Winter 2007 | Gallery

Mistranslating the Untranslatable: Four Recent Works by Hamdi Attia



Hamdi Attia’s latest work can be read as a detailed study of the social and political implications inherent in the act of translation. In four of his latest works, Attia inscribes his presence – as artist, as commentator– on already existing texts and discourses. This presence takes the form of an extended marginalia inhabiting the periphery of authoritative cultural translations of the world and the self. In doing so, Attia deconstructs their claims, and de-naturalizes their allegedly natural rendering of the world.

Attia covers a large spectrum of the different valences of translation. In Four Scenes: In Translation (2004), he deals with translating culture. In Two Performances (2006), he confronts seemingly opposing authoritative cultural and political translations of the world by juxtaposing American journalist Thomas Friedman, and Egyptian Muslim preacher Amr Khaled. In Representation (a work in progress), Attia deals with acts of translating the self to the world. Ultimately, in Aegnapea (2006), Attia’s latest work, he questions the translation of the world as political geography, as an object to the all-powerful gaze of the cartographer. By making maps of an imaginary parallel world, drawing on a tradition pioneered by such figures as Borges (“On Exactitude of Science”), Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), and Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities), Attia highlights the arbitrary nature of maps, borders, and the modern nation-state itself.

Four Scenes elaborates on the communicative gap between the spoken and subtitles in American films shown on Egyptian television. The subtitles are in modern standard Arabic which is the written form of the language usually used in Arabic cinema and television to represent pre-modern Muslim historical periods. Egyptian versions of these film, then, present American life in its cinematic translations as both distant and idealistic. This religious connotation is playfully maintained in Four Scenes. The first scene opens with what is described in the subtitles as “Apollo 8 astronauts read from Genesis, 1968.” The biblical story of creation is recounted to still images from American popular culture: eroticized men and women in what seems like the suburban U.S.; a massive cross filling a horizon; cars parked in front of a church-like building. The second scene constitutes a labyrinth of meaning: a couple performing an intimate romantic dance, a voiceover of an officer reprimanding an army private in rough American colloquial, and subtitles in more refined English. The viewer, unable to follow the three visual and textual narratives simultaneously, is left bewildered, unable to deduce any specific, or stable meaning. The remaining two scenes are similarly composed, accentuating the labyrinthine nature of language, of the world, and of the act of representation. Ironically a voice in the last scene talks about “a revolution in language.” The very concept of language as a communicative tool is proved futile by Four Scenes.

Two performances is another work that inhabits a border area where America and Egypt meet. Here, Attia shows the similarities between two influential cultural translators: Thomas Friedman, “the prophet of neo-liberalism” (1) and Amr Khaled, “the Arab echo of neo-liberal ideas after Islamicizing them.” (2) Friedman translates the world for numerous ordinary American readers while Khaled does the same for many upper middle class men and women in Egypt. By showing extracts from their speeches, highlighting their performativity, Attia demonstrates how similar their simplistic logic is. Using a screen resembling that of a news bulletin, Two Performances hints at Friedman and Khaled’s authority and influence. But by splitting the screen into two windows; one showing either Khaled or Friedman, the other showing the audience and/or commercials (e.g. “Who wants to be a millionaire?”), Attia questions this authority and makes them look like television entertainers. They are almost clownish figures, with Friedman repeating the same joke ad nauseam, and Khaled employing naïve logic to come through to his audience. The comic effect is reinforced in the case of Friedman with the colloquial Egyptian subtitles, which is uncommon for Arab viewers. Both Friedman and Khaled become performers of a cliché discourse that translates the world into a binary of us versus them: America versus the rest of the world especially China and India for Friedman; Islam versus the West for Khaled.

In Representation, seven women living in NYC are given a chance to speak about themselves in front of a camera. They are supposedly doing a “women-seeking-men” personals video ad. The maker of the film himself is ostensibly absent. The seven women have full freedom to say whatever they want, and to use the camera in whatever manner they see fit. The work, inspired by internet personals ads, involves two levels of translations. On one level, the women translate themselves to the world, doing their best to act in accordance with different American clichés about ideal selfhood that valorize self-knowledge, clarity of aim, confidence, etc. The most interesting moments in the work, however, are those in which the women-translators inadvertently undo these very ideas. Following an especially emphatic declaration about the self, or the most clearly stated objectives, an awkward moment of silence follows. They are suddenly at a loss of what to say, confused, and vulnerable, at the verge of tears in one case, or asking the self, the camera, the director lingering somewhere in a corner, the audience, vague and undefined as it is: “I’m not selling myself so well, am I?”

