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.
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.