#Egypt_Delights: A Suez Canal Hashtag Largely Missed by English-Speaking Media

Also: what we’re up to with Bridge, our new social translation platform for social media


This article was written collaboratively with An Xiao Mina, Nora Younis, Sarah Othman and Tom Trewinnard.

Last week, the world turned its eye to Egypt in the midst of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the New Suez Canal. The “new” canal was actually a new channel of the “old” Suez Canal, designed to double the number of ships and consequently increase opportunities for trade.

And as the celebrations were underway along the new channel, we at Meedan turned our eyes to the channels and streams of social media, where hashtags like #SuezCanal and #NewSuezCanal helped tag the conversation in English, and hashtags like #مصر_بتفرح (#Egypt_Delights), #قناة_السويس_الجديدة (meaning #The_New_Suez_canal) and the lengthy #ابن_القرعه_افتتح_الترعه (#TheSonOfABaldHeadedWomanOpensTheCreek*) trended on Twitter in Arabic.

Leading Egyptian journalists (and Meedan team members) Nora Younis and Sarah Othman took Bridge for its first true test run on Thursday. Bridge is our platform for social translation of social media. It’s a product we’ve been working on for a number of years now in various incarnations, and we were pretty excited/nervous/thrilled to translate social media for this historic event.

In Egypt, social media like Facebook and Twitter plays an important role in helping citizens, officials and foreign observers alike express their opinions on the situation, and Nora and Sarah immediately jumped into Twitter with a few translations.

Some remarked on the ambitious timetable of the project. This Tweet is a commentary on the canal’s timeline, which was shortened from three years to one year under General Sisi’s orders. Production was completed on time:

Not all were impressed. For the most part, emoji need no translation:

This analogy references some of the controversy around the canal. As the Economist noted, “As a feat of brawn it is impressive.”

As the translations continued, something interesting happened on one of the event’s official Arabic hashtags.

The hashtag was #مصر_بتفرح, which Nora translated as #Egypt_Delights. Referencing one of the celebratory songs for the day, the hashtag soon saw a number of satirical responses. This is a small selection.

Like this one:

Here’s another take on the deadline being met:

We might also translate the phrase as “emigration chances”, or the possibility of moving out of Egypt. As Nora has noted, this has become more difficult:

This is a picture of Adel Imam, a very well known comedian in Egypt; he’s known for his expressive face, and screenshots of his performances are often used to complement the Tweet content. Unemployment in the country is at 26%, according to recently announced statistics from Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation And Statistics (CAPMAS):

This is just a small collection. Many of the #Egypt_Delights Tweets reflected contrasting views and opinions on the matter, some sarcastic, some celebratory. This is to be expected. As Cairo-based journalist Sarah Carr wrote in Foreign Policy, “Overnight, everyone in Egypt has become an expert on maritime shipping. The discussions rage on social media, polarized and driven by bias.” Further:

Sisi’s supporters insist that the canal will transform Egypt’s economy. His detractors say it’s a waste of money, a fig leaf with which the regime is trying to cover its inadequacies. Even opinion within the shipping industry itself ranges from the enthusiastic to the doubtful and so it is seemingly impossible to establish with any certainty whether the Egyptian government’s projection that the New Suez Canal will increase its revenues from $5.3 billion to $13.3 billion by 2023 has any merit.

As if to capture this wide range of opinions, someone else tweeted:

What We Learned

The conversation around the New Suez Canal launch served as the first subject for this test run of Bridge, and, as with any initial test with users, we hit a few bumps in the road. It took a few minutes to onboard Nora and Sarah to the product, and then another few minutes to figure out the best content to translate.

1. Real time translations open up new perspectives on global events.

This is a given for anyone who straddles different cultures and linguistic zones, but it bears emphasis. Translating real time content is what we’re trying to optimize Bridge for. But it’s striking to see the difference in Google results between #مصر_بتفرح, the Arabic hashtag, and #Egypt_Delights, Nora’s English-language translation. Searching for the latter yields 0 results. And a similar search for an alternative translation, #EgyptCelebrates, yields just about a handful of pages of Google results.

