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The Return of the Diglossic Son: The Virtual Life of Translation, Subtitling, and Arabic Polyglossia

The Return of the Diglossic Son: The Virtual Life of Translation, Subtitling, and Arabic Polyglossia

Thus far, the translation of audiovisual foreign-language material for mass media into Arabic has rarely been explored in Arabic cultural studies.[1] Most of the research on translation focuses on print media, prioritizing as such the history of literature and journalism. However, a recent comic sketch from the Egyptian show Saturday Night Live bi-l-arabī, a franchise of the American program, exposes that blind spot in the study of popular Egyptian culture. It turns our attention to an alternative history of translation in Egypt. By parodying the language used by contemporary Egyptian television viewers, the sketch sheds light on the current mass media boom in the Arab world and the impact of translation, by means of subtitling and dubbing of foreign media, on the evolution of modern Arabic. As the sketch reveals, this situation galvanized a complex linguistic dynamic that surpasses the traditional framework of Arabic diglossia to produce a pan-Arab polyglossia.[2] In contrast to the classical definition of diglossia, comprising a high and a low register of one language, this linguistic practice includes several languages and various registers of formal and colloquial Arabic at once. In this article, using the SNL sketch as a starting point, I offer a review of the history of translation in Egypt through the lens of the translation of foreign audiovisual media. In doing so, I aim to illuminate the impact of the heretofore underestimated ubiquitous role of subtitling and dubbing in shaping Arabic linguistics and culture. This history, I posit, illuminates a continuum between the pan-Arab exchange during the Nahḍa (the Arab renaissance) and the present. Such exchange differs and exceeds the typically studied example of the pan-Arabist movement of Nasser’s era (1956–70).

As Walter Armbrust suggests, the diglossic specificity of the Arab world should occupy a more eminent position in Egyptian and Arab cultural and historical studies. They should take into account that “the Egyptian nation” was simultaneously “imagined” and “narrated” in formal Arabic and the vernacular. The superior hierarchical position accorded to literary Arabic over the regional dialects, which emulates the European linguistic model and prioritizes the official language over its spoken counterparts, erases the role of nontraditional mass media in the consolidation of Egyptian nationalism and pan-Arab identity.[3] By the same token, nationalism in other Arab countries, as well as their perspective on pan-Arabism, was also imagined and narrated in a polyglossic context, which included the languages and vernaculars of the colonizers (French, English, and Italian) and the various registers of literary and colloquial Arabic (colloquial Egyptian diffused by mass media, vernaculars of the Levant, the Arab Gulf, and the Maghreb). The evolution of social media complicates this context even further, especially after the Arab Spring, where one can even say that the Arab nations and cultures are not only imagined and narrated but also Facebooked, Instagrammed, and tweeted by Arabic speakers who use all possible registers and languages to create, negotiate, and reinvent their own vision of their immediate society as well as of Arab identity in general.[4]

The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Diglossic Crisis

In the SNL sketch, a young Egyptian man from the middle class returns home after ten years of absence, only to find his house converted into a tower of Babel, divided among several languages and various registers of formal and colloquial Arabic.[5] We see the young man’s mother, sitting on a gilded sofa, watching an American soap opera subtitled in formal Arabic (fuṣḥā).[6] She exhibits no reaction to her son’s return and asks him to step away from the television set, because she does not want to miss any developments in her favorite show.

Ironically, when the mother — whose name, Tammat al-Targama,[7] means “the translation is accomplished” — attempts to communicate with her son, she finds herself incapable of expressing herself exclusively in the Egyptian dialect. Instead, she mixes colloquial Egyptian with a formal Arabic typically used for subtitling foreign-language shows. The son, in a state of shock, asks her why she speaks “like the television.” Later, to his surprise, he discovers that the entire family suffers from the same linguistic trouble. Each communicates by means of a register of Arabic featured in audiovisual media. For instance, the young brother speaks only in the formal Arabic mainly used for dubbing Japanese animes. The middle brother, on the other hand, expresses himself in a register of colloquial Egyptian associated with advertising and game shows. Finally, the father speaks in the Syrian dialect, which recently became popular in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world by means of Turkish soap operas dubbed in that dialect.[8]

The mother and son decide to call a doctor, and later a policeman, to find a remedy for this diglossic confusion. But this linguistic nightmare worsens, as they discover that even the doctor and the policeman speak “like the television.” They reiterate a number of hackneyed sentences frequently uttered by actors playing their professions on Egyptian television. The policeman proceeds to replay one of the most clichéd cop scenes in Egyptian cinema. He points his gun at Tammat al-Targama and announces in colloquial Egyptian: “We finally meet again Mrs. Tammat. Get ready to die!” The sketch concludes with Tammat al-Targama parodying American soap operas. She turns toward the screen and comments in English: “For one second there, I was standing and all I could think about was I was gonna die.” The son, then, unconsciously looks at the camera and begins to translate his mother’s words into formal Arabic. Suddenly, he realizes that, just like everyone else, he also communicates in several varieties of Arabic simultaneously and wonders in shock what is wrong with him. In that moment, the mother recognizes her son and greets him in Egyptian Arabic: “My dear son, welcome back!”[9]

This sketch reflects the current linguistic landscape of Egyptian society, especially after the media boom of the 1990s, an era characterized by the proliferation of foreign and private Arabic satellite and cable channels, which introduced new cultural players, as well as new ways for the production and diffusion of local and global cultures. In her book, Egypt’s Culture Wars, Samia Mehrez depicts this situation as the emergence of a “virtual Arab metropolis” forged by a network of media, whose reach surpasses the control of national institutions, and which respond to the current demands of a pan-Arab market whose identity and representation differ greatly from the pan-Arab imaginary of Nasser’s Egypt.[10] Central to this media revolution are new satellite channels that escape the vigilance and censorship of the Egyptian state, which for a long time had the upper hand in the production and representation of Egyptian and Arab cultures at the national and regional levels. This new situation is characterized by the abundance of American soap operas subtitled or dubbed in formal Arabic, Turkish television series dubbed in the Syrian dialect, Japanese animes dubbed in the formal Arabic of Damascus, in addition to various game and variety shows modeled after American entertainment. Each has its own linguistic register, unique to a specific Arab or other country.

