Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt

Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt

by Shaden M. Tageldin

View All Available Formats & Editions

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


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.

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
FlashPoints Series
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Disarming Words

Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt

By Shaden M. Tageldin


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95004-7


The Irresistible Lure of Recognition

When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt on 2 July 1798, he came bearing not a cross but a crescent. I speak metonymically, of course, but not far from the mark. For in his first proclamation to the people of Egypt, written in French and translated into Arabic just before the invasion, Napoleon does not announce the Christianization—or even the Europeanization—of Egyptian subjects as his aim but instead assures Egyptians that he is a Muslim like them, as are his armies of soldiers and scholars. By a brilliant stroke of (mis)translation from Napoleon's French, which read, "Nous sommes amis des vrais musulmans" ("We are friends of the true Muslims"), the chief translator of the Egyptian expedition, Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis, interpreted the general's words to their fullest strategic intent. Possibly he did so in consultation with Napoleon, while his French text was still in transit to Arabic. Overtures of friendship, he sensed from long diplomatic experience in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab-Islamic East, although an alluring departure from the expected language of domination, would not be alluring enough. Better to declare the conqueror a coreligionist of the conquered. The result follows less Napoleon's meaning than his "manner of meaning," which elsewhere in the original is identificatory. "The French also are sincere Muslims" ("inna al-faransawiyyata hum aydan muslimina khalisina [sic]"), the Arabic version ultimately intones to its Egyptian audience. Thus Napoleon arrives under the banner of equivalence, not difference.

Indeed, Napoleon leaves Toulon for Alexandria on a ship named not La France—or Ville de Toulon, on the pattern of Ville de Marseille, the frigate from which Amable Thiébault Matterer would both launch and record the French invasion of Algiers, thirty-two years later—but L'Orient, as if the West were not coming to the East but the East were returning to itself (though "christened" anew in French, translated into Frenchness even before its colonization). Written and translated on that very ship, Napoleon's first proclamation to the people of Egypt is a fragment of the vessel that bears it across the geographic, historical, and ideological gulf between Europe and Africa: a vessel that is itself a "broken" original, itself a translation that masks difference (la France) with equivalence (l'Orient). Yet the proclamation outdoes even the masquerade of L'Orient: once in Egypt, it circulates entirely in Arabic, screening the French original from view, its only trace of French the mysterious seal of the République Française emblazoned above the Arabic text (see figure 1). Napoleon's vessel cracking a Muslim smile, the translated proclamation speaks Arabic and sidles up to the Egyptian.

What happens when a colonial translation lacks an "original"? What happens when such a translation mimics its "target"—linguistic and military—and not its "source"? Reading Napoleon's strategy of colonial proclamation, we can hazard an answer: by translating language and self to mimic those whom they wished to colonize, the French could better assert their superiority and dominion; that is, by pretending equivalence, they could impose difference. The proclamation's formula could be stated thus: "I am so like you that you should be like me." The you and the I, however, are not equivalent; that is precisely why the "should" of resemblance—the compulsion of the colonized subject to equate itself with the colonizer, to redefine its subjectivity, so to speak, in the colonizer's I—rears its head. Translating French power into Arabic and the Arab-Islamic and thereby appearing to recognize power in Arabic and the Arab-Islamic, Napoleon's proclamation ruptures the dual before the duel. In so doing, it brandishes a seductive weapon indeed.

In this document—a translational pre-text that would condition Egyptian response to European imperialism, first French and later British, for the next 150 years—Napoleon evinces an understanding of the dialectics of selfhood and Otherness less in tune with Hegel than with the anti-Hegelian Frantz Fanon. In his 1807 Phänomenologie des Geistes (Phenomenology of Spirit), Hegel stages the relationship of two self-consciousnesses as a dialectic of mutual recognition in which the action of each self is both against and also the action of the other, each seeking the death of the other (superseding the other to see itself, and so verify the existence of the other) and staking his own life (superseding the self to see the other, and so verify the existence of the self). Here that dialectic breaks down. The colonizer's stratagem of mimicry does not necessarily plunge recognition itself in crisis, but surely it neutralizes the possibility of any mutuality of recognition. This the Martinican Fanon, foremost among twentieth-century theorists of decolonization, would argue, showing how Hegel's dialectic short-circuits under conditions of unequal power, in particular those of slavery and empire. In the final chapter of his Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), he argues that Antilleans of African descent never fought the French in the kind of struggle to the death on which Hegel predicates the mutual recognition of two self-consciousnesses. They were, claims Fanon, simply freed. He proceeds to analyze the unilateral interruption by "le Maître Blanc" ("the White Master," in upper case) of what should be a process of "mutual recognition." This interruption, he suggests, absorbs the selfhood of "le nègre esclave" ("the slave-negro," in lower case) within the Master and compels his struggle for self-consciousness to end with the adoption of the Master's consciousness as his own.

There is no open battle between the White and the Black.

