Translating Chants

The fourth assignment in the seminar ‘Translating Revolution’ taught at the American University of Cairo focused on the translation of chants that could be heared at various points of the 18 days of protest and its aftermath. Chants are verses or mottos, used in a political, commercial, religious or other context as a repetitive expression of an idea, purpose or demand. For it to be memorable, it has to be catchy and concise. Often, it’s rhetorical nature leaves little room for nuanced explanation. But it would be reductive to call slogans simple as the following commentary shows.

The chants used during the revolution of January 25 have been unique in their thematic diversity, cultural richness and musical rhythm. The distinctive Egyptian sense of humor and cultural flavor has been very noticeable, to the point that the events were by many media channels called “the smiling revolution”. The fundamental demands of the revolution can be heard embedded in the chants, which evolved over the eighteen days of the revolution. Some of the key demands remained throughout, some were dropped and others replaced them in direct response to events as they unfolded, for example – chants about Omar Suleiman or Ahmed Shafiq. Many of the great refrains could be heard throughout more extensive or innovative periods of discourse, such as باطل ,ارحل or the infamous الشعب يريد اسقاط النظام. These helped punctuate the chants throughout and maintained a sense of continuity in the midst of the storm.

On the other hand, these same characteristics render the process of translating particularly difficult. The translator is confronted by a multi-layered content that can often only be understood in it’s specific context. Furthermore, the translation should also have a rhythm and whenever possible a rhyme to convey an idea of how it was used in the source language.

——-

حسني مبارك …… باطل

جمال مبارك …… باطل

الفساد …. باطل

الحرامية …… باطل

وحبيب العادلي …… باطل

Hosni Mubarak      Null and void

Gamal Mubarak     Null and void

The corruption       Null and void

And the thieves       Null and void

Habeeb El-Adly      Null and void

Video of the chant, taken in Cairo on January 25: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LUEXcv28HA

This chant was widely used in different Egyptian cities right from January the 25th and  throughout the whole period of the protests. It is worth pointing out that this chant is not exclusively related to the recent events in Egypt, as it was frequently used in several protests before the revolution of January the 25th. One of the most  important occasions where this chant has been used intensely is the demonstrations gathered in Kilo Batra and in front of Sidi Gaber police station, protesting the death of Khalid Said; a young man who was beaten up to death by two police agents in the neighborhood in June 2010.

One of the interesting aspects about this chant is that it is inspired by a very famous scene from an old Egyptian movie called  “A little bit of fear”, staring Shadia and Mahmoud Moursy. The main theme in the story of the film is centered around Atrees; a strong tyrant man who controls the people of his village, who both hate and fear him very much. Atrees eventually forces the woman he loves to marry him against her well. The events get complicated and reache their climax when the people of the village revolt against Atrees’s authority and march to his place chanting that “ the marriage of Atrees and Foada is invalid”. Because of many deep rooted cultural and religious aspects, the forced marriage and its invalidity is strongly condemned by the people of the village and it finally symbolizes all the ills of Atrees and his authority as being null and void. This particular scene became much more popular than the film itself, and the chant of the people of the village has, ever since, been used in other contexts to express illegitimacy and invalidity. Moreover, the theme of this scene was even used in several commercial advertisements as well, which made it even more popular and common. The analogy and connotations of the scene is quite clear, given the features of the main character in the film, as being a tyrant, hated and feared strong man with an illegitimate unlimited authorities. The illegitimate marriage between Atrees and Foada could be seen as a symbol of the illegitimate marriage of the regime to Egypt, as well. In addition, the chant, not only strips the president of his legitimacy, but also the son of the president, the corruption, and the police forces represented by the minister of interior; Habeeb Al-Adly.

