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Challenges in translation: Arabic to English and other languages – Part two

Challenges in translation Arabic to English and other languages: Part two [Photo: iStock/Tempura]
in Language Connect

Despite being one of the most commonly spoken languages on earth, for most people in the western world, Arabic would come across as a world away from what they normally experience. With a 28 letter alphabet, 11 words for ‘love’ and distinct sounds that don’t even exist in other languages, it is one that can be among the very hardest to translate into and from, even for native speakers.

Here, in the second of our two part guide to the hurdles