“I Just Can’t Wait to be King”

I recently came across an Arabic rendition of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” from Disney’s 1994 blockbuster, The Lion King. It’s a fantastic translation, drawing on a variety of registers of Egyptian colloquial and modern standard Arabic to express much of the humor and dynamism of the English original. Consider Zazu, the king’s red-beaked advisor pictured above. The translation draws from a wide array of Arabic registers to convey his quickly changing disposition, at turns imperious, imploring, and impotent. For instance, as he is chasing after the troublesome cubs (at 0:56), he switches from his shrill vernacular to a more formal register, announcing, “I reckon the time has come, and I’ll tell you frankly…” But before he can finish the sentence, he smacks into the ample rump of an unsuspecting rhino (one of many times in which the poor bird–and the kingly authority he represents–is sat upon or trampled underfoot). As a flattened Zazu slides off the rhino’s backside, Simba picks up with the word “frankly,” which is used in both formal and colloquial Arabic, to label Zazu a muristan – a nutjob, as one translation has it.

As I watched, I realized I was being (re)introduced me to a cast of familiar characters. They were singing a tune I know, rehashing a narrative I remember enjoying, and rehearsing a set of classic Disney conflicts about loyalty, authority, and adulthood. Yet they were doing it all in Arabic, a language I’ve learned, however imperfectly, as an adult. As with any successful translation, it is neither an exact copy nor a wholly new work, but an intermediary text which contains recognizable elements of the original while standing on its own aesthetic merit. As a student of early modern Arabic literature, however, I rarely have a chance to engage with English texts translated into Arabic, especially those from my own childhood in the United States. Watching a clip from The Lion King in Arabic not only raised questions about what constitutes a successful translation, but left me with an uncanny  feeling of having encountered an element of my self through the eyes — or in the voice — of the Other.

The song opens with the stern Zazu lecturing two lion cubs from the royal family, Simba and Nala. Zazu speaks with an imperious Egyptian colloquial accent, alternating between affection and alarm as he explains that the two will some day be married. “You two, ya takakeet, you don’t have a choice. Marriage is our tradition from long ago!” The bird’s stern, disapproving voice, his use of colloquial words such as takakeet (literally “chicks”), and his reference to tradition, taqlid, all work remarkably well in Arabic translation. Ironically, Disney’s orientalizing representation of East Africa as a jungle ruled by inflexible tradition lends itself well to translation for an Egyptian audience long familiar with debates about the constraints that tradition places on personal freedom.

This irony pervades the plot. The story of Simba, a young prince first learning of the affordances and duties of his crown, finds a graceful corollary into the aspirational narrative of modern Egyptian nationalism. As the song reaches its crescendo (at 1:43), a chorus rises from the background to praise the future king in the aspirational language of Arab nationalism, drawing from a popular chant I first heard at protests in Palestine more than a decade ago. The chant is addressed to Simba, “the beloved of the millions,” and declares the willingness of the populace to sacrifice “with our souls and blood” (birrah wa ad-dam). It continues, “Where will we ever find a commander, a leader, like you?” Directed primarily to a young Egyptian audience, Simba’s desire to be recognized, not only as an adult but as a king, is a metaphor filled with surprisingly germane political significance. From the loyalty demanded by a dictator such as Hosni Mubarak to the revolutionary demand of young Egyptians for recognition in 2011, the song “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” is arguably more poignant in translation than in the original.

The irony of an Orientalist original facilitating translation into an Arabic context extends beyond the overlapping themes and into linguistic aspects of the translation. The screenplay, for instance, employs a smattering of Swahili and Arabic phonemes in the characters’ names, such as Zazu and Mufasa, respectively, as well as Swahili phrases such as “hakuna matata.” The score, composed by Elton John, uses both vocals and drum beats to vaguely conjure the music of East Africa. Much like the themes of tradition and authority, this combination of text and tone works together surprisingly well, making the text much easier to render into metered, musical Arabic.

Yet enjoying this clip in Arabic left me with a knee jerk feeling of cultural possessiveness. The Lion King, its themes and characters, are a memorable part of my childhood and, in some hazy yet undeniable way, a part of me. It may be sentimental and even illogical to see my personal history in a mass produced Disney film, but this recognition does not negate the feeling that this film belongs to me. In this stubborn feeling, there is a much broader insight about the violence of translation, especially when canonical Arabic literary works and cultural traditions are rendered accessible to a much broader audience via translation into English. With the catchy melody of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” stuck in my head, I can only begin to imagine the surprise that any Arab readers have felt in finding uncannily familiar aspects of themselves and their heritage – from the Qur’an to A Thousand and One Nights – rendered into English.

About Max Shmookler

Max Shmookler is a MESAAS doctoral student at Columbia University, where he works on trends in contemporary Sudanese literature and the place of Arabic as a language of poetry and thought in the modern Middle East. He lived for many years in Cairo. His first collection of translations (with Najlaa Othman) was published online by Words Without Borders in December, 2013. He is the co-editor of “The Book of Khartoum”, which is forthcoming from Comma Press (2015).