Dialecting theater in the Arab World 

Translating international dramatic texts into dialect has been given specific attention in the Arab world. Although it has been acclaimed for its role in democratizing theater, it still has a long path to go considering its constraints and challenges.

Throughout history,  theatrical translation has played an important role in nurturing Arab theater.  To translate the international dramatic heritage is to build a third space where West and East intersect, and to construct bridges between cultures where different values, principles and philosophies meet. However, the practice of theatrical translation is complex. Unlike other types of translation, it is not a simple translation of  a written text from one language to another. “All kinds of factors other than the linguistic ones are involved in the case of theatre texts”, states Dr. Hemangi Bhagwat. Every element that surrounds the text such as decor, gestures need to be taken into consideration while translating. Therefore, the actual difficulty of theatrical translation lies in adapting the source text to the cultural context and its imperatives.

 Democratization: Dream or reality?

Talking about the democratization of the international theater in the Arab world requires asking the following question: do Arabs go to theater?

In spite of the absence of statistics to answer this question,  playwrights have extensively given their insights into this issue. Egyptian playwright Sherif Saleh believes that Arab theatre faces increased challenges in reaching the public. In an interview with The Arab Weekly, Saleh explained the reluctance of Arabs to go to theater by the dominance of social media content over traditional plays. “Live performances have become so rare, almost secret as no one is really paying attention to theatre performances any more since social media has dominated the scene, redefined the traditional performance media, and integrated them into different tracks” Saleh says. 

Even though theatre has played a prominent role in raising awareness among the Arab people and reintroducing universal concepts such as freedom, justice and revolution, “ it is no longer alone in the field of influence and communication and it is going through the same survival experiences as other traditional media, such as film, television, and the radio.” In a time when people do not go and watch plays, theater struggles to exist and remain in the cultural scene. Therefore, it is true that theatrical translators aim at establishing a new kind of relationship between the public and theater through the use of dialects. However, this process of democratization seems to be limited and impeded.

©Moez Awled Ahmed, a Tunisian theatrical translator

Another issue that obstructs the process of democratizing theater is the underestimation of theatrical translation as an art in the Arab world. The Tunisian theatrical translator Moez Awled Ahmed argues that “in the Arab world, theatrical translation is not yet recognized as a practice independent of literary translation”. Therefore, it remains minimal as there is an inclination to translate novels at the expense of plays. He also confirms that the publishing industry of translated works has been so limited because there is a “ non-recognition by Tunisian publishers of plays, whether translated or written directly in Tunisian Arabic”. Therefore, in order for this process of democratization to be successful, people in charge must find a way to encourage Arabs to go to theater, adapt theater to the new alternatives proposed by social media, and to accelerate the publishing industry.

Beckett speaks Tunisian and Shakespeare speaks Lebanese 

Translating international plays into the different Arabic dialects is considered a crucial step in the democratizing path.  Pro-dialects put forth the argument of accessibility. They argue that translating into a dialect allows to render international theater  accessible to a larger number of the public, in the language they understand, coexist with and practice in all aspects of their lives. The translator Moez Awled Ahmed has staunchly supported the idea of dialectal theater throughout his career. He has materialized his stand by translating Samuel  Beckett’s Happy Days into Tunisian dialect. A first in the Tunisian theater history. He describes his work as an attempt to democratize Beckett’s theater in Tunisia revealing that “ [he] was obsessed with obtaining a text that is accessible to everyone and understandable by the Tunisian public”.

An extract from Oh Les beaux jours by Samuel Beckett.
An extract from Oh les beaux jours! translated from French to Arabic by Mohamed Ait Hanna. ©Moez Awled Ahmed
An extract from Oh les beaux jours! translated from French to the Tunisian dialect by Moez Awled Ahmed. ©Moez Awled Ahmed

The willingness to make international theatrical repertoire speak to the Arab world has been mirrored in the increasing use of dialects in translations. In 2016, the Lebanese stage director Sahar Assaf managed to translate Shakespear’s King Lear into Lebanese dialect. In an interview with Reuters, she asserts that “ [they] wanted to celebrate Shakespeare. And because some people are afraid of his work, considering it sophisticated, [they] wanted the play to be accessible to everyone, and that’s why [they] brought it closer to people, insisting on fidelity to the original text.  » Indeed, Assaf made Skakespeare’s Early Modern English and Shakespearean tragedy understandable by Arab people. This is considered a huge step forward towards making theater for everyone and to salvage Arab theatre from its highly formal register prompted by the use of Standard Arabic that has led to the near-death of the theatrical movement and to its elitism and isolation.

A scene from the lebanese version of King Lear. ©Awsat

Literary Arabic vs dialectal Arabic: an ongoing debate 

Translating into dialect at the expense of standard Arabic has been one of the major controversies in the Arab cultural realm. The debate of using literary Arabic or  dialects is not a new one. It dates back to the 1950s, especially after some juries in literary competitions in the Arab world said they would have accepted the use of dialects in novels. Today, the same old feud reappears on the surface but only to surround translation. Purists accuse supporters of dialects of wanting to destroy Classical Arabic and of lack of respect for its rich literary heritage. Pro-dialects, as a backlash, have accused purists of closed-mindedness and of unwillingness  to adapt to the new methods that aim at making Arabs connect with theater.

The Tunisian translator Moez Awled Ahmed explains that this debate does exist  in Tunisia. According to him, the defenders of literary Arabic consider the Arabic language “the most important element of identity that binds Arab-Muslim people together, and that giving more freedom to dialects risks dividing the nation.” However, pro-dialects “defend the Tunisian identity and want to create a theater in Tunisian for Tunisians”. 

The cover page of Othello translated into the Egyptian dialect by Mustafa Safwan. ©Neelwafurat

The debate marks its presence also in the other countries of the Arab world. Egyptian novelist Nasser Arak, an opponent of using dialects, believes that “using the dialect simply weakens the quality of the literary text beyond repair.” According to him, dialects have no specific rules and therefore are quite poor to be able to provide the specific qualities of a good literary text. However, with the new generation of translators and writers in Arabic, the balance of power has shifted in favour of the modernist camp. Mustafa Safwan, an Egyptian translator who has translated Shakespeare’s Othello to the Egyptian dialect explains that “the purpose behind translating into a dialect is clear. It is to enable Mohamed Ali Abd Mawla and millions like him to read the greatest books and authors in the language they have grown, lived and died with.”

« Theater is the most powerful means that exists, which can awaken and shake the conscience of people. » Moez Awled Ahmed

Author: Narimane Dhaoui

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