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A Marriage of Misunderstanding

What some have described as a “media war” between Egypt and the international press has, in recent years, become more pronounced as political upheaval and conflicting interests have been compounded by several high profile instances of misinterpretation and misrepresentation of events. One such example occurred when Egypt’s then foreign minister Nabil Fahmy was hosted by NPR’s All Things Considered in Washington D.C. on April 29, 2014. When Fahmy was asked about the relationship between the United States and Egypt he answered: “It’s like a marriage.” The use of this simile sparked a media storm of startling proportions. The following is a detailed analysis of the events around this incident, and the challenges associated with media translation across cultures.


Making the Bed: Media translation in Egypt

Fluency in a foreign language is measured by the ability to achieve certain tasks while observing the grammatical rules that govern the use of words both semantically and syntactically. Quite often a non-native speaker of a language may confuse the meaning of a word with the way it should be used. Figures of speech such as metaphors and similes are particularly difficult to explain to a novice speaker, who may confuse the dictionary meaning of an expression with its idiomatic use.

It is the job of a translator to make a clear distinction between the denotative and connotative meaning of words. This is the realm of pragmatics, which is concerned with how language is used over and above the rules of grammar. Experienced translators attempt to ensure that their translations are not awkward, outlandish or inappropriate. For this, they must understand the context in which the original text is produced to offer translations that are linguistically correct, culturally acceptable and pragmatically appropriate (Gamal 2010).

Egyptian foreign correspondents are rare, even in major cities or at international events. It is therefore not surprising to find translators replacing foreign correspondents as the most common, cost-effective and time-efficient means of sourcing news. However, for this strategy to be effective, a team of professional translators fluent in the source and target languages and with journalistic flair is required.

The media in Egypt does not appear to have a shared philosophy towards translating foreign news into Arabic. Foreign terms are translated differently by different publications and there is an overriding trend towards favouring foreign words over Arabic. For example, the media would opt for the Spanish word Casablanca rather than the Arabic equivalent of the Moroccan city.  This phenomenon of lexical borrowing takes place at the expense of existing Arabic terms. (Examples vary from simple words such as promotion to the colour pink.)

Over the past twenty years, the standard of writing in most state newspapers in Egypt has seen a palpable decline. The vernacularisation of media discourse is another phenomenon that has negatively contributed to the low standard of media translation and writing style.  This is at odds with repeated government initiatives to “strengthen” and even to “preserve” the Arabic language. It is not uncommon to see leading newspapers adopting foreign words transliterated into Arabic. More to the point, piecemeal borrowing of idiomatic structures and expressions is also common.

Literal translation is rife in Egyptian media, reflecting a profound lack of training in media translation by translators and journalists alike. The trend of “foreignizing” media discourse is reinforced by a weak command of Modern Standard Arabic by many young journalists. In independent newspapers, and indeed in the innumerable online blogs, the style of written Arabic reflects poor acquisition of the language. In this climate, incidents like the one in question are inevitable.

The Incident

Nabil Fahmy was the Egyptian Foreign Minister between July 2013 and June 2014, thus covering a very turbulent year that began shortly after Egypt’s second popular uprising. The country’s image abroad was tarnished in the wake of President Mohamed Morsi’s ousting, and a great deal of diplomatic work was required. Essentially, Cairo needed to clearly communicate to the international community what was happening. In Egypt, and elsewhere in the region, much of the discourse was focused on whether the ousting of the Islamist president amounted to a coup or not, and whether or not the action by millions who revolted against the elected government amounted to a second revolution (Amin 2013).

The complexities of the situation needed explaining, particularly to Western Europe and the United States. However, Egypt had a lot of housekeeping to do, including facing organized terrorism in Northern Sinai and the Western Desert. With these distractions, the interim government neglected the importance of conducting PR work. Faced with Washington’s decision to freeze military aid, postpone the delivery of ten Apache helicopters (in addition to the return of an Egyptian owned Apache that was being serviced in the US) and the cancellation of joint manoeuvres, Cairo felt the pressure and decided to widen her options. One of the first steps was to diversify sources of military weaponry by contacting Russia, India and Brazil.  This search for new partners was viewed by Washington as a snub.

