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03.02.2021


The challenges of translating Arabic – Part One


Arabic is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world, with more than 420 million native speakers across the globe. This makes the language the sixth most widely spoken in the world, putting it behind only the likes of English, French and Mandarin. In fact, as many as 26 nations across the Middle East and North Africa have Arabic as a recognised language.


BBut while Arabic is a fairly common language on a global scale, it also comes with a set of challenges that make it one of the most difficult to translate into other languages. As a Semitic language, it’s hugely different to the languages spoken in the Western world, which means it takes a highly skilled translator to effectively translate them all.





It’s the same but different


One of the biggest challenges in Arabic translation stems from the vast array of dialects that exist in the language. While people in North America, the UK and Australia may speak slightly different forms of the English language, it’s essentially still the same. Even though they come from different parts of the world, they would all understand each other.


In Arabic, however, it’s a different story. Over time, each of the countries that speak Arabic have developed their own entirely separate language derived from Classical Arabic roots. So if two people from two different nations are speaking Arabic, they might not understand each other. 


This, of course, presents a challenge when it comes to translation, because although someone can be fluent in Arabic, chances are they’ll not be fluent in more than one or two dialects, making it a highly specialised role.





Different rules apply


Another challenge with Arabic translation is the fact spoken and formally written Arabic are two completely different things. So it’s essential the translator knows what their client wants before starting. 


If the translator knows something needs to be translated for use in a book, a newspaper or a more formal online article, then chances are it can be translated into Standard Modern Arabic (SMA) – widely used for newspapers, religious TV shows and some other media formats. It’s the most universal across the Arabic world.


But when it comes to spoken languages, it’s not that simple. If content needs to be translated for ads, surveys, or another type of spoken communication, then the translation must be specific to that country’s native Arabic. 





It’s not what you say… 


It’s the way you say it. Both obviously matter, but tone can be everything. The translation needs to come across as being natural to the target language. This is one of the biggest challenges in translating from Arabic, where sentence structure is completely different from Western dialects.

This means that even though an Arabic speaker may be able to translate something perfectly well, and the document reads or sounds fine, it won’t quite have that nuances that make it flow naturally. 


It’s therefore not only vital for Arabic translators to know the target language inside out, but have experience speaking the language too. Only then can they know the way people actually speak, rather than being guided by the technicalities of the language.


Arabic may be one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, but its unique qualities also make it one of the most challenging to translate. Find out more  about how translators overcome these hurdles. 


At THG Fluently, we’ve been providing translation services to businesses for more than 17 years. In that time, we’ve learned what it takes to give brands the linguistic and localisation support they need to break into new international markets and do it well. So if you’d like to learn more about how we can support your business with its international communications, feel free to get in touch.


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The challenges of translating Arabic – Part Two


Despite being one of the most commonly spoken languages on Earth, Arabic can seem worlds away from what people are used to in Western society. With a 28 letter alphabet, 11 words for ‘love’ and distinct sounds that don’t exist in other languages, it can be one of the most challenging languages to translate – even for native speakers.


Following on from Part One of ‘The challenges of translating Arabic’, here are a few more insights into the world of translating this rich and diverse language.





Capitalisation confusion 


Whether at the start of a sentence or with proper nouns, capitalising words is something we take for granted in English as well as many other languages across Europe. But this is not the case when it comes to Arabic. While capital letters in English let us know when something is a name, title or the start of a sentence, in Arabic, speakers and writers lean on context to let them know this.


So when it comes to translating from Arabic other languages, it can get very confusing. Things that should be capped up in the target language can often be missed by an Arabic speaker, and this can change the meaning of their documents altogether.


If we’re talking about the West Bank, for example, then we know that it refers to a specific place because the capital letters indicate this. An Arabic native speaker may write it as ‘west bank’, which changes the meaning entirely.





To flip or not to flip


Arabic also reads from right to left, rather than left to right. Which means translation isn’t just about the language, it’s about the format too. 


This is what separates an experienced Arabic translator from a novice. It would be nice to think simply flipping the order around would do the trick, but it’s far more involved than that. The English format, for example, might need to stay intact for some of the text, while the rest needs to be switched around – and simply reversing the order of things can cause problems. 





A question of gender


Like many European languages, Arabic uses gender for describing objects. Nothing is ever ‘it’ –  everything is either a ‘he’ or ‘she’ depending on the context. Getting it right means the difference between something sounding authentically native or not. But this translating challenge isn’t unique to Arabic. 


Gendering also plays a big role in political correctness. If the gender of a person is unknown, then both must be covered off since ‘they’ simply isn’t an option. It’s just one of the times where in-depth experience and knowledge of specific dialects become priceless


So as you can see, translating  and interpreting  to and from Arabic is one of the greatest challenges in translating. It’s the reason why experienced and dialect-specific Arabic translators are such a valued asset to the industry. 



At THG Fluently, we’ve been providing translation services to businesses for more than 17 years. In that time, we’ve learned what it takes to give brands the linguistic and localisation support they need to break into new international markets and do it well. If you’d like to learn more about our services and how we can support your company feel free to get in touch.



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