A Back Door Opens to Tahrir Square - Pacific Standard

A Back Door Opens to Tahrir Square

Translators narrate a livestream from Egypt's day of reckoning.
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Tahrir Square in the early morning back in November 2012. (PHOTO: FRANK SCHULENBURG/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Tahrir Square in the early morning back in November 2012. (PHOTO: FRANK SCHULENBURG/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

If we've learned anything in that last 15 years of the Internet, it's that the Web is only as worldwide as one's language skills. If you want to read about an incident in France, do you read it in your usual place, or in Le Monde?

The deadline for the current government to step down just passed in Egypt, and the rumors of what happens now range from a negotiated settlement, to arresting president Mohamed Morsi—to a coup. It's a complex crisis that, to be frank, non-Arabic speakers can't hope to grasp in real time, though any number of non-Arabic speaking pundits will certainly try to claim they can. And they'll be able to claim that, in part, because it will be difficult to prove otherwise.

A group of volunteers has taken to the livestream of ONtv, an Egyptian television station, to narrate the events on the station's screen.

Translation in news is an obscure topic. Newspapers and news agencies treat translation as more of an administrative function than a journalistic one, typically. Outside experimental efforts (Storyful is one of note), and cumbersome machine efforts like Google Translate, most of humanity's understanding of events like today's drama in Egypt will be affected more by a search engine algorithm than any sort of informed judgement. From there, it will rest on the best efforts of each region's domestic news service.

The aggregate, often redundant work of an ever-thinner correspondent corps, is still the way to get to Tahrir, despite the hours of video and millions of tweets, status updates, and other digital information the people in the square are throwing into the aether right now. It's a bit of a broken system.

But: They seem to know this in Egypt today. A group of volunteers has taken to the livestream of ONtv, an Egyptian television station, to narrate the events on the station's screen. Writing live in the comments stream of the station's live video from Cairo, a few bilingual contributors are attempting to describe the chants and general tone of the dramatic imagery coming out of Tahrir Square for an English- and, from time to time, French-speaking audience. It's fascinating, and it's here.

Can we trust these translations—most by someone with a screen name "Mubarak" and another called "meshmeshaa"—and can we confirm any of the conjecture flying through this conversation? Not at all. This is all live, and looks very seat-of-the-pants. But it's probably a fair mirror of what the square feels like too: rumors, worries, bits and scraps of information, parsed within an inch of their lives by people who have no idea what the next five minutes will bring.

Is this news? Not precisely. Is it what a first draft of history looks, sounds, and reads like in 2013? Yeah, pretty much.

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