Category Archives: translation

Terminology: ISIS vs. ISIL–Everything You Always Wanted to Know and Much, Much More

The esteemed Dr. Justice has an excellent post about the term ISIS vs. the term ISIL–two different translations for the same name of the organization in Iraq.

Click this messy-looking link to read to your heart’s content:


This is an issue because ignoramuses keep staying stupid stuff, as ignoramuses will do. Here’s overpaid bobblehead Chuck Todd:

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Filed under arabic, arabist, language, names, Our glorious war in Iraq, translation

What I Remember About the Satanic Verses, Before I Reread It

About fifteen years ago I read Salman Rushdie’s the Satanic Verses. I knew nothing about Islam at the time–well, only what a typical American “knows”: Muslim men can have four wives, some Muslim girls’ genitals are mutilated, images of the prophet are not allowed, and so on.

I’m going to re-read it, since it occurred to me that I might enjoy it more now that I’ve studied Islam a little bit. But this morning I read a piece on where the claim was made that the upset about the book was due to a mistranslated titled and not because in the book Muhammad’s revelations were delivered by a demon rather than an angel.

Well, I don’t remember that much about the book except that it was way more artsy than I like anymore and that it was a chore to get through and that I could see very well why Muslims would get upset at the book, as in the book the prophet Muhammad’s revelations were delivered by a demon rather than an angel.

Anyhow, I’m going to reread it soon. And also, as far as I remember, the meaning of the phrase the Satanic verses, while in real life may refer to some verses excised from the Qur’an, had nothing to do with the book. A lot of people seem to think it does.

So stay tuned. And share your opinion.


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Filed under books, Islamic relations, religion, translation

How Movies Deal with Foreign Languages has a feature, “The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal with Foreign Languages.” Check it out.

It’s hard to decide which is worst, but for my money the best is to have them speak English without accents when they’re alone together and English with accents when they’re speaking to Americans. Obviously, there are flaws with that.

Teaching American actors how to voice a sentence or two in the foreign language, now that can lead to hilarity. A while back I was watching a rerun of NCIS at my mom’s house (because it’s one of the few shows that overlaps in the Venn diagram of what my mom finds watchable and what I find watchable) and their Israeli character was supposed to try out her eleven or twelve languages on a foreign guy to see what language he spoke. I paid close attention, waiting for the Arabic. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize it when it went by. I really couldn’t tell you what it sounded like, but after I learned that it was supposedly Arabic, I did recognize one of the words was that she thought she was saying.

That’s not where the hilarity comes in, though. That’s only mildly amusing. No, the hilarity comes in when the actor’s press agent enthuses that the actor “learned Arabic for this role!”

Some of those are: Don Cheadle, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ben Affleck(??).

Most egregious claim of speaking Arabic: George Clooney.

The job of teaching George Clooney how to speak fluent Arabic fell to Samia Adnan

Most modest and least bullshitty: Leonardo DiCaprio.

Did you learn Arabic for the film?
“I don’t remember any of the language! I got to have a dialect coach there who helped with all the different Arabic dialects. It was very difficult.

My recollection of DiCaprio’s Arabic for this movie was that it was jarring to hear such heavily-accented Iraqi Arabic coming from this character who supposedly blended in seamlessly. Why, the native Iraqi never once suspected that DiCaprio’s character was an American. I was inappropriately embarrassed for him. Probably vicariously feeling shame about my own Arabic speaking skills.

TV Tropes has a page about “faux fluency” here.

I posted about Arabic in movies a while back on this blog. The post is here. Enjoy.


Filed under arab, arabic, arabist, language, movies and shows, translation

Harlan Bonmot Comic

I’ve had the hard copy of this for a few years, don’t remember where I first saw it, but I can’t find it on the internet. It’s a bit hard to read, but if you click on the image you will get a bigger version that you can read more easily.

I disagree, though, that Mr Bonmot is a mediocre translator. I consider him a really bad translator. Well, interpreter.