Once Upon a Time: A National Diglossia

Implicit in this sketch, we find a romanticized nostalgic perspective of a simpler past, limited to a “national diglossia,” which used to dominate Egyptian media. By national diglossia, I mean a specific combination of formal Arabic and a single dominant colloquial variety proper to a country, in this case Egypt. The search for a doctor and a policeman evokes the Foucauldian dynamics of power depicted in Discipline and Punish, suggesting that this linguistic confusion of the Egyptian citizen — namely, moving from the typical binary diglossic relation to a pan-Arab polyglossic framework that includes a multiplicity of Arabic dialects at once — represents a transgression, or the symptoms of a sickness that threatens normativity and national order. In contrast to the imaginary of the Nahḍa, where diasporic Egyptians symbolized their alienation from a culture of origins because of European cultural hegemony, this sketch creates the inverse image, where the migrants and the diaspora become the guardians of a national dialect, which has lost its power in its country of origin.[11]

On the first level of interpretation, the sketch presents an Egyptocentric perspective of Arab culture, which laments the decline of the Cairene dialect as the lingua franca of Arab media. This decline is precisely the result of the emergence of new Arabic channels and the rise of dubbing as a new, popular form of translation for foreign media, in contrast to the outdated technique of subtitling. Dubbing, mostly executed by Syrian studios, has weakened the Egyptian control over the translation of foreign media and has led to the popularization of Syrian formal Arabic, as well as the Shamī (Levantine) dialect in Egypt and the Arab world.

Certainly, national Egyptian channels have always aired foreign movies and programs, but in relatively limited quantities. Most importantly, foreign movies and shows, either on television or on cinema screens, were translated and subtitled by one main company, the language laboratories of Anīs Ebeid, who concluded the subtitling with a now-iconic statement, known by Egyptian viewers and probably the rest of the Arab world: “Tammat al-targama bi Ma’mil Anīs Ubayd bi-il-Qahira” (The translation was fulfilled/completed by the Anīs Ubayd Laboratories in Cairo).[12]

The wordplay around the name of the mother in the SNL sketch, Mrs. Tammat al-Targama, parodies the above statement, which the audience could easily recognize. The eldest son, then, who returns after ten years, represents the members of the last generation who grew up watching the national Egyptian television channels, translated, subtitled, and censored by the laboratories of Anīs Ebeid, in a time when the state controlled all media, including the selection, importation, and translation of foreign materials. These measures included as well the use of a register of modern formal Arabic with conservative overtones and a lexicon deemed adequate for the Egyptian public.

Despite its strong impact on Egyptian culture, this particular history of translation in connection to audiovisual media is scarcely explored, mainly because most of the studies of translation prioritize print media — books and newspapers — as a domain of research. Such a perspective enacts an elitist bias against popular culture, one that overlooks audiovisual popular mass media, such as television and cinema. In addition, in most European and American contexts, the process of translation by means of subtitling remains rare. Most often, American and European shows opt for the process of dubbing or of voice-over (dubbing’s less expensive alternative). Even in the case of subtitling, the translation is produced in a national register that does not vary widely from its spoken counterpart. This situation does not fit the context of the Arab world, where the subtitling of foreign media into formal Arabic has gradually become a quotidian aspect since the 1940s. More recently, many programs are dubbed in either Masrī or Shamī (Egyptian or Levantine) dialects, depending on the genre, the origin of the program, and the distributors’ decision. In either case, viewers across the Arab world have to enact another level of translation by navigating between formal Arabic and their own dialect or between their own dialect and another dialect. Most probably, the European and American perspective on subtitling and dubbing has led scholars to undermine the importance of such practices in the Middle East.

In addition, the historiography of translation in Egypt often limits its scope to two specific cultural initiatives, that of the Nahḍa and that of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s era (1956–70). This model overlooks the technological developments that took place after Nasser. It also loses sight of the continuum between high and mass cultures, between print mass media and their audiovisual counterparts, between literature and the other, more popular genres, such as movies, songs, comics, animes, television series, and variety shows. In doing so, it marginalizes the influence of the translation of audiovisual material on contemporary formal Arabic and on the various Arabic dialects in Egypt and the Arab world. On the one hand, it overlooks translation to formal Arabic via subtitling as a hybrid form: one that occupies an interstitial space between print culture and visual media. On the other, it undermines the contemporary impact of dubbing into dialects, with its potential of reaching a wide and varied audience in Egypt and the Arab world, beyond the limits of the middle class and literate groups. That is because dubbing, which uses one of the colloquial varieties (Syrian or Egyptian) of the language, overcomes the initial need to be educated in formal Arabic in order to read and understand traditional subtitling.

