The Motherload of #UsefulEuphemisms: Subtitling Foreign Media in Egypt

Watching TV in Arabic is a fantastic way to get more listening practice and generally improve your vocabulary and comprehension, and I highly suggest all Arabic learners do this during their down time whenever possible. But when you get sick of that, or when there’s nothing to watch except Saudi men practicing falconry and Amr Adeeb flailing his arms about / having his weekly heart attack on air, you’ll inevitably find yourself flipping over to an English language movie. And I’m here to tell you how to make this experience quadruple the fun: pay attention to the subtitles.

This guy.

This guy. Amirite?

There are two things you’ll notice watching foreign films, especially those shown by MBC, which happens to be Saudi-owned: very obviously censored kissing scenes and highly suspect translations. In reality most channels have their own issues in this regard, like Mazzika, which made the questionable (yet also fantastic) decision to provide lyrics translations for all the music videos it shows–in Ke$ha’s Timber (خشب) “It’s going down,” is translated انها سوف تسقط while Alicia Keys’ This girl is on fire becomes هذه الفتاة متحمسة جدا (lit. ‘This girl is very excited.’) The salacious line ‘She say she love my lolly’ from Maejor Ali’s Lolly video is rendered simply انها تحبني كثيرا (lit. ‘She loves me very much’). In short, you have stumbled upon a pure gold mine of Fusha fails.

In terms of MBC subtitling, the sentence ‘He’s gay’ is consistently translated to انه غريب الاطوار (roughly ‘He’s whimsical/eccentric’) despite the fact that a word (مثلي) does, in fact, exist to express this concept in Modern Standard Arabic. The word girlfriend is expressed through the flat صديقة while “Wanna make out?” is butchered into هل تريدين الاستمتاع؟ (lit. ‘Do you want to enjoy?’), which, let’s be real, sounds way more sexual than the original.

And the colorful spectrum of English swears–every single permutation of inappropriate speech you could think of–is reduced to one of two options: تبا لك (screw you) and اللعنة عليك (‘damn you.’ Google translate also purports this to mean ‘by gosh!’).

In this way, taking care to read the subtitles while consuming foreign media in Egypt becomes an exercise in critiquing translations of cultural concepts that are fraught with controversy (romantic relationships before marriage, sexuality, even swearing). Fusha, in my opinion, will never be capable of accurately transmitting the gist of colloquial speech in any language, a sampling of its failings detailed above. Instead of carrying out its intended purpose–actually, you know, translating the text–the use of Modern Standard Arabic to subtitle foreign films and music ends up providing another unintentional layer of entertainment on top of your regularly scheduled program. And I guess that may not be such a terrible thing after all.



  1. This is pure win :-)

    And in the spirit of this post: “This blog is so cool” -> “المدونة دي ساقعة جدًا”!

  2. And according to MBC the Arabic translation of “You got punk’d” is نُفِذَ مقلب بك. I like to pronounce the Dammateen on مقلب for the full effect.

  3. Fox Series used to have a subtitled run of “The Simpsons” and it was very racy.
    Homer’s F bomb scene was translated as “ن…” (could be completed in colloquial dialects in various ways with the same rough meaning)
    Anti-religion episodes don’t get showed period (it’s a highly unpopular thing to do, even besides the legal issues), but “god” mentioned is translated as الخالق (the creator)
    lesbians use the normal translation سحاقيات,
    gay use the “شاذ” (literally “irregular”, which has a double meaning – both eccentric/unique behavior -used often as شاذ الأطوار, and the commonly used word for the sexuality -مثلي (from the word for “the same” plus the relation suffix) is a neutered politically-correct word local feminist organizations came with, and it’s seldom used outside some Arabic-speaking western news channels- so your example from MBC2 (a Saudi-owned network that butchers translations done by the Lebanese studios a lot – they air unedited elsewhere -) was first worded as شاذ الاطوار then censored a second time.
    Sex is intact, as جماع / يضاجع…
    Breasts as نهد / صدر / ثدي
    Ass as أرداف / ثدي
    Testicles as خصيتين …
    They even go to the length of preserving sexual double entendres.
    The other flowery f bomb slurs that are more of a speech pattern than an integral part of the meaning. are just omitted but that’s not that different from how these shows are subbed in other languages

    Often for MBC2, Lebanese subbing studios just use variants of the offending word that mean the exact same thing but require a higher entry level such as نفق for “to die” (for plots involving resurrection, often censored), or شراب معتق for “fine vintage drink” (the vintage part exclusively refers to wine quality in Arabic… and شراب is often used colloquially for wine/alcohol) instead of just saying wine, and ثمل instead of سكران for “drunk”. The Saudi censors almost always miss these variants, which makes the translators lives easier (they do translations for cinema premieres, and no one would attend overly censored showings, but they don’t want to do a separate script just for MBC2).

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