Compare that to the original Arabic hashtag, #مصر_بتفرح, which has received more than 191k Tweets during the last seven days, according to Topsy.com:

Screenshot by Sarah Othmann

Many media outlets wrote about the pomp and circumstance and some of the odd juxtapositions of imagery, but these perspectives largely came from those of journalists rather than citizens. Some social media round-ups we found focused largely on English-language posts, and thus, to a certain extent, a limited number of local perspectives. To our knowledge, only Magda Abu-Fadil at The Huffington Post covered and translated the Arabic hashtag in an English language report.

Compare that to other satirical hashtags in recent memory, like #SomeoneTellCNN in Kenya and #McDStories in the US, both of which trended in English and consequently received broad coverage in English-speaking media outlets. The effect of the language barrier is apparent, even when talking about major trending media around an event of world interest.

The content of Arabic language (and other foreign language) hashtags trends is largely invisible to the English speaking world, and the range of social media reportage therefore remains limited.

2. Sorting through real time content is still a challenge. So is verification.

When translating real-time content around breaking events, it can be hard to figure out the best content to translate. We want to optimize Bridge for mobile users’ efforts to translate social media, but there’s still a crucial first step: finding the content. This is something we struggled with when I worked on Ai Weiwei English, a project I co-founded in 2010, and with greater network density and content diversity, the need for better discovery tools is even more readily apparent. So, our sample translations are just that: a small sample, one that is not necessarily representative of the sheer diversity of responses found on the original Arabic hashtag.

Of course, sorting through local perspectives, regardless of source language, requires verification and vetting of the content and the speaker (something Tom and I wrote about recently for First Draft News). This is especially the case when the individual is making important factual claims about events, but itcan still be important when translating satirical responses. The effort can be worth the time: translating leading figures and average citizens alike can can open a window into a greater understanding of how the country as a whole is responding.

3. Local knowledge and expertise are vital for quality real time translations.

In theory, anyone with sufficient knowledge of Arabic can translate the posts that Nora and Sarah identified. But the best translations often come from those with knowledge on the ground and experience and expertise relevant to the issue. As journalists and Cairo residents, they were well positioned both to identify the right content to translate and to represent it accurately and with relevance for an English-speaking audience.

One good example? How to translate the Arabic hashtag #مصر_بتفرح. Translating Arabic to English requires a lot of knowledge not just of the two languages but of the many social and cultural situations being evoked by the words. Now, #مصر_بتفرح could be translated a number of ways, including #EgyptCelebrates and #EgyptRejoices, as Tom, a fluent Arabic speaker, has pointed out. #EgyptDelightsIn could also be an acceptable translation.

But Nora connected the dots between the hashtag, slogans playing on television, and a New York Times article that translated that slogan as “Egypt Delights.” “It was referenced in the New York Times story as ‘Egypt Delights,’” she noted, “so I thought to use that in translated tweets since readers in English might have already read the story.”

Finding just the right translation can be a challenge, especially when working with vernacular content and words that come from very different language families. These sorts of decisions require deep knowledge of the local context and a broad perspective in both languages to connect the dots and ensure the most relevant translations are used.

Stay Tuned

At Meedan, we’ve been reading and re-reading Robin Sloan’s “Making culture for the internets — all of them” and finding inspiration in some of his words:

People ridiculed George W. Bush when he called them “the internets” but he had it right. Technically, the internet is one huge interconnected network.Linguistically and socially, it is many networks, and they are very distinct….
What we really need are more scouts stationed at the borders between these distinct internets: watching for bits of culture on both sides, slinging them back and forth. On their own, translations are inert. To become meaningful, they require attention, and in the absence of marketing budgets, a pretty reliable way to generate attention is through good — yes! — curation.

Stay tuned for more translations as we continue beta testing our app. Are you interested in social media translation? Want to be a “language scout” at the borders of these linguistic divides? Get in touch, and we’ll do our best to reach out if there’s a good fit.

We have two ongoing projects: the Out of Eden Walk translations we’ve been doing since 2013, and our ongoing tests of our mobile app for real time news events. We’re particularly interested in working with translators who speak Turkish, Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese.

And if you’re mostly curious about seeing more translations of what’s happening in different parts of the world, stay tuned here and on Meedan’s Twitter account. We’ll be making more updates here as our beta testing moves along.