This is a post about the highs and lows of translation, the difficulties of colloquial, and – perhaps most importantly – the cack-handed half-heartedness of Netflix’s subtitling.
In my actual life – that is, when I’m not following my real vocation of writing snarky and/or fake-authoritative posts about Syrian dialect on the internet – I work as a translator. I also, sometimes, watch TV (as the innumerable lines from musalsalat I’ve used as examples might suggest). We’ve already slated the bizarre and occasionally desperately wrong stabs at English you can find in MBC’s abysmal MSA subtitling – but bad translation is far from confined to media conglomerates and their poor renderings of 4-year-old American B-movies. It turns out that it’s also a problem for groundbreaking American streaming services’ poor renderings of (relatively new) Syrian-Lebanese dramas.
You might already be aware of الهيبة, the breakout Mafia drama (and periodic Godfather ripoff) starring Teim Hasan and Nadine Nasib Njeim – if not from watching it, then because of the vast outpouring of memes it produced. I started it a while ago for the plot, but after discovering that it was being aired on Netflix my interest shifted rapidly and sadly predictably to professional curiosity about the translation. And I wasn’t disappointed.
I should say before we dive into some of the weirder translation choices and how they should be fixed that I don’t blame the translator for most of this stuff. They clearly got a native speaker of Arabic whose English is decidedly non-native to do these translations – which has its advantages, especially in a field (colloquial translation) where there’s a shortage of native anglophones. But if you’re going to take that option, at least fork out for a native English proof-reader.
The point of this post isn’t just to shit all over Netflix’s translation. Since these translations are clearly the work of a native Arabic speaker, the translation errors are not about misunderstanding the source but conveying it inaccurately in the target language. Mistakes in a foreign language are often interesting insights into how someone’s native language works – which can be useful for learners in avoiding the same mistakes. There are a lot of occasions where the translator departs from the source text in an attempt to make it more comprehensible or more idiomatic, and ends up using even more conspicious Arabisms than they would have done if they’d just stuck to something more literal. These are, from a linguistic point of view, very interesting.
Oh – and one more caveat. Since I imagine Netflix might be a bit more litigiously-inclined than your average Arab drama production company, I obviously won’t be including samples of video here (it’s difficult in any case to extract video from Netflix and I’d have to resubtitle it). But I will give timestamps in case you want to check the words out in context.
Anyway, with no further ado, let’s launch into the mistakes themselves.
1) Lack of tense agreement
This is one of the problems that could really have been solved so easily even by the laziest and most slapdash of English editors.
لا لسا. قلت لحالي بمر عليكي شوف شو صار معك بعدين منكمل ع البيت
laa lissa. 2élt la7aali bmérr 3aleeki shuuf shuu Saar ma3ek ba3deen ménkammel 3albeet
Their translation: Not yet. I thought I will come here first. Then we’ll go together. (Ep 20, 4:40)
My translation: Not yet. I thought I’d come here first (and see how you were doing) and then we’d go back together.
This is in response to the question ‘did you swing by the house?’ so the ambiguity of ‘we’ll go together’ (where the Arabic has عالبيت) is forgivable. شوف شو صار معك (literally ‘to see what has happened with you’) also contributes little enough to the meaning that dropping it is probably justified – when subtitling you often have to cut down the original to make the written English digestible in the time available. But assuming you’re a native speaker of English, even if you don’t know intellectually what ‘tense agreement is’, that ‘I thought I will come here first. Then we’ll go together.’ should be like nails down a blackboard to your native intuition – even though it (or more accurately because it) copies the Arabic syntax (literally ‘I said I’ll drop in on you to see what has happened with you then we’ll carry on to the house’) literally.
2) Weird conditionals
شو بدو يشتغل حماية عندك شي بدو يشتغل درايفر عندك بحس انو بينفعوك الك اكتر مني
shi béddo yéshtéghel 7imaaye 3éndak shi béddo yéshteghel draayver 3éndak b7éss 2énno byénfa3uuk 2élak 2aktar ménni
Their translation: Some of them want to work as guards for you, others as drivers for you. I feel like they’ll come in handy for you rather than me. (E20, 25:00)
My translation: Guys who want to be your bodyguard, guys who want to be your driver – I feel like they’d be more use to you than me.
Here a character is doing job interviews but all she’s getting is people wanting to work for her husband. I don’t envy a native speaker of Arabic trying to convey this, because shi… shi… doesn’t really have a direct equivalent, so for a translator it’s really a matter of first understanding the original and then using intuition to settle on something that sounds natural in English. What I’m more interested in though actually is the use of the future rather than the conditional in the second clause. As we know, the simple present in Arabic often conveys a vaguely conditional or ‘dispositional’ meaning for which ‘would’ is usually better in English than a future or a present. (Also not sure why they went for ‘rather than me’ when a literal translation of the Arabic would have conveyed the original better).
3) Literal translations of Arabic expressions (that sometimes aren’t even there in the original)
انت ناوي تجلطا لامك؟
inte naawi téjléTa la2émmak?
