Daily Archives: Friday, 1 February, 2008

Translating Arabic God Phrases

Several nights ago I started composing this blog post. I found some sources, copied and pasted the urls, copied and pasted a bunch of blurbs, gave it a title, selected categories, then figured I’d come back the next day and clean it up and add the point I wanted to make. Then I hit ‘save’ and WordPress went down and my work disappeared. Honestly, I expect that kind of thing at work, but I’m not used to it happening at home.

Native speakers of Arabic tend to use a lot of God phrases. Americans, on the other hand, tend to use a lot of blasphemy and obscenities. In a lot of cases they serve the same purpose: intensifying meaning or just holding a place while the speaker gets his thoughts in order. In a lot of other cases, they just mean the same thing as, “Hopefully,” or “On the bright side,” or “with any luck.” It’s purely a cultural thing that they use phrases that include the word “God” and we don’t.

Take the phrase inshallah. It’s used any time an Arab is talking about something in the future. “I’ll see you tonight at eight, inshallah.” It’s ingrained in their culture and has no deep meaning. You may have heard an American say something like, “As soon as I get my tax return, I’ll take a nice vacation, knock wood“? Same concept.

You could translate it as “Hopefully,” because that’s what we Americans would be more likely to say, or you could translate it as “God willing.”

When I translate I usually leave the God phrases in, and here’s why: In 1999 an Egyptair plane crashed in the Atlantic ocean on its way from New York to Cairo. Rumors started flying, and one of the Egyptian pilots was rumored to have intentionally crashed the plane. Here are some blurbs:


Western media speculation

Long before the NTSB had issued their final report, western media began to speculate about the meaning of the taped cockpit conversations, and about possible motives (including suicide and terrorism) behind Al-Batouti’s actions on the flight. The speculation, in part, was based on leaks from an unnamed federal law enforcement official that the crew member in the co-pilot’s seat was recorded as saying, “I made my decision now. I put my faith in God’s hands.”[14]

During a press conference held on November 19, 1999, the NTSB’s Jim Hall denounced such speculation and said that such speculation had “done a disservice to the long-standing friendship between the people of the United States of America and Egypt.”[15]

On 20 November 1999, the Associated Press quoted senior American officials as saying that the quote was not in fact on the tape.[15] It is believed that the speculation arose from a mistranslation of an Egyptian Arabic phrase meaning “I rely on God”.[14]

London’s Sunday Times, quoting unnamed sources, speculated that Al-Batouti had been “traumatized by war”, and was depressed because much of his fighter squadron in the 1973 war had been killed.[16]

Egyptian media reaction and speculation

The Egyptian media reacted in outrage to the speculations in the Western press. The state-owned Al Ahram Al Misai called Al-Batouti a “martyr”, and the Islamist Al Shaab covered the story under a headline that stated, “America’s goal is to hide the truth by blaming the EgyptAir pilot.[15]

At least two Egyptian newspapers, Al Gomhuriya and Al Musawwar offered theories that the aircraft was accidentally shot down by the U.S.[15] Other theories were advanced by the Egyptian press as well, including the Islamist Al Shaab which speculated that a Mossad/CIA conspiracy was to blame (since, supposedly, EgyptAir and El Al crews stay at the same hotel in New York). Al Shaab also accused U.S. officials of secretly recovering the FDR, reprogramming it and throwing it back into the water to be publicly recovered.[15]

Unifying all the Egyptian press was a stridently held belief that it “is inconceivable that a pilot would kill himself by crashing a jet with 217 people aboard. ‘It is not possible that anyone who would commit suicide would also kill so many innocent people alongside him,’ said Ehab William, a surgeon at Cairo’s Anglo-American Hospital,” reported the Cairo Times.[15]

The Egyptian media also reacted against western speculation of terrorist connections. The Cairo Times reported, “The deceased pilot’s nephew, Walid Al Batouti, has lashed out in particular against speculation that his uncle could have been a religious extremist. ‘He loved the United States,’ the nephew said. ‘If you wanted to go shopping in New York, he was the man to speak to, because he knew all the stores.’ The family adopted Donald Duck (Batout in Arabic, from batt, or duck) as its emblem, and toy Donalds are scattered throughout the nephew’s and the uncle’s houses.”[15]

I leave God phrases in my translations so that people who read them will say to themselves, “Huh, these guys sure say these God phrases a lot.” I think that’s better than another incident like flight 990 and the people who read my translations saying to themselves, “Well, I’ve been reading translated Arabic stuff for years and those guys never talk like that.”

You might as well figure that if an American pilot is heard saying, “Oh God oh God oh God oh God oh MY GOD,” on the cockpit recorder that he crashed the plane on purpose.

Here are some links to some other articles about Egyptair flight 990.






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