The Death of Translation

It suffices to retrace the history of translation in Egypt to understand the unique connection between translation, diglossia, and the regional and global audiovisual mass media featured in the SNL sketch. Examining the history of translation in Egypt and its connection to France, Richard Jacquemond shows that translation in modern Egypt dates back to the nineteenth century, or the epoch of Nahḍa, when Rifa’a al-Ṭahṭāwī, upon his return from his scholarly journey in France, established a school of translation, Madrasat al-Alsun (1835–49), and later “the office of translation” (1863–68). Initially, the translation of literary and intellectual works in modern Egypt, adds Jacquemond, took many forms, including direct translation, tarjama, and other, less strict forms, closer to interpretations, known as iqtibās. This style of adaptation involves a process of Arabization, ta’rīb, or Egyptianization, tamsīr.[13] In both, ta’rīb and tamsīr, the themes, content, and even the genres are restructured to conform to Arab, or Egyptian, cultural contexts, with the interpreter using Arabic geographical, historical, literary, and social references that were more familiar to the readers. In this case, even the events and the plot do not necessarily match the original text. Eventually, linear translation came to replace free adaptation, especially by Arab intellectuals who sought to introduce European classics in their integral form to Arab readers.[14] For instance, Taha Husayn translated Racine’s Andromaque in 1935, Jean Anouilh’s Antigone in 1938, and Voltaire’s Zadig in 1947. Jacquemond focuses next on Nasser’s era as the golden age of translation in Egypt, 1952–67 in particular. This unique time, he adds, was followed by a crisis in publishing, where the percentage of foreign works published in Arabic dropped from 11.4 ­percent between 1958 and 1967, to 5.6 percent in 1973, to reach merely 2 percent during the 1980s.[15] Indeed, the United Nations Development Programme’s Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) of 2002 mentions that the entire Arab world translates about 330 books into Arabic annually.[16] The AHDR for the following year, 2003, considers the dearth of translation as one of the causes impeding knowledge production. Nevertheless, these limited numbers are not necessarily due to lack of interest in translation. As Eugene Rogan suggests, the reports reveal many factors leading to this situation. The translation of print media is also subject to the various obstacles plaguing the book-publishing industry, such as censorship, high taxes, and competition with other forms of mass media.[17]

The SNL sketch “Tammat al-targama” invites us to reevaluate this perspective centered on the failure, or even death, of translation. As mentioned above, the study of translation takes two historical points of reference, the Nahḍa and Nasser’s epoch. It focuses also on the domain of written media, especially on the translation of European classics.[18] What remains missing from that picture is the history of translation in the domain of Egyptian television and cinema, which also has direct ties to French-Egyptian cultural exchange. Whereas Ṭahṭāwī was the pioneer of translation of European print material, catering as such to elites and intellectuals, Anīs Ebeid was the man who popularized translation in Egypt. In 1934, just before Taha Husayn would have translated Andromaque into Arabic, Ebeid was pursuing a master’s degree in engineering in Paris. There, during his free time, he enrolled in a workshop on the techniques of printing subtitles on film. Once back in Egypt, Ebeid worked on translating English movies into French, and finally he asked Al-Ahrām, one of the leading newspapers in Egypt, to endorse a national public campaign asking for the Arabic subtitling of foreign films featured in Egyptian cinemas.[19] During the 1930s, the Arabic translation was projected next to the screen, which marginalized the Arabic-speaking viewers and limited moviegoers to minorities and polyglot elites.[20] This material and technical obstacle embodied, then, a national cause, since it reflected the inferior treatment of Arabic language and culture in a British colony. In 1939, Ebeid acquired the approval of the government to print the Arabic translation directly on the film.[21] By reclaiming and placing formal Arabic, once sidetracked, on the screen, not only did Ebeid allow an Arabic-speaking public to have access to foreign cinema, but he also carved out a new space for an innovative, modern, and secular domain of interaction between the public and formal Arabic. This new domain of interaction competed with the other means of diffusion of, and education in, the Arabic language, such as the religious and juridical institutions, as well as the colonial education systems divided among many languages and cultures.

According to Omar Ṭāhir, Anīs Ebeid acted as a “postman” between the Arab public and foreign cultures.[22] More importantly, I add that he was also the link between high and mass cultures in the Arab world. In 1946, while Taha Husayn was translating Zadig, Anīs Ebeid was translating and subtitling Romeo and Juliet in literary Arabic. Because of this new technology, Ṭāhir adds, the movie earned unprecedented profits.[23] Throughout the years, Ebeid’s company translated movies from various origins, including adaptations of classic masterpieces, which gave the Egyptian public access to a large variety of American and European cultural production beyond the traditional channels of diffusion of foreign culture — namely, print media and the school system. Gradually, Ebeid’s laboratory became the sole institution responsible for translating and subtitling audiovisual materials for the cinema and, later, in the 1960s, for Egyptian television.[24] With this monopoly, not only did the Ebeid laboratory have control over foreign audiovisual materials, but it also played a key role in the standardization and the diffusion of formal Arabic used for subtitling, from the Second World War until the 1990s.

In this context, then, translation in the Arab world did not disappear, or die, as its traditional historiography suggests; rather, it took on another life by emerging on television and cinema screens. The association with audiovisual media allowed translation to enjoy a larger domain of influence and to communicate more efficiently on an unprecedented scale, targeting a diverse public that varied in age, gender, social class, and origins. Perhaps in that sense, when Mrs. Tammat al-Targama says, “For one second there, I was standing and all I could think about was I was gonna die,” she is alluding to the multiple life of translation in Egypt. In other words, just like Mrs. Tammat, translation was not dead: it was televised! Eventually, this new virtual translation diffused from Egypt to the rest of the Arab world. It became an integral part of the Egyptian quotidian and a nodal point tying together foreign languages, formal Arabic, and the various Arabic dialects. One can even say that translation, by means of subtitling, initiated another level of Arabization. It gave the larger Arab public access to foreign cultures, widening and shifting, consequently, the paradigm of exchange between Arabic and foreign languages and cultures.

