Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt

Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt

Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt

Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt


In a book that radically challenges conventional understandings of the dynamics of cultural imperialism, Shaden M. Tageldin unravels the complex relationship between translation and seduction in the colonial context. She examines the afterlives of two occupations of Egypt--by the French in 1798 and by the British in 1882--in a rich comparative analysis of acts, fictions, and theories that translated the European into the Egyptian, the Arab, or the Muslim. Tageldin finds that the encounter with European Orientalism often invited colonized Egyptians to imagine themselves "equal" to or even "masters" of their colonizers, and thus, paradoxically, to translate themselves toward--virtually into--the European. Moving beyond the domination/resistance binary that continues to govern understandings of colonial history, Tageldin redefines cultural imperialism as a politics of translational seduction, a politics that lures the colonized to seek power through empire rather than against it, thereby repressing its inherent inequalities. She considers, among others, the interplays of Napoleon and Hasan al-'Attar; Rifa'a al-Tahtawi, Silvestre de Sacy, and Joseph Agoub; Cromer, 'Ali Mubarak, Muhammad al-Siba'i, and Thomas Carlyle; Ibrahim 'Abd al-Qadir al-Mazini, Muhammad Husayn Haykal, and Ahmad Hasan al-Zayyat; and Salama Musa, G. Elliot Smith, Naguib Mahfouz, and Lawrence Durrell. In conversation with new work on translation, comparative literature, imperialism, and nationalism, Tageldin engages postcolonial and poststructuralist theorists from Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and Gayatri Spivak to Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, Emile Benveniste, and Jacques Derrida.


Translation, Seduction, Power

One of the ways to get around the confines of one’s “iden
tity” as one produces expository prose is to work at someone
else’s title, as one works with a language that belongs to
many others. This, after all, is one of the seductions of trans
lating. It is a simple miming of the responsibility to the trace
of the other in the self.

Translation is the most intimate act of reading. I surrender to
the text when I translate.

—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Politics of Translation”

Much as I hesitate to air the intimate apparel of (post)coloniality in general and of mainstream (post)colonial Egyptian intellectual subjectivity in particular, do so I shall—with a little help from the Moroccan literary theorist ‘Abd al-Fattāḥ Kīlīṭū (Abdelfattah Kilito). Kīlīṭū opens Lan Tatakallama Lughatī (2002; Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language), a provocative excursus into the psychological underbelly of translation in the medieval and modern Arab worlds, with a prologue that speaks volumes to a central argument of this book. Citing the example of Muṣṭafā Luṭfī al-Manfalūṭī (1876–1924), an influential early-twentieth-century Egyptian man of letters known for his “free” retranslations of others’ Arabic translations, Kīlīṭū notes that al-Manfalūṭī knew no European languages and wrote a neoclassical Arabic that appears, to the naked eye, “steeped in tradition.” “Nevertheless,” he observes, “every one of [al-Manfalūṭī’s] pages whispers the same question: how do I become European?” Al-Manfalūṭī’s “Arabic-only” posture, Kīlīṭū suggests, evades the charge of surrender to Europe. Yet his vi-

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