Paul is dead

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From Ajam Media Collective's Facebook page, a surprising buffet sign at Erbil International Hotel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan:

The Facebook post explains:

A buffet sign reads "ميت بول" ("MeatBall") transliterated into Arabic, with its translation as "Paul is Dead" in English, a literal translation of the text! The employees of the Erbil International Hotel seem not to have been aware that "Meat Ball" was not, in fact, an Arabic or Kurdish word!

How did this happen? First, someone had to transliterate meat ball into Arabic, with meat becoming "ميت" and ball becoming "بول". Then another person, unaware that this was a transliteration and not a translation, must have run "ميت بول" through Google Translate (or another online translator) to arrive at "Paul is dead."

The mistranslation is facilitated by a couple of aspects of Arabic orthography. First, Arabic text usually dispenses with the diacritics for short vowels known as ḥarakāt, leaving only long vowels represented. So "ميت" is a fine transliteration for English meat /mi:t/, but it could also represent the Arabic word mayyit 'dead' (derived from the verb māta مات 'die'). Second, since Arabic traditionally lacks the /p/ phoneme, loanwords with /p/ tend to be written with the letter for /b/, namely ب. Thus, "بول" could be a transliteration for either ball or Paul.

Google Translate can be ill-equipped to recognize such distinctions between translation and transliteration. And I suspect that Google's statistical approach to automatic translation is being misled by the frequency of the phrase "Paul is dead" in texts involving the persistent urban legend that Paul McCartney actually died in 1966. But who knows? Maybe the buffet sign is just a sly cross-linguistic wink from an Iraqi Beatles fan.

(Hat tip, Tal Linzen.)


  1. Orin Hargraves said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 11:36 am

    Whether known to the perp or not, another fascinating sidenote is that بول (/boul/) is the Arabic word for urine.

    [(bgz) Right — one of the Facebook commenters suggested the alternative translation, "urine of (a) corpse".]

  2. Meesher said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

    I got laughed at in my introductory Arabic class for saying my brother's name was 'Piss' – the name Paul is typically written as Latin-derived بولس (Bulus/Paulus) partly to avoid this.

    This would suggest the person who produced this is unfamiliar with both English and Arabic. Or maybe Iraqi Arabic uses a different word for urine from the Standard/Egyptian/Levantine dialects?

  3. Adam said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 2:14 pm

    Google Translate is particularly bad with Arabic; it often ignores perfectly Arabic words in favor of insisting that they approximately transliterate an English proper noun.

    @Meesher: A native speaker probably wouldn't have a problem deducing whether بول meant 'Paul' or 'urine' (or the impv. būl or bawwal 'urinate!') in context.

    @Orin/bgz: Technically, 'urine of a corpse' isn't a possible translation for ميت بول, the words would have to be the other way around.

  4. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 2:17 pm

    Thanks for the actual translation. I had thought it was really "I am the walrus".

  5. Rubrick said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 4:42 pm

    Interestingly, this translation is only visible to those annoying people who go through the buffet line backwards.

  6. Eric said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 4:45 pm


    Walrus is non-halal, so I think it must be "I am the eggman".

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

    Eric may or may not have been joking but I was curious enough to see what turned up when you google "is walrus halal" and apparently this is an issue on which different schools of Muslim jurisprudence have traditionally held different views. So now I am better informed than when I woke up this morning.

  8. Nathan said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

    Whether or not walrus is halal, an eggman is not.

  9. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

    Requisite Wikilinks for those wondering what some of us are talking about:

    And to get even more meta,

  10. Alex said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

    I came here right after looking at Krugman's blog, so I thought….

  11. richardelguru said,

    May 28, 2014 @ 7:38 am

    Neil, Eric and Nathan:
          and it's the wrong record anyway!

  12. Paul Wilkins said,

    May 30, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

    I've been called a meatbag before. But I'd prefer to not end up on the buffet table.

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