Egypt’s 2011 protests have been fueled by the music of its slogans and chants, which have become a group exercise in the construction and reconstruction of meaning. Beyond Tahrir, a global audience has wanted to listen in, and two recent books have opened it up to English-language audiences: Tweets from Tahrir and Messages from Tahrir. The former is the first book in English to give voice to what happened in downtown Cairo’s main square, and early in the process its editors decided to forgo translation and use only tweets originally written in English. Editor Alex Nunns said that many of the Arabic tweets contained too much information for 140 English characters, and that “it would have looked false if some tweets had been really long.” Messages from Tahrir, on the other hand, is a photograph-heavy book that displays many of the signs and slogans of the square. Its editor, Karima Khalil, had no choice but to translate the sometimes-rhyming, often-humorous snippets of Arabic. In so doing, she confronted many of the difficulties of a translator of poetry. Poetry has its own linguistic concerns—surprise, echo, sound—but both verse and slogans often require that the translator work in tight, idiomatic spaces where there is little room to balance one part of the text with another, to lose and make up ground.

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