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Translating the Arabic Language

With its rich history and expressive vocabulary, Arabic is one of the most widespread languages in the world. Twenty-five countries use Arabic as an official (or co-official) language, and over 350 million people claim Arabic as their mother tongue. In this article, we look at the characteristics of this influential language, and examine the factors that contribute to authentic, culturally competent Arabic translation.

The Origins of Arabic

Arabic, which is believed to have originated in the northwest Arabian Peninsula, is a member of the Semitic family of languages which also includes Hebrew and Aramaic. While early manifestations of the language can be traced to the 8th century BCE, Arabic has evolved over time. During the Muslim conquest of the seventh and eighth centuries, the language spread into Northern Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and modern-day China. Today, Arabic can be found in all corners of the globe. While the majority of modern-day Arabic speakers can be found in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Middle East, the language is also widely used in countries where Arab migrants have settled, including the U.S., Latin America, Europe, and Southeast Asia.

Classical, Modern Standard, and Colloquial

The Arabic language has three primary forms: Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, and Colloquial Arabic.

Classical Arabic pre-dates Islam. This elegant, pure form of the language is closest to the writing used in the Quran and pre-modern literature. It remains the language of prayer and recitation through the Islamic world. Worldwide, the Quran is always recited in Arabic.

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the written form used by nearly all Arabic-speaking countries. The official language of all Arabic countries, MSA is taught in school and used across media – print, television, radio, and the web.

Colloquial Arabic refers to local Arabic dialects, the native tongue spoken in day-to-day life. Variations exist not only across countries, but even across regions within the same country. Most native Arabic speakers are capable of switching between their regional variety and MSA.

Because there is no standardized form of colloquial Arabic, MSA is the correct form to use when translating content for a large audience of Arabic speakers. However, if addressing a specific locale with creative content or marketing messaging, there may be scenarios where a targeted approach using colloquialisms is more appropriate.

Characteristics of the Arabic Language

Arabic is a Semitic language – a branch of the Afroasiatic language family, including Hebrew, Aramaic, and Ethiopic, whereas English is a member of the Indo-European language family. This makes Arabic very different from Western languages when it comes to lexicon, alphabet, and grammar.

  • The Arabic language is phonetic. Everything sounds like it is spelled.
  • Arabic uses gender to describe objects – every noun is feminine or masculine, but never neuter.
  • Arabic consists of 28 letters, which are only consonants, although three characters can be used as long vowels in certain contexts.
  • Letters change shape depending on their placement in a word (beginning, middle, or end).
  • There are no capital letters in Arabic. It is a cursive script in which the letters are joined together with connecting strokes called ligatures.
  • The language has no format for abbreviations, which presents significant challenges for translators.

Arabic did not always have the dots and diacritics that are familiar in today’s writing system. It was not until 800 AD that various diacritics were added to distinguish consonants, and (in certain religious, instructive, or juvenile contexts) to represent missing vowels and convey consonant length. Adding dots and diacritics made it much easier for the language to be legible. Without dots or diacritics, a word could have two or more meanings. Even some words with the same dot format might have different meanings (noun/verb) depending on the diacritic format.

Arabic is renowned for its rich and beautiful calligraphy. The artistic practice entails handwriting the Arabic language in a fluid cursive script, from right to left. Originally, Arabic calligraphy was a tool for communicating the words of the Quran. Over time, is has become an important element in architecture and decoration, becoming widespread in the Arab world and beyond. The practice is passed down informally or taught through schools or apprenticeships.

Arabic Translation Challenges

Translation between English and Arabic is not always straightforward. Arabic has over 12 million distinct words. To put this into context, the Oxford English Dictionary includes just over 170,000 words. As one example, Arabic has 23 words for love. In this case, choosing which word to use might depend on the stage and/or strength of the love, as one might describe sincere affection, infatuation, or burning desire.

Despite the extensive Arabic lexicon, many Arabic letters, words, and expressions have no direct English counterpart. Arabic is a figurative, poetic language, often written with long sentences and filled with literary devices such as metaphors, figures of speech, allegories, and similes – all of which are difficult to translate.

Words can have multiple meanings, or in some cases, words and phrases are simply untranslatable and need to be adapted for English. This can result in some ambiguity, challenges in preserving both style and tone, or multiple interpretations of the same text. The alphabet itself even includes some sounds that do not have direct correlations in the English language. For example, the sound of the letterض is thought to be unique to Arabic. In such cases, translators may need to combine English letters to attempt to create an equivalent sound.

The challenges are compounded when it comes to specialized texts, such as medical, technical, academic, or legal terminology. For example, consider the challenges of translating a user guide for an electronic device or a patent application. Because Arabic countries did not develop many technologies simultaneously with Western countries, English-language texts may include words that simply do not exist in the Arabic language.

Given the lexical ambiguity and figurative nature of the Arabic language, translation between Arabic and English is not literal. In order to thoroughly understand the context of the text and capture the nuance of the language, translators must be an expert in the target language and highly proficient in the source language. They must also be immersed in Arabic culture and have the competency to identify and handle any cultural adaptation that may be required. Technical texts such as user guides, data sheets, patent applications, safety manuals, and regulatory documents should be translated by someone with subject-matter expertise.

Regional Differences Impacting Arabic Translation

Nuances can vary from country to country. In some regions, people prefer to read text with Eastern Arabic numerals that use symbols to represent numbers, while others prefer Arabic numerals, the ten digits used in the west. As another example, some regions prefer that the name of the month be a transliteration of the English word, while others prefer seeing the proper Arabic name. Good translation must be culturally familiar and sound natural to the target audience. Therefore, when targeting a specific country, it’s important to consider the regional preferences when deciding how to represent such details.

Arabic Typesetting

The Arabic language is written right to left (RTL) instead of left to right (LTR). There are also situations where it can be bi-directional. For example, if the text includes foreign words or phrases that are not translated, such as a product name, the untranslated text will remain LTR. This scenario can be challenging for typesetting, as not all software is equipped to handle text flowing in both directions at once.

To properly convert a layout from English into Arabic, you must not only make sure that the text is flowing in the proper direction, but you must also flip all the elements on the page. For example, if your website’s primary call to action is in the upper left, then it should be moved to the upper right to achieve the same outcome for the Arabic-speaking audience. Right navigation becomes left navigation, etc. Even the columns of a table must be reversed. This ensures that the design intent is communicated properly.

Given the complexity of the language and degree of adaptation required, it is important to work with a typesetter who is highly competent in the Arabic language and to incorporate a final linguistic quality check into the process.

Recognizing Cultural Differences in Arabic Localization

When localizing materials for Arabic-speaking audiences, be considerate of images featuring women, religion, sexuality, or political issues. Many regions where Arabic is spoken are culturally conservative, and it is important to make sure all images, videos, and graphics are culturally appropriate and do not carry any potentially negative connotations. Also consider the regional differences. While certain images may be acceptable in many Arabic countries, the same images may offend users in more conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Getting all the details right is the difference between sounding native or not. Define your target market. Understand the culture of that market and develop customized content. Be considerate of the choices you make to avoid confusing or offending your audience. Work with a team that has the linguistic and cultural expertise needed to help you communicate your message in a manner that is both authentic, on-brand, and culturally sensitive.

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