One day the White Master recognized the slave-negro without struggle.

But the former slave wants to make himself recognized.

There is, at the base of the Hegelian dialectic, an absolute reciprocity that we must underscore.

It is insofar as I transcend my immediate being-there that I realize the being of the Other as a "natural" reality, indeed more than "natural." If I close the circuit, if I render the two-way movement unrealizable, I maintain the Other inside the self. At the extreme, I even abduct from him that being-for-self.

Napoleon's proclamation traffics, then, not in the "absolute reciprocity" on which the Hegelian dialectic is predicated but in the illusion thereof. It realizes the will of an imperial self (France) to colonize an Other (Egypt) by appealing to that Other's desire to imagine itself still sovereign enough to relate to its would-be Master on an axis of "absolute reciprocity" and then by insinuating irreciprocity through that lure of recognition. Thus it extends to the Arabic-speaking and predominantly Muslim population of Egypt precisely the sort of recognition avant la lutte that Fanon pronounces so lethal to the formation of the autonomous Antillean subject, pretending that the Arab-Islamic is the "theme"—the sovereign subject—of French colonial action there ("the French also are sincere Muslims"). Once Egyptianness and Arab-Islamicity appear not extrinsic but intrinsic to Frenchness, the Egyptian Muslim will misrecognize France not as the Other who would rule as its colonial sovereign but as a validation, indeed an incarnation, of its precolonial sovereign self—and thereby permit French sovereignty, paradoxically, to replace its own. Recognized before he can fight for recognition ("impose himself on another man, in order to make himself recognized"), the Egyptian subject—like Fanon's black Antillean—finds his path of self-actuation deviated from its proper object and toward the master: becoming, as Fanon puts it, "the theme of his action," the French master Other remains inside him unsuperseded, eclipsing his selfhood. To "be for self," in this conception, becomes "to be the Other," since self has been translated into Other in a "copulation" premised on false equivalence.

By reading Fanon with Homi Bhabha's essay "Of Mimicry and Man," we can better understand why a mimicry of the sort that Napoleon's proclamation performs might be so seductive to the Egyptian it targets, given that the compulsion it engenders—the compulsion of the colonized subject to translate itself into a false "self-consciousness" across a copula, or verb of being, that the recognizing (and colonizing) Other really controls—betrays the fundamental inequality of colonial power, unmasks the mask. Interested primarily in the mimicry of colonizers by their colonized subjects, Bhabha never quite describes as "mimicry" the self-translation by colonizers into strategic semblances of those they wish to colonize—although he comes close to doing so in another essay, "Signs Taken for Wonders." Still, Bhabha's understanding of mimicry as the metonymic re-presentation of an original in a form "almost the same but not quite" suggests the concept's intimacy with the dynamics of colonial translation. If mimicry occurs, as Bhabha argues, "at the site of interdiction, ... uttered inter dicta," or "between the lines and as such both against the rules and within them," then colonial translation is mimicry par excellence. What discourse indeed is uttered between the lines of the copula—between and against the lines of the grammatical equal sign, the verb to be, that links I and you in Napoleon's "I am you"—but the colonizing translation, which at once resembles the native (the "original") it translates and retains a wisp of difference that menaces that original? Such a translation is both inter dicta, within the "rules" (the lines and the laws) that stipulate commensurability, and interdictory, against those rules, prohibiting commensurability. On the one hand, the copula of colonial translation, which is also the copula of colonial mimicry, transgresses the divide of colonizer and colonized to promote the illusion that power might be exchangeable; on the other, it insists on a prohibition of that exchange. In other words, the equal sign imposes itself, daringly, upon the slash of the divide between colonizer/colonized—but the slash, the divide, is still there, trumping equivalence. Each attempt to pretend equivalence, then, also asserts an irrevocable difference; each resemblance, to invoke Bhabha's citation of Jacques Lacan, "differs from or defends presence by displaying it in part, metonymically."

Uttering interdiction inter dicta—voicing the radical power difference that prohibits the real "conversion" of the colonizer into the colonized between the lines of a French-to-Arabic translation that appears to perform precisely that conversion—Bonaparte's proclamation deploys, throughout, a dialectic of similarity and superiority to strategic ends. When it speaks inter dicta, it suggests that French invader and Egyptian subject are equals, are one; when it lets the mask slip to assert French military might, it checks equivalence with interdiction. The trajectory of resemblance—"I am you"—flatters and lures; that of menace, traveling in the opposite direction, interposes the "but" of unequal power—"but I am also your ruler." That "but" checks the colonized, momentarily, from accepting the proposition that the colonizer is he or she. Yet the interdiction that it implies generates desire, invites the colonized to rebalance the dialectic of recognition—to rebalance power—by saying, "Wait—no—I want to be you, so that I can be myself again." Fanon's revision of Hegel captures this turn to the master to return the self:

In Hegel there is reciprocity; here the master mocks the consciousness of the slave. He does not demand recognition from the latter, but his labor.

