Beautiful Arabic Phrases That Don't Make Sense in English
By Ivey Noojin/Arab America Contributing Writer
Translating from Arabic to English has become more popular due to the United States’s increased interest in the Arab World. As Arabs migrate to the West, they bring not only their culture and religion with them but also their language.
Many Arab Americans know the struggle of trying to express themselves in English and getting confused looks because their direct translations of Arabic phrases don’t make sense in the other language. Or there is a certain expression that can describe exactly what they are feeling, but it is only in Arabic.
Overall, as the Arab American communities grow, there will be more discussions about translation and its resulting difficulties.
Translation from Arabic to English
Translation is actually a bigger issue than most people think. If you speak Arabic and English, then you know that the syntax is completely different. So how do you take one sentence that makes sense in Arabic and convert it to a similar sentence that expresses the same idea in English?
There are several options in the translating world. Some decide to translate the sentence word for word, while others translate by sentiment instead. The true translations often do not make sense in the second language and are usually meant for people who know how to speak both idioms. The approximate translations are easily understood in the second language, but they take away the writing of the original author and incorporate more of the writing of the translator instead.
Nonsensical English Translations
There are multiple examples of Arabic phrases that do not make sense when directly translated. Here are some examples:
In Arabic, this generally means empty air or apathy. However, in English, it means “poo on you.”
Arabic speakers use this phrase with someone who made them proud. However, the direct translation into English is “whitening one’s face.”
This also means “whitening one’s face” in English, but Arabic uses it to depict someone who is kissing up to someone of authority.
This is a phrase that specifically the Lebanese use to describe someone, generally a loved one, who you cannot live without. In English, this translates to “you bury me.”
Arabic speakers say this in response to a favor, generally meaning that they would do anything for that person. However, in English, this means “on my head.”
This is a very common phrase in Arabic for birthday and Christian and Muslim holiday wishes. In English, the direct translation of this is “with each year, you are peaceful.”
There are other examples in a previous article done by Arab America, which you can read here, called “8 Arabic Phrases You Wish Translated Well, But Don’t.”
Arabic Words With Allah
Some of the most prominent examples of phrases that cannot be directly translated into English involve Allah. Arabic incorporates religious phrases and words into their daily usage, even if they do not mean it in a religious way.
Nowadays, people generally know that these words and phrases don’t necessarily have a religious connotation to them. Many Arabic speakers use them because they have become engrained in the Arab and Arab American cultures. Also, Muslims, including the ones who do not speak Arabic, sprinkle these examples in their conversations to represent their faith.
Non-religious Arabic Words
Here is a list of everyday Arabic words that have Allah in them but are not used in a religious sense:
In English, this means “let’s go.” Yallah is one of the most common words in the Arabic language. Arabic speakers use it everywhere, from making people go somewhere with you to yelling at the car in front of you to speed up.
Mashallah means “good job” in English. It is a genuine compliment in Arabic, one not riddled in jealousy.
Like Yalla, Inshallah is probably one of the most common words in the Arabic language. Its direct translation to English is “God willing” but has other functions, such as yes, maybe, or not sure. Arabic speakers often use this phrase to get out of committing to something in that moment.
Wallah is basically saying “I swear” in English. Generally, Arabic speakers use this word when they are talking about something unbelievable to emphasize that they are telling the truth.
Religious Arabic Phrases
There are also several Arabic phrases with the word Allah within them that have a more religious connotation.
Here is a list of phrases that have to do with wishes for success. You need add an “i” to address a female and “u” to address group of people:
- Allah yiwafkak: May God help you succeed
- Allah yijaezeek: May God reward you
- Allah yitaamak: May God give you, soothing your desire
- Allah yikabber min queemtak: May God promote you to be of greater value
- Allah yifrig(ha) laik(i): May God be open to providing you with better things
Here is a list of religious sayings for protection and wellbeing of a person:
- Allah ateek: May God give you health or wealth
- Allah yikoun ma-ak : May God be with you
- Allah yihmeek: May God protect you
- Allah yin-aam alaik: May God grace you
- Allah yihfazak: May God take care of you
- Allah yisalmak: May God keep you safe
- Allah yirda alaik: May God be happy with you
Even though direct translation between Arabic and English is hard, there is beauty in trying, especially within Arab American communities. There is no need to be a reconciliation between the two languages. Fortunately, we live in a world where knowing both languages is encouraged and blessed.