This article examines a public debate about Arabic translation that took place in Cairo in March 1908. The social transformations of the long nineteenth century had been accompanied in Egypt by a parallel upheaval in conceptions of language, and by 1908 Arabic, like the global economy, seemed threatened by crisis. Some speeches from the debate actually connect these crises, equating linguistic meaning with financial value or critiquing the "costliness" of literary style; others conceive translation as an exchange predicated on equivalence between languages and governed by abstract economic laws. Scholars have suggested that the cultural violence of colonialism has structured modern Arabic literary production and defined its place within world and comparative literary studies. Here, I ask how that place might be reconceived if early twentieth-century Arabic theories of literature and language are understood as embedded not only in colonial ideological paradigms, but also in (imperial) capitalist logics of market efficiency and infinite exchangeability.