The Diglossic Framework of Arabic Studies

Another reason why the translation of media in the Arab world and its impact on culture remain overlooked stems from the fact that the history of language and culture is filtered through the traditional theory of diglossia, established by Charles A. Ferguson (1959). As mentioned earlier, Ferguson defines diglossia as the coexistence of two registers of the same language, a “high” and a “low.” Each register plays a specific function, and its usage depends on many factors, such as the context, the status, the education, and the cultural heritage of the speaker. Whereas the low, informal variety is more dynamic, the high equivalent is standardized and used in print media, religious sermons, speeches, and official documents.[25] Ferguson founds this framework on the developmental history of other languages, Latin in particular, which had a juridical (official) and a liturgical language, the latter of which was replaced by other vernacular varieties that later became national languages. Basing his concept on this history, he predicts the same developmental trajectory for Arabic diglossia, divided between formal language (high variety), which is associated with intellectual, political, and religious discourses, and the colloquial, popular language (low variety), which expresses everyday life situations. He posits that Arabic will follow a similar developmental path and will eventually be replaced by four vernacular varieties circa 2150: Egyptian, Maghrebi, the Levantine of Baghdad (Eastern), and the Sudanese. He even suggests the possibility of the rise to prominence of the Syrian dialect, in the case of an “unexpected political development.”[26] Yet, by subjecting Arabic diglossia to this linguistic framework, Ferguson creates a dialectical relationship between the high and low registers of the language. Notably, this strict dichotomy was later revised by Ferguson himself and others, with the objective of overcoming this binary relation.[27] For instance, Joshua A. Fishman expands the boundaries of diglossia to include the movement between two different languages, in contrast to Ferguson’s initial model of two varieties of the same language.[28] Others, like Chaim Blanc and Sa’id M. Badawi, suggest a stratified model of diglossia productive of the enmeshment of the low and high varieties. Badawi, for example, proposes a five-part classification of intermediate varieties, which are the products of social and historical contexts, the social position of the speakers, and their education level.[29]

However, Ferguson’s teleological theory is based primarily on linguistic examples that precede the material and technological evolution of mass media in the twentieth century. The current conditions of globalization, marked by the proliferation of mass media, invite us to question whether this linear development of colloquial languages is still possible in the same manner. To begin, in contrast to liturgical Latin, contemporary formal Arabic differs from its classical, or Qur’anic, register, and it is no longer entirely under the monopoly of state and religious authorities. Furthermore, if we consider the process of the emergence of the European vernaculars that issued from Latin and that transformed into national languages, we find that this process was the product of the gradual emergence of many factors over a long period of time, such as the rise of popular literature, the printing press, and finally newspapers. Does the contemporary context, marked by the imbrication of media and satellite channels, allow that same slow and gradual trajectory?

Nevertheless, despite these subsequent revisions, Ferguson’s teleological theory still informs Arabic linguistics and shapes the lens for Arab and Egyptian cultural studies. For example, in his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson maintains that before the nineteenth century, the imaginary of modern nations took root in the everyday expressed in a secular language, promoted and diffused by the networks of print media, which crisscrossed national and imperial territories.[30] The daily reading of newspapers acts as a secular ritual, substituting for religion to unite, synchronize, and shape the collective awareness of the readers who reside in that territory. This secular ritual and its quotidian language become the catalysts for consolidating the imaginary of a national identity.[31] Anderson depicts Arabic as a language representing one of the premodern global societies and as a language tightly connected to religious practices.[32] He underlines the modernization and secularization project of Arabic by Maronites and Copts as an example of the reshaping of Arabic into a national language. This example, however, focuses on only one side of the diglossic binary, the development of formal Arabic and print culture, and overlooks the role of aural culture and colloquial varieties in shaping modern Arabic national cultures.[33]

Departing from Benedict Anderson’s theory, Ziad Fahmy analyzes the context of modern Egypt in his book Ordinary Egyptians. Fahmy presents Egypt’s cultural development as an example that does not conform to Anderson’s framework. Instead, Fahmy’s insightful work directs our attention to the role of other forms of mass media in the diglossic context of Egypt, where the national imaginary was simultaneously created and negotiated by means of several linguistic registers, beyond formal Arabic. He analyzes the turn of the twentieth century as a key historical moment during which colloquial Egyptian and literary Arabic were on their way to centralization and standardization by the dynamics of an anticolonial urban movement expressed by print media as well as by audio and oral cultures. In the Egyptian case, the high rate of illiteracy limited the extent to which the individualized practice of reading newspapers could lead to the crystallization of a national imaginary. Fahmy notes that other practices and media have been substituted for the ritual of solitary, daily newspaper reading, such as gathering in cafés to listen to someone who reads the newspaper out loud and instantly translates from formal Arabic to the dialect. More importantly, the author highlights the role of songs and caricatures, in formal and colloquial Arabic, as catalysts for the development of an Egyptian national imaginary and popular uprising.[34] Nevertheless, Fahmy concludes his book by stressing the dialectical nature between formal Arabic and colloquial Egyptian:


In the last two decades, other advancements in communication technologies have allowed for almost instantaneous transnational consumption of mass media.… Understandably, the vast majority of the form and content of these new personal-media productions are in colloquial Egyptian. Still, it is too soon to measure the long-term implications of such media on either the issue of identity or the ongoing tension between fuṣḥā and ‘ammiyya. This transnational identity crisis, I submit, will resolve itself only if this cultural and linguistic duality ends, with either the absorption or the eventual dominance of one form over the other.[35]

