Poor Jean-Marc Ayrault. The new French Prime Minister had hardly a moment to enjoy his new position when it was revealed that his last name, if pronounced properly, sounds like “penis” in Arabic. More specifically, it sounds like a slang term used to refer to the organ in the third person singular possessive form (i.e. “his penis.”)
Of course, the press was all over the awkward translation — the potential headlines and jokes were just too good to ignore. For example, Albabwa.com observed that under the circumstances, Ayrault ” would be considered linguistically as well as parliamentarily-speaking to be the ‘dick-head’ of cabinet.” Meanwhile, the Daily Mail’s headline pulled no punches: “Jean-Marc Ayrault leaves Middle East red-faced… as his name sounds like the Arabic for penis.” Bloomberg chose to be more delicate: “France’s Ayrault Creates Anatomical Challenge For Arab Press.”
The mainstream Arabic press, of course, has less of an opportunity to snark, as they’d prefer to offend neither their more conservative readers nor the French Prime Minister himself. They coped as best they could, taking liberties with both spelling and pronunciation, or just referring to him by his first name.
Obviously, a more permanent solution was needed, and fortunately the French foreign ministry stepped forward to issue some guidelines. Per the Daily Mail,
‘The ministry has sent out a press release to the Arabic media, telling them how the name should be said in French. But it also says that Mr Ayrault finds it acceptable that they pronounce all the letters of his name, including the “l” and the “t” at the end, so that it sounds like “Eye-rolte.”
There are only so many sounds that can be used to form words, making occasional occurrences like this inevitable. Fun fact: as the Daily Mail observes, the French themselves had to alter the pronunciation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s last name, as it sounds like “prostitute” in French. Or, remember the Australian woman who got her nickname inscribed onto her car’s vanity plates only to find that it had an unexpected meaning in Tagalog?
For more name translation humour, head on over to the Atlantic for a very funny round-up of names that just don’t travel well.