The main problem we faced in the translation process of this chant was the word “batel”; equivalent to invalid or illegitimate. The group used a long time discussing the different possibilities and alternatives. We wanted to capture the different connotations of the word, as it both implies the idea of invalidity and illegitimacy. our other main concern was to keep the rhythm of the chant, and using a word that both capture the connotations and have the viability to be chanted. Therefore, We picked the words “ null and void” to realize the two  objectives  of both the meaning and the musical nature of the chant.

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إعتصام إعتصام

حتى إسقاط النظام

Stay put, Stay here,

‘till the regime is cleared.

ثورة ثورة حتى النصر

ثورة ثورة وغيرها مفيش

Revolution, revolution until defeat,

Revolution in every Egyptian street.

ثورة ثورة وغيرها مفيش

لأجل نشيل حكام ترابيش

Revolution, revolution and nothing but,
Get rid of leaders stuck in a rut.

Video of the chant, taken by a group member in Cairo on January 25: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xfyu9D8Y-8s


This chant was in rhyming couplets in the original Arabic, as can be heard on the video, but should be read together, as it was repeated in succession after the leader. It is interesting that this early on the demands for regime change were so strong.

The translator has taken a few liberties in order to maintain the rhythm and rhyme scheme in the target language, as the ability to speak and memorize these chants was key to their pervasive use.

The chants often used cultural symbolism that needs interpreting. The ‘tarboosh’ or ‘fez’ (طربوش), is a felt hat, either in the shape of a red truncated cone or a short cylinder made of kilim fabric with tassels (see picture below).

Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II made it the official headgear for the military in 1826 in the expectation that the populace at large would follow suit. However, it signaled rank, religion, class and occupation, and was largely shunned by tradesmen and artisans. The fez was banned in Turkey in 1925 as part of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s modernizing reforms. It was worn by the Egyptian Army until 1950, but was impractical and didn’t shield soldiers from the sun.

It is used here to denote an ‘old fashioned’, ‘outdated’ regime, which is why we translated it as ‘stuck in a rut’ (which in the target language of English means stuck in the past or refusing to move with the times), in order to maintain the rhyme scheme of the chant.

——-

تغيير حرية عادلة إجتماعية

Change, liberty, social equality!

(Traditionally: Change, freedom, social justice)

Video of the chant, taken in Ismailia on February 1st: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQPFqYl4M7c

One of the first chants heard during the revolution, this slogan was often used by particular groups to highlight economic injustice.  This slogan was widely cited in the beginning of the revolution to identify the protesters’ central demands and to differentiate them from being allied with any particular faction with an agenda.  This slogan is both inclusive and general enough to unite people with different levels of opposition to the government.  Notably, the chant does not directly criticize the regime, indicating how public opinion gradually changed after the initial protests.  At this stage of the revolution, protesters called for these principles without specifically demanding a complete end to the regime.  However, after the success of the first week’s protests and the government’s response, protesters wished to achieve change, liberty, and social justice mainly through the downfall of the Mubarak regime.

While this slogan is traditionally translated as “Change, freedom, social justice” the group wished to capture some of the musicality of the source language in a new translation.  Furthermore, as slogans are meant to be chanted, the group wanted to create an equivalent translation that can be easily chanted in the target language of English.  This was accomplished through the use of rhyme and punctuation to aid the English reader in chanting the slogan.  The source language slogan can be broken down into three semantic segments with a rhyme scheme of A B B.  The translation captures the rhyme and rhythm by choosing “liberty” over “freedom” and “equality” over “justice”.  In the target language of English “liberty” and “freedom” are usually interchangeable semantically in many contexts.  While “equality” varies slightly from “justice”, the group thought that as a meaningful unit, the phrase “social justice” encompasses the notion of equality, whether economic or political.  The punctuation and lack of conjunctions in the translation identifies to the reader that this text is not meant to be read but pronounced, and adds an element of strangeness that slightly “foreignizes” the translation.  This was an attempt to not “domesticate” the source text by making it a smooth English phrase of “Change, freedom, and social justice”.  Overall, this translated slogan is memorable and easily chanted and thus succeeds in the purpose of a slogan in both the source and target languages.