On another level, the artist translates this self-translation, and edits it into a work of art. Attia, as always, plays with different traditions here, most importantly that of the artist and the female model. He conceals his presence, but his total absence only manages to stress this presence, to highlight the decisions he made: the choice of the “models,” the selection from the materials shot by them, methods of editing, literally and metaphorically, and the juxtaposition of different shots. The relationship between the two translators – director and model – is worth noting here. It is one of collusion. Both play a game in which they pretend not to acknowledge its rules. On the one hand, the women are seemingly unaware that their self-translations will be edited by another translator. On the other hand, the director, ostensibly having no control over his own game, conceals the gaze of the male artist. He lets his “models” gaze at themselves, giving them a chance to expose their most inner hopes, and fears. But in doing so, they are, ultimately, vulnerable to an audience’s gaze, most probably male and voyeuristic.

In Aegnapea, Attia questions the power of the map-maker, of map-making itself, and of a global political system of inequality and domination. He assumes the role of the cartographer only to mistranslate his/her translations of the world, to expose the arbitrariness of the border, culturally and politically. Attia draws several maps of an imaginary world called Aegnapea, with a searchable database of its main cities, populations and histories. The outcome is a realization that translating the globe into the states and regions that exist now is neither natural nor unalterable. This realization de-naturalizes such deeply entrenched practices like the patrolling or walling of borders. It shows the oppressive nature of guarding identity, thought of as clearly defined and pure. But Aegnapea is neither a utopia, nor an idealized future. It is a metaphor of our world, identity-oriented, divided and controlled by an unequal balance of global power.

In “The Role of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin writes: “The question of whether a work is translatable has a dual meaning. Either: Will an adequate translator ever be found among the totality of its readers? Or, more pertinently: Does its nature lend itself to translation.”(3) Benjamin talks about texts here. But the situation gets more complicated when considering other possible meanings of the term. In “Traveling Theory Reconsidered,” (4) Edward Said talks about how theory “travels.” Said argues that ideas change in their movements over time and space. One can easily replace “traveling” with the term “translation.” Notions, concepts, theories, etc. get translated in their constant movement from one geography to another, and from one time to another. In this process of translation, they acquire different shapes through their interactions with their new contexts. Attia seems to have a similar understanding in mind when he gives the following definition: “By translation, I refer to the changes that take place in a system of visions when it moves from one culture to another, or from one level to another within the same culture.” (5)

Thus viewed, translation becomes a cultural act in which the world, the self and the other are imagined; or translated. But to translate the world, or society, is always to mistranslate since such an act involves a betrayal of a dubious origin. An act of translation assumes a stable, fixed entity. This is why it risks altering the “real,” and simplifying its complex nature. For this so-called “real” is at once overwhelmingly present, lying all around us, in front of our eyes; and permanently lost because it cannot be captured, represented, or translated in its entirety. It does not lend itself to translation, to borrow Benjamin’s phrase again. It is untranslatable.

Faced with, and freed by, this untranslatability of life, of the world, of the “real”, artists and writers are left with already existing translations (such as the materials Attia deals with in these pieces) to work on, play with, distort, and question. This is especially so in a neo-colonial world where cultural translations (the interpretation of the other as backward or of entire regions as lawless) are used – as they have always been used – to legitimatize empire-building, oppression, and dehumanization. In such a climate, writers and artists have to be acutely aware of the process through which the world is rendered in art, literature, as well as in various political and religious discourses. The fact that any representation is above all a misrepresentation must be taken into consideration.

Apart from the social and political implications inevitably inherent in the artistic questioning of cultural, social and political acts of translation, such questioning also involves a certain degree of an almost-sensual pleasure, jouissance as Derrida might put it. This pleasure emanates from translating a text from an intermediary language – say a Borges’ poem, or a Cortazar story from their English translations. It is the jouissance that accompanies the creation of a new text, simultaneously removed from and closely attached to a distant, and often unverifiable, point of origin.

