A shopping center next to the Olympic Park has displayed incomprehensible welcome signs in a garbled attempt at Arabic in the latest cultural blunder to embarrass London at a time when the eyes of the world are fixed on the British capital.
The linguistic faux-pas follows a diplomatic incident that marred the first day of competition on Wednesday, when the South Korean flag was mistakenly displayed before a soccer match between the North Korean and Colombian women’s teams.
With its huge immigrant population hailing from every corner of the world, London is often celebrated as a multi-cultural success story, but such gaffes risk making the vibrant Olympic host city look provincial and incompetent.
The vast and glitzy Westfield shopping center, where most visitors to the Olympic Park will pass on their way in from nearby Stratford rail station, displayed welcome signs in many languages but printed the Arabic ones back-to-front.
“It beggars belief they cannot even write ‘welcome’ in Arabic. What will our Olympic guests be thinking? It is cringe-worthy,” said Chris Doyle of the Council for Advancing Arab-British Relations (Caabu), on the organization’s website.
Caabu said the garbled welcome message also appeared on staff t-shirts at the shopping center.
“Westfield sincerely apologizes for the incorrect printing of the welcome material," a spokeswoman said on Wednesday, promising to put things right as soon as possible.
A Reuters reporter at Westfield on Thursday morning found new welcome signs with the correct Arabic phrase.
Westfield is located in Newham, a borough or district of London that is home to a high proportion of recent immigrants, many of them from Arabic-speaking countries.
“The irony of this is that it happened in the UK’s most multi-lingual borough, Newham, where hundreds of languages are spoken,” Teresa Tinsley, formerly of the National Centre for Languages, told BBC Radio 4 on Thursday.
Tinsley bemoaned what she said were poor language teaching standards in Britain and said this was leading to a parochial mindset.
“When people in other countries learn English they’re opening up to the world, they're opening up to another perspective, and that’s what we’re losing out on by having this very narrow view,” she said.
The Westfield blunder comes after rail company First Capital Connect also displayed information signs in back-to-front Arabic, until Caabu pointed this out and the company corrected the signs at 78 stations.
“After First Capital Connect and now Westfield, we must start to wonder just how many other Arabic signs printed for the Olympics are nonsensical,” said Doyle.
He said that in both cases, what appeared to have happened was that the Arabic words had been put through mainstream Western computer programs that had printed them left-to-right instead of right-to-left and had also separated the letters.
“By the time that’s happened it is pretty much unintelligible. You can try to decipher it but any Arab or Arabic speaker would see that this was meant to be Arabic but doesn't make any sense,” said Doyle.
For non-Arabic speakers, the Caabu website illustrated the mistake by saying it would be the equivalent of a sign that was supposed to read “WELCOME TO LONDON” being printed like this:
“N O D N O L O T E M O C L E W”