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!إنزل! إنزل

يا أهالينا ضموا علينا

!الحرية دي ليكو ولينا

Come down, guys! Come out, join us!

This freedom’s for you! For us!

This slogan’s content does not relate to a specific event and was widely heard throughout the protests. However, in Cairo its use peaked on two days, January 28 and February 11. On both these days protesters were marching the streets of the capital, first towards Midan Tahrir and later from the square to the presidential palace in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo. The slogan is directed to the people standing on sidewalks, and peering through windows and balconies, as the protesters pass by. It is to be understood as an invitation to these spectators to join the crowds in the streets.

In the source language, a repeated “انزل” precedes the rest of the verse, it has a different rhythm and falls out of the rhyme scheme. After several attempts to structure the translated verse in a similar way, we decided to break the two parts up and mix them together. This makes it possible to preserve the substance of the original slogan while giving the translation a proper rhythm, albeit one that differs from the source.

In general “نزل” would be translated as “to go down”. But when considering it’s common use in sentences as “I am leaving the house now” or “I will get off at the next stop”, we felt that this does not capture the multiple dimensions of the original word. We therefore decided to use two different translations, “to go down” and “to go out”, to convey the notions of descending as well as leaving a building. Furthermore, it seemed more suitable to have the translation read “come down!” and “come out!” to emphasise the demand to the spectators to join the march.

The second difficulty we encountered while translating this slogan was to find an appropriate expression for “أهالينا”, which means “our family”. Depending on the context, it could also be translated to “our relatives”. It therefore incorporates a strong notion of kinship and unity. However, there clearly exists no blood ties between the protesters and the spectators. Thus, “أهالينا” should be understood as a term underlining the ties of nationhood, as the protests were also a strong moment of patriotism, and used to reinforce the feelings of unity in commitment to a common cause. We considered using “family” or “people”, but felt that none of these would be used during protests in London, Dublin or Washington. We finally settled for “guys” since it is a term only used in informal conversation. It therefore conveys part of the intimacy implied by the original wording and is common enough to appear in protester’s slogans across English speaking countries. The same problem arises when translating “ضموا” into “join” even though it’s meaning is closer to “embrace”. In general, the chant therefore conveys less intimacy in the target language than the original.

——-

أحه أحه أحه يلا يلا تنحى

Fuck! A7a! Step down, yallah!

Chant of 1967

أحه أحه لا تتنحى

Fuck no, you can’t go!

This slogan, with all its vulgarity, has expressed a very direct demand to Hosni Mubarak during the revolution. Its explicit intent, as translated, is to demand the immediate resignation of Mubarak. Yet, it should be noted, as is a trend with most of the chants, that there is a historical narrative being re-appropriated in the context of the revolution. In order to translate these chants, it is critical to understand the underlying meanings as tied to their historical counterparts, however manipulated to meet the demands of their reinvented context.

Following the Six-Day War, in which Israel captured Sinai Peninsula along with other surrounding areas of the Arab world, Gamal Abdel Nasser announced his resignation on television. The reaction of the Arab world was defiant. They took to the streets in protest, chanting ” أحه أحه لا تتنحى”. I decided to translate the word “أحه” into “Fuck”. The word, in Egyptian colloquial, signifies a vulgar objection. After debating this matter through various conversations with native and non-native Arabic and English speakers, I decided on using the word “Fuck” since it appropriates the meanings of vulgarity and objection into one signifier. As well, in the chant of the January 25th revolution, I decided to translate the word أحه, repeated several times in the chant, into its Araby form. Araby, which appropriates the Roman alphabet and Hindu-Arabic numerals, is widely popular in the online community. As well, it is frequently used in text messages where Arabic is not available as an option. Each sign of this modern lexical system represents a corresponding sign of the Arabic alphabet. I decided to translate this word as A7a for several reasons. The first being that within the online community, this word is commonly introduced in Araby as A7a instead of A77a. Secondly, according to the rules of this lexical system, the first “A” represents the ʾalif, the “7” represents ḥā, and the additional “a” represents the undotted yā. By introducing this word within the chant, it allows it to retain an appropriate rhythm characteristic of the this form of expression.

