A long, long time ago, we did a brief post about the use of ابو in Egyptian to express a certain kind of possession. This post is a specifically Levantine expansion on that one.

‘The one with’, ‘the one wearing’

Very much a شب ابو لحية

Even if you’ve only taken your first few steps in learning Arabic, chances are you know the word ابو abu ‘father of’ – even if it’s only from people’s names. You will probably also have learnt the word أم ‘mother’, at least in fuSHa. (While 2abu is the same in all dialects in this context, its counterpart, ام ‘mother’, is either 2əmm (Sy/Leb), 2imm (Pal or Palestinian-Jordanian) or 2umm (Jor), depending on where you’re from. The first two alternatives are pronounced very similarly.)

What you might not have come across, however, is the idiomatic use of these two words in contexts like the following, where it means ‘the one with’, ‘the one wearing’ etc (and is more or less synonymous with fuSHa ذو and similar to one of the uses of another useful word, تبع):

شفت ام الاحمر؟
shəf@t 2əmm @l2a7mar? (S)
Did you see the one (the girl) in red? [the mother of red]

لا لا ابو العيون الزرقا
la la, 2abu l3ayuun izzar2a (P)
No, no, the one (the guy) with blue eyes [the father of the blue eyes]

ام الجاكيت والبنطلون شفتك واقفة فوق البلكون
2əmm @jjakeet w@lbanTaloon shəftek waa2fe foo2 @lbalkoon (L)
The girl with the jacket and the trousers, I saw you standing on the balcony

All these three examples refer to actual people. But ابو and ام can be used in more or less the same meaning to refer to any masculine or feminine object respectively. Likewise, 2əmm can be used with plurals where feminine singular agreement is permissible:

هات ام الخمسين ليرة
haat 2əmm @lkhamsiin leera (S)
Give me the fifty lira one [bottle, قنينة, fem.]

هات ابو الخمسين ليرة
haat 2abu lkhamsiin leera (S)
Give me the fifty lira ones [courgettes, كوسا, masc. collective]

ناس ام وجهين
naas 2umm wijheen (J)
Two-faced people [plural]


ابو and ام are also used, as you probably know, in conjunction with the eldest (male) child’s name to form common terms of address.People with children are usually known by these names rather than their first name, and some people are sensitive about their wives’ or mothers’ actual first names in particular being used instead of this form. Note that although this sort of name is formally called كنية kunya in fuSHa, in Syrian كنية kənye usually refers to the surname instead and these names fall under the general category of لقب laqab ‘nickname’. You’re more likely to hear people 2abu and 2əmm 3ammaar for example.

Some men who don’t have children still have nicknames of this kind, usually derived from their father’s name (on the assumption that your oldest male child will be named after your dad, which is common).

ابو and ام are also used with a form derived from people’s first names (usually CuuC) to form nicknames entirely unrelated to the names of their children:

ابو اللول abu lluul < lu2ayy
ابو اللوس abu lluus < 2ilyaas
ام السوس imm issuus < sawsan, su3aaad

Some men’s names have associated nicknames not derived in this way. Usually this is because of a historical or culturally important figure with a child of the same name:

ابو علي abu 3ali < 7seen (Husayn, i.e. because of Ali Abu Talib, whose son was named Husayn, whose son was thus named 3ali)

Nicknames of this kind are also often used as pseudonyms in artistic or political contexts.

unnamedThis is another post about a common and versatile verb you probably won’t get taught in colloquial classes: زبط (sometimes spelt ظبط, though this does not reflect a different pronunciation) zabaT. Although its meanings and uses are more or less the same in all four dialects, its exact vowelling in the present tense is different: while Syr, Jor and Pal all have o (yəzboTyuzboT and yuzboT respectively, with predictable differences you can read more about in the South Levantine verbs post) Leb has yəzbaT, with an a.

