Translating for the Arabic-speaking world

By Alessia Petrucci
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Arabic is spoken by well over 300 million people in over 25 countries, ranging from Morocco in North Africa, to Syria and Iraq in the Middle East, and Sudan in Africa. Translation into Arabic therefore requires sensitivity to a wide range of cultural, social, and historic diversity.

Written vs. spoken Arabic: The same or different?

Let’s start with the longer answer which is, perhaps, the most interesting one. The Arab world contains many spoken dialects, which differ due to geography, history and the influence of other non-Arabic languages spoken in the area. For example, Lebanese and Syrian dialects of Arabic are fairly similar, as are Moroccan and Algerian dialects, but Moroccan Arabic is very different from its Syrian counterpart (and for that matter, different still from Egyptian Arabic — an interesting consideration keeping in mind that Morocco is closer to Egypt than California is to New York). Although these dialects derive from the same language, it is possible that two people speaking a different dialect will not understand each other easily, if at all. So as far as the spoken language is concerned, there is not a universally understood Arabic.

There is, however, a pathway closer to consensus. Egypt, being the largest Arabic speaking country and the one that has ‘exported’ its rich artistic and entertainment production, has the spoken dialect that will be the most widely understood in the Arab speaking world. If you are planning to produce audio spots, you’ll get the most mileage out of an Egyptian dialect.

As far as written Arabic is concerned, a greater degree of homogeny exists. A newspaper in Amman or in Algiers will use pretty much the same written language, essentially a simplified, standard, Arabic, derived from the Classical Arabic of the Quran and other literature. This is the best choice for business translations and won’t require regional editing.

The importance of the oral tradition

When Islam introduced the Arab language to the countries that constitute the modern Arab world, it brought with it the oral culture that was typical of the Arab peninsula — a tradition that included evenings of stories and poetry (even poetry contests!), all in beautifully spoken Arabic, full of images and words that aimed to touch the heart of people. That richness and poetry has continued to influence the tastes of Arab speakers, both literate and illiterate alike.

The oral tradition continues today. A recent statistic shows that of all readers (about 50% of the population) the Arab reader reads six minutes per year on average. Television, radio and video seems to speak directly to the preference for oral communication and the hunger for diverse, immediate information.

A consequence of this is the possibility that your audience may be more receptive to a spoken translation in the form of a video or recording rather than a written translation. This can make translation of sensitive written information, like medical terms, challenging. Another consequence is that Arabic can be very idiomatic, making the translation of marketing material especially difficult. Even the best written translation can sound cold if the concepts are not rendered with  language that evokes meaning beyond literal translation.

What about social media?

As more and more people use texting and social media to communicate in an informal way, we increasingly see oral language expressions or regional expressions used in writing. Will it change the Arabic language in the sweeping way social media has influenced politics? Time will tell. When speaking about language, change seems to be the only constant.

Where do I go from here?

Arabic, while complex, doesn’t mean that effective translation is impossible — you’ll just need a good partner to help you navigate it. We can help you figure out how best to position yourself in the Arabic-speaking regions with which you want to communicate. Contact us to find out more.

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