narrative across the 18-day period of the initial uprising, though catchy tag lines, humour, parody, poetry and imagery.  They set the discourse and offer a counter-discourse to current events; provoking action and re-action.

They can be grouped under several categories – religious, popular, the proverbial, parodies, jokes, etc.  Some were reflective of collective statements, whilst others were diverse and original.  Some were visual with catchy tag lines, whilst others were mini stories that people added verses to on a daily basis.

Many of those who were holding banners weren’t chanting.  Perhaps this is indicative of the extensive amounts of time in which some were protesting, with the banner in some cases providing a means of non-verbal communication.

Two working groups selected a number of signs below to translate, including an analysis of context, who is holding them and why. We hope you enjoy. Please feel free to leave comments or post thoughts of your own.

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Group 1 – Selection of banners from February 1st, 2011

Group 1 chose to focus on a selection of banners taken by group members in Cairo and Ismailia on February 1st.  This date is considered to be one of the turning points in the revolution’s discourse, as it witnessed very significant events.  Demonstrations erupted all over the country and protesters managed to rally a million-man demonstration in Al-tahrir square as planned.  This building momentum resulted in major changes, including Mubarak’s sentimental second speech and the appointment of Ahmed Shafeek as prime minister.  Tuesday February 1st also followed the famous ‘Friday of outrage’ and preceeded the ‘battle of the camel’, other important turning points in events.

As you will see, the following images reflect a new perception of the public space as a form of political expression, utilising contention and humour.  One of the noticable trends in these public renditions on February 1st is that of Mubarak’s relationship with Israel and the US.

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Banner #1: “He who is silent about the truth is a speechless devil”

الساكت عن الحق شيطان اخرس

This banner, taken in Ismailia, stands out as it’s written in classical Arabic.  It is a common proverb, used regularly by educated people to emphasize the importance of having the courage to tell the truth.  The saying has religious connotations, both in meaning and the way it is perceived in Egyptian culture.

It is worth pointing out that many people think it is a speech of the prophet, but the majority of imams state there is not enough evidence in support of this.  Abel Aziz Bin Baz is one of the imams who issued a fatwa, stating that this saying is not a “hadeeth”, adding that it was used the first time in written form by the Islamic writer – Abo Ali Al Dakak Al shafee.  The word “shaytan” or devil is a word loaded with religious perceptions of the shaytan and his curse in Islamic traditions.

We considered translating it as, ‘silence is complicity’, which makes more sense in English.  However, considering the elevated language register in the source language and religious overtones, we felt – ‘he who is silent about the truth is a speechless devil’, maintains the characteritics of the proverbial and is more in keeping with the notion of equivalence in translation.

The banner is urging Egyptian people to do the right thing, maintaining that it is a sin not to support those who dare to stand against injustice.

See also: http://www.binbaz.org.sa/mat/18316

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Banner #2: “Hey man … leave already! Don’t be so thick-skinned”

ارحل بقي يا عم خلي عندك دم

This banner is one of many which point out the difficulty the regime is having in truly understanding and acting on the message of the protesters.  It is significant that as early as February 1st, protesters started to ridicule the president’s persistence to stay in power, ignoring the people’s demands and feelings.

This banner is written in simple language with a musical rhyme.  It indicates a sense of intimacy, whilst bringing Mubarak down to a level with the people.  It duplicates the chant that was most commonly heard after Mubarak’s first speech – ‘Erhal’ (literally – ‘out’).  It is reflective of the most prominent demand at the time – ‘just go’.  The banner conveys the message that Mubarak hears them, he gets it, but he just won’t budge.  It is also important to note this banner is a collective statement, a large banner of the kind people barricaded themselves behind.  It is held to the side as the people are on route to Tahrir, and are leaving room for traffic to pass whilst reading the sign.

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Banner #3: “Down with the butcher; leave you pig” / “30 years of injustice”

يسقط السفاح

ارحل يا خنزير

٣٠ سنه ظلم

The banner is being held for the photographer to capture, but the man isn’t looking directly at the camera.  His face appears confident and calm in contrast to the brutal, violent imagery of the sign he’s holding.