With the exception of a visit by the chief of intelligence in April 2014, a week before Foreign Minister Fahmy visited the US, nearly ten months passed without a senior Egyptian government official visiting Washington. In that week, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the release of the ten Apache helicopters, as it was in the “interests of the US” that Egypt contains terrorism in the Sinai. Despite its pragmatism, Washington was not convinced that Cairo was making concrete steps towards democracy.

In the US, Fahmy was scheduled to meet with senior business leaders, politicians, and advisors to the US president as well as Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of State Kerry. He was also to hold meetings with members of congress, leaders at think tanks and media personalities before ending his visit in New York to meet with UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon.

On April 29th, while in D.C., he made his appearance on All Things Considered. After saying the relationship between Egypt and the US was “like a marriage”, he went on to explain that in any serious long-term relationship hiccups are bound to happen. The attitude of both parties, he asserted, must be perseverance and hard work in order to make the relationship last. Fahmy confirmed his understanding of the simile he employed by using another figure of speech; a metaphor this time, saying it is not just a one night stand.

Fahmy’s precise words were:

It's like a marriage. It's not a fling; it's not a one-night affair. This is something, if you're going to invest in it, it's going to cost you a lot of money, it's going to take time, you're going to have to make a lot of decisions. ... I think it's well-founded, but any marriage has its hiccups.

In English, there is no cultural baggage associated with the simile or metaphor used. References to marriage, or casual relationships do not cause cultural embarrassment nor are they perceived, for the most part, as pragmatically inappropriate.

Egyptian media the morning after

The translation of Fahmy’s words, which spoke of Egypt’s marriage to America and Egypt’s desire for a long-term relationship and not a fling, immediately caused uproar. Talk shows in Cairo lashed out at the foreign minister, accusing him of selling Egypt cheap, degrading the nation and using diplomatically inappropriate language. Evening programs particularly Cairo Today with Amr Adib, and CBC’s Moumkin program with Khairi Ramadan were both vocal, if not emotional, in their rejection of the foreign minister’s comments. Other talk shows, such as Egypt Today hosted by Tawfik Okasha, mounted personal attacks on the foreign minister accusing him of being a “Fifth Column” working for the United States. On the same night, social media exploded with venomous comments, biting sarcasm and lascivious jokes at Egypt’s “legal position” as a wife, whether approaching Moscow was considered flirting and whether it was halal. The satirical examination of the minister’s comments went on for days.

While private and social media caused much of the uproar, state media made an effort to neutralize the incident. The following day Al Ahram ran the headline: “US-Egyptian ties are good despite differences.” In the article, Al-Ahram opted for a pragmatic translation of the foreign minister’s statement without delving into the semantics of his comments.

The following day, however, independent and opposition newspapers came out with admonishing headlines stressing the “conjugal” nature of the relationship between Egypt “the Mother of the world” and the powerful United States “Uncle Sam”. Below are some examples:

Cairo between London and Washington: from catholic to legal marriage 
(Al Masry al Youm 01/05/2014)

Fahmy: Egypt’s relationship with the US is marriage and not a fling of one night
(CNN Arabic 01/05/2014)

The mess of Egypt’s marriage to America. Politicians call on Fahmy to apologize
(Al Shorouk, shorouknews.com 01/05/ 2014)

Fahmy: Egypt’s relationship with America “marriage” and not “a fling of one night”
Alaraby: Unusual statements contrary to accepted eastern expressions.

(El Watan, Elwatannews.com 01/05/2014)

Against this barrage of criticism Al-Ahram came out with what translation theorists call a functional translation, or in other words, a translation that does not pay close attention to the words used but instead to the intended meaning (Newmark, 1988).  The headline read:

Fahmy in Washington: Egyptian judiciary not used against the opposition.
Relations with the US are long term and not temporary.

(Al-Ahram 1 May 2014)

Al-Ahram’s headline is a carefully studied ‘interpretation’ of what was said by the minister. It came a day after a statement by the spokesman of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), published on CNN Arabic and other websites, in which he denied, inaccurately, that Fahmy had said that Egypt’s relationship with the US is like a marriage. The spokesman asserted that, “The statement attributed to the minister in relation to the Egyptian-American relationship is inaccurate and its translation from English into Arabic is not correct.” (Yousef 2014) The purpose of the spokesman’s statement was clearly to defuse a crisis. The statement can no longer be found on the ministry’s website or Facebook account.

