Olympic Gaffe: Shopping Center Removes Signs Written in Backwards Arabic

The London Olympics, as GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has had the bad manners to inform his hosts, have not gotten off to the smoothest of starts, from traffic snafus to hanging up the wrong flag for one country. The Olympics’ “official shopping center,” Westfield Stratford City complex, has replaced “Welcome to London” banners in Arabic that were spelled backwards.

The shopping center is located at the main entrance to the Olympic Park in London. Arabic speakers were greeted with banners on which “Welcome to London” was not only written backwards (left to right instead of right to left), but with spaces between the letters. Some people reportedly thought they were written in Farsi.

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, tells Agence France-Presse that, had the banners been in English, it would have been as if they said


Not much of a welcome!

The shopping center has replaced the banners, which are actually the second instance of jumbled Arabic on signs. Multi-language signs at train stations informing people “not to leave any items unattended” also contained misprinted Arabic.

Doyle says that the misprintings are not the fault of a translator but most likely from software programs that “reverse and disconnect the letters.” A spokesperson for the shopping center also noted that something had gone “awry” in the process of printing the banners.

Translating Software Is Great, But…

There’s no question that we live in a global community, in which, thanks to the internet, it is easier than ever to see images and writing in languages other than one’s own; in writing that goes right to left, uses a different alphabet and (in the case of Chinese and Japanese) characters. Since one of the purposes of the Olympics is to foster international understanding, the incorrect Arabic on the official Olympic shopping center’s banners is a good object lesson about why students need to — must — study foreign languages.

It is easier said than done. I teach ancient Greek and Latin and the former language is simply harder to learn. Ancient Greek has a far more complicated grammar and the different alphabet can be daunting, especially for students with learning disabilities — though, some students who have dyslexia who I’ve taught have had some advantages in learning a new alphabet, as they can draw on techniques they had previously learned to master the English letters.

The struggle to memorize the 24 letters has always been worth it. I think often of a student who had severe dyslexia whom I taught almost a decade and a half ago. He insisted he wanted to take Greek because he wanted the challenge whereas he could “just sit in the back of Spanish class and get a B.” (Yes, I’d say he needed teachers who didn’t just give him a passing grade.)

A human reader with a basic knowledge of the Arabic alphabet could have quickly noticed the error in the Olympics center sign. The backwards Arabic gaffe shows the shortcomings of computer-based translation. Languages have grammar and rules but these are often (as any student learning any foreign language know) frequently broken. Google Translate, or any other translating programs, are no substitute for careful study.

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Photo by Doctor Yuri


Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemons6 years ago


vee s.
Veronica-Mae s6 years ago

And with all those in the country whose mother tongue is Arabic, no-one thought to ask them to write the signs ! ! !

Danuta Watola
Danuta W6 years ago

Thanks for the article!

Nancy Gregg
Nancy Gregg6 years ago


Robert C.
Robert Cruder6 years ago

Farsi, the Persian language, due to its long association with Arabic has a similar alphabet and much shared vocabulary but retains its original right-to-left order. Arabic surprised me by having multiple forms of some letters which are to be used in different contexts. Although both languages are decent candidates for machine translation, only a fluent speaker/reader could get the nuances right.

We have seen some failed attempts to make signs, weapon fragments and documents appear to be of Iranian origin using the Arabic left-to-right order and style.

Iranian travelers are more likely to comprehend Arabic signs than Arabic readers are to comprehend Farsi.

One would hope that both can enjoy the odd mistake in the same way that we westerners enjoy Engrish.

Carol C.
Carol Cox6 years ago

It is this Politically correctness out of control again... you can NOT please everyone ALL the time.. and you can NOT trust your computer to translate...i do translations - Spanish to English and English to Spanish (not the same) and speak 2 other languages..there is no substitute for a human.. the "Engrish" mistakes you find on signs and t-shirts all over the world testify to this... and no one makes a fuss...

Loretta R.
Loretta R6 years ago

True, about the Google translation, or even Babylon. I often use French, a language I studied, to translate other languages accurately, especially German and even Spanish, because of the sentence structure and the feminine and masculine properties of nouns and adjectives.

Sandra K.
Sandra T6 years ago

Seriously, anybody who thinks that this botch up is worthy of offense is a total fool, amongst many other choice words.

Beth K.
.6 years ago

Sandra K, funny, but everytime I read one of your posts, I think "What a load of crap".

Michael M.
Michael M6 years ago

You fools had NO ONE on hand that was capable of reading Arabic? Really?