Thursday, February 17, 2011


All eyes have been on Egypt for the past days. For me there's an element of déjà vu in what's been happening. I was a naive young student in Cairo in 1950, when revolt against an earlier regime was brewing and was starting to boil over into street riots. In those days the demons were the regime of King Farouk and his perceived puppet-masters the British, who were still in occupation of the Suez Canal zone. But the underlying reasons for the unrest were the familiar ones: poverty, unemployment, corruption. The Muslim Brotherhood was already a movement to be reckoned with. Then too, the head of state was ousted (actually in 1952), and then as now the army took over. But all that's another story. Let's get back to translation.

Meedan (Arabic for town square, or meeting place in this context) is a well-organized website that describes itself as "an Arabic-English forum using Machine Translation with expert corrections." However, it also uses direct human translation and crowdsourcing. Quite a hybrid. The members of its panel of regular translators don't give much information about themselves; nevertheless, it's clear that behind the pseudonyms some of them at least are Advanced Native or even Expert Translators. There's Deena, for instance, an "Egyptian Arabic native-speaking trilingual translator"; Keyworth77, "American, native English speaker, and freelance Arabic-English translator"; Wesam, "an Egyptian translator/editor, who loves to translate!!"; Yaserhk, "a TEFL PhD candidate"; Amalnah, "Palestinian translator and writer"; Snoopy, who "graduated in Dec '09 with an MA in Applied Translation Studies"; and Hiba, who declares, "I dream of a wonderful world where people talk together across the language, culture and geography barriers to promote mutual understanding. I aspire to contribute to the realisation of this dream by employing my translation and communication skills on Meedan."

It's crowdsourcing that enables Meedan to turn out very fast translations of current material from unconventional sources. Here's an example.
"Meedan team member Ahmed Ragab took the time to write this piece below and then read it aloud over a phone line. We recorded it and sent off a tweet asking for volunteer translators. Dina elHusseiny emailed me a few seconds later and within three hours had generated a wonderful translation of Ahmed's piece. Here is that piece:
As soon as we broke the thick security barriers at the entrances and exits of Meedan Tahrir [literally, 'Liberation Square'] we dispersed around the square. Recognizing what we had done, we stretched our arms in the air and breathed in the smell of freedom. We started examining each other's faces, exchanging smiles of confidence and looks of satisfaction at what we have accomplished. We decided to continue. In a spontaneous manner, chants started flooding from minds that have recalled recent images of the events in Tunisia, in unison we called: "The people want to overthrow this government...
And so it goes on for another couple of pages. It intrigued me who Dina elHusseiny might be, since she's not listed among the panel of translators. I think I've found her. Unless I'm much mistaken, she's an Egyptian corporate lawyer, with an address in New York according to Linkedin. She was educated at the School of Law of Cairo University and holds an LL.M. degree from the University of California at Los Angeles, which would explain her high level of bilingualism and hence her translating ability.

Cairo has a famous school of translators, Kulliyat Al-Alsun (Faculty of Languages). As an institution for training Professional Expert Translators, it's strictly speaking beyond the scope of this blog; but it has a connection with the revolution of 1952. It was originally founded in 1835 by a pioneer technical translator and educator, Sheikh Rifa'a al-Tahtawi. He'd been trained as a translator in Paris, an indirect beneficiary of Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt. Later he ran foul of the regime of the time, he was banished to Sudan and his school remained closed for most of the ensuing century. Then came 1952, and army officer Gamal Abdel Nasser rose to power. In 1957, Nasser's minister of education re-established Kulliyat Al-Alsun as a dependency of the new Ain Shams University. When I visited it in 1980, it was housed rather shabbily in an old school building in the Zaitoun district; nevertheless, it had a large student body and taught many languages. Since then it's been moved to the main Ain Shams campus.

Meedan. htttp://

Dina elHusseiny.,

Faculty of Al-Alsun.

Rifa'a el-Tahtawi. Wikipedia.'a_el-Tahtawi.

This photo really needs no explanation. It comes from a post on Urblog.

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