Similarly, the slave here is in no way assimilable to the one who, losing himself in the object, finds in labor the source of his liberation.

The Negro wants to be like the master.

Thus he is less independent than the Hegelian slave.

In Hegel, the slave turns away from the master and turns toward the object.

Here the slave turns toward the master and abandons the object.

Shattering the illusion of reciprocity on which Hegel premises his dialectic of self-consciousnesses, Fanon suggests that it is the very absence of reciprocity in the master-slave relation—the fact that the master can dole out "recognition" to the slave without really struggling with the slave's self-consciousness, without subjecting his own self-consciousness to real death—that makes the slave identify with the master rather than resist him. Giving in to the colonizer's invitation to short-circuit the power play of "I am you ... but I am also your ruler," which carries the tacit command, "Therefore, you should be me"—giving in to the colonizer's invitation to forget the presence of its power, to "copulate" the self across an equal sign that the colonizer already has slashed—the colonized is seduced into perpetuating his or her subjection. Indeed, the very short-circuit of power into which the colonized is seduced by the resemblance/menace of mimicry will prevent his or her reborn I from ruling, from being itself—its precolonial self—again. Identification with the you of the colonizer already has made repossession of "self" the possession of only a simulacrum of the self: an ongoing subjection.


Clearly Napoleon relied on his proclamation to seduce Egypt into surrender. A survey of his tactical communications during the first month of the occupation alone suggests that the text was a cornerstone of his colonial strategy. On 15 messidor an VI (3 July 1798), one day after landing at Alexandria, Napoleon sent a few Arabic proclamations to General Louis Desaix, informing him that he was "waiting for five to six hundred copies from on board L'Orient, which [he] would send shortly." With these proclamations Bonaparte called on Desaix to subdue villages from Alexandria to Cairo, masking the full extent of his firepower as he entered. Military and textual strategies chime. "The art here," writes Napoleon, "consists in keeping all my extraordinary means hidden, ... and thereby surprising them [the Mamalik, and the Egyptians] all the more." In an order of 19 messidor an VI (7 July 1798), Napoleon called for the installation of French, Arabic, and Greek presses in the home of the Venetian consul at Alexandria. What he wanted to disseminate most was his Arabic proclamation. "The moment that the Arabic press is set up, we will print 4,000 Arabic proclamations," he writes.

To understand how the colonizer's self-translation into those it wishes to subjugate seduces the latter not just into "surrender" before battle but also eventually into identification with their colonizer, let us return now to Napoleon's proclamation and examine the ways in which it deploys similarity to assert superiority. Consider, first, the visual effect of the text: its entirely Arabic "presence," save for the seal of the République Française. Napoleon's text anticipates the principal fear of a largely Muslim populace as it encounters an unfamiliar conqueror from the all-too-familiar lands of the Crusaders: fear that the French seek to eradicate its religion. Thus the Arabic radically revises the original French preamble to the proclamation, which declares that it comes from "Bonaparte, member of the Institut National, commander-in-chief"—betraying both Napoleon's force and his foreignness (what is the "Institut National" to the Egyptian of 1798?)—and places the first mention of Bonaparte and the French Republic in whose name he speaks second to the words we find directly under the seal: "Bismillahi al-rahmani al-rahim; la ilha illa Allah la walada lahu wa la sharika fi mulkihi" ("In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. There is no god but God; no offspring [son] has He, and no partner in His sovereignty"). Lest the average Egyptian think the French bent on subordinating Islam to their authority, Napoleon undercuts the menace of the seal by placing the entire text of his proclamation under the sign of the traditional Islamic invocation of God, which opens each chapter (sura) of the Qur'n: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate." True to Bhabha's conception of mimicry, the proclamation's "Muslim" text eclipses its French seal. All the while, however, that seal remains a part of the whole, the partial presence that menaces the mask of resemblance: after all, the entire proclamation—even its basmala, its invocation of God—is under the sign of the seal. Eclipsing the part, then, that would betray the colonial designs of the French Republic, Napoleon marshals the Muslim basmala to defuse Egyptian suspicions that the French seek sovereignty over Egypt—absolute sovereignty, he slyly assures them, is God's alone. More important, he styles himself Muslim: he not only invokes the basmala before launching his text, as a Muslim writer traditionally would, but also affirms that God has no son, thereby repudiating Christian doctrine. Edward Said remarks Napoleon's use of both religious and linguistic identification to win Egypt: "Napoleon tried everywhere to prove that he was fighting for Islam; everything he said was translated into Koranic Arabic." As vaguely aware as most Egyptians of the period were of the secularist orientation of post-Revolutionary France, which would have licensed Napoleon to reject Christian doctrine without necessarily professing Islam, Napoleon's intimation that he had "embraced" Islam could have been profoundly disarming (see figure 2).


Excerpted from Disarming Words by Shaden M. Tageldin. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Shaden M. Tageldin is Associate Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >