Challenges of Translating Arabic into English

October 27, 2016 Vimal Panicker

Arabic is a very complex language, especially if you plan to translate your Arabic content into English, or vice versa. Arabic is classified as a member of the Semitic family of languages, English as a member of the Indo-European language family.

In order to standardize written communication in Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the language of Arabic publications and the broadcast media. It differs from regional dialects and classical Arabic.

Translation problems can be divided into linguistic and cultural categories. Linguistic problems include lexicon, morphology, syntax, text differences, rhetorical differences, and pragmatic factors.

Cultural problems arise for the Arab translator who may find certain phrases in Arabic have no equivalents in English. For example, the term تيمم tayammum, meaning "the Islamic act of dry ablution using a purified sand or dust, which may be performed in place of ritual washing if no clean water is readily available", doesn't have a corresponding concept in English. (Source: TranslationJournal)

Human translation of Arabic into English is difficult enough, but machine translation presents even more problems when translating between these two languages.

In October 2015, Amin Ali Al-Mubark of the University of Jazan in Saudi Arabia published a small study in the Journal of Literature, Language and Culture highlighting problems Saudi University of Translation students face when using machine translation to translate Arabic into English. He lists the following issues:

  • Sentences in Arabic are too long.
  • The sentence structure is complex.
  • An Arabic phrase is syntactically unclear and complex for machine translators, due to grammatical relationships, order of words and content.
  • In Arabic terms and words can have multiple meanings
  • The Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters, and some of these have no equivalent in English.

In 2013, Bader S. Dweik and Maisa Suleiman published a paper in the International Journal of English Linguistics titled: Problems Encountered in Translating Cultural Expressions from Arabic into English. The results of the study revealed that graduate students frequently encounter these problems:

  • Unfamiliarity with cultural expressions.
  • Failure to achieve the equivalence in the second language.
  • Ambiguity of some cultural expressions.
  • Lack of knowledge of translation techniques and translation strategies.

The difference between the source language and the target language, as well as variations in their social and religious cultures, makes the process of translating from Arabic to English a huge challenge. Only if the translator has a solid understanding of the culture of the target language, and its specific linguistic rules and differences, can he or she interpret the implied meaning and translate it accurately.

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.

About the Author

Vimal Panicker

Vimal Panicker is from Mumbai, India, and currently lives in Dubai. He has 5 years of experience in project management, working in the translation and localization business and has managed projects for a diverse portfolio of companies in the IT, life sciences and legal industry. Vimal holds a Bachelors Degree in Commerce from Mumbai University and has a great passion for developing and maintaining client relationships. He started off his career in the localization industry and is well-informed with the tools, processes and practices. He loves working with a culturally-diverse team and believes in exceeding client expectations. For him, translation is not only a great medium to work with people from diverse cultures but also a great platform to connect with organizations from varied sectors and understand their business functions. Outside work, he loves to watch and play football and has a great interest in fitness activities.

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