When you see a foreign language on screen, do you look up if it's accurate? You probably assume the folks who made it did the research, even if you have no idea if that's true and...maybe don't care? That presumption, one we're all guilty of and serves to perpetuate such practices, is the premise of Nope, Not Arabic, an ongoing blog by game designer and artist Ramsey Nasser, cataloging the many instances of this issue with the Arabic language.
I stumbled into Nope, Not Arabic last month, following the release of Hitman 3, because this image from the assassination simulator started being mocked on my Twitter timeline:
The problems may not seem immediately obvious to someone who doesn't read Arabic, but the Arabic text here is written left to right, when it should be laid out right to left. In isolation, perhaps an understandable oversight, but when seen at scale, the problem becomes clear. Stuff like this is always happening.
Quickly, people in the replies started pinging Nasser, asking him to feature this image on his blog. It didn't take long for Nasser to swoop in and make it part of his unfortunate collection.
I recently had a chance to ask Nasser a few questions about the history of Nope, Not Arabic, and why he thinks everybody—not just video game developers—keep on getting this wrong.
VICE Games: Can you talk me through how you started the blog? What made you want to chronicle this?
Ramsey Nasser: Thanks to the magic of computers I can tell you the exact moment it started! On April 17 2014 a friend @iltimasdoha sent me a link to an Onion article that had Arabic that didn't look right. He asked if it was "Amerabic'' and I responded by starting a Tumblr called nopenotarabic with the image he sent me as the first post. I tweeted at him to let him know and kind of figured that was it. I had seen broken Arabic like the Onion article before, but I had no idea how widespread the problem was.
Over time people just kept sending me images that they'd find in the wild, and it kind of never stopped. In a way the blog is a dumb Internet joke that accidentally uncovered a shockingly common form of cultural erasure, so I've kept accepting submissions ever since. I've refactored it twice, once to get off of tumblr in 2017 as it was crumbling (the original blog is there but links to the new site) and onto GitHub with its own domain, and once more a few months ago to make it easier for me to add new entries. We just added our 100th one two days ago.
Why do you think people in all mediums keep screwing this up?
The short answer is: a perfect storm of 1) industry standard graphic design not supporting Arabic at all or by default, 2) failing silently and rendering butchered Arabic instead of issuing an error message and 3) the teams of people making this stuff not checking with native speakers before going live. these things are not wrong in a subtle way, they're basically chicken scratch and anyone half-literate in Arabic would be able to tell you that at a glance. that this stuff makes it through long production pipelines and sign-offs to make it all the way onto a billboard or into a Marvel movie speaks to the absence of people familiar with Arabic at all levels of these industries.
"Text" is extremely hard to handle and display in the general case, though we tend not to think of it as such. Text is human writing, arguably the most transformative technology we ever developed as a species, so it should come as no surprise that getting it right takes work. the uncomfortable reality is that most software is built for English-speaking people first and foremost, and supporting non-Latin languages tends to be an afterthought or hack.
Adobe is probably the company most individually responsible for the content on the site. they didn't support Arabic for decades in their mainline products, but would not communicate that to the user and instead butcher the script silently. When I was a student at the American University at Beirut I was on the student paper and we had a totally separate stack of Adobe software to layout the Arabic edition. We had to pay for and use the "Middle East" versions of Photoshop and InDesign, and we had to know to do that. Things have gotten better in Adobe products recently, I believe, but anyone using a version of their software from a few years ago or older is not going to get Arabic right.
Beyond Adobe I've seen the same mistakes come out of game engines, UI frameworks, and anything else that thinks it can handle "text" but was in fact built for Latin alphabet languages.
What have you noticed while reading these submissions/mistakes? What stands out?
The consistency of the problem is pretty amazing. The mistakes are not random, the words are generally spelled correctly but typeset left to right (so, backwards) and not joined.
Is there a particular error that you can't stop thinking about, one that really takes it?
It's hard to pick. The Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial that everyone (rightly) dunked on also features butchered Arabic, in case you needed a reason to loathe it more. It's towards the bottom of the image, on the sign behind the peace sign. What's wild about it is it looks hand painted. Meaning someone laid it out most likely in an Adobe product, printed it out, and gave it to someone to reproduce by hand as a protest sign prop. They physically reproduced the digital fuck up. This is what I mean about pipelines—if a single person involved in that commercial had any passing knowledge of the language this would have been caught trivially.
Have you noticed any change as the result of the blog? Are people being more careful? Has it resulted in people making changes to the work that's called out?
The people who follow me tend to be more careful, yeah. I don't know how widespread knowledge of the blog or my wider work on the cultural assumptions made by computers are, it's hard to gauge.
I know Rami Ismail, a game developer of Egyptian descent who is orders of magnitude more visible than I am, does a good job of advocating for better handling of Arabic in the games industry. If i had to guess he's the vector by which many people have become familiar with the problem. He sends people to notarabic.com and maintains isthisarabic.com as a crash course for non-Arabic speakers to visually tell if their Arabic rendering is borked.
There have been one or two instances of people being called out and fixing the problem— which I appreciate! I haven't heard from Marvel about fixing and reissuing Captain America: Civil War, though.