Their translation: are you intending to give your mother a stroke? (E22, 42:10)
My translation: Are you trying to give mum a stroke?
The context here is that a character is insisting on keeping a woman he rescued from being sold to an enemy in his house, despite his brother’s complaints. جلط doesn’t really have the same close connection with the literal medical phenomenon of having a stroke as the English expression, which although it can be used metaphorically, invokes the actual illness much more than جلط does. Since, however, the two characters’ mother is actually frail and ill, I’m all right with using جلط here even if the exact implication is a bit different from the Arabic (which simply implies frustrating or wearing her out) because we end up with the same meaning: you’re driving her mad with this behaviour.
Weirder is the ‘your mother’ – the two characters are brothers. Saying امك in this context, to a sibling or اخوك or ابوك etc, is natural in Arabic – particularly in a context of chastisement – but in English it sounds bizarre, as if she’s not also the mother of the second brother. Likewise, ناوي here – although generally translatable as ‘intending’ – sounds very off when literally translated that way into English. We would say, I think, ‘trying’.
انا بزمناتي وقت كنت لسا اصغر منك انفرضت عليي جوازتها لسمية السعيد فرض. كانت لساتها ولد ما ما بتعرف شي.. اربع سنين من عمري انكبو كب. ومع هيك ولا قلت هي حياتي ولا قلت تضرب عيشتي
2ana bzamanaati wa2@t ként léssa 2azghar ménnak @nfaraDet 3aleyyi jwaazéta lasumayya ssa3iid farD. kaanet lissaata walad maa bta3ref shi. 2arba3a sniin mén 3émri nkabbu kabb. w ma3 heek wala 2élt hayy 7ayaati wala 2élt téDrab 3iishti.
Their translation: Back in the days when I was even younger than you, I was forced to marry Somayya Al-Said. She was just a young girl who knows nothing. Four years of my life were wasted just like that. Nevertheless, I didn’t say that I’m free with my life, or that I had a miserable life here. (E15, 11:24)
My translation: Back in the day, when I was even younger than you are now, I was forced to marry Somayya Al-Said. She was just a young girl who didn’t know anything. Four years of my life wasted – just like that. But not once did I say ‘this is my life to do with as I please’. And not once did I despair of living that way.
This one is something of a gold mine.To be fair ‘back in the days when I was even younger than you’ might just about pass muster – I think the structure of the Arabic (where bzamanaati is separate from wa2@t ma) is making me want a more directly faithful translation, but that’s not necessary. But we then have a tense error (‘she was just a young girl who doesn’t know anything’), mirroring the Arabic literally. I quite like their choice for انكبو كب, but the final sentence is a trainwreck. ‘Nevertheless’ for مع هيك, while in a more naturally phrased sentence that didn’t already set the native intuition a-tingling it might sneak under the radar, seems to be to be jarringly literary for this kind of context (maybe if we said ‘but nonetheless’ or ‘but nevertheless’ it might sound a bit better?)
The best bit, though, is هي حياتي – which is meant to mean ‘it’s my life’. The translator seems to have sensed that ‘it’s my life’ sounded funny and opaque in English on its own, especially without intonation – and resolves the problem by translating it indirectly. The translation, unfortunately, is not a natural English expression but a literal translation of a different Arabic expression – حياتي وحر فيها ‘it’s my life and I’m free in/with it’.
تضرب عيشتي is a difficult one. It literally means ‘may my life/way of living be struck’, but expresses a feeling that your life is terrible. There are a couple of close-ish alternatives in English, but none that are as inoffensive (and TV-safe) as this. I approve of the rephrasing in principle but I’m not sure how nice that rephrasing actually is.
‘Not once’ also, I think, conveys the strength of ولا more nicely than the original translation does.
4) Fundamentally bizarre wording
منيح. بس لازمو شي اربعة وعشرين ساعة لحتى يجمد مزبوط
mnii7. bass laazmo shi 2arba3a w3éshriin saa3a la7atta yéjmad mazbuuT
Their translation: Good. But it needs another 24 hours to be much dense. (E19, 34:40)
My translation: It’s good. But it needs another 24 hours to get the proper consistency/to thicken properly.
This one is pretty much self-explanatory. The speaker has just tasted some لبن, which if you’ve never had it (shame on you) is savoury yoghurt. jémed yéjmad refers to the process of… well, I think the technical term might well be ‘curdle’. مزبوط here means ‘exactly right’ or ‘properly’. How the translator ended up at ‘much dense’ I’m genuinely not quite sure, but I suspect it was another effort at free translation that ended up with a swing and a miss. I’m also not sure about the منيح – often with Arabic adjectives standing alone the most natural English equivalent is a full sentence with a copula.
بس يجي جبل رح نخليه يدوقون
bass yéji jabal ménkhallii yduu2on
Their translation: When Jabal is here, we’ll ask him to have a taste.
My translation: When Jabal gets here we’ll ask/get him to have a taste.
