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Decommercialising Shakespeare: Mutran's Translation of Othello

Sameh F. Hanna


In a series of satirical narrative articles published in al-Sufur literary

weekly in 1920, playwright and theatre critic Muhammad Taymur

(1892–1921)1 describes a play he watched, not in reality, but in a

dream.2 In a humourous style that oscillates between the language

of fiction and the language of drama, Taymur elaborates in these

articles, entitled ‘Trial of the Playwrights’ (Muhakamat Mu’alifi al-

Riwayat al-Tamthiliyya), on the practices of both playwrights and

theatre translators at the time. The defendants in this imagined,

dream-like trial include such prominent figures as Jurj Abyad, Farah

Antun, Ibrahim Ramzi and Lutfi Jum‘a, among others.3 Signifi cantly,

members of the jury were the foreign writers on whose work theatre

makers in Egypt drew for their performances. These included

Shakespeare, Corneille, Racine and Goethe. The prosecutor was the

French playwright Edmund Rostand, whose play Cyrano de Bergerac

was very popular among Egyptian theatregoers at the time. Two of

the defendants, Farah Antun and Khalil Mutran, were known to have

practised theatre translation and were thus tried on that basis. Farah

Antun was found guilty of ‘translation malpractice’. According to the

prosecutor in this imaginary trial, Antun ‘picked the old vaudeville

plays and rendered them in a strange, astounding and distorted

translation that is half colloquial, half classical, and mixed it with

some Syrian jokes … to make the audience laugh’ (77).4 For this

commercially oriented translation practice, the jury ordered Antun

to suspend his translation activity for ten years to allow the Egyptian

audience enough time to forget his uninspiring translations. But as

for Khalil Mutran (1872–1949), the renowned poet and Shakespeare

translator, the jury only blamed him for not producing enough of his

translations of Shakespeare’s drama (84).

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