The Challenges of Translating Arabic into English
Last Updated On: July 27, 2023 by The Migration Translators
Arabic is one of the world’s most important languages, with speakers of the language spanning multiple countries from Morocco in the extreme northwest of Africa through to Iraq in the Middle East. Arabic-speaking nations vary from relatively poor and undeveloped countries to sophisticated and affluent ones.
In total, about 360 million people speak Arabic, which is about 3.6% of the world’s population, which is on par with other international languages like French.
Arabic is not just the first language of many people in North Africa and the Middle East but is a lingua franca for many tribal people. The language has had a major influence on the languages and even the writing systems of other languages, such as Swahili (a predominantly Bantu language) and Malay/Indonesian (primarily an Austronesian language).
Translators who translate from Arabic to English and vice versa face significant challenges posed by the nature of both languages.
The challenges of translating Arabic into English
#1 Arabic dialect differences
There are three primary differences in the Arabic dialect. Classical Arabic is used in most of the older Arabic literature, poetry, the Koran, etc. Arabic used in countries where it is an official language (e.g. Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc.) is Modern Standard Arabic. There are also several Arabic dialects, which can cause problems in communication even for Arabic speakers themselves. There are about 8 main regional dialects.
#2 Arabic grammar differences
The main difference in the grammar between Arabic and English is the way sentences are structured. All sentences in English are known as verbal sentences. They have a subject, an object, and a verb. In Arabic, there are four different types of sentences. These include verbal sentences like in English, but there are also nominal sentences with no verb, as well as functional and non-functional sentences. Nominal sentences are common in Arabic and only need a topic and a comment without using a verb.
#3 Arabic alphabet and letter differences
Arabic has 28 letters in its alphabet, which isn’t too different from the Latin alphabet used in English (26 letters). However, not all Arabic letters have a Latin equivalent, and vice versa.
#4 Difficult writing format
Anyone who has seen any Arabic written down will notice straight away that it is a script that is unique to that language. Obviously, Arabic-to-English translators must be proficient in both spoken and written languages. Arabic letters are not in any way similar to Latin letters used in English. On the other hand, they are easier for the English speaker to learn and write than some other important world languages like Japanese, Korean and Chinese that use characters.
Arabic is written from right to left, rather than left to right as in English. It is written one line at a time from the top to the bottom, just like English, however.
#5 Gender references
Like many languages, Arabic is gender sensitive. In English, nouns, adjectives, and verbs aren’t changed or even designated as belonging to a particular category apart from obvious male and female entities. Pronouns are gender sensitive in English, but again only when it is obvious whether something is male or female.
Unfortunately for English speakers, many languages assign different categories to their nouns and in many of these languages, prefixes or suffixes are added to adjectives and verbs to fit the designation of the category of the noun. Typically there are male and female categories, which is the Arabic situation. In many other languages, there are three: male, female and neuter, while Kiswahili surpasses all other languages with 8 different noun categories, with adjectives, pronouns, and verbs adjusted for each category. That makes using and learning Arabic an easier task in comparison!
While male nouns in Arabic typically don’t have any specific ending or suffix, female ones do. They end in the Arabic letter, ة, –a, or –ah (the Latinised equivalent).
There are many variations and irregularities in assigning gender in Arabic to keep Arabic English translators on their toes!
Arabic is one of the world’s most important languages and is vital for businesses and government agencies that need to communicate with Arabic-speaking business associates, clients, and colleagues. Because Arabic is a challenging language for English speakers (and vice versa), because of differences in the writing system, gender assignation, and the existence of dialects, it is important to choose a professional Arabic-to-English translator whenever documents need to be translated from one language to the other.