Although many like to think that translation is a simple word-to-word, fill in the blanks-type exercise, the existence of words in one language that can’t be translated accurately into others consistently demonstrate how horribly wrong this idea is. The seven examples given below lack an accurate, one-word translation into English because in these cases and many others, translating words and phrases is an exercise in translating culture.
1. بواب (Bawab)
Representing so much more than a doorman, the bawab is one part car-washer, one part errand-runner, one part security guard, and two parts enforcer of prevailing societal moral codes, unless maybe there are some bribes involved. The bawab has the potential to become your best friend or your worst nightmare—sometimes managing to switch back and forth through both these roles over the span of just a few days–doing everything from helping you break into your own apartment after leaving your keys inside to feeding information about your real or imagined romantic life to your landlord. Apartments that come with a ‘hands-off bawab’ are the most sought-after dwellings in Cairo’s ex-pat apartment rental market thanks to the reasons mentioned above.
2. شعبي (Sha3by)
An adjective describing a delicate mixture of ‘popular’ ‘blue-collar’ and sometimes ‘of an inferior quality.’ The most difficult aspect of translating ‘sha3by’ is that the English word used to translate the term accurately will completely depend on the context. A sha3by neighborhood, for example, will without fail involve some degree of crowding, poor infrastructure, and incredibly loud and enthusiastic nuptial caravans (beeeeeeep beeeeeeep beep beep beeeeeeep) on Thursday and Friday nights. Sha3by music is often likened to the popular music genre but has a distinctive Egyptian, working class bent, and simply feels different from the hits sung by Arab superstars Nancy Ajram, Haifa Wehbe, and so on. And a sha3by wedding usually takes place in a humongous tent and features a DJ, bellydancers, ungodly amounts of food, and a very generous crashing policy.
3. بلدي (Baladi)
So many things can be described as baladi! Baladi bread or eggs are local, Egyptian-made products. A baladi bathroom will involve squatting for the ladyfolk. Baladi restaurants serve Egyptian favorites and typically have very modest silverware options. A baladi bar features dirt cheap beer, chairs and tables thrown every which-way, so much cigarette smoke your eyes will immediately begin watering upon entry, and entertainment in the form of the occasional fistfights. The word tends to be a cross between local, sha3by, and “no frills.” And then there’s the قهاوي بلدي (ahawi baladi).
4. قهوة (Ahwa)
The obvious meaning of this word is the very straightforward ‘coffee,’ but the term also refers to a very specific type of venue in which to enjoy the beverage, alongside some very sugary tea, shisha, and a soccer match: the ahwa baladi. Not quite a café, the ahwa is most often dominated by men and racked by cheers or boos when Al-Ahly scores and is scored on. People tend to frequent one favorite ahwa over and over again, and the place can often take on a Cheers-type vibe for a certain group of friends.
This phrase is often directed toward single women at weddings and means something like, “Hopefully you get married soon too!” It’s often followed up with a مش هنفرح بكي ولا ايه؟ (Are we not going to celebrate you someday too?) for those deemed at risk of spinstership because—gasp!—they haven’t married yet and are approaching thirty.
The phrase also comes up on birthdays (3o2bal meet sana) عقبال مية سنة means something to the effect of, ‘Hopefully you’ll live to 100! And if you think about it, it’s kind of a genius way to avoid the ever-so awkward “Happy Birthday!” “You too!”
6. نعيما (na3eeman)
Can you think of any phrases in English (or any other language for that matter) that can only be uttered in three clearly delineated instances and require an exact three-word response from the person the phrase is directed toward? This bizarre list of criteria applies to at least one Arabic word– na3eeman—which is only used when someone just shaved, showered, or cut their hair. The response is الله ينعم عليك, (Allah yen3em 3aleik) and the whole exchange means something like “God bless you, you’re all nice and clean now.” “Thanks.”
7. عك (Aak)
The only semblance of a definition I’ve ever been able to get for this word is something to the effect of, “it’s when you eat foods that are gross together, or also when someone does a crappy job of something.” So there’s that.
This post is thanks to Team Maha! The goal of #TeamMaha is to make the process of learning and speaking Arabic a bit less maddening for you all, whether that be through offering language study advice, detailed vocabulary and grammar notes, or a bit of much-needed comic relief.