Muhammad Gamal - IAFOR

Muhammad Gamal - IAFOR

Muhammad Gamal

The Asian Conference on Arts and Humanities 2012

Official Conference Proceedings

Osaka, Japan

Omar Sharif as an Example of Changes and Encounters

Muhammad Gamal


University of Canberra, Australia

The Asian Conference on Arts and Humanities 2012

Official Conference Proceedings 2012


The Asian Conference on Arts and Humanities 2012

Official Conference Proceedings

Osaka, Japan


Western cinema acknowledged the advent of the young, suave and lady-killer from the Nile,

Omar Sharif, after his debut in Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean:1962). Yet, very few cinema

viewers would recognize, let alone know, that Omar Sharif was an established film star in his

native Egypt in the decade prior to Lawrence of Arabia. In Egypt, he was the box-office

beloved name and face that almost guaranteed excellent receipts. There are 21 titles in which

he appeared with six of which are included in the List of the Best 100 Films ever produced in

Egyptian cinema (Tawfic: 1969) . Two of these films, River of love (Ezzedine Zulfiqar:

1960) in which he appeared with his then wife Faten Hamama who later became known as

the Lady of Egyptian Cinema, and A Man in Our House (Henry Barakat: 1961) are classic

films well-known in every Arab city and cherished by millions of Arabic film viewers.

Despite this fame, none of the 21 films, let alone the last two, is known in the west: the

reason being Omar was speaking in his native language; Arabic.

The DVD industry

Digital technology made films available, affordable and portable. DVDs have now

completely replaced the video cassette. Yet one of the most valuable features the DVD has

come to enjoy is its accessibility to a multitude of viewers through the function of subtitling.

Although the DVD industry is generally dated to 1998, the technology and the concept came

to Egypt in 2002 and the first film to be subtitled was Omar Sharif’s film A Man in our


The first decade of the history of the Egyptian DVD industry witnessed technological,

administrative and commercial developments and changes that have seriously affected the

industry. One of these developments was the sudden rise of the industry without backing or

support from the film industry or the allied industries such as media companies, ministry of

culture, the national cinema organisation, the Cairo Film Festival or the translation

community in Egypt. To date, and despite the considerable amount of subtitling carried out in

Egypt ( and in every Arab country) there is no fully-designed academic or even a basic

professional training program in audiovisual translation and to date no Arab translation

conference has examined Audiovisual translation (Gamal: 2007, 2009). The situation is not

entirely unusual as many countries in the world do not examine audiovisual translation

despite its significance to the local culture, local tourism industry and its film industry abroad.

Thus countries like Russia, Japan, Australia, China, India, and Brazil do not lend audiovisual

translation the same importance that Western Europe has particularly over the past decade or


The Egyptian case is different though. The country traditionally relies on translation as a

major bridge for cultural, technical and commercial contact with the outside world. While


The Asian Conference on Arts and Humanities 2012

Official Conference Proceedings

Osaka, Japan

traditional translation studies has been established since the days of Egypt’s enlightenment

pioneer Sheikh Rifa’a Rafi’ At-Tahtawee (1801-1873) who started the Egyptian modern

school of translation linking translation to development (Taher:2009), the different genre of

translating audiovisual material has not been adopted by the translation schools for several

reasons. Chief among these reasons is the emphasis on the political/economic and

literary/scientific strands again linking translation study to development requirements and are

closely guided by market requirement. Another reason and perhaps more relevant is the

technical nature of audiovisual which the current faculty did not grow up with and have not

yet mastered, i.e., being comfortable with computers and dealing with specialised software.

This is in addition to the cost involved in setting up fully-equipped labs (despite the fact that

laptops can now accommodate most subtitling software programs which are becoming not

only affordable but some are actually free). Yet, one of the significant reasons why

audiovisual translation has not been taken up by academia in Egypt (and this goes for the

Arab world as well) is the fact that audiovisual translation examines the spoken variety of

Arabic, an area which almost no translation school is prepared to accept. All translation and

interpreting programs examine only traditional “written” translation which employs the more

revered and respected classical variety of Arabic. In Egypt, the spoken language differs

almost completely from the written language and is not examined by academia and is never

studied by natives (Haeri: 2003).