In the picture Mubarak (the ‘butcher’/’slaughterer’) is smiling with blood dripping from his mouth, with the Star of David (Israel) and the ‘USA’ written on his face.  This is particularly significant, given the Israeli plea the day before (January 31st) for the US and Europe to curb their criticism of Mubarak.  It is an extremely loaded banner.  Without the star of David, it might indicate that Mubarak is responsible for the blood of the martyrs of the revolution thus far.  However, with the phrase – ’30 years of injustice’, and the symbols on his face, it takes on a clear pan-Arab, regional dimension, and becomes obvious the banner maker is indicating this is Palestinian blood.  The theme of Mubarak and Zionism ran through many of the banners during the 18 days of protests, particularly on February 1st.   It is interetsting to note that in the midst of the Egyptian revolution, the Arab dimension was forever present.

This is one of the banners that was prepared before hand rather than written on the spot, requiring prior preparation in getting the face of Mubarak, which appears to be cut out from a picture or poster.

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Banner #4: ‘Is Mubarak father of the bride?’ (Artist: Hamdy Ahmed)

Here, Egypt is personified as a bride (as written on her dress) and is being pulled by Mubarak and the people.  Her fate with Mubarak is in the ‘National Democratic Prison’, whilst that with the people isn’t depicted.  The imagery of Egypt as a beautiful young bride signifies the virginity of woman Egypt and her ‘youthful’ goals and ambitions.  In 1919 Egypt was also depicted in gendered, feminine images (often as a pharoaonic princess), which were central to the effendiyya’s nationalist consciousness.  Lisa Pollard, in ‘Nurturing the Nation 1805-1923’, writes, “The fact that Egypt is depicted as a woman suggests that it was the virtues of Egyptian womanhood that could either lead a nation to “give in” to imperialism or ward it off – provide it with morals and courage or corrupt it” (2008, p.182).  ‘The people’ as depicted here are interestingly all men.  Al-Kashkul in 1919 chronicled the process of writing a constitution through images of men clothing lady Egypt, with Egypt’s prime minister – Husein Rushdi Pasha, putting the final touches on Egypt’s overcoat.  Pollard comments that the image delivers a double message: “On the one hand, men created the nation-state. On the other, (female) Egypt is slightly out of their grasp” (2002, p.186) or unattainable.

There is a connection between this banner and many of the songs depicting Egypt as ‘habibi’ (the beloved).

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Banner #5: “Mubarak, whatever you’ll do, we don’t want you!”

مهما هتمعل مش عيزينك يا مبارك

The body posture of the woman, holding her sign above her head, is very confident and stubborn.  A video taken of the her and her friend has them proudly declaring: “We will not shut up!”

This sign was in a colloquial variation of the source language, indicating it could be easily spoken aloud and possesses a slogan-like quality.  The group tried to capture the defiant spirit of the woman in the target language via the use of rhyme and rhythm.

The banner addresses Mubarak directly, making the message personal.  We decided to highlight this feeling by beginning the translation with “Mubarak” to grab the reader’s attention in English.  The message succeeds in creating an “us/them” dynamic ala Norbert Sluzewski’s discussion of the slogan, as it speaks for “we” rather than just one individual.  This dynamic adds to the power of the sign in that it presents this woman as being part of a unified opposition – “we”.

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Banner #6: This is a family (the mother is present but not in the picture)

Man with bilingual sign: “Oh Mubarak leave, they’re waiting for you in Tel Aviv!”

إرحل يا مبارك تل أبيب في  إنتظارك

An older man holds this sign, which also calls Mubarak a dictator in English.  This references Tunisian President Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia after the Tunisian revolution, in that this protester is hoping that Mubarak will leave the country for Israel.  Additionally, this sign calls attention to Mubarak’s close relationship with Israel and his long friendship with the country.  As Israel had recently declared support for Mubarak the weekend before February 1st, this was a fresh point of contention.  The translation rhymes in the target language to capture the slogan-like nature of the source language message.  The rhythm of the message is preserved, which adds to the strength of the slogan in English.

Boy: “Country pull yourself together, Mubarak’s leaving for ever, and freedom will be born.”

شدي حيلك يا بلد مبارك ماشي للابد والحرية هتتولد

A child is holding this sign, adding to the power of its message, although the sentiment of chastising the country is that of an experienced person.  This sign has a three part rhyme in the source language that highlights three meaningful segments.  The group decided to use commas in the target language to reflect the rhyming divisions in the source language, with the first two segments rhyming in the target language to evoke the musicality of the original.  The final segment of the poem illustrates the hope of the youth (in this case the boy) that freedom will result from the ouster of Mubarak.  In the target language, the first two segments can be seen as conditional, in that once the country pulls itself together and Mubarak leaves, then “freedom will be born”.

