Lost in the Lingua Franca

I’m not sure what to do.

Arabic road sign, Riyadh

Arabic road signs, Riyadh

I’m having a little trouble with household chores as well.

Getting a mite cryptic with the pictures, don’t you think? I’m trying to figure out what’s going on during the glasses-with-the-nose-piece and the flower cycles. (The tornado is a spin, obviously.) And on some settings, the washer stops, half-filled, between the spin and the flower, and takes a manual nudge to stop flowering and start spinning. But not always. I’m pretty sure I’m putting the soap in the right place, at least, but I’m not getting any answers here:

Inexplicably, the hand soap is Polish, so that helps a little:

English speakers–especially if you studied French or German or Spanish in school–can figure things out pretty decently anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, Europe, Africa, and the Pacific. Root words are often similar, and at the very least you can read a destination name combined with an arrow to get around, or identify an icon for a toilet or an exit or a hospital. But when the alphabet is different, things get complicated.

Though it can be possible to just puzzle things out well enough on your own:

Riyadh Krispy KremeC’mon, you’ve got this. Or maybe this?

Riyadh McDonald'sMost places that don’t use a Roman alphabet (Asia, the Middle East, Russia) recognize that foreigners are completely shut out and at least provide phonetic versions of place names in Roman letters. Better still for foreign-languge-impaired Americans, English has become the default second language for everyone. (Thank you, IBM, for starting computer languages in English. Those Selectrics worked pretty well, too.) English provides a way for Indians and Saudis and Filipinos and Greeks and Brazilians to talk to each other. In public-interaction settings in Saudi Arabia (retail, medical, customer service) you can always find somebody who speaks English. Usually, packaging and signage appear in both languages. But not always. Saudis are not completely dialed into the realities of how life here feels for everyone else, and are a little puzzled by Western reluctance to do business here. It’s not uncommon to find a road sign like the one at the top after sailing by others with English words on them. At that point you have to rely on the hope that you knew what you were doing two signs ago and just stick to your guns.

The problem isn’t helped any by the lack of a standardized method for translating Arabic to Western spellings. You’ll therefore see Medina, Madinah, Madannah; Mecca, Makkah, Mekka; you might shop at a souk or a sooq or a souq…you get the idea. Of course, I can’t blame Arabic-speakers for not fully comprehending our alphabet when I’m trying to figure out how anybody makes sense of wiggle-cloud-bump-straight line-wiggle-curlicue. It can be very disconcerting to see your text message inbox look like this:

On the other hand, I think I’ve got this one:

objects in mirror are closer than they appearOh, and Arabic is read from right to left, but numbers are read from left to right. I do not understand this. But I’m intensely curious about how this translates:

Toys R Us Riyadh

For non-native English speakers, allow me to explain the joke. See, the whole point in English is that kids are just so darn dumb and are so cute about it that you can make your store look like it’s actually made by children when you not only substitute the letter R for the word “are,” but then double the hilarity by turning it backward as a precious five-year-old might. C’mon in, folks! Be a kid again! (“I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid…”) Of course, that awesome joke works only in English. What could they possibly do in Arabic that would work out to be that darling? Or does translation bring the truth out, that those colorful letters mean “the gates of hell” in any language? Abandon hope, all ye who enter here?

So maybe there’s common ground. I think the road sign said, “Who’re you gonna believe? Me, or that idiot voice on your GPS that almost drove you straight into the souk/sooq/souq last week?” The text messages, I learned, communicated something to the effect of “Welcome to Mobily. And we’re going to welcome you by asking you to provide information you’ve already given us, then not accept that information when you give it to us again, then shut off your phone.” Yes, phone companies are impossible, McDonald’s can’t explain why they’re still counting burgers, and objects in mirror will always be closer than they appear. A lot of things seem to be pretty much the same all over, in any language.

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