Against this background, the DVDs that are produced in Egypt present classic Egyptian films

subtitled by ‘traditional translators’ who, in the majority, are oblivious of the multimodality

of the filmic material and, most likely, lack the pre-requisite experience in classic film

literacy. Thus Omar Sharif films are produced by subtitlers who tend to treat a classic film as

a mere mono-dimensional text focusing only on the dialogue list.

Subtitling classic films

Egyptian cinema, the oldest and most extensive cinema industry in the Middle East and

Africa ( Hayward: 2000) has a wide reception in Egypt and in the entire Arab world since its

debut in 1927 with the silent film Kiss in the desert and its first talkie Children of the Rich in

1932. The examination of subtitling Egyptian films into foreign languages has not received

the same attention the translation of Egyptian classic literature has. For instance, the novels of

Naguib Mahfouz have been examined in doctoral thesis that tackled its translations into

English, adaptation by Mexican film directors and discussed by non-Arab translators of his

works. Yet, the subtitling of Mahfouz’s films remains a terra incognita for literary and

translation studies alike. The works of Omar Sharif, and despite his international status as a

film star, have suffered from the lack of interest in audiovisual studies (Gamal: 2010).

Research in subtitling cinema classics has attracted the attention of several scholars

particularly those who focused on the translation of cultural images (Pederson: 2010),

translation of non-verbal communication (Poyatos: 1997) and subtitling quality. Morgan


The Asian Conference on Arts and Humanities 2012

Official Conference Proceedings

Osaka, Japan

(2001: 164) argues that “Good subtitles cannot save a bad film, but bad subtitles can spoil a

good film”. This applies readily to classic films that have been locally successful but fail to

make the same impact on target language viewers. James (201:152) explains how subtitles


“A viewer must be able to follow the subtitles with ease and be able to have faith in

their contents. Subtitles should be correct, clear, credible and give the impression of

being part of the action on the screen. Above all, the viewer should enjoy following a

subtitled programme of film in such a way that the subtitles form a natural part of the


Over the past fifty years and since his debut in international cinema Omar Sharif has been an

iconic figure in Egyptian cultural life and has been frequently called upon to present Egypt at

international fora. His image as an actor speaking in Arabic remains one that has not been

fully utilized. As most of his earlier Egyptian films are now available on DVDs and subtitled

into English and French, the subtitling of classic Egyptian films merit a more rigorous

academic examination of the subtitling techniques that deal with the multimodality of filmic

material. El-Batal (2000:3) observes on the importance to pay attention to subtitling in the

age of satellite channels: “Thanks to satellite channels Egyptian Arabic has become

accessible to viewers everywhere and with it the need to ensure that it is conveyed with a

higher degree of accuracy particularly when displaying works that represents our culture to

others”. For this, perhaps, A man in our house, his most popular film in Arabic deserves

serious examination by translation scholars and officials at the Egyptian Film Organisation, a

body whose task is to promote Egyptian cinema abroad. In the unregulated DVD industry in

Egypt, the current subtitling practice not only undermines classic films abroad but also

sabotages the reputation of the entire film industry.

A man in our house (1961)

The film shows Omar Sharif playing the role of a freedom fighter who takes refuge at the

house of one of his friends for four nights during the Muslim month of Ramadan

(Abdelqudous: 1996). The film is replete with cultural signs that reflect Egyptian history,

culture, religion, dialects, songs and above all the language of the Egyptian vernacular. The

difficulty in subtitling the film stems not only from its clever dialogue and numerous

references to cultural signs and images but also from the frequent non-verbal communicative

features in the film as seen in the employment of graphic plates in the introduction, sotto voce,

graffiti, mural paintings and cultural signs. An examination of the subtitling shows that the

modus opernadi relied essentially, and almost solely, on the dialogue list and without

recourse to the film. In subtitling, it’s a cardinal sin to subtitle a film without watching it, yet

alas, it is a sin that is frequently and nonchalantly committed as exemplified in the lack of

subtitles for graffiti (which were not mentioned in the dialogue list as they were not spoken)


The Asian Conference on Arts and Humanities 2012

Official Conference Proceedings

Osaka, Japan

and in the lack of subtitles for mural paintings, possibly due to poor level in film literacy

where the subtitler is unfamiliar with techniques employed by earlier Egyptian film directors.