Man with cardboard sign (in background): “Caution please, the regime is backing up!”

أحترس من فضلك النظام يرجع إلى الخلف

The man holding this sign was walking easily with it resting on his shoulders, and the humorous nature of the sign is reflected in his manner.  This sign references a joke that some cars in Saudi Arabia play: “Caution, the car is backing up” when going in reverse.  The message begins with a traffic symbol of a triangle with an exclamation point, further underscoring the reference.  The addition of this symbol as well as the sentiment expressed by the words creates humor which may be shared in either English or Arabic, for it’s clear that the regime is going in the wrong direction.

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Banner #7:

مبارك              “Mubarak”

مبااااراك            “Mubaaarak”

In this photo, the target of translation is an object of street art, an effigy of Mubarak, hanged from the light post in Tahrir on February 1st.  Street art during the revolution expressed a wide transition in the accessibility of public political expression, in this case with site-specificity taken into account.  As Lyman G. Chaffee notes in his book Political Protest and Street Art, “Street art, in essence, connotes a decentralized, democratic form in which there is universal access, and the real control over messages comes from the social producers.  It is a barometer that registers the spectrum of thinking, especially during democratic openings.”  This burst of political expression in the public space, a space which had long been repressed by the regime, represents a shift in the public’s approach to social communication, especially for the artist.  Tahrir had become a place, even if only for a few weeks, in which public expression was given the opportunity to roam through various mediums.  The street statue of Mubarak, in this case, represents a shift in social perception of the public space as activated by the revolution.

The figure, hanged from the neck, shows Mubarak in a business suit with US dollars in his pocket, one of them falling down his front half. His face is downcast, his eyes lowered as if in a dismal trance. The words “Mubarak – Mubaraaak” are written on his foreside.  The representation of his clothes along with the US currency marks the social perception that, besides being the President of Egypt, he is a wealthy business man that has been judged by the Egyptian people.  The significance of the US currency sign on the bills stresses the self-beneficial relationship that he and his regime shared with the US, being propped up by $2.2 billion USD a year in aid.  Also, his name written the second time with three additional aliphs (As) in the middle is a play on the name of Israel’s former Prime Minister, Ehud Baraak.  The cosy relationship that Mubarak up-kept with these two countries, namely the US and Israel, signify a corrupt agreement, or relationship, in which he is guilty of betraying the country’s interests and is hanged in order to reflect that the Egyptian people have already judged him.  Yet, these symbols of Mubarak’s relationship with these two countries is also found in many of the artists renditions during the revolution.  In a conversation about this object of representation, Abdallah Al-Ghoul, a Gazan filmmaker, explained that during times of war between Gaza and Israel, he would search through the hospitals for his friends.  The doctors at the hospital would write, in a black marker, the names of the deceased. These names were usually written on the inner thigh or the foreside for identification purposes.  Though this cultural context needs further examination within Egyptian society, it serves as a form of identification of he who has been judged.

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Banner #8:

“Don’t imagine that the night will remain

Daylight is about to loom

The roads of darkness to fade away

And world of oppression to fall apart”

لا تخالوا الليل يبقى

اوشك الفجر يلوح

ودروب الظلم تمضي

و دنا البغى تطيح

Poetry was a signature of the artistic literary expression during the revolution.  This poem, written in fusha, signifies a medium of social communication that ties the poetic tradition of the Arabic language to the context of the revolution.  The young man’s expression shows a serene determination in light of his surroundings, in contrast to the background of the photo where there appears to be harsh movement.  The kefeya around his neck has long been a symbol of political resistance as it is tied to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

This message of serenity ties into to the contrasting imagery of darkness and light in the poem, as representations of Egypt’s era during Mubarak waning into a new future, a new dawn.

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Banner #9: “Leave, Mubarak, there’s a job waiting for you at Mossad.”

ارحل يا مبارك وظيفة في الموساد بانتظارك

This phrase’s originality lies in its combination of a core demand of the protesters and a witty allusion to a substantial reproach against Mubarak.  Besides asking the President to leave the country, it suggests that Israel’s secret service would be happy to offer him a post.  This points to the friendly relations Mubarak established and maintained with Israel throughout the 30 years of his presidency, a relationship that has by many Egyptians been considered as too intimate and not always beneficial.  The day before this photo was taken, this sentiment was once again confirmed in the eyes of the protesters when Israel asked European countries and the US to support Mubarak and his regime. Placed in this context, these lines are especially topical.  Hence, the sentence can be read as an accusation of treachery, since working for a foreign secret service would entail sharing crucial information about his own country.  This reproach is especially grave in the light of the strong presence of patriotism in Egypt in general, particularly during the protests.