Blaming the translator for a communication breakdown, incorrect information or a perceived offense is not uncommon in diplomatic and media circles. However, there must be a case for the blame or a plausible error. An article published in Youm7 on May 2 examines the spokesman’s statement and criticizes it for attempting to lay the blame on translators. The author Rushdi, who throughout his article uses the word “legal” to describe Fahmy’s marriage simile, a device that heightens the effect of the metaphorical non-“fling”, lashes out at the minister saying:

Nabil Fahmy stood tall and announced that Egypt’s marriage to the United States is a legal marriage and not a fling. He said it in sound English without any ambiguity and without recourse to translators who graduated from Egyptian public schools.

The article even quotes the ‘offensive’ words, and prints them in English: “It’s like a marriage. It’s not a fling”.

Explaining the Outcry

There are historical, political, religious and linguistic reasons for why the incident was amplified to such a degree. Historically, it echoed a simile used by Amin Othman, the finance minister in 1944, who in his support of the British government said that Egypt would support Britain, not because there was a treaty between the two countries (the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936), but because “the relationship between the two countries is like a Catholic marriage in which there is no divorce” The incident was lucidly dramatized in Mohammed Khan’s film Days of Sadat (2001), which shows how Othman’s statement was interpreted as uncouth, offensive and unacceptable. Othman, widely regarded as the engineer of Anglo-Egyptian relations, was later assassinated for his perceived un-Egyptian statements and behaviour. Fahmy’s comments, though less descriptive, employed a comparable simile.

Politically, Egypt’s independent will is viewed domestically as sacrosanct and has been a much-debated issue since the days of Saad Zaghlool’s negotiations with the occupying British (1919-1927), and more recently during Nasser’s presidency (1954-1970). The notion of being a satellite state, an image amplified during Hosni Mubarak’s presidency, is a conception not easily reconciled with Egyptian national pride. For Egyptians, Egypt is Omm-eddunya (Mother of the world), an idea that places tremendous psychological pressure seeing ‘her’ unwell let alone without free will.

Religiously, the idea of discussing sexual behaviour publically remains one of the least tolerated topics despite several high profile scandals. The concept of having an affair, a one-night stand or a passing fling is not an activity that is acceptable let alone discussed in public. Matrimony in the Muslim faith is a complicated social institution with a sophisticated legal system that governs each and every stage of the marriage, from the birth of children, to inheritance and divorce, should it happen.

Linguistically, Fahmy’s comments revolve around a simile of marriage and a metaphor of sexual conduct. In order to appreciate the reaction by Egyptian media it is also important to appreciate how Egyptians understood the compound effect of the statement translated to them. Judging by the wide negative reaction to the diplomat’s comments, neither the reference to the conjugal relationship nor the reference to sexual behaviour was culturally acceptable to Egyptians.

Despite the overriding hostility towards Fahmy’s (mis)translated statement, a small number of attempts were made to defuse the incident by recourse to translation analysis or sociocultural considerations.

Abu Dhabi-based Sky News editor Ahmad Mostafa said, “Without attempting to justify the minister’s statement, it would appear that the minister intended the English meaning of the expression.” He went on to say, “The intention is that Egypt does not view its relations with the US as temporary or opportunistic but rather [as] ‘strategic’ and serious.” He points out that “semantics differ in our language and culture and some of our expressions would be funny if translated into other languages.” (Mostafa 2013) A month later, former Egyptian foreign minister Mohamed Alaraby dismissed the media uproar saying Fahmy’s words were “recognized international vocabulary,” but conceded that, “Egyptians rejected them for cultural reasons.” (Alaraby 2014) 

The final word

When the foreign minister returned to Cairo, the Egyptian press published his reply. Faced with the unexpected wide coverage and hostility from the media Fahmy offered the following explanation:

Egyptian-American relations are long and not transient and include some tough decisions. At the end of the sentence, I said the similar model to the relationship is marriage, which sees ups and downs. People are free to judge whether the statement was appropriate or not…I encourage people to express their opinion. However, before announcing such opinions they should check the statement so their opinions add to the debate and help keep it within context.

It is perhaps this last word, “context”, that points to the missing ingredient in the Egyptian media’s handling of the Washington statement.