Similarly, studies focused on Egyptian television and the dynamics between formal and colloquial Arabic continue to represent them in a polarized fashion and to neglect the liminal polyglossic spaces that escape Ferguson’s frameworks. For instance, Niloofar Haeri examines the Egyptian television schedule on the two main public channels during the 1990s. Haeri posits that Arabic, being directly related to Islam, and consequently the language of the sacred, remains under the control of the “custodians of language,” who resist any innovation and simplification of syntax and grammar.[36] Haeri studies “the domains of presence” of formal Arabic in the quotidian of an Egyptian family from the middle class and provides a detailed account of the various uses of both registers. According to her survey, the main exposure to formal Arabic comes from Arabic classes at school, recitation of the Qur’an and religious sermons in mosques and on television, legal documents, and modern secular print media, such as fashion magazines translated into Arabic.[37] Yet, to some extent, Haeri’s work implicitly reinforces the same binary connection between formal language and the Egyptian colloquial, where literary Arabic is limited to print media and legal and religious discourses.

Despite the thoroughness and innovation of Haeri’s research, it still overlooks subtitling and dubbing as a daily and ubiquitous “domain of presence” and as a sphere of interaction and learning for formal Arabic. In her research, Haeri selects to survey the television schedule during the month of Ramadan/February 1996.[38] During the holy month, the national television prioritizes Egyptian shows and movies. My own reexamination of the programs during that month shows that subtitled foreign movies and shows account for less than two hours of programming (two long television series of fifty minutes each and a short one of fifteen minutes). In addition, the religious programs in general contain a register that mixes classical and modern formal Arabic, while also using many conventional sentences and formulations. Similarly, the religious rituals and prayers consist of a number of repetitive expressions, which do not provide sufficient variation to master formal Arabic.

The subtitling of foreign movies and television series, however, reveals another use of formal Arabic, beyond religious and official contexts. These movies and series are longer than other offerings, and their rhythms and genres require the continuous attention of the audience. For example, my review of the television schedule during the week following Ramadan, that of March 3, 1996, shows that the duration of foreign content aired on television exceeded six hours per day, including six hours of subtitled foreign movies and shows (two American movies and two television series). This situation is not specific to one time but rather reflects a pattern that began with the debut of Egyptian television in the 1960s and has kept growing ever since.[39] In addition, the translation of foreign media content presents a unique situation that requires the adaptation of formal Arabic to the syntax and temporality of a cinematic script and dialogue.[40] Unlike religious programs, subtitling provides a rich and complex context, one that adapts formal Arabic to a panoply of situations and produces a rich lexicon exceeding those of the often-studied religious and legal domains of interaction. Examining a few samples from the daily programming of national Egyptian television, from 1962, 1981, and 1996, shows that Anīs Ebeid Laboratories were in charge of translating a wide variety of situations, depicting different genres and contexts, varying between realism, science fiction, fantasy, and suspense, among others.[41] They faced a continuous and immediate challenge, governed by the schedule and the market demands and topics dominating audiovisual media. The movies and programs in the sample vary from dramas, melodramas, and adventure to comedy. The foreign movies and programs from this sample explored diverse topics such as the Korean War, the Cold War, the wine industry, summer vacations, diving, bank holdups, stories of love, friendships, competition, and revenge.[42] Regular weekly programs also showed foreign content in French, English, and German.

Silently on television and cinema screens, the subtitles by Anīs Ebeid created a daily space for public exposure to, education in, and standardization of a secular formal Arabic in Egypt and the Arab world. In contrast to the Institute for Arabic Language (Majma’ al-lugha al-‘arabiyya), whose responsibility was to coin formal Arabic equivalents to foreign words and new technical terms, such as “television” and “computer,” Ebeid’s translations included full dialogues and were projected daily on cinema and television screens. For instance, the SNL sketch mocks one of the challenges that faced Ebeid, which is translating English curse words into formal Arabic. To solve this dilemma, Ebeid resorted to an anodyne classical expression, “tabban laka” (woe unto you), to substitute for most of the English expressions.[43] Such questions and challenges pertaining to everyday life would have never become a concern to the Institute for Arabic Language.

El-Arḍ Betetkalem ‘Arabī: The Double Entendre of Pan-Arabism

Whereas the SNL sketch seems to express a nostalgia for a bygone time of a national Arabic diglossia, a close reading of the scene reveals another implicit message, which questions the Egyptocentric culture of Egypt and its view of pan-Arabism altogether. Frequently, the study of pan-Arabism concentrates on the history of the establishment of the famous radio channel Sawt al-‘Arab, which diffused its programs in formal Arabic to promote a nationalist and pan-Arab vision that placed Egypt at the center of that movement.[44] In this context, pan-Arabism is ­perceived as a tool of propaganda imposed from above, and associated with formal Arabic, without taking into consideration the polyglossic aspect of the Arab world, which plays an important role in other areas of cultural exchange.