One of the techniques favoured by Egyptian directors in the fifties and sixties was the

employment of a narrated introduction. More often than not this is carried out by the main

protagonist whose voice lends credence to the film. At times, a different albeit popular voice

is employed. In A man in our house, the voice of a popular radio announcer (Galal Mouawad)

is employed which amplifies the context of the film. The language employed in the narration

is the high variety of Arabic and is emotionally charged as it sets the scene for the film. This

extra-linguistic feature is lost in the subtitles.

A man in our house is a classic film that has been shown on Egyptian television several times

a year for the past 50 years. It has become the defacto national film par excellence that

embodies the Egyptian character. In 2011 and on the fiftieth anniversary of the film, very

little reflection was given to the work of Ihssan Abdelqudous who wrote the novel in 1957 in

the wake of the Suez Crisis of 1956. While the film ends with the words “And that was the

BEGINNING” in a direct reference to the July 1952 Revolution, Egypt was too busy with a

new revolution in January 2011 to reflect on the significance of the golden jubilee of its

cinema classic. The film, in black and white, is an iconic symbol of Egyptian cinema whose

subtitling deserves examination not only by translation researchers but also by film scholars

and cinema specialists and those interested in cultural studies.

The voice of Egypt abroad

Since his debut in Egyptian cinema in Blazing Sun (Yousef Shaheen: 1954), the voice of

Omar Sharif has been distinctively heard not only in film but also in radio drama as well as

documentaries. He also lent his voice to the introductory narration of The Ladies’ Barber

(Fateen Abdelwahab: 1960). Yet, his voice represented Egypt in international fora from

archaeological documentaries where his narration provided the audio for spectacular video

productions particularly those produced by the National Geographic. The Mysteries of Egypt

(Neibaur:1998) has Sharif participate in a documentary on Egyptian archaeology. Previously

he worked on Michael Goldman’s documentary Umm Kalthum: a voice like Egypt (1996) in

which it documented the story of Egypt’s most prominent female singer. Likewise, for the

Discovery Channel, Omar Sharif’s voice was the choice of the directors and producers of a

documentary on Cleopatra’s Palace: In search of a legend (2004). Also, in 2005 he was the

narrator for The Search for Eternal Egypt directed by Graham Judd. Most recently, the

National Geographic-sponsored exhibition on Tut Ankh Amun and the Golden Age of the

Pharaohs that toured Australia in 2011 had the audio narrated by Sharif.


The Asian Conference on Arts and Humanities 2012

Official Conference Proceedings

Osaka, Japan

In 2004, the Egyptian Football Association enlisted Omar Sharif to join the Bid Committee

for the 2010 World Cup that presented Egypt’s case at FIFA headquarters in Zurich. Sharif

was indeed a good choice for the image and voice of Egypt despite the failure to win any

votes. The experience provides an excellent context to examine audiovisual translation in

practice. The way the Egyptian bid was delivered received little or no examination and the

failure to win was blamed on several reasons from late and rushed preparations to poor

lobbying and even corruption in FIFA. However, one aspect is also relevant: the Egyptian

presentation lacked coherence and the ‘audio’ didn’t match the ‘visual’ in the audiovisual

presentation, despite the familiar and assuring voice of Omar Sharif.