The revolution of January 25th was able to re-appropriate this historically situated chant and re-situate it in the present. By shifting the target and inverting the meaning projected towards the office of Presidency, it contextualizes the chant into Egypt’s recent experience with revolution. Though the rhythm of the chants is varied in order to incorporate “يلا” into its recent expression, the dialectical meanings become evident, especially as a referent. As well, the word “يلا” is often translated as “Come on” or “Let’s go”. Instead, I decided to translate it into its transliterated form since it is a word that has been experienced by many native English speakers.

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لا اخوان ولا ائتلافثورة شعب مافيش خلاف

No MB and no coalition – people only, no division

This chant was widely used outside Maspero on Friday 27th March. Its second part reads “a people’s revolution, no division” but was altered to retain the rhythm of a chant. The day’s protests began in Tahrir square and continued well into the evening outside the Egyptian Radio and Television building. The chant was also widely circulated in Twitter, along with others. The sentiment was designed to reinforce the nature of the revolution as a popular and decentralized uprising that would not tolerate being co-opted or distorted by particular interests. About a week earlier, on Saturday 19th March, Egyptians voted in a constitutional referendum, the results of which would determine when elections would be held (among other things). The day was filled with widespread reports of harassment and aggressive campaigning by members of the Muslim Brotherhood (along with others) in favor of voting “yes” to these constitutional amendments. Many felt that this served their own agenda (of running in the upcoming parliamentary elections) and created unwelcome divisions among people. One of the most cited “official” reasons for the MB’s stance on the constitution (i.e. that it should not be re-written and should only be amended) has been concern over the possible removal of Article 2, which cites Islam as the religion of the state. The sentiment on the street last Friday expressed frustration with this kind of factionalism and sought to re-unite the people under the original character of the uprising, while also rejecting the notion of a representative coalition.

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يا اعلام الاعلاناتكم شهيد بسببكم مات

Advertise, advertise: only martyrs recognize!

الشعب يريد تطهير الاعلام

The people demand the purging of the media

The protest outside the TV building (during which time State TV and some private channels aired nothing of relevance) targeted the Ministry of Information and many of the producers and decision-makers behind state media, as well as private corporate media. Since Mubarak’s departure, mainstream media has by and large co-opted the revolution (which is always referred to in the past tense, as though complete) and economic and political agendas have come to the fore. The chants refer to the hundreds of martyrs who died during the 18-day uprising, who would quickly become adopted and valorized by the media, honored in fact, in a disingenuous move to side with popular opinion; yet these celebrations were juxtaposed with acutely counter-revolutionary impulses that ultimately turned many against the Tahrir phenomenon. That the media should remain silent – indeed, actively stifle information- about police and SS behavior while pretending to “honor” or pay tribute to those that died at their hands, is what renders the institution illegitimate and thoroughly offensive to the spirit of the revolution. The former chant literally translates to “Oh media of advertisements, how many martyrs have died because of you” but was significantly altered to express better in English the relationship that is identified between corporate interests and the sustenance of the regime. It is this kind of suspicion that we aim to relay in the translation, by targeting the tendency to ‘advertise’ – that is, to also commodify – everything, but particularly here the martyrs. This is then coupled with “only martyrs recognize” – which is to say that the very thing the media seeks to commodify is witness to its complicity in the regime’s crimes.

