In 2012, UMAM D&R published a small dictionary under the title “Keys to the Syrian Prison” that includes words and expressions former prisoners used to describe their time in Syrian prisons, sourced and extracted from a number of published prison testimonies. Since then, UMAM D&R has continued to collect words and idioms related to prisons from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and has continually encouraged others, especially former prisoners, to document their linguistic prison experiences and recollections. To make this effort more accessible and by taking advantage of the flexibility of online publishing, this growing collection of prison terminology is also presented—and expanded upon—under the "Loughat as-Soujoun" subsection of the Arabic version of the UMAM D&R website, which assumes a lexicon-like design. In an effort to increase access to this work, Sumaya Tabbah undertook a process to translate the one hundred or so terms captured so far in the glossary into English. Below, she expands on the process, methodology, and challenges of attempting to translate the Syrian prison experience.
The Syrian security system is so pervasive and central to understanding the Syrian experience that it is easy to forget how difficult this concept is to convey to those unfamiliar with the context. The Prison Language project operates with the assumption that it is necessary to translate one of Syria’s most embedded architectures: its prison system. It was born out of the understanding that English-language content wherein former detainees speak directly to the audience is limited. Translation of these terms allows English-speaking audiences a window into Syrian prison language, in turn facilitating a greater understanding of the Syrian reality while simultaneously furthering the reach of the authors’ original goals of sharing insights into their prison experiences.
The emotions, experiences, and images unique to Syrian prisons are already limited by any language, in this case the authors’ native Arabic. The experiences are so distinct, unnatural, and heinous, that they evoke an array of emotions that written language cannot express. As such, translating these terms to English can be considered a second-round translation, first from an experience constrained to written Arabic, and then again from Arabic to English. For this reason, maintaining the emotions was a particular priority during translation. Wherein effective translations are often the result of close collaboration between native speakers of both the original and target languages, being a native speaker of American English and a heritage speaker of Levantine Arabic provides me insight into the emotions associated with both languages. Some words are so emotionally dense that they cannot have equivalents in English. How do you translate qahir? When English fails to adequately and comprehensively convey the emotion––a mix of anger, hurt, and helplessness––I find myself pointing to my chest and throat, where I feel, or carry, qahir.
That being said, I am ignorant of the experiences––specifically the emotions––of detention in Syrian prisons. My experience with Syrian prisons is second-hand, derived from friends and family who were formerly detained and surviving those who have disappeared into Syrian prisons. My engagement with Syrian prison literature informs and contextualizes these lived experiences in my interaction with them. In an attempt to account for these limitations, I, along with the MENA Prison Forum, employed a collaborative translation process by working with experts of prisons in the Middle East and North Africa, survivors of Syria’s prisons, and authors of the text to workshop the translation.
This note will not explore the general challenges of translating between Arabic and English. The field is extensive, and seeing as I am not a classically trained translator, there is not much I can add to the topic. Instead, I approached this translation as a creative process to convey, or make intelligible, emotions, ideas, and general understandings across languages. It is difficult to achieve this through direct translation. Where possible, the English translation attempts to find equivalent phrases or idioms, as seen with the phrase ṭaʾal-burghī for example. In English, it would be directly translated to “a screw popped” however a similar, though not exact, idiom exists in English “a loose screw.” When this is not possible, a translator’s note is included.
The goal is for the translation to be accessible to everyone, rather than one limited to academic space. Increasingly over the past decade, migrant and refugee populations in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere are pushing us to reflect on their carceral experiences. In this sense, prison language is key in connecting carceral histories and perspectives on a global scale. Many of the authors of the works featured here are not academics or trained writers. In publishing their work, they shared a desire to convey their experiences in Syrian prisons to the public, to lift the shroud of secrecy surrounding Syrian prisons, or generally relieve themselves of carrying the burden of their experience alone. Not all of their work can fit into a single genre of literature, and it is not necessarily academic in nature. In turn, this translation aims to convey the content in the same spirit–to as wide an English-speaking audience as possible. The topic is already an inaccessible one, translation should only serve to facilitate accessibility to the experience of imprisonment.
Practically, new terms and phrases emerge in prison to describe objects and experiences that do not exist outside of prison walls. Of these terms, many exist in Arabic outside a prison-specific context and are repurposed to convey new concepts. New terms––that evoke a shared meaning among prisoners need to be created and assigned to express unique objects or concepts. As a general rule, created terms or phrases that are proper nouns were left untranslated to maintain the integrity and specificity of their meaning, while other terms were translated. For example, istihbas is translated as a phrase as “becoming imprisoned,” while khamkhamina, a proper noun, is simply transliterated and defined as “a vitamin-rich food created by the inmates of Tadmor Prison, which consists of soaking bread so that it grows a green mold.”
The translation process is not only between languages, but also between two prison systems: Syrian and Western. As a result of the fundamental differences in the Syrian prison system and the Western one, commonly used words in carceral discourse refer to different histories, realities, experiences, and emotions. Fundamentally, for this project, to even translate the word “prison” across differing connotations is a loaded and difficult endeavor. In Syria, prison is synonymous with secrecy, arbitrary detention, extortion, and torture––associations that the word does not elicit independently in English. Furthermore, there are directly translatable words in Arabic and English for prison dormitory, cell, and solitary confinement, yet even these are not transposable across prison systems.
The full translation will be uploaded following the workshop and will be linked here. In the published translation, each entry includes the following fields:
a transliteration of the term or phrase
a translation of the term or phrase
the original Arabic
a definition of the entry
a quote (when available)
the quote’s source
the prison or security branch where the term originated
term(s) related to the entry in question (when applicable)
a translator’s note when necessary; the translator’s note is used for further clarification where the English cannot fully capture the context or when, as discussed above, the translation to English sacrifices an idiom or wordplay.
The IJMES transliteration system is used throughout and reflects the Arabic pronunciation in Modern Standard Arabic, as opposed to the varied regional dialects that existed in this carceral context. The terms are organized in alphabetical order by the original Arabic. It should be noted that most of the authors of the text refer to prisoners generally using masculine pronouns. This reflects their reality of being detained among men. For this reason, masculine pronouns are also used in the quote translations when referring to prisoners generally. However, gender-neutral language is used in the definition translation (though the original Arabic defers to masculine pronouns) to accommodate the experience of men and women in Syrian prisons.
The collection of these words and phrases alone does not suffice to convey the experience of Syrian prisons. These experiences including the imagery, emotions, and events can begin to be understood through the works of the authors whose writing was used to inform this collection and translation. My hope in offering this translation is to create a stepping stone for the increased translation and accessibility of these writings, without the added challenge of navigating a unique “prison language.”
Sumaya Tabbah is an MA candidate at American University in Washington D.C., studying International Peace and Conflict Resolution and holding a BA in political science from the University of Michigan. In the past she has translated on topics of migration, belonging, and feelings of home within the Syrian diaspora. Her interests lies at the intersection of reconciliation and human rights.