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Filed under arabist, miscellaneous, translation

Crusader Broccoli

So there I was, looking up broccoli in Wikipedia and then clicking on the Arabic version of the article to see what the Arabic word for broccoli is. For the tiniest split second I was thrown by this: القرنبيط الأخضر أو البروكلي أحد نباتات الفصيلة الصليبية

“One of the crusader family of plants”? No, haha, it’s “cruciferous.” Same adjective.

That’s what makes translation fun.

Broccoli kitten loves broccoli. Now that’s fun. I bought some broccoli for my adult cats after seeing this video, and neither one of them had the slightest interest.

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Various Interesting Stories

1- Last week a suicide bomber attempted to kill Saudi Arabia’s anti-terror chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The bomb worked, the explosion occurred, and the bomber was blown to smithereens, but his target, who was in the same room with him, was only very slightly injured. How? Well, because the suicide bomber was carrying the bomb in his rectum, and this aimed the blast away from his target. AP story here.

There have been various media reports about how Assiri blew himself up. One by the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television network said the attacker concealed the explosives in his anus, allowing him to evade detection. The network also quoted an expert as saying that the method of concealment aimed the blast away from the target, while blowing the bomber to bits.

2- The Washington Times reports that all these years later, the lack of translators is still hampering the war on terror.

The necessary cadre of U.S. intelligence personnel capable of reading and speaking targeted regional languages such as Pashto, Dari and Urdu “remains essentially nonexistent,” the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence wrote in a rare but stark warning in its 2010 budget report.

3- I’m still trying to find out whether the local police are investigating pastor Blake Lorenz for luring a teenaged girl across the country to hang out at his house. YouTube video here. It’s not like he’d be the first Christian man this week in the news for abducting or seducing an underaged girl.

This YouTube video has footage of Rifqa herself. The person who posted this video is very skeptical and accuses Rifqa of (bad) acting. If you’re interested, see for yourself. I think I’ll keep my opinion to myself.

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Filed under arab, arabian, domestic terrorism, translation

Outsourcing Interpreters

The Army Times has an article about contractor linguists who are expected to perform like soldiers and marines. For some reason the DOD hasn’t chosen to train enough soldiers and marines to be interpreters, even with so many years of lead time.

It’s true that it takes a long time to get proficient at Pashto or Urdu. But then, you could get really quite good in eight years time, if you were trained properly.

DOD doesn’t want to spend its money that way, though. It prefers to pay contractors.

Troops say low-skilled and disgruntled translators are putting U.S. forces at risk.

“Intelligence can save Marines’ lives and give us the advantage on the battlefield,” said Cpl. William Woodall, 26, of Dallas, who works closely with translators. “Instead of looking for quality, the companies are just pushing bodies out here, and once they’re out the door, it’s not their problem anymore.”

The company that recruits most U.S. citizen translators, Columbus, Ohio-based Mission Essential Personnel, says it’s difficult to meet the increased demand for linguists to aid the 15,000 U.S. forces being sent to southern, Pashto-speaking provinces this year as part of President Barack Obama’s increased focus on Afghanistan. Only 7,700 Pashto speakers live in the U.S., according to the 2000 census.

How translators come to believe they won’t face danger could originate with recruiters.

“They’re going to tell you whatever it is to get you hired,” Spangler said.

Khalid Nazary, an Afghan-American citizen living in Kabul, called Mission Essential about a job and let an AP reporter listen.

He asked if he would go to “dangerous places.”

“Oh, no, no, no. You’re not a soldier. You’re not a soldier. Not at all,” the recruiter, Tekelia Barnett, said. “You’re not on the battlefield.”

The Afghan-American asked repeatedly if he would be sent on battlefield missions. Barnett said he would translate for soldiers at schools, mosques or hospitals. After being pressed on the point, Barnett said the linguist would be subject to “any” assignment, and if he didn’t want the task he could quit.

“They say you’ll get a shower once a day, have access to Internet and TV, call home six times a week,” Woodall said. “And when the guys get out, they’re completely shell-shocked. They’ve been lied to.”

Habib, the translator who spoke to the AP while carrying a heavy pack in the stifling heat, said a Mission Essential recruiter originally told him that if he passed his language test, he would work out of the main U.S. base at Bagram about 30 miles north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

“That’s what she promised me over the phone. That was attractive to me, and it was safe,” Habib said.