The popular expression el-arḍ betetkallem ‘arabī, “the Earth speaks Arabic” (dating to the era of Nasser), frequently cited by specialists of the Arab world, reveals the ambiguous and protean situation of Nasser’s pan-Arabism by celebrating one common language uniting the Arab world while expressing itself in the Cairene colloquial instead of formal Arabic.[45] The operetta Al-watan al-akbar (The great fatherland) is another example from the same epoch and embodies the same ambiguity. The operetta was composed in 1960 to celebrate pan-Arabism and anticolonial resistance. Despite the participation of two non-Egyptian singers, Ṣabāḥ (Lebanese) and Warda al-Jazā’iriyya (Franco-Algerian), the operetta is performed in colloquial Egyptian.[46] This famous operetta, as well as many other shows from that era, reveals that Nasser’s pan-Arab message could not be reduced to Sawt al-‘Arab’s standardized version of formal Arabic. Nasser’s pan-Arab movement communicated in a diglossic framework: namely, formal and colloquial Egyptian Arabic. It was a movement which sought to establish Egyptian diglossia as the official language(s) and the lingua franca of pan-Arab identity, simultaneously.[47]

More importantly, the SNL sketch does not resolve its dilemma in favor of a national, fixed ­diglossia. The prodigal (Egyptian diglossic) son ends up by recognizing his position in this new polyglossic situation. He realizes that being home involves a state of permanent translation between the different registers of Arabic and foreign languages. Interestingly, this condition resembles that of the turn of the twentieth century when Arabic culture was taking a new shape in a polyglossic context, through the exchange between, and contribution of, Egyptian and Levantine (Syrian and Lebanese) intellectuals. As Albert Hourani indicates, formal Egyptian Arabic is in fact the product of Egyptian and Syro-Lebanese collaborations in connection to translation. This began not only with Ṭahṭāwī’s school in Egypt but also with the translation efforts of Butrus al-Bustani in Beirut and Cairo, as well as other Syrian and Lebanese émigrés, who founded major Arabic magazines and newspapers in Egypt.[48]

This polyglossic and multicultural context has also given birth to the Egyptian cinema. As Armbrust suggests, the Egyptian cinema participated in the standardization of the Egyptian dialect at the beginning of the twentieth century, just as the print media participated in standardizing formal Arabic.[49] Although this cinema used colloquial Egyptian, its first producers, musicians, directors, and stars belonged to diverse communities. What appeared as a national homogeneous cinema in the Egyptian vernacular was in fact the result of the work of many agents of diverse Arab and European origins.[50]

In fact, despite being an American franchise, SNL is not without precedent in Egyptian modern history. This variety program composed of comic tableaux interrupted by songs and dance evokes the vaudevilles of the comedian Nagīb al-Rīḥānī from the beginning of the twentieth century. The actors in Rīḥānī’s show belonged to diverse backgrounds and communicated in several dialects and accents to parody the various cultures and origins of the residents of Egypt.[51] The structure of Rīḥānī’s show and its themes invite us to rethink Rīḥānī’s vaudevilles as an older version of Saturday Night Live bi-l-‘arabī that reemerged on the Egyptian television screen after the social and political upheavals of the Arab Spring.

If during the last century the exchange between colloquial Egyptian and other dialects and Arab cultures occupied the background of the production studios, Saturday Night Live bi-l-‘arabī reflects a similar cultural context that begins to reemerge, but with a slight difference: the cultural exchange is no longer behind the scenes but takes the foreground. This polyglossic exchange also took place in the music industry, during the turn of the twentieth century, especially with the large contribution of Levantine singers to Egyptian music. Currently many singers from the Levant, the Gulf, and the Maghreb mix different dialects or use a simplified register of their colloquial speech that can be understood across the Arab world.[52]


The SNL sketch “Tammat al-targama” reveals how translation has assumed greater significance since the Second World War by occupying a unique liminal space between Arab and foreign cultures, between print media and audiovisual media, between high and popular cultures, and between formal and colloquial languages. The sketch exposes how subtitling (as well as the recent trend of dubbing) of movies and television series in formal Arabic represents an example of how foreign cultural material played and still plays a key role in the modernization, standardization, and synchronization of the Arabic language across the Arab world. The sketch suggests that subtitling could be another important and long-lasting catalyst for the symbiosis between colloquial and formal Arabic.

In addition, the sketch shows that the analysis of mass media in the Arab world requires a process that pays attention to the dynamic and interplay of polyglossia and polysemy taking place on several dimensions simultaneously, on the local, regional, and global levels. The translation of foreign audiovisual materials is the agent of a double symbiosis. Because of its direct connection with American cinema, translation by subtitling and dubbing profits from a large-scale local and regional diffusion made possible by the popularity and hegemony of American culture. This, ironically, has participated in the spreading of this form of translation from Egypt across the Arab world, where subtitles may have helped in reducing the variation in modern formal Arabic. The example of the Syrian contribution is particularly interesting. Charles Ferguson, in 1959, predicted the development and popularization of the Syrian dialect only if supported by a national political development. However, the SNL sketch reveals that Japanese and Turkish cultural productions became a vehicle for the dissemination of a Syrian national diglossia (Japanese animes dubbed in formal Arabic in Syria and Turkish soap operas dubbed in the Syrian dialect). Despite the tragic situation in Syria, Syrian culture remains present in the region, since the media of other regional and global powers serve as carriers for Syrian Arabic.

However, SNL is not the only contemporary program that adopts a polyglossic, pluralistic, pan-Arab lens grafted onto an American or European cultural model. Reality shows — such as Arab Idol, Big Brother (adapted under the title Al-ra’ īs [The president]), Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (which became Man sayarbah al-milyun?) — host candidates from different parts of the Arab world who communicate in several dialects simultaneously.

Just like print media during the nineteenth century, the translation of foreign programs and movies has had its own parallel history of translation and adaptation in connection with the Arab world. Foreign programs and movies participated, even during Nasser’s era, and are still participating in the creation of a modern Arab identity that is transnational and ­polyglossic in nature. If formal Arabic continues to evolve and reach a larger public, it does not owe this development solely to the increasing and widespread influence of Qur’anic or classical Arabic but also to the triangular connection between translation, Arabic diglossia, and foreign media. The new Arab collective imagination in its virtual space is neither xenophobic nor conservative, as it is most often stereotypically portrayed, but rather responds to regional and global changes. More importantly, the SNL sketch reveals that formal Arabic, constructed and founded during the Nahḍa period through print and aural media, has never been a fixed language. It was already in a process of evolution and transformation through contemporary mass media, which functioned as an alternative channel for translation outside print media and continued to operate in a transnational framework of exchange despite various political and social circumstances. end of article


I would like to thank Richard Jacquemond, Frédéric Lagrange, and Patrick Tonks for their feedback and comments on this article.