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قللي يا مصري ايه افكاركده طنطاوي هو مبارك

Egypt, Egypt, what do you say, Tantawi’s Mubarak today

The original Arabic states, “Tell me, oh Egyptian, what are your thoughts – that Tantawi is Mubarak”. In English, we tried to find an equivalent that might capture both the sense of incitement of popular discourse, as well as the direct statement about Tantawi’s allegiance to the outgoing regime. It was also important to retain as much rhythm as possible.

The behavior of the military since Mubarak’s departure from office has been far from ambiguous. That the military – or rather, a reported rift among its echelons – had a role to play in the final push, is indisuputed. However, many expressed skepticism about the military’s part in the equation as early as 2nd of February, when soldiers stood by and watched as an army of SS thugs attacked and massacred those occupying Tahrir. The military owns upwards of 30 percent of the Egyptian economy, and has produced and sustained one regime after the other for the last few decades. In the weeks following Mubarak’s ouster, the behavior of the military has rapidly changed public perception of its role or potential interests in maintaining the regime: continued reports of detention and torture, along with an amplified and brutal crackdown on protests, and the military’s continued protection of Mubarak and certain of his aides from trial… are all factors that have significantly altered the relationship of this revolution to the military institution. This chant was one of the louder soundbytes from Friday evening in front of the TV building, and signaled an acute awareness and conviction that the revolution is far from over…

——-

قاعدين فى الميدانلحد مايرحل الجبان

We remain in the Midan…until the ouster of the cowardly man!

This rhyming chant represents the Egyptian determination that grew by time in Tahrir Square. The longer the time frame in which Mubarak clinged to power, the more persistent and unified Egyptian voices became.

Mubarak’s much-anticipated and delayed speeches only promising minor reforms that reflected the disconnect between him and the people , led demonstrators to recite chants that signified their own persistence, as well as, targeted Mubarak personally in a much unprecedentedly bolder manner. Calling Mubarak cowardly may have occurred among closed circles of Egyptians, but such chants marked the significant change of taking such descriptions to the public sphere in a clear sign of breaking the wall of fear that kept building up for 30 years.

The translators decided to keep the word “Midan” as is and not translate it into “square”, because we believe it is by now quite commonly used in Western media. It also aims at foreignizing the source language, hoping that it would spread in later use of the word for all what it has become to signify.

——-

حسنى مبارك هو شاروننفس الشكل ونفس اللون

Hosny Mubarak is Sharon…same in form, same in scorn!

The anti-Zionist sentiment quite common on Egyptian streets has been voiced quite often in Egyptian demonstrations throughout Mubarak’s rule. Yet, taking it to the level of showing resemblance between veteran Zionist leaders, such as Sharon, and Mubarak himself has been quite new in Egyptian protest chants.

By comparing Mubarak to Sharon, this rhyming chant implies the level of hatred distilled in the Egyptian psyche. The perception of Sharon in the Arab world is of a ruthless bloody war leader for all the massacres he has orchestrated; the recollection of him leading the “Thaghra” battle in 1973 also leaves a scar in Egyptian memories specifically. This chant also sheds a light on the idea documented on other banners of Mubarak as an Israeli agent in the Egyptian society that works for the benefit of Israel not of Egypt.

The word scorn here is used instead of the literal translation of the Arabic word “lon”, which means color. This conscious decision to use a different translation was to keep the rhyme of the chant. “Scorn” also better implies the meaning of the source language, as the use of the word “color” in the target language holds racial connotations, that the translators believed were not present in the Arabic chant.

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قالوا حرية وقالوا قانونوالتعذيب جوه السجون

They say freedom, they say law… in prisons, they torture all!

This chant relates to the official discourse used by the Mubarak regime in the 2000s, which claimed rigid application of human rights principles in dealing with prisoners and suspects. One of the main reasons for the 25th January protest was torture in prisons and police stations by Habib Al Adly’s Ministry of Interior. The rhyming chant is therefore one of many that sought to refute that discourse by declaring torture in prisons.

——-

عبد الناصر عود الفل ……. احنا بعدك شفنا الذل

Nasser, Nasser, sturdy flower … after you, abuse of power.