وخليه يحكيني كمان
wkhallii yé7kiini kameen
Their translation: Let him call me too, please.
My translation: And ask him/get him to give me a call, please.
The first one is actually not that bad, but the second one makes the classic mistake of getting mixed up between various English causative constructions. Both these sentences use خلي, which in different contexts can mean ‘get someone to X’, ‘make someone X’ or ‘let someone X’. Here the context (talking to a servant) and naturalness both rule out no. 2 and no. 3 – but it’s perhaps difficult to make that call for a non-native speaker. ‘Let him call me’ makes it sound like the servant steals his phone off him as soon as he comes into the house.
Incidentally, the plural in yduu2on refers to an implied لبنات labanaat, a plural form which is discussed at the end of this post.
Here’s another example:
بعات حدا يجيب سيارتو للدب وانت خليك هون وما تنزل ع البلد لحتى نعرف شو بدو يصير
b3aat 7ada yjiib siyyaarto laddébb w2inte khalliik hoon w maa ténzel 3albalad la7atta na3ref shu béddo ySiir
Their translation: Have someone bring Debb’s car and you stay here and never go downtown until we figure out what’s happening. (E5, 20:20)
My translation: Send someone to get Debb’s car. Stay here and don’t go into the city until we figure out what’s happening.
I’m not sure what happened here. ‘Have someone bring Debb’s car’ is one of the occasions on which a freer translation seems to have worked out all right, although I think ‘get’ is a nicer translation than ‘bring’ here (at this point in the post my brain is starting to get accustomed to 3arabiizi in an unhelpful way to be quite honest with you) – but there’s no real reason for not going for the more literal ‘send someone to get Debb’s car’. ‘Until we figure out what’s happening’ is also a very nice translation that hits what is literally ‘until we know/find out what’s going to happen’ right on the head idiomatically.
The weirder one, though, is ‘never go downtown’. The meaning here is ‘don’t go into Beirut’ – they’re not in a different area of the city but two hours away in the countryside (‘downtown’ to me implies going from one part of the city into the city centre, which can be what عالبلد means but not here). As for ‘never’, I suspect this might be another stab at a freer translation to clarify the meaning that ends up using an Arabism – in this case a literal translation of عمرك or ابدا, which might be used here in the Arabic to emphasise the command (similar to ‘at all’) in a way that ‘never’ in English can’t.
5) Swing and a miss on English idiom
There are quite a few occasions where the translator has clearly (and probably very proudly) taken the opportunity to show off an idiomatic, less direct translation that they think belongs to the realm of English idiom. There may well be plenty of moments where this has worked out very well for them – but there are also plenty of moments where they miss the mark completely. Here’s one example:
شو يا دب؟ اي طريق بدنا ناخد معك؟ الصعب ياما الاصعب؟
shuu ya débb? Ayya Tarii2 baddna naakhod ma3ak? éSSa3b ya2émma l2aS3ab?
Their translation: So, Debb. How do you want to deal with this? The easy road or the high road? (E5, 17:26)
My translation: So, Debb. How do you want to play this? The hard way, or the even harder way?
You could perhaps make the argument that ‘the hard way or the even harder way’ reads less naturally in English than ‘the hard way or the easy way’, even though in Arabic as well it’s an intuitive play on exactly that expression and can be conveyed, I think, pretty nicely into English. In any case, the ‘high road’ in English means something entirely different to ‘the hard way’ – i.e. taking the moral path which you should take even if it’s difficult – and ‘way’, not ‘road’, is the nice translation here in English even if the Arabic literally says ‘which road should we take with you?’
ولله يا وطن تاخد الطريق اللي بدك ياه. انا مخصنيش بشي ومعنديش شي لقولو كمان
waLLa ya waTan taakhod éTTarii2 élli béddak iyyaa. 2ana makhaSSniish bshi w ma3éndiish shi la2uulo kameen.
Their translation: Choose the road you like. I’m irrelevant. I have nothing to say as well.
My translation: However you want, boss. I haven’t done anything, and I’ve got nothing to say.
This is the response to the above line. يا وطن (a way of referring to police, etc – in Syrian you can say حكومة) is missed out entirely from the English despite the translator’s penchant for tortured renderings of general terms of address in ways that evoke Downton Abbey more than the Sopranos (معلم as ‘master’, ست ناهد as ‘lady Nahed’ etc). The first half we have to change to fit with the general English phrasing – the question is not ‘which road’, but ‘how’ (i.e. in which way). But it’s the second half I like best – ‘I’m irrelevant’ is a pretty free translation of مخصنيش بشي (the rural Lebanese ma-sh negation – Beiruti has maa khaSSni) which in fact means ‘I have nothing to do with…’ or ‘X has nothing to do with me’. There’s also the awkward translation of كمان as ‘as well’ in a negative sentence – while we can use kamaan freely regardless of whether the main verb is negative or declarative, in English *’I don’t know as well’ is like nails on a blackboard.