There are certain things that are better off said in Arabic, a language that never runs short of phrases that perfectly capture that very specific thing you’re feeling. So when in an animated conversation with non-Arabic speaking friends, the tempatation of using an Arabic expression is nearly impossible to resist. You translate it verbatim into English. You are met with a blank stare, and you can’t see why.
Here are 8 phrases that, much to our dismay, don’t translate well. Disclaimer: most of these are Levantine sayings, and will be following this piece up with sequels from other parts of the Arab world soon.
1. Ma ta’tee wej: “Don’t give him face”
It’s a piece of advice you often give to your friends who don’t know how to brush someone off. Don’t give that person the attention he’s seeking, we mean. Don’t give them your face, we instead say. Your foreigner friend has trouble following your guidance.
2. Eh w baa’den: “And after”
“Eh w baaden” basically means “yeah, and so what” but we are often guilty of translating it literally. It ends up as “Ok…and after?” which only makes you sound like an illiterate.
3. Kteer areeb lal aleb: “Close to the heart”
When describing someone who is sweet, nice and humble, we often describe this person as “areeb lal aleb”. The Arabic language is sometimes too sentimental for its more technical counterpart, English, and phrases like this are better said in their mother tongue.
4. Ma fee shi warana: “There’s nothing behind us”
Your friend asks you if you’re down to get coffee, and instead of answering with a simple yes/no, you say “eh, ma fee she warana” as a way of saying you have nothing better to do in your life, so yes you’ll go out for coffee. You’re surprised to see your friend swing around to see, what, in fact, is behind you guys.
5. La ijre: “To my foot”
Someone just pissed you off, and you want them to know that you couldn’t care less. You really want to show that person a piece of your mind…so you give them your foot, like your mama always told you “eh…la ijre!” Um…ok, sure.
6. Ta’aa kil youm: “Come everyday”
With hospitality being at the core of our culture, we want to convey the warmth of our hearts in the best we know how to. So this ends up happening:
Foreigner: “Thank you for having me”
What you think: “eh ta’aa kil youm”
What you say: “Come everyday.”
Foreigner: “Ok, I think we need to establish some boundaries.”
7. Safa’o el hawa: “The wind hit him”
Our mothers are often guilty of this one. Stomach ache? Headache? Shoulder hurts? It’s all the wind’s fault!
8. Kil hadis ilo hadees: “Every accident has a conversation”
This phrase echoes conventional wisdom that problems should be dealt with one at a time. But, translate it to English and you’re going to have a hard time explaining the relationship between accidents and conversation that to you just seems so…obvious.