  1. An earlier, and longer, version of this article was published as “La traduction n’est pas morte, elle est télévisée! Traduction des médias audiovisuels, culture égyptienne et panarabisme pluriglossique dans les médias contemporains” [Translation is not dead, it is televised! Translation of audiovisual media, Egyptian culture, and polyglossic pan-Arabism in contemporary media], in Culture pop en Égypte entre mainstream commercial et contestations [Pop culture in Egypt between commercial mainstream and contestations], ed. Richard Jacquemond and Frédéric Lagrange (Paris: Riveneuve, 2020), 159–97. I thank Richard Jacquemond, Frédéric Lagrange, and Maison d’édition Riveneuve for permission to publish here a translated and revised version of that article. ↩

  2. I chose to describe this phenomenon as “polyglossia,” in contrast to the frequently used term “heteroglossia,” to underscore the various linguistic registers existing in Arab media, which include several regional, and national, colloquial and formal Arabic, in addition to other languages. ↩

  3. Walter Armbrust, “The Golden Age before the Golden Age,” in Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond, ed. Walter Armbrust (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 303. ↩

  4. See, for instance, the Twitter account anees3ebeid, which uses the cultural repertoire of Anīs Ebeid Laboratories to critique contemporary Egyptian society:, accessed December 6, 2018. ↩

  5. “Tammat al-targama,” Saturday Night Live bi-l-‘arabī, season 1, episode 3, February 2016,, accessed July 6, 2018.  ↩

  6. I use “formal Arabic” instead of “Modern Standard Arabic” to highlight the various registers of Arabic, which exist under the umbrella of al-lugha l-‘arabiyya l-fuṣḥā, a concept that covers many registers at once: the modern literary Arabic and classical, neoclassical, Qur’anic, and pre-Islamic Arabic, in contrast to colloquial spoken Arabic. ↩

  7. The name is pronounced with an Egyptian accent. ↩

  8. Japanese animes and cartoons dubbed in Arabic, like Captain Majid and Grandizer, which appeared in the 1990s, could have had a significant impact on the learning of formal Arabic beyond the traditional schooling system. For example, I once observed a group of children around six years old who in their play imitated their favorite characters from Japanese cartoons and spoke in formal Arabic during their game. Although this was in the context of children’s play, it reveals the potential of these shows for the diffusion and consolidation of formal Arabic. ↩

  9. For a detailed translation and linguistic analysis of the polyglossic dialogue of the SNL sketch, see Kamal, “La traduction n’est pas morte, elle est télévisée!” ↩

  10. For a detailed description of contemporary Arab media, see Samia Mehrez, Egypt’s Culture Wars (Cairo: American University Press, 2008), 174–78; Mehrez cites Jon Alterman on 175. ↩

  11. Consider, for example, ‘Arabī tafarnag (An Arab-cum-European), the satirical text by ‘Abdallah al-Nadīm (1845–96) in which Zi‘īṭ, an Egyptian villager, returns from France and communicates in a strange mix of French and Arabic. At a certain moment, he is unable to find the equivalent Arabic word for oignon, or “onion.” In the story, Zi‘īṭ represents someone who comes to adopt French elitist cultural perspectives and to despise Egyptian culture. Zi‘īṭ is mocked and compared to an onion, a person whose head is well buried in the ground and whose common sense is upside down. See ‘Abdallah al-Nadīm, “An Arab-cum-European,” trans. Ben Koerber, in The Arab Renaissance: A Bilingual Anthology of the Nahḍa, ed. Tarek el-Ariss (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2018), 104–13. ↩

  12. Throughout the article, I will use the alternative spelling Anīs Ebeid. ↩

  13. Richard Jacquemond, “Translation and Cultural Hegemony: The Case of French-Arabic Translation,” in Rethinking Translation: Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology, ed. Lawrence Venuti (London: Routledge, 1992), 141. ↩

  14. Ibid. According to Jacquemond, this strict form of translation, in contrast to adaptation, promoted a competing European system of values, which, as he describes, produced a “cultural schizophrenia.” ↩

  15. Ibid., 143. ↩

  16. UN Development Programme citing a study by S. Galal, Translation in the Arab Homeland: Reality and Challenge (Cairo: Higher Council for Culture, 1999). See Arab Human Development Report 2002: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations (New York: UNDP, 2002), 78,, accessed October 1, 2019. ↩

  17. Arab Human Development Report 2003: Building a Knowledge Society (New York: UNDP, 2003), 79; Eugene Rogan, “Arab Books and Human Development (Arab Human Development Report 2003),” Index on Censorship 33, no. 2 (2004): 154–57. ↩

  18. See, e.g., Shaden M. Tageldin, Disarming Word: Empire and the Seduction of Translation in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). ↩

  19. For a history of Al-Ahrām newspaper, see Niloofar Haeri, Sacred Language, Ordinary People (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 93. ↩

  20. ‘Umar Ṭāhir, Ṣanāyi‘iyyet Maṣr: Mushāhadāt min ḥayāt baḍ bunāt Miṣr fī l-‘aṣr al- ḥadīth [Egypt’s artisans: Observations from the lives of some of the builders of modern Egypt] (Cairo: Al-Karma, 2017), 81–84. ↩

