Why Arabic is Difficult to Translate

July 17, 2016 Ahmed Mossad El-Saba

The Arabic language is a Central Semitic language and a member of the ancient language family containing Aramaic, Hebrew, Ugaritic and Phoenician. Arabic is the official language of 26 countries with 295 million speakers.

Although Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is distinct and more conservative than its spoken dialects, they coexist together in an environment known as diglossia. Diglossia is when a language has different written and spoken varieties, and it is not always spoken the way it is written. MSA and spoken Arabic dialects are used for different social and cultural contexts.

Arabic is a complex written and spoken language which makes it difficult to translate. In this blog, we will cover some important facts for anyone planning to translate their content into Arabic.

 

Unique Words

Arabic is a right-to-left language (RTL) and its alphabet contains 28 letters.

I have translated, revised, and proofread many Arabic translation projects, and it was not easy to apply common translation standards for Arabic. In many cases, you may find three or more different translations for the same source piece of text; all of them considered correct. When you try to convince a non-Arab client this is not a consistency issue, rather a stylistic variation, there is confusion.

The below facts about the Arabic language illustrate this dilemma. A comparison was made between the most prevalent four languages in the world. From each language, the number of unique words were extracted. The conclusion shows why Arabic translations have a huge amount of true-positive inconsistencies:

Language

Word count

Notes

Arabic

12,302,912

Total unique words in Arabic

English

600,000

Total unique words in English

French

150,000

Total unique words in French

Russian

130,000

Total unique words in Russian

Modern Standard Arabic and Arabic Dialects

gpi-translating arabic-2

MSA, based on Classical Arabic, is the standardized and literary form of Arabic used in writing and in most formal speech. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Most of the printed material in the Arab League, including books, newspapers, magazines and official documents are written in MSA.

Differences between MSA and Arabic dialects include different pronunciations for the same letters and spoken Arabic dialects have simpler grammatical structure and are much more casual.

Expert Arabic translators know they cannot conduct the same translation for different Arabic audiences. Translators will use the style of Arabic best suited for the target audience. Some of these dialects have different words denoting the same concept, some of which may sound strange to another Arab who uses a different dialect.

Spoken Arabic can be broken into these main dialect groups:

  • North African Arabic (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya)
  • Hassaniya Arabic (Mauritania)
  • Egyptian Arabic
  • Levantine Arabic (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine)
  • Iraqi Arabic
  • Gulf Arabic (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the U.A.E. and Oman)
  • Hejazi Arabic (Western Saudi Arabia)
  • Najdi Arabic (Central Saudi Arabia)
  • Yemeni Arabic (Yemen & Southwestern Saudi Arabia)

The top 10 countries with the most Arabic speakers are:

  1. Egypt
  2. Algeria
  3. Saudi Arabia
  4. Morocco
  5. Iraq
  6. Yemen
  7. Sudan
  8. Syria
  9. Tunisia
  10. Libya

Summary

Arabic is a very difficult language to translate. There are over twelve million unique words in the language and numerous ways to say the same thing. The right-to-left orientation, the script, and the many dialects of the millions of speakers means enlisting a native speaking, professional Arabic translation team familiar with the specific target audience is essential to translating and localizing your content in an appropriate and culturally correct manner.

 

Further Resources on Arabic Culture, Language and Translation

Globalization Partners International (GPI) has extensive experience localizing marketing materials, technical documents, and large, scalable websites into the Arabic language. We have previously posted a number of useful guides for best practices in this area. Feel free to review our blogs that are particularly relevant:

Please feel free to contact GPI at info@globalizationpartners.com with any questions about our language and technology services.  Also let us know if you have any interesting blog topics you would like us to cover in our future blogs.  You may request a complimentary Translation Quote for your projects as well.

 

Sources:

http://www.alaan.tv/news/entertainment/144968/arabic-subtitle-most-famous-funniest

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic

http://www.alaan.tv/news/entertainment/144970/facts-you-dont-know-arabic-language

https://ar.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D9%84%D8%BA%D8%A9_%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%A9

http://islamstory.com/uploads/multimedia/infographics/arabic-lan.jpg

About the Author

Ahmed Mossad El-Saba

Ahmed is a native Arabic speaker from Cairo, Egypt. He has over 12 years’ experience in the translation and localization field working as a Hebrew – Arabic translator and editor. He has also held positions for language Testing Engineer and Localization Project Manager. Ahmed has extensive experience in handling large volume translation projects for software and document localization. He has worked for a range of translation and localization groups and companies including Microsoft and several governmental authorities. He holds a B.A. degree in Translation and Interpreting from Faculty of Alsun Ain Shams University and additionally is a certified Hebrew - Arabic translator with a High Translation professional diploma from the same faculty.

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