Probably the most common use of the expression is to mean ‘work out’, or ‘manage’ in the sense of get something done/succeed in something:

هيك تسريحة ولا عمرها زبطت معي
heek tasrii7a wala 3umrha zabTat ma3i (PAL)
I’ve never been able to get that sort of style right
That sort of style has never worked for me

ما رح تزبط معك
maa ra7 təzboT ma3ak (SYR)
It’s not going to work out for you
You won’t be able to do it

مش عم تزبط معي
mish 3am təzbaT ma3i (LEB)
I just can’t get it right!
I just can’t understand it! (this is the title of a Nassif Zeytouni song)

حياتي مش زابطة
7ayEEti mish zaabTa (LEB)
My life’s a mess
My life just isn’t in order

في اشي مش زابط
fii 2ishi mish ZaabeT (JOR)
There’s something not right [about this situation]

اذا واحد ضد التاني بيزبط
2iza waa7ed DiDD ittaani byizboT
if it’s one against the other then that’s fine/that’ll work

You can use a subjunctive verb to form sentences like the following:

مش رح تزبط معك تكوني متلي
mish ra7 təzbaT ma3ik @tkuuni mitli (LEB)
You’ll never be like me [it won’t work for you to be like me]

Relatedly, ‘suit, work well’:

هيك محل بيزبط لكل شي
heek ma7all byəzboT lakəll shi (SYR)
A place like this could be anything [would work for anything]

كتير زابطين لبعض
ktiir zaabTiin laba3@D
They go very well together, they suit one another well

زابط عليك الدور صراحة
zaabeT 3aleek iddoor Saraa7a
The role suits you very well to be honest [زبط على = work on, suit]

ولله بتزبط هو رئيس بلدية
waLLa btəzbaT huwwe ra2iis baladiyye [LEB]
Actually I could see him as a mayor [= he’d work as a mayor]

The causative, which is zabbaT yzabbeT everywhere, has a lot of different meanings. Some are causative equivalents or extensions of the meanings above:

بدنا مين يزبطلنا الباب
bəddna miin yzabbTəlna lbaab [SYR]
We need someone to sort the door out/fix the door for us

المحبس زغير بدو تزبيط
@lma7bas @zghiir baddo taZbiiT [LEB]
The ring’s too small, it needs fixing/adjusting [= it wants adjustment/fixing]

بدك تزبط لهجتك اه
biddak @tzabbeT lah@jtak aa [PAL]
You’d better change your tone [= fix your tone]
You need to do something about your accent/dialect [= fix your dialect]

There are also a few other idiomatic meanings not predictable from these (even if they are obviously semantically linked):

بدك تزبطلك واحدة حلوة
bəddak @tzabbəTlak waa7de 7əlwe [SYR]
You want to pick up/pull a hottie [zabbaT banaat = pick up, pull]

مش مزبط حالو بالمدرسة
mish @mzabbeT 7aalo bilmadrase [PAL]
He’s not doing well/settled in well in school [zabbaT 7aalo = sort yourself out, settle down, get your affairs going smoothly]

مزبط شعراتو كتير منيح
mzabbeT sha3raato ktiir @mnii7 [JOR]
He’s done his hair very nicely

مرتو بتزبط حالها
marto bitzabbeT 7aalha [LEB]
His wife does herself up, makes herself look nice [zabbaT 7aalo = do yourself up]

Another post on a common expression.

You’ll know the relative pronoun اللي (illi/@lli, and its variants يلي yalli and الـ l-), and if you don’t, you should read this post. The equivalent to ‘it’s X who Ys’ in English is expressed literally as X illi Y. Note that the verb (Y) agrees with the pronoun, whereas in English we usually use the third person form invariably. Note as well that the first vowel of illi/@lli is, like the vowel of the definite article, usually dropped following a vowel:

هي اللي كسرتو
hiyye lli kassarəto [SYR]
It was her who broke it
She’s the one that broke it

هو اللي بعرف الطريق
huwwe lli bi3raf iTTarii2 [PAL]
It’s him that knows the way
He’s the one that knows the way

Note that unlike English it can be combined with imperatives – this sentence works in response to someone telling you تيسر tyassar ‘get out of here, go, leave’:

انتي اللي تيسري!
2inti lli tyassari!
You’re the one who [should] get out of here!
You get out of here!