Sharif’s voice was manipulated by film directors as he looks “distinctively Arab” as David

Lean was searching for someone to play Sharif Ali in his epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Sharif excelled in playing the foreigner in many films. Thus he was cast playing a Russian,

German, Mexican, central Asian and French. In addition to his voice, his accent also adds to

the power of his delivery. In this regard, he capture the Egyptian character in his voice

exactly as Edward Said did with his words and logic. It is ironic that in their childhood in

Alexandria both were school mates at Victoria College. In his autobiography he talks of his

cosmopolitan lifestyle (Sharif: 1977) and in numerous television interviews he mentions that

he does not believe that he has a single mother tongue but rather several. Sharif speaks

Arabic, English, French and Italian and has appeared in films in all.

Researching Omar Sharif

The examination of the subtitling of Omar Sharif Egyptian films into English provides a

unique opportunity for the study of subtitling classic films (Gamal: 2008). A comparative

study of the English and French subtitling of A man in our house equally provides a

worthwhile study of subtitling techniques particularly when the translation of Egyptian

vernacular is concerned. Comparative studies in audiovisual translations are rare and the case

of this Egyptian film provides a good starting point. It is equally interesting to reflect on the

DVD subtitling of Omar Sharif’s foreign films into Arabic particularly those in which he

played the traditional Arab character such as Hidlago (2004), The Horsemen (1971) and

Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (2003).

The life journey of Omar Sharif as an Egyptian actor and cultural ambassador is rich in more

than one way. Quite often, in his interviews he shows his command of cultural transfer which

is evident in the responses to his interlocutors. When interviewed in Arabic by Egyptian

media his answers though in Arabic reflect western thinking that are expressed in linguistic

form as well as through his body language. The examination of these interviews is

indispensable to students of cross-cultural communication.


The Asian Conference on Arts and Humanities 2012

Official Conference Proceedings

Osaka, Japan

Muhammad Y Gamal

Adjunct Associate Professor

University of Canberra



Abdelqudous, I. (1996) Fi baitina rajul (A man in our house). Abdelqudous Complete

Collection published by Akhbar el Yom. Cairo.

El Batal, M (2000) A dictionary of idioms. Egyptian Longman. Cairo.

Gamal, M. (2007)“Audiovisual Translation in the Arab World” in Translation Watch

Quarterly Vol. 3.2. Melbourne.

Gamal, M. (2008) “Adding Text to Image: the challenges of subtitling non-verbal

communication”, The XVII FIT Congress proceedings Shanghai. Foreign Language Press


Gamal, M. (2009) “Foreign Films in Egypt”. Book chapter in Foreign Film Movies: between

Dubbing and subtitling. by Golubovic, B. & A. Goldstein (Eds.) Verlag Dr Kovac.

Gamal, M. (2010) “On the bridge between east and west which lane is fastest”, paper

published in the proceedings of the inaugural Conference on the Arts and Humanities, Osaka,

June 2010.

Hayward, S. (2000) Cinema Studies: the key concepts. 2 nd edition. Routledge. London.

Haeri, N. (2003) Sacred Language, Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in

Egypt. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

James, H. (2001) “Quality Control of subtitles: review or preview”” in Gambier, Y. and H.

Gottlieb (Eds.) (Multi) Media Translation. John Benjamins. Amsterdam.

Morgan, H. (2001) “Subtitling for channel 4 television” in Gambier, Y. and H. Gottlieb

(Eds.) (Multi) Media Translation. John Benjamins. Amsterdam.

Pederson, J. (2010) “When do you go for benevolent intervention? How subtitlers determine

the need for cultural mediation.” In Cintas, J., A. Matamala and J.Neves(Eds.) New Insights

into Audiovisual Translation and media Accessibility. Rodopi. Amsterdam.


The Asian Conference on Arts and Humanities 2012

Official Conference Proceedings

Osaka, Japan

Poyatos, F. (Ed) (1997) Nonverbal communication and translation. John Benjamins.


Sharif. O. (1977) The Eternal male. My own story with M.Therese Guinchard. Double Day.

Taher, B. (2009) Abnaa Rifa’a: Al-thaqafa wal hurriya (the children of Rifa’a: culture and

freedom). Dar Al-Shoruk. Cairo.

Tawfic, S. (1969) Qissat al cinema fi Masr (The story of cinema in Egypt). Dar Al-Hilal.



More magazines by this user
Similar magazines