Arabic media, particularly in the age of citizen journalism, will continue to rely on translation. Currently, it lacks the fundamental theoretical framework to guide its growth away from the individualistic, sensationalized and unilateral interpretation of facts. Akbar sums up the essence of media translation in his book:

It is a profession based on acquired experience, yet it can also be an art as creative as any other art. Translating form one language into another is not a matter of giving parallel words and expressions even in a scientific or documentary translation. It is, and largely in literary texts, a rendering of the spirit of the original language and the author (Akbar 2012:vii)

In the age of open skies, digital technology and online accessibility, media translation has to be a professional skill equal to industry technology (Darwich 2010) and not a passing interest of journalists or talk show presenters, no matter how popular they are.

The Fahmy incident casts light on the media’s translation strategy, or lack thereof. This is significant in a culture that relies on translation not only for gaining knowledge of what is happening in the world but also in presenting itself abroad. The translation of similes and metaphors, crucial to this example, also casts serious doubts on the linguistic command of media translators who often unwittingly reveal their limited ability to differentiate between the denotative and connotative meanings of an expression. In this case, caution should have been exercised by members of the Egyptian media who, by and large, appear to have not fully appreciated the idiomatic meaning of the rhetorical devices employed. To help rectify this prevalent issue, the state, academia and the media need to work together to ensure that there is coherent national strategy for media translation. This incident is not the first, and without fundamental changes to how media translation is addressed in Egypt, it most certainly won’t be the last.


Abdel-Moneim, M. (2014) “Fahmy: I didn’t say Egypt’s relations with the US is marriage and not a fling.”  http://www.el-balad.com/932229

Akbar, M. (2012) Media translation. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. London.

Alaraby, M. (2014) Fahmy’s statements on Egypt-US marriage are words recognized internationally. In Al-Dostor newspaper 30/05/2014 www.dostor.org.eg

Amin, G. (2013) Thawra amm inqilab? (Revolution or a coup?). In Shorouk newspaper 13/07/2013.

Amin, G. (2014) Al-thawra Al-masriya wal-alam (Egyptian revoltion and the world). Article published in Al-Aharam on 05/05/2014. www.ahram.org.eg

Arab Media Forum (2013) “Arab Media: Transitional phase…Transitional Media” Conference. 14-15 May 2013 , Dubai.  http://www.arabmediaforum.com/ar/2013/programme.aspx

Bayoumi, G. (2014) Alitaha biNabil Fahmy (Nabil Fahmy sacked). In Al Dostor 17 June 2014. Article available at http://www.dostor.org/630235

Darwich, A. (2010) Translation and News making in contemporary Arabic television. Writescope, Melbourne.

Fahmy, N. (2014) Interview with NPR All things Considered:

Galal, R. (2014) Wazir kharijiya wa ma’zoun shar’ie (Foreign Minister and marriage celebrant). Almasryalyoum 4 May 2014.  http://www.almasryalyoum.com/news/details/440246

Gamal, M. (2010) Examining Translation Experience. In the American Journal of Translation Studies. Vol.2 No.4.  Utah, USA.

Ibrahim, H. (2001) Diwan Hafiz Ibrahim. (The poetry of Hafiz Ibrahim) Dar Alawdah. Beirut.

Mostafa, A. (2013) Alzawaj alshar’ie wa ‘ilaqat ukhra (Legal marriage and other relationships). Skynewsarabia 1 May 2013. Article available online at: http://www.skynewsarabia.com/web/blog/657954

Munday, J. (2001) Introducing translation studies- theories and applications. Routledge. London and New York.

Newmark, P. (1988) A textbook of translation. Prentice Hall. New York and London

Rushdi, M. (2014) Kissat I’laan zawaj Masr (the story of announcing Egypt’s marriage). In Youm7 2/5/2014. Article available at http://www.youm7.com.

Yousef, N. (2014) “Fahmy’s statements places MOFA in a predicament. Calls for his resignation”


Days of Sadat, 2001, Mohamed Khan

About Muhammad Y Gamal

Muhammad Y Gamal is a senior Arabic interpreter working for the Australian Federal Government in Canberra. Muhammad grew up in Alexandria and was educated at the Faculty of Alsun before migrating to Australia. He obtained his PhD in Translation Studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. In his doctorate he examined the DVD subtitling of Omar Sharif’s Egyptian films. Gamal’s interests include audiovisual translation, diplomatic interpreting and the Egyptian image abroad.

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