The original Arabic chant rhymes al-fol (Arabian jasmine flower) with al-Thol (lowliness, disgrace, shame, humiliation).  The meaning was changed somewhat in the English chant in order to maintain the rhyme and rhythm of the Arabic chant; however the overall message remains similar.  While the original Arabic contrasts Nasser who is compared with the stem of the Arabian jasmine flower with the disgracefulness of the subsequent regimes, the English chant describes him as the stem of a flower and contrasts this with the abuse of power that followed.

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انزلوا من بيوتكو …..جايين نجيب حقوقكو

Join us! Get down! In the street your rights are found!

As protesters made their way through residential areas throughout the uprising, they chanted this, among other things. The chant literally translates to, “Get down from your homes… we’re here to get your rights”. Again, we altered it slightly to find the right rhythm in the English.

The chant reflects the shared responsibility that was felt by everyone and emphasizes the grassroots, decentralized nature of the uprising: with no leadership and no ideological agenda, no distinctions were made between activists and politicians, and ordinary people – the line between the private and public was completely blurred as people marched through residential areas and beckoned for others to join them in demanding their own rights, rather than freeloading…

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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.
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10 Responses to Translating Chants

  1. Pingback: The Difficulty of Translating Protest: My Blood Is on Your… | Arabic Literature (in English)

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  3. limo says:

    I am very impressed with this

  4. Laura Avigan says:

    I definitely agree with both Tessa and Dina’s comments that meaning gets lost in translation. Every word in a language has its own connotations that evolve based on historical and cultural events. Many times a word can have more than one meaning, which in turn, can add more importance to a phrase or a chant. When translating any word into a different language it is almost impossible to get every connotation that the word might have, and every meaning – not to mention the historical or cultural events that the word/phrase might draw upon. Getting a foreign reader to see and understand all of these different elements a phrase might have is very challenging. I think it is very interesting that the writer in the 2nd article, Samia Mehrez, did not always choose to translate the meaning of a phrase word for word and instead adopted a method in which he wanted the reader to feel the emotional impact of the phrase rather than the literal meaning. He often translated an Arabic word with a completely different English word, such as when he translated the Arabic word “color” for the English word “scorn”
    However, I did not like how Mehrez would sometimes translate phrases so that they would have a more Western meaning. For instance, when he translated “Come down, guys! Come out, join us!” instead of “Come down, family! Come out, join us!”. He stated that the reason he did this was because a chant like this would not be heard in London or Washington. However, by doing so, Mehrez is losing one of the revolutions fundamental points: Egypt is not a Western nation and has its own culture and its own ideals. Reading the latter translation as a Westerner just gives the translation even more power because we can see how much more unified the Egyptian citizens are from our own society. Other times, Mehrez complicated translations too much and made it too hard to understand, especially if one was not reading the explanations directly after reading the translation. For example I think the translation “Advertise, advertise: only martyrs recognize!” is much more convoluted than “Oh media of advertisements, how many martyrs have died because of you”.

  5. sarah says:

    This was very interesting

  6. Kar Calderon says:

    Many thanks for this blog! 🙂

    I am doing a study on images of the Egyptian Revolution. I’m not Egyptian and I don’t know Arabic, but the people’s reverberating chants were just so inexplicably electrifying that not understanding a single word did not seem to matter. Your translations here are very helpful, though.

    Thawra, thawra hatta an-nasr!

    • Mavrick says:

      Thank you for writing this article in your own unique way. I’ve been hoping to find clear intromafion like this. You really helped clear up a lot of my confusion.

    • hahahahahaha. justin, im guessing it was you who got butthurt and had no balls to take it up to him.. lol.. way to point out the obvs that girls love him and wanna take pics with him, and the fact that he shoots at all of sac’s dope ass clubs!

  7. Pingback: #2 The Rallying Cry – Shiver Down Spine

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