In Four Scenes and Two Performances, for example, Hamdi Attia uses already existing materials, mainly footage from the internet and commercials, re-assembles them, puts them in unexpected contexts, and comments on them by editing, arranging them in a particular order, and inserting intentionally mistranslated subtitles. He plays around with appropriated narratives, plays with the world itself, and sometimes, with those who are considered some of its most authoritative translators, e.g. Amr Khalid, and Thomas Friedman. Attia seems to be deriving genuine fun from this playfulness: in one scene from Two Performances, Friedman looks to his right, in the direction of another window in Attia’s screen, and says: “Can you stop it?” The window instantly disappears. In Aegnapea, there is the sheer Borgesian jouissance of creating a parallel world.

Attia, who grew up in Egypt and was one of the leading young artists in the Egyptian art scene of the early 1990s, belongs to a generation of Egyptian writers and artists known as “the generation of the `90s”. These young artists and writers were disillusioned with their predecessors’ ways of perceiving the world, the nation, and the role and functionality of art and literature. Older generations, steeped in the politics of the artist/writer-activist of the optimistic anti-colonial and post-independence eras, believed in their ability to change the world through their artistic creation. The more modest among them saw their work as means of giving voice to marginalized segments of the population, of translating their existence. Their cultural capital, so to speak, depended on their role as mediators, as translators, on their ability to determine the real nature of the “people”, and define a true and pure identity. Hence, their obsession with and idealization of folk motifs in art; and medieval Arabo-Islamic and folk narrative techniques in fiction.

The generation of the `90s held no such views. Though not totally detached from the political – after all everything is political – they often questioned the ability of art and literature to change the world. They celebrated the fragment, the low-key, the peripheral, the personal, the physical, the erotic, and the mundane. They also adopted narrative and artistic playfulness as a tool to rebel against the social and political seriousness of older generations. Their aversion to politicized art and literature can best be captured in the words of poet and translator Huda Hussien who wrote in 1995: “Alone, I will search this edifice for a stone, one stone, untouched by the hands of civilization, unaltered by the symbols of public causes.” (6) Judged according to the purist and arguably idealistic aesthetics of his Egyptian generation, some of Attia’s latest work, especially Two Performances, can be regarded as too politicized.

Attia’s relocation to the United States seems to have prompted a closer examination of the social and political significance of cultural translations. Like many recent immigrants to the U.S., Attia was certainly faced with the all-too-familiar issues confronting such marginalized people. These include the pressing need to translate the self – a constantly changing, hard-to-pin-down construct – to a different, and often hostile, context; and the urge to contest existing translations that tend to stereotype everything foreign. For those coming from places like the Middle East and South Asia, the challenge is even more urgent in the post-9/11 political climate.

But the question remains: What is lost in the act of translating a translation, in commenting on a comment, in inserting one’s vision as marginalia to an already existing text? Nothing. The “real” is already lost, or, rather, is always lost, a priori. It is an imagination which reaches us through multiple processes of translation. Translating a translation, i.e. mistranslating a mistranslation, manages to simultaneously comment on the translation as well as what is being translated, without outdated and erroneous claims of capturing it. It is exactly here that Hamdi Attia’s work succeeds.



1. Limoud, Youssef. “Between Thomas Friedman and Amr Khaled … An Interview with artist Hamdi Attia.” [in Arabic] http://www.rezgar.com/debat/show.art.asp?aid=77188 All translations from Arabic are mine.

2. Ibid

3. Benjamin, Walter. Essays and Reflections, p. 70

4. “Traveling Theory Reconsidered” pp. 436-452 in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays

5. Limoud, Yussef. Ibid.

6. Hussien, Huda. Liyakun [Let It Be So], p. 31





Waiel Ashry Abdelwahed is a fiction writer and translator finishing a Ph.D. in Arabic literature at New York University. His first collection of short stories published in Cairo in 2005, Sa’am New York [New York Spleen], won second place for the 2006 Sawaris Award for short fiction. His second book of short stories, Basmit `Ain [A Smiling Eye] is forthcoming in the summer of 2007. He lives between Cairo and New York.

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