Lost In Translation Middle East Style

middle finger Eygelass Case JordanAs America hunts for clues on the Boston Bomber suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Laurie goes on with life and looks to the follies of communication in the Middle East. 

Communication is key to everything. Every driver knows that intersections are risky, but the crossroad of language and culture is especially prone to accidents.  Need proof? I pick up my new Jordanian eyeglasses and the doc hands me its case (see above): I’m silenced. Go home puzzled, post the image on Facebook and ask “What is he telling me?”  A friend instantly advises, “Your vision in f***ed!”

From Crust toothpaste in Saudi Arabia to f***ed up vision in Jordan, humor can act as a universal grease to help ease awkward situations, and the Middle East bursts with communication comedy.  Check out this sign in the newly opened Queen Alia International Airport terminal:

Poorly Translated SIgnage in jordan airport

I started to see it, years back, at a pool. Eager to make the our transition from Dublin a happy one, the husband signed us up at a family sports club in Amman.  Turned out to be a Christian club, and as it was Ramadan, his choice had a non-spiritual benefit: we could buy lunch.

Everyone was friendly and spoke English, but only to us.  We swam and sunbathed and sort of guiltily ate our salads to the background singsong of Arabic chat.  Our deeply ingrained wise-guy DNA helped us cope with our new-to-town awkwardness.  We started reading T-shirts.

One shouted, “New York City: Get Sportie!”  A Yankees shirt was spelled with three “e’s”. The tiger-striped “Pricetown University” sent me underwater to muffle laughter.

Disclaimer: it’s not just Amman. Americans are saturated with Chinese imports whose monstrous misspellings and horrendous translations provide a lifetime of old school laffs.  Here in Jordan, I hope someday to speak Arabic as well as these invisible merchants speak English, but you gotta love them for the comedic relief.

Bad translation photo of t shirt

We walk the old medina with visiting family. Amongst tabletops cluttered with plumbing fixtures and clip-on hair chrysanthemums, I spot a neatly stacked pile of men’s undies by designer Calvn Klain.  Buy a dozen as goofy Christmas stocking stuffers.

Wrong translation calvin klane calvin klein underwear

There’s not enough space in this story to capture all the typo t-shirts.

My kid hops off the school bus and explodes through the apartment door, shows me a snap on her phone: an automotive store (with mathematical ambitions?) on her school route named “The Latest Addition”.

CRUST toothpaste in saudi arabia

I repeat, it’s not just Jordan.

Green Prophet reader Sa’ada once left a comment about shopping in Saudi. She stumbled across a tube of toothpaste, the font and colors exactly copied from big brand “Crest”. Says Sa’ada, “Well, they had to change something, right?  But unfortunately they chose to swap out the ‘e’ for a ‘u’. Crust toothpaste! Who wouldn’t want to brush their teeth with ‘Crust’?”

“Miss Communication” isn’t a beauty pageant queen, but she makes for some stunningly gorgeous belly laughs. As Shakespeare said, “A rows buy any udder name wood smell as suite.”

Image of CRUST by Jean Bradbury, all others by author.

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7 thoughts on “Lost In Translation Middle East Style”

  1. Colleen says:

    I found some of that toothpaste once and it made a great gift too!

    1. I wonder what’s in it? A good gift for enemies maybe?

  2. YourSister says:

    Let me contribute to your excellent findings with a couple of my own gems from my trip to China last year:
    Airport sign: Exit to Flight Cancellations (= Departures)
    Public bathroom sign: Toilet for the Weak (this was the only stall that had a bowl, the rest were squat toilets)

  3. laurie says:

    Maurice – makes perfect sense for the bigger knock-offs (like CRUST) – and some of the fast food joints spotted in smaller villages (like “Ken Tuckee’s Fried Chicken – still kicking myself for not having a camera handy!).

    The designer undies though are a puzzle, and have prompted a sort of shopping Olympics among my friends who’ve so far found Calen Klvin, Cavan Klean, Calvan Keiln, and Clevin Klaan!

  4. Brian Nitz says:

    Excellent article Laurie! I love the idea that humor is the lubricant necessary to get us beyond these communication differences. I was chatting with an Irish fellow the other day about the fact that the US gov Mortgage bank is named Fannie Mae. And it turns out that a work history highlighting experience as an IRA (Individual Retirement Account) Specialist doesn’t help when applying to work at Irish banks. Multinationals have to consider everything from thumbs up and OK logos to what a Arabic phrase a Coca-Cola logo resembles when someone’s eyesight is #&*@ed and they squint at the backwards text. Chevy found out that their “Chevy Nova” didn’t sell well in Mexico because “Chevy No va” means Chevy doesn’t go.

    I’d give this article the Facebook thumbs up, but in Iran and Iraq that gesture is considered beyond rude.

  5. Maurice says:

    I don’t think some of these “typos” were accidental. Their use prevents being sued later on for copying brand names. Makes sense.

  6. Catherine LJ says:

    It usually bothers me to see typos, but, I think, now that I’m no longer there, I just miss them. I guess I just miss the Middle East that much…. 🙂

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