This is the literal meaning of the expression. But this structure is also commonly used as a very affirmative response to a question which affirms that you do  For example:

 انت بتعرف الطريق ع الحارة؟ انا اللي بعرفها. عشنا فيها عشرين سنة بعدين انتقلنا
2ənte bta3ref @TTarii2 3a l7aara? / 2ana lli ba3rəfa! 3əshna fiyya 3əshriin səne ba3deen @nta2alna [SYR]
Do you know the way to the neighbourhood? / Of course I do! We lived there twenty years and then moved.

It might be easiest to understand the meaning here as ‘better than most!’ The implication is that the second speaker knows the way very well, because – as he says – he lived there for twenty years.

بتعرف ابو اللول؟ – انا اللي بعرفو
bta3ref 2abu lluul? – 2ana lli ba3rfo! [SYR]
Do you know Wa2el? – Of course I know him!

Here the implication is that you know Wa2el (nicknamed abu lluul) very well indeed, perhaps because you went to school with him or are very close friends with him. Here again ‘better than most!’ might work to express the meaning as well. But this construction isn’t limited as the title of this post might suggest to just the first person or to the verb بعرف. For example:

ما منلعب؟ – نحنا اللي منلعب
maa mnəl3ab? / nə7na lli mnəl3ab!
Are we [you] not card players? / Of course we are!

Here the implication is not only that you play cards but that you play cards a lot.

بتحب الملوخية؟ ولو انا اللي بحبها
bit7ibb limluukhiyye? / walaw, 2ana lli b7ibbha! [PAL]
Do you like mulukhiya? / I love it!

And here ‘I don’t just like it – I love it!’ might be a nice idiomatic translation.


This is a short post about one (very useful) aspect of a much bigger phenomenon we’ve written about in detail elsewhere (specifically in this post and in more detail in this PDF), namely participles and their uses and abuses.

If you’re relatively new to spoken Arabic, you may well have encountered words like طولان Toolaan, نحفان na7faan or كتران katraan. You might be wondering how these words differ from their simpler and more familiar equivalents طويل, نحيف and كتير. And if you’re like I was a few years ago, you might be misusing them by mistaking them for more colloquial synonyms of the words you know from fuSHa. Well, wonder no longer!

As you probably know from fuSHa, Arabic has a huge number of verbs that in a single word express concepts we often need ‘become X’ or ‘get X’ to get across in English. Some have nice English equivalents and others don’t. Most are on the form I pattern fə3el/yəf3al (fi3el/yif3ain South Levantine – you can read i for every ə in the following forms if you’re learning Jordanian or Palestinian). Here are a few examples with their corresponding adjectives:

طول يطول Təwel yəTwal ‘get longer’ < طويل Tawiil ‘long, tall’
قصر, يقصر ‪2əSer, yi2Sar ‘get shorter’ < قصير ‪2Siir ‘short’
كتر يكتر kəter yəktar ‘increase (in number), become more numerous’ < كتير ktiir ‘many, a lot’
قل يقل ‪2all y2əll ‘decrease (in number), become less numerous’ < قليل ‪ 2aliil ‘few’
خف يخف khaff ykhəff ‘lighten, become lighter’ < خفيف khafiiflight
تقل, يتقل tə2el, yət2al ‘become heavier’ < تقيل t2iilheavy
كبر, يكبر kəber, yəkbar ‘grow, get bigger, older’ < كبير kbiir ‘big, old, adult’
صغر, يصغر zəgher, yizghar ‘shrink, get smaller’ < صغير zghiir ‘small’
نحف, ينحف nə7ef, yən7af ‘get thin(ner)’ < نحيف n7iif ‘thin’
سمن, يسمن səmen, yəsman ‘get fat(ter)’ < سمين smiin ‘fat’
غلي, يغلى ghəli, yəghla ‘get (more) expensive’ < غالي ghaali ‘expensive’
رخص, يرخص rəkheS, yərkhaS  ‘get cheap(er)’ < رخيص rkhiiS ‘cheap’
حلي يحلى ‪7əli, yə7la ‘get nicer, better looking’ < حلو ‪7əlw ‘nice, good-looking’

This is a fairly small selection from a very large class of verbs, although I’ve tried to pick out some of the most commonly used ones. But what do these have to do with the -aan forms we mentioned earlier, you might ask?