Once in Afghanistan, he says he was told he would lose his job if he didn’t go with the Marines to Helmand.

“It’s been very hard, very hard, physically,” said Habib, a Pashto-speaking U.S. citizen born in Pakistan who says he signed up because he wanted to serve his country.

Millions of dollars are involved. Known as Category II translators — U.S. citizens who obtain a security clearance — such linguists earn a salary that starts at $210,000 a year.

If the individual interpreters are making over 200K a year, what kind of money is the DOD paying the contracting agencies? The mind wobbles.

I wonder how much of this is due to the mindset that accurate machine translation is just around the corner or already exists. Or how much is due to the perception that DLI translators just turn out to be gay, anyway, and have to be discharged from the service.

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Filed under language, translation

It’s Less Funny When You Can Read the Arabic

Shatt al-Arab sign

This photo showed up on the Engrish is Funny blog.

What it should say is Shatt al-Arab Fresh Fish. The Shatt al-Arab is the river in southern Iraq formed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meeting up.

Boys dive into the Shatt al-Arab

Boys dive into the Shatt al-Arab

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Filed under arab, arabian, language, translation

Allah’s Fire by Chuck Holton and Gayle Roper

This is not a review, just a series of observations.

I expected this book to be full of misinformation about Arabs and Islam. Well, it had a good deal of that, but I did not anticipate how much Christian glurge there would be. As for the romance novel aspect, by the end of the book all the romantic protagonists have done is exchange “a kiss that kept her warm all night.”

There’s weird inconsistency in the few Arabic phrases the authors include. They get some short and basic Lebanese phrases right, but they write “Allah Ak’bar” with a totally gratuitous apostrophe and, as mentioned in a previous post, were amusingly wrong about how one would say, “The followers of God’s will.” (Ansar Inshallah is not it).

Inshallah is a complete sentence. It means “If God wills,” but someone probably told the authors it meant “God’s will.” If there really were an Arab terrorist group with “inshallah” as part of its name, imagine how that would play into the hands of zealous FBI and CIA agents. Everyone who said “Inshallah” would be a terror suspect. What am I saying? That’s how it is already.

The Arabs in this book are mostly residents of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Each and every male character among them would rather kill his daughter with his bare hands (or the scimitar he assuredly must carry everywhere–he’s Muslim, right?) than see her get an education.

The female protagonist, Liz, who is surprisingly, offensively ignorant of Islam despite having spent half her life in Beirut, laughably compares women’s role in Islam unfavorably to women’s role in Christianity. She offers no cites for her misapprehensions.

Liz herself is a grown woman who refers to herself a girl in her email address and likes her mom best when her mom is doing traditional womanly things like making tea and serving baklava.

Liz believes that God and Allah are two completely different things, and that Allah is bloodthirsty and full of hate. It puts me in mind of the paradigm in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia novels, where the dark-skinned, scimitar-wielding, crescent-afficionado Calormen worship the evil god Tash, and the virtuous, light-skinned Narnians worship the noble Aslan; but if there should be such a thing as a Calorman who isn’t evil and violent, he’s really worshipping Aslan, while if a Narnian is a bad boy, he’s really worshipping Tash–even though they don’t know it.

Except to Liz, even if you’re a sweet and virtuous young person, if you worship Allah, you’re wrong wrong wrong.

I had to resort to Wikipedia to refresh my memory on the Narnia books, and in doing so I found this page, Medieval Christian View of Muhammad. Lots of good stuff here.

Facts such as the Muslim belief that [Muhammad] was unlettered, that he married a wealthy widow, that in his later life he had several wives, that he ruled over a human community and was therefore involved in several wars, and that he died like an ordinary person in contrast to the Christian belief in the supernatural end of Christ’s earthly life were all interpreted in the worst possible light.[1]

Medieval scholars and churchmen held that Islam was the work of Muhammad who in turn was inspired by Satan. Muhammad was frequently calumnized and made a subject of legends taught by preachers as fact.[9] For example, in order to show that Muhammad was the anti-Christ, it was asserted that Muhammad died not in the year 632 but in the year 666 – the number of the beast – in another variation on the theme the number “666” was also used to represent the period of time Muslims would hold sway of the land.[8] A verbal expression of Christian contempt for Islam was expressed in turning his name from Muhammad to Mahound, the “devil incarnate”.[10] Others usually confirmed to pious Christians that Muhammad had come to a bad end.[9] According to one version after falling into a drunken stupor he had been eaten by a herd of swine, and this was ascribed to the reason why Muslims proscribed consumption of liquor and pork.[9]

Ha! Muslims ruled Spain alone longer than that (781 years). Take that, medieval Christians.