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Group 2 – Selection of banners from 18 day Egyptian Revolution

January 25

Banner #1: “Down with the government of corruption”.

تسقط حكومة الفساد تسقط

Our discussion was about the idafa (possessive) construction of حكومة الفساد. We were talking first about the ‘corrupt government’.  However we decided to change it because the banner does not describe the government, rather it refers to it as the one of the corruption.  It is the one that takes care of and favors the corrupt … this is what the idafa would convey.

It is also worth noting that this signaled many of the popular demands voiced on the 25th; mainly against corruption of the government and torture by the police, though the explicit demand for the downfall of the regime did not take hold as the “official” discourse of the revolution – at least by critical mass or media representation – until the 28th.

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Banner #2: “Bread/liberty/human dignity”

أطباء مصر: عيش / حرية/ كرامة  إنسانية

In colloquial Egyptian, عيش means “bread” but has etymological roots in “living”. “Bread” in English captures the meaning of a staple commodity just as well; therefore we’ve translated it directly. Our next discussion was about the word حرية. It can be either ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’. We decided to keep it as liberty, for its prevalence in the west and significant connotations: New York’s statue of liberty, and the ‘liberte’ of the French Revolution.

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January 29

Banner #3: “True reform is Mubarak’s resignation.  Signed by the Egyptian people”.

الإصلاح الحقيقي تنحي حسني مبارك

This banner was very significant as it was a reaction to the first speech delivered by Mubarak on the night of the 28th. It was a much-anticipated and delayed speech, in which Mubarak promised minor reforms that truly reflected – and amplified – the disconnect

between him and the people . This was a reaction to his speech and also marked a change in the tone of the banners that targeted him personally in a much bolder manner. “Reform” had become a buzzword of the regime and its supporters, as well as a trademark of the international community, frequently in reference to structural adjustment policies and corporate law reform. In the lexicon of the regime, it came to signify little more than the dwindling living standards of most Egyptians, an increase in cronyism, privatization and overall dispossession. The sign is therefore one of many that sought to reclaim the word and confront, head-on, a stagnant official discourse, be it of GDP growth, political or social freedoms, and so on.

In the background, we can see the effect of the very violent day.

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February 1

Banner #4: “The people demand the downfall of the regime”.

الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام(30 سنة فقر)

This slogan was used days before February 1st, however, this banner was photographed on that day. This was the slogan used by the Tunisians in their revolution.  It is in Modern Standard Arabic (Fush’a), rather than colloquial – an uncommon register at Egyptian protests. It is a direct reference to the Tunisian revolution, and, like Nawara Negm’s play on “ana fhimtukum”, it signifies more than solidarity: it signifies a determination, inspired by the Tunisians, to achieve the goals of the revolution. “يريد”  as pointed out by Youssef Rakha (ahram weekly link) has connotations of desire, but most importantly “will”. Over time, this banner, and its accompanying slogans, would evolve to target not only “regime” but also the “country” البلاد and the media الاعلام.

_ _ _

Banner #5: “The army and the people are one”.

Many people have been expecting the army to interfere especially after the absence of security and the release of thugs and thieves from prisons on previous days. By standing on the sidelines, not siding with the Mubarak regime, and assuming the role for maintaining security, the army played a very supportive role towards the people; not only in midaan el tahrir, but in all remote districts as well. This banner was used once the army assumed that role and appeared all over the country.

The military historically occupies a special place in the national imaginary of many Egyptians, particularly our previous generation. They are seen by many as respectable, “clean”, patriotic, relatively uncorrupt and well-trained, despite having produced (and essentially sustained) a series of dictators and despite owning upwards of 30 percent of Egyptian industry. Nevertheless, for strategic reasons or otherwise, a widespread consensus sought to welcome the tanks to the streets when they arrived on the 28th and for each day they stayed afterwards. Egyptians hoped, by and large, that the military would side with the revolution, and it is widely believed that it was due to a rift within the military that Mubarak and Suleiman were finally pushed out.

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Banner #6: “Resign already.  My hand is sore”.

