Oppenheimer's Arabic subtitles criticised for omitting references to Jews

'Yehudi', the literal translation of 'Jew', has been replaced by a word meaning 'stranger' or 'foreigner' in the film

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The Arabic subtitling of Oppenheimer is being criticised for its translation of the words "Jew" and "Jewish".

Christopher Nolan's blockbuster, which stars Cillian Murphy, details how physicist J Robert Oppenheimer developed the atomic bomb alongside a group of scientists in the US during the Second World War.

Translated by a Lebanon-based company, the subtitles in the version released in the region omit mentions of Jews, using the term "ghurabaa" instead, which is Arabic for "strangers" or "foreigners". In other instances, the word is avoided altogether. The commonly used word for "Jews" in Arabic is "Yehudi".

Several viewers have pointed out the flaws, including celebrated Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah.

“The Arabic translation of the dialogue was strikingly poor,” The Gate of Sun director said. “There is nothing to justify or explain the translation of Jew to ghareeb or ghurabaa. It is a shame.”

A representative for the studios acknowledged the omission, telling The National that its translators routinely follow guidelines used by some countries in the Arab world.

“We have to follow the guidelines from the censor boards across the Middle East,” the representative added. “There are topics we usually don’t tackle, and that is one of them. We cannot use the word 'Jew', the direct translation in Arabic, otherwise it may be edited, or they ask us to remove it.

“In order to avoid that, so people can enjoy the movie without having so many cuts, we would just change the translation a little bit,” the company added. “This has been an ongoing workflow for the past 15 or 20 years."

The company said it avoids translating words around religiously sensitive topics on screen, such as Israel, Jesus or the Prophet Mohammed. "There are certain topics that we know for sure that if we tackle them as is, they would ask us to either remove or change," the representative added. "We automatically change it, so the movie doesn’t have to be re-edited.”

The film has received largely positive reviews, with a 93 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It has already crossed the $500 million mark at the global box office and has performed well in the region, grossing more than $3.9 million in Saudi Arabia and $2.8 million in the UAE on its release weekend last month.

It tells the story of how Oppenheimer's atomic bomb effectively ended the war after being dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, coming at the expense of more than 200,000 lives. Oppenheimer explores how the development and use of the bombs took a toll on the scientist's conscience.

The first mistranslation appears early on when Oppenheimer formally meets Lewis Strauss, one of the original members of the US Atomic Energy Commission. As Oppenheimer tells Strauss that his pronunciation of the physicist’s last name underscores his Jewish heritage, the subtitles translate the sentence to: “They’ll know I was a ghareeb."

Later, Oppenheimer travels to Germany where he meets Isidor Isaac Rabi. Rabi, who is also Jewish, asks Oppenheimer whether he gets the sense that they are not welcome in Germany, alluding to the increasing wave of antisemitism that coincided with the rise of the Nazi Party. Again, the word "Jew" is mistranslated as "ghareeb". In that same conversation, when Rabi mentions he and Oppenheimer are “a couple of New York Jews”, the Arabic subtitles read “inhabitants of New York".

Additionally, when referring to the Nazi persecution of Jews, the word is omitted. This time, referring to Jews as the Nazis' "enemies", or "aadauhum" in Arabic. The word "Semite" is accurately translated to "Sami" when antisemitism is mentioned.

Other than the translation of the word Jew, the subtitles are largely accurate.

Nasrallah also wrote how the subtitles remind him of a book where the name of the American playwright Israel Horovitz was translated to “The occupied lands Horovitz".

The National has contacted Oppenheimer's regional distributor Majid Al Futtaim, but has not received a response.

Updated: August 10, 2023, 3:19 PM