The answer is that those forms are the participles of these verbs. As I’ve gone into tedious detail about elsewhere, many verbs have participles whose meanings express the result of the action expressed by the verb, which can often be roughly translated using the present perfect in English. The -aan forms carry exactly this meaning. The difference between طويل and طولان is that while the former is a sort of absolute judgement – this is long, he is tall – the latter expresses a judgement relative to some previous state:

طولان Toolaan ‘having got long(er)/tall(er)’
قصران ‪2aSraan ‘having got short(er)’
كتران katraan ‘having got (more) numerous’ (for some reason قلّ has no participle)
تقلان ta2laan ‘having got heavy, heavier’
خافف khaafef ‘having got light(er)’ (this one isn’t -aan)
كبران kəbraan ‘having got big(ger)’
زغران zaghraan ‘having got small(er)’
نحفان na7faan ‘having got thin(ner)’
سمنان samnaan ”having got fat(ter)’
غليان ghalyaan ‘having got (more) expensive’
رخصان rakhSaan ‘having got cheap(er)’
حليان ‪7alyaan ‘having got nice(r), better/good-looking)

Here are some examples of these in use:

رخصان الليمون هلإيام  بعد ما خلص موسمو
rakhSaan @llimoon hal2əyyaam ba3d ma khəleS maw@smo (S)
Lemons have got cheaper these days – [now] the season is over

الاسبوع الماضي اكتشفت اني طولانة سنتي بس نحفانة كيلو
@l2əsbuu3 @lmaaDi ktashaf@t 2ənni Toolaane santi bass na7faane kiilo (S)
Last week I discovered that I’ve got a centimetre taller but a kilogram thinner

حدا غيري حسّ انّو ابو فارس زغران شي ١٠ سنين
7ada ghayri 7ass 2ənno 2abu faaris zaghraan shi 10 @sniin? (L)
Does anyone else feel like Abu Fares has got about ten years younger?

كنت خايف تقللي سمنان
kunt khaayef @t2ulli samnaan(P/J)
I was scared you were going to say I’d got fat

ياخي والله كترانة تفاهة الناس ولا ايش!
yakhi waLLa katraane tafaahet innaas willa 2eesh? (J)
Mate, have people got stupider than they used to be or what? [has the stupidity of people got more…]

Another short post about a useful and common expression.

نفسي (for most people nifsi or nəfsi, you may hear some people say nafsi) means ‘I’d love…’ or ‘I wish (I had…)’. You can replace ـي with other pronouns, of course.

With nouns it takes بـ:

نفسي بفنجان قهوة
nəfsi bfənjaan 2ahwe
I’d love a cup of coffee

نفسي بإيشي يفرحني
nifsi b2ishi yfarri7ni
I wish I had something to make me cheery

With verbs it triggers the subjunctive:

نفسي شي مرة احلم حلم صورتو واضحة كل احلامي تصوير نوكيا
nəfsi shi marra 2ə7lam 7əl@m Suurto waaD7a kəll 2a7laami taSwiir nookya
I’d really like sometime to have a dream where the picture was clear. All my dreams are filmed on Nokias

There’s a high-quality rap by the guy from El Morabba that makes extensive use of this construction:

ايش نفسك؟
2eesh nifsak?
What’s your wish? / What would you like to happen?

نفسي نقعد نفكر ونخطط لقدام نفسي نبعد ونكرر نخبط نكسر الحيطان
nifsi nu23od nfakker nkhaTTet la2uddaam nifsi nub3od w nkarrer, nkhabbeT nuksor il7iTaan
I want us to sit down and think, to plan ahead / I want us to go away and repeat, slam and break down the walls

نفس is also used in the very useful expression:

ما إلي نفس
maa 2əli nəf@s
I don’t feel like it, I don’t have any appetite

This is a short post about how to avoid literally translating English in a very common set of constructions.

