Recent discussions about an upcoming manifestation of Headless at the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo have highlighted an interesting aspect of the language used to describe xenospace. When translating texts presented to a second Hydrarchy conference hosted by the gallery, CIC staff found it was impossible to directly translate the word ‘offshore’ into Arabic. In the event various terms were used to refer to, for example, offshore drilling, international waters and offshore finance, but none were directly equivalent to the English word. Whenever these terms were used, they were asterisked to indicate that they were variants of ‘offshore’.
Anticipating similar difficulties with translating Headless-related material, I asked Arabic-speaking colleagues working in the field of Finance whether they knew of any alternatives. They confirmed not only that there is no direct alternative, but also that Arabic-speaking financiers simply appropriate the English word into Arabic – since they all ‘know’ what it refers to – or even transliterate the ‘sound’ of the word into Arabic characters for the purposes of written communication.
The translator for CIC Cairo, Mohammed Abdallah, suggested that the impossibility of translating offshore (which is not unique to Arabic but is also seen in many European languages) is a function of its specifically English origins. It is a term, he proposes, that could only be produced in the context of a self-referential island. And certainly, as I have also argued elsewhere, the metaphor of the island shore is one that both emerges from a British world-view and is repeatedly manipulated to serve British (and of course now many others) economic interests.
This is important because of what it says about the way spatial meaning is constructed through a word like ‘offshore’. Although ostensibly simple, descriptive and self-evident, in fact it is a concept that smuggles in an entire Anglophonic spatio-legal order: one that, once established in both narrative spatial practice and the institutions associated with it, simply has to be imported wholesale by everyone else. That this is done so readily by expedient non-Anglophone financiers gives some insight into the power that such concepts have. The apparently simple act of describing financial practices using concepts from another language, carries with it not just a convenient word, but an important bridgehead of a strongly imperialistic legal and financial praxis.