ارحل إيدي وجعتني

Egyptian humor surfaced over time in the increasingly carnivalesque climate of the Tahrir stronghold. Eight days into the revolution, protesters began to “Egyptianize” their banners and slogans. This banner replaces the formal with the casual and juxtaposes two contrasting sentences to convey a sense of being “fed up”. The implied message is “I’m not leaving, I’m not putting down my sign, and I’m not giving up, until you go” – similar signs drew on mundane, daily tasks, such as shaving, laundry and studying for school, but this sign in particular carries the extra weight of signifying labor: sore hands, indeed, tired, exploited hands of a people increasingly dispossessed by their government.

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Banner #7: “I am a child; I want my rights”

أنا طفلة عايزة حقي

The photo of this banner was taken in Ismailia on February 1st, a day when citizens all over Egypt responded in masses to the protesters’ call for a million people on the streets.  The girl holding this sign and the woman with her, probably her mother, are representative of the new actors appearing on the streets.  People from all sections of the population, especially families, began to feel safe about joining the protests as streetfights had ceased in large parts of Egypt.  For many of them, it might have been the first time they publicly expressed their grievances and demands.

In the case of this girl, she proudly presents her poster to the photographer, pointing at her message as if she was asking for it to be read and spread.  The poster itself has been printed out, which shows that someone else had designed it for her to hold up.  However, its simple wording and logic, as well as the use of colloquial Egyptian langauge, match the girl’s age.

Children were deployed during the Egyptian revolution in large numbers with clear messages.  This was symbolic of a new generation taking back the country that had beenstollen from them and re-asserting their dreams and ambitions.

Positioning Mubarak as a ‘father figure’, and his wife Suzanne as a mother, especially for young Egyptians, has been a common rhetoric of the regime.  It has often been argued that it was a golden age for children who benefitted from  much of the ex-first lady’s social work.  The visible and audible presence of children during the protests enhanced the discourse of a revolution by the youth, for the youth, as well as amplifying the widespread dispossession felt by Egyptians.

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February 11

Banner #8: “Stay where you are, we’ll come get you”.

خليك قاعد إحنا هنجيلك

This humorous banner was raised on Feb 11th, after Mubarak’s 3rd speech which most Egyptians expected to be his resignation speech. Following the speech on the night of the 10th, a widespread decision was taken to march to the Presidential Palace the next morning. This call was immediately printed on this poster that depicted an ailing Mubarak on a royal throne. The banner is remarkable because at a time when many might expect people to retreat in frustration, it signifies only an amplified determination and a conviction that Mubarak had already become irrelevant and was on his way out. Indeed, the text insists that the final push remains only in the people’s hands, and is a display of resolute confidence.

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Banner #9: “My new address: 25th of January, Medan Tahrir”.

عنواني الجديد 25 يناير ميدان التحرير

The banner is a turn on an aggressive ad campaign by the Talaat Mustafa Group to promote “Madinaty”, a new gated community in New Cairo that has become symbolic of exacerbated class differences and crony capitalism. Madinaty was built on public land sold to Hisham Talaat Mustafa (a shady figure among the business elite) below legal value, and is one among many examples of the dispossession wrought by a decades-long marriage between politics and business.

The banner uses the language of the ad but modifies it to reflect the context of Tahrir. A group member photographed the banner while two women, strangers to one another, stood by and planned to return to Tahrir the next day. The Tahrir commune was not only a stronghold for those that occupied it throughout the uprising, but became a home – indeed, a safe haven – for those that would return daily to take part in the protests. A free clinic, school, open-air kitchen, and various other services were set up and run co-operatively in a remarkable display of burgeoning participatory democracy and mutual aid economics. The square was routinely cleaned up and secured by those who stayed there. By juxtaposing this sense of collective struggle and identity with Madinaty, a symbol of the increased atomization and segregation of Egyptians as well as their economic dispossession, the banner is a categorical statement – not only about the object of revolt, but about the values and alternatives that were pioneered in this new home.


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About Jan 25 Translators

We are the students of ARIC 402/513 - Translating Revolution, taught by Samia Mehrez at the American University in Cairo.
This entry was posted in Chants, Slogans, Signs. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Translating Signs & Banners

  1. samia mehrez says:

    Bravo!

  2. nora says:

    My favorite one is:
    My address is;
    25 January
    Tahrir Square

    To which I will add,
    Cairo, Egypt!

    We all live in Tahrir Square

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