In English, the word ‘one’ pops up all over our syntax like a bad smell. As well as being a number, the source of the indefinite article (even if ‘a’ and ‘an’ no longer look much like it) and an incredibly pretentious personal pronoun, we use it a lot with adjectives and other similar words to express an example of something, an object or a person characterised by the quality of the adjective. Explaining the semantics of words using other words is tough, but you know exactly what I mean: ‘the big one’, ‘the small one’, ‘that one’, ‘this one’.

For indefinites, there is a very similar construction in Arabic:

بدي واحد كبير
bəddi waa7ed @kbiir  (SYR)
I want a big one [masc]

جبت واحدة جديدة
jibet waa7de jdiide  (PAL)
I got a new one [fem]

بدي واحد طويل
baddi waa7ad Tawiil (LEB)
I want someone tall [or a long one, etc]

For definites, though, we absolutely cannot use ‘one’. Instead, a definite adjective is used on its own (or a demonstrative pronoun, etc). (There’s also the construction with ابو or ام, discussed here). Using waa7ed in the following sentences is straightforwardly ungrammatical:

بدي الكبير
bəddi ləkbiir (SYR)
I want the big one

جبت الجداد
jibet lijdaad (PAL)
I brought the new ones

عطيني هداك
3aTiini hadaak (SYR)
Give me that one [masc]

مش هديك, التانية
mish hadiik, ittaanye (JOR)
Not that one, the other one [fem]

This works for relative clauses too:

يلي كان يشتغل عندك
yalli kaan yəshtəghel 3əndek (SYR)
The one who used to work for you

The only place where الواحد works is as a pronoun conveniently similar in meaning (but not in pretentiousness – it’s far more common than its English equivalent) to English ‘one’. Note that it by default takes masculine agreement:

الواحد صار يندم اذا اعترف بحبه
ilwaa7ad Saar yindam 2iza 3taraf b7ubbo (PAL)
These days if you admit you‘re in love you‘ll regret it [= it’s become that one regrets if he admits to his love


A quick post about a common and useful expression.

على كيفك (for most people 3ala keefak, you may hear 3ala kiifak from some people) literally means ‘on your mood’. The 3ala here is in the sense of ‘according to’ of which some other examples are given in this post. Although 3ala keefak/keefek is probably the most common form the expression can appear with any pronoun.

This expression has several distinct but related uses. The first is to say ‘as you like’, ‘in whatever way that you like’, ‘however you like’ etc:

داوم على كيفك من سيارتك
daawem 3ala keefak mən səyyaartak
Work whenever you feel like it/however much you want from your car

ايش شغل الحكومة في البلد اذا كل واحد مجتهد على كيفو بحرم وبحلل واللي مش عاجبو بفجرو
2eesh shughl il7ukuume fii halbalad 2iza kull waa7ed mujtahed 3ala keefo bi7arrem w bi7allel?
What’s the point of having a government if everyone is a mujtahed and gets to decide what’s haram and halal as they like? [= according to his mood deems (things) haram or halal]

A nice translation in many contexts is ‘up to’ as in ‘up to you’ or ‘up to him’. For example:

ما بدو يشتغل؟ شو على كيفو؟
maa bəddo yəshtəghel? shuu 3ala keefo?
He doesn’t want to work? Does he think it’s up to him? [what, (is it) up to him?]

لك مو على كيفك
lak muu 3ala keefak!
You don’t get to decide! It’s not up to you!

It can also be used as a kind of positive intensifier. In this sense the meaning is closer to ‘that you will really like’ or more broadly just ‘amazing’. It is often emphasised further by addition of another keef (on your mood’s mood):

بساويلك فنجان قهوة على كيفك
bsaawiilek fənjaan 2ahwe 3ala keefek
I’ll give you a great cup of coffee

شوتة على كيف كيفك معلم
shoote 3ala keef keefak @m3allem
It was an incredible shot, man


This is a famous song by Ziad Rahbani, one of my favourite Lebanese singers (and Feyrouz’s son, for what it’s worth). It’s in the classic Lebanese leftist ‘being poor ruined my relationship’ genre.