  21. Ibid., 84. Just like the prodigal son in the sketch, ‘Umar Ṭāhir belongs to the generation who grew up watching national television. ↩

  22. Ibid., 83. ↩

  23. Ibid., 83–84. ↩

  24. Ibid., 84. ↩

  25. Charles A. Ferguson, “Diglossia,” Word 15, no. 2 (1959): 325–40. ↩

  26. Ibid., 340. ↩

  27. Reem Bassiouney, Arabic Sociolinguistics: Topics in Diglossia, Gender, Identity, and Politics (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009), 13. ↩

  28. Ibid., 27. ↩

  29. M. Badawī, Mustawayāt al-‘arabiyya al-mu‘āṣira fī Miṣr [The registers of contemporary Arabic in Egypt] (Cairo: Dār al-Ma‘ārif, 1973), cited in Djemal-Eddine Khouloughli, “Sur quelques approches de la réalité sociolinguistique arabe” [On some approaches to Arab sociolinguistic reality], Egypte/monde arabe 27–28 (1996): 288–99. See Bassiouney, Arabic Sociolinguistics, 13–15. See also Kristen Brustad, “Diglossia as Ideology,” in The Politics of Written Language in the Arab World, ed. Jacob Høigilt and Gunvor Mejdell (London: Brill, 2007), 66. ↩

  30. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991), 13–14. ↩

  31. Ibid., 35–36. ↩

  32. Ibid., 14. ↩

  33. Ibid., 75. ↩

  34. Ziad Fahmy, Ordinary Egyptians (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 1–19. Italics in the original. ↩

  35. Ibid., 174. ↩

  36. Haeri, Sacred Language, Ordinary People, 20. ↩

  37. Ibid., 32. ↩

  38. Ibid., 33. Haeri indicates, by mistake, that the date of the program she examines is Saturday, March 2, 1996. In fact, the program she mentions was aired on February 3, 1996. See Al-Ahrām, February 3, 1996, 2. Al-Ahrām consulted on microfilm, Service Copy ZYO20, Columbia University Library. ↩

  39. See, for instance, the television schedule in Al-Ahrām, April 1, 1962, 2; Al-Ahrām, September 2, 1981, 2; Al-Ahrām, September 3, 1981, 2. ↩

  40. For the challenges of translating foreign media, see Ali Abdel Mohsen, “In Other Words: The Language of Cinema,” Egypt Independent, March 10, 2011,, accessed June 12, 2018. ↩

  41. For the role of the Institute for Arabic Language, see Haeri, Sacred Language, Ordinary People, 66. ↩

  42. Al-Ahrām, March 3, 1996, 21. ↩

  43. See also Ṭāhir, Ṣanāyi‘iyyet Maṣr, 85. ↩

  44. Laura James, “Whose Voice? Nasser, the Arabs, and ‘Sawt al-Arab’ Radio,” TBS 16 (2016),, accessed May 10, 2018; Haeri, Sacred Language, Ordinary People, 93. ↩

  45. Haeri, Sacred Language, Ordinary People, 128. ↩

  46. Al-watan al-akbar,, accessed June 12, 2018. ↩

  47. In the current political context characterized by the ascension of Arab countries on the Gulf, this operetta acquired another polysemic aspect. In 2012, El-bernāmeg (The program), the satirical program of Bassem Youssef (Bāsim Yūsuf), parodied the operetta Waṭani al-akbar (My great fatherland) under the title Qaṭari al-akbar (My great Qaṭar) to critique the new political position of Qaṭar in the Arab world and the decline of Egyptian political influence. See, accessed June 12, 2018. ↩

  48. On the Nahḍa, see Albert Hourani, “The Culture of Imperialism and Reform,” in History of the Arab Peoples (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 302–10. ↩

  49. Armbrust, “The Golden Age before the Golden Age,” 302. ↩

  50. See Viola Shafik, Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class, and Nation (Cairo: American University in Cairo, 2007). See also Viola Shafik, Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity (Cairo: American University in Cairo, 1998). ↩

  51. Nagīb al-Rīḥānī, Mudhakkirāt Nagīb al-Rīḥānī [The memoirs of Nagīb al-Rīḥānī] (Cairo: Kalimāt ‘arabiyya, 2011); L. Abu-Saif, “Najīb al-Rīḥānī: From Buffoonery to Social Comedy,” Journal of Arabic Literature 4 (1973): 1–17; Armbrust, “The Golden Age before the Golden Age,” 300–315. See also the description by Armbrust (306–13) of Nagīb al-Rīḥānī’s movie Ghazl al-banāt (The flirtation of girls; 1949), which draws on these vaudevilles. ↩

  52. See, for instance, Asmahān’s song “Ya habibi ta ‘ala ilha’nī” (Come rescue me, my love; 1936). Consider also, for example, contemporary Arab pop singers from Syria, Lebanon, the Gulf, and the Maghreb, such as Nancy ‘Ajram, Aṣāla Naṣrī, Ahlām, and Sa‘d al-Mugˇarrad (= Lamjarred), who sing in a leveled colloquial register that can be understood by a diverse Arab audience, from the Mashreq to the Maghreb. On the polyglossic aspect of contemporary Arab songs and their key role in leveling linguistic registers between the Mashreq and the Maghreb, see Frédéric Lagrange, “La langue arabe dans la chanson: Existe-t-il une ‘langue des chansons’ arabes?” [The Arabic language in song: Is there an Arabic language of song?], in L’arabe langue du monde [The Arabic language of the world], ed. Nada Yafi (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2016), 61–70. ↩