How Do You Translate ‘Zeft’?

Yesterday, I stumbled across a beautiful discussion on Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi‘s Facebook page:

ziftWithin hours, his question — “How do I translate زفت (the “insult”) into English?” — had garnered more than a hundred responses. Some of these were, of course, repeats: There were many suggestions of shit, crap, garbage, rubbish, and trash. One vote for Trump got a number of likes.

Some people focused on zeft as a personal insult: “imbecile,” “moron,” or “idiotic moron.” Although, as others pointed out, zeft can be equally applied to objects or situations.

There were a number of commenters who ignored al-Qassemi’s parenthetical and wanted to translate the original meaning of zeft. These commenters largely suggested asphalt or tar. It’s probably worth noting that zeft remains close to its origins, whereas most Anglophones, for instance, probably don’t know that crap likely comes from crappa, or chaff.

Yet as commenter Basel Anabtawi noted, the earlier meaning doesn’t take us very far. “You’re such an asphalt” doesn’t have much zing.

There wasn’t agreement about the part of speech zeft is (adjective or noun or both) or its transliteration, either, with users alternating zeft and zift. Most commenters trended toward zeft, although it’s possible zift has more curse-sting in English, as it floats closer to the short i in shit.

There were several thicker translations. Heba AlNasser said, when teaching, she would give a brief explanation of the word’s derivation:


There were also different points of view on how offensive zeft should be, although there was general agreement that it has a lighter touch than calling someone a shit or trash. Moataz Abou-Eita:


And writer-scholar Mohamed El Dahshan:


Others argued not precisely for untranslatability, but for the nature of a curse as a “magic word.” After all, shit on its face means only feces, but psychologists tell us that using the word shit in a stressful situation can relieve both anxiety and pain. It’s doubtful that hissing “fecal matter” can do the same.

Tayseer Majeed and Micha Az argued for the magic camp:


As a side note, Firas points out that, in Syria, zeft/zift isn’t a curse:


And Ibrahim translated it not into English, but into Emirati Arabic:


A number of users played with the different endings zeft would have were it a fully English word:


Although one must note to Halim Mardawi that skank is a gendered word in English, whereas zeft is not.

A few people translated into emojis, notably: emojizeft.

The most generous were those who wanted to share the zeft with all the world:


Perhaps, who knows, the world would be a better place if we shared more of each other’s curses.