الحالة تعبانة يا ليلى
il7aali ta3baani yaa leyla
I’m in a bad way, Leila

Literally ‘the situation is tired’. Obviously saying ‘the situation is’ anything in English is very unidiomatic, but the same doesn’t apply to الحالة. The meaning of ta3baane here isn’t so much tired as ‘worn out’, ‘miserable’ (as in نفسيتي تعبانة ‘I’m worn out, depressed’ or بيت تعبان ‘a crappy/worn out house).

خطبة ما فيش
khéTbi mafiish
There’s no engagement

انتي غنية يا ليلى ونحنا دراويش
2inti ghaniyyi yaa leyla w né7na darawiish
You’re rich, Leila, and we’re poor

دراويش – plural of درويش, meaning something like ‘beggar’ literally.

انتي في وادي ونحنا في وادي
inti fii waadi w né7na fii waadi
We’re living in different worlds

Literally ‘you’re in a valley and we’re in a valley’. This is a common expression (X bwaad w Y bwaad) that expresses insurmountable difference between ways of thinking, social positions, etcetera.

كل لحظة بعدنا زيادة
kéll la7Za b3édna zyaade
Every moment we got further away

ارض العنا بلا سجادة وانتي معودة تمشي ع الريش
2arD il3énna bala séjjaade w2inti m3awwadi témshi 3arriish
We don’t even have a rug and you’re used to walking on feathers

ارض – floor, in this case

العنا – our house, from عندنا.

بلا سجادة – without a rug

معودة – less common than متعود, the active participle of the passive version.

تمشي ع الريش – this is an idiom referring to living a fancy life, with some wordplay obviously in the contrast with us not having a carbet. Subjunctive because of معود.

احتارو فيكي وحيروكي
7taaru fiiki w 7ayyaruuki
They were confused by you, they confused you

ضلو حتى غيروكي
Dallu 7atta ghayyaruuki
They kept going ’til they changed you

لبسوكي تاج ملوكي
labbasuuki taaj @mluuki
They put a crown on you

لبّس is causative, obvs

ونسيتي اهل الطرابيش
w @nsiiti 2ahl éTTarabiish
And you forget all about the normal people

اهل الطرابيش – you’ve probably encountered this use of 2ahl (‘the people of’) before, which is a lot more common in Arabic than in English. A طربوش is a fez, so literally ‘the fez people’. Here he’s using fez as a symbol for class, obviously.

رزق الله لمن كنتي وكنا
réz2aLLa lémmen kénti w kénna
How great it was when

رزقالله – this word has various different forms (z2aLLa, s2aLLa etc). It usually expresses nostalgia and is most commonly followed by a word meaning ‘when’.

لمن – one of various regional forms of lamma.

نجي لعندك تجي لعنا
néji la3éndek téji la3énna
We’d come and see you and you’d come and see us

The verbs are subjunctive because of the kénti w kénna in the previous sentence, which connects to this one. It’s literally ‘when you would and we would / come and see you, come and see us’.

لعندك, لعننا – the old chez-esque use of 3énd, obviously.

تاري العاش حدك وتهنى
taari l-3aash 7addek w @thanna
You know for someone who’s lived alongside you and loved it

تاري – in southern Lev 2ataari. Means something along the lines of ‘turns out that’.

العاش حدك وتهنى – this is a reduced form of اللي عاش حدك وتهنى, i.e. ‘who has lived next to you and loved it’.

صعبة يرجع وحدو ويعيش
Sa3bi yérja3 wa7do w y3iish
It’s difficult to go back to living alone

يرجع وحدو ويعيش — literally ‘go back to being on his own and live’ – this is a common use of réje3 with nouns, adjectives etc. Subjunctive because of ‘it’s difficult for’.



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.