Speaking of 666, there is someone currently trying to convince credulous audiences that it was never the number of the beast at all, but a vision of the written word “God” in Arabic that was revealed to John of Patmos. None other than fake person Walid Shoebat. I won’t link to anything that could possibly benefit him, but here’s a blog with more info. There are people who take this seriously.

And now I’ve found a whole bunch of blogs to peruse. What a lot of different points of view there are out there.

What some Christians think Allah looks like

What some Christians think "Allah" looks like


Filed under arab, arabic, arabist, bigoted idiots, books, Islamic relations, language, religious conflict, translation

Learning Arabic

Here’s a fun essay from the New York Times Book Review that’s almost a year old. These are just excerpts, the whole thing is over here:

Learning Arabic has been like that: moments of elation alternating with grim, soul-churning despair. The language is not so much hard as it is vast, with dozens of ways to form the plural and words that vary from region to region, town to town. With every sign of progress it seems to deepen beneath you like a coastal shelf.

For anyone who knows only European languages, to wade into Arabic is to discover an endlessly strange and yet oddly ordered lexical universe. Some words have definitions that go on for pages and seem to encompass all possible meanings; others are outlandishly precise. Paging through the dictionary one night, I found a word that means “to cut off the upper end of an okra.” There are lovely verbs like sara, “to set out at night”; comical ones like tabaadawa, “to pose as a Bedouin”; and simply bizarre ones like dabiba, “to abound in lizards.”

The language can also be surprisingly vague to a Western ear. I was always troubled by Arabic’s tendency to elide the distinction between “a lot” and “too much.” I will never forget hearing an Iraqi friend, as we walked down a crowded Brooklyn street together, say loudly in English, “There are too many black people here.”

One of the pleasures of learning Arabic is hearing long-familiar words in their natural context, shorn of the poisonous ideological garb they often bear in this country. Once you begin to do that, American attitudes toward the language itself, along with all things Arab and Muslim, can begin to seem jarringly hostile and suspicious.

To take a recent example: Last winter, New York City announced plans for a new Arabic-language public secondary school in Brooklyn. An aggressive campaign against the school soon sprang up, despite the uncontroversial presence of Chinese, Russian, Spanish and other dual-language schools in the city. Opponents and local newspaper columnists began branding the (as yet unopened) school a “jihad recruiting center” and a “madrassa” and demanding it be closed. For Arabic speakers, the very title of the “Stop the Madrassa” campaign — now national in scope — is bound to have an uncomfortable ring. Madrassa is the Arabic word for “school”; it could not be more wholesome. But as the school’s opponents know, in this country it has taken on a far more sinister valence, thanks to press reports about religious schools in Pakistan that are said to teach Taliban-style militancy. The school’s principal was later replaced after a fracas over another Arabic word, intifada, that has taken on a meaning here entirely different from the one it has among Arabs.

One has to wonder whether these attitudes have inhibited our ability to train more Arabic speakers. Although enrollments in postsecondary Arabic study more than doubled from 2002 to 2006, the attrition rate is high, and the number of students who persist and become truly proficient — much harder to measure — is very small. The government and military are still struggling to find the translators they need.

The reasons for this failure are many, and inseparable from the Arab world’s long history of troubled relations with the West. But alongside them is the simple fact that even with the best of teachers — like mine — the language requires a degree of patience and commitment that verges on the absurd. “Don’t worry,” one of my teachers told me half-jokingly. “Arabic is only hard for the first 10 years. After that it gets easier.”

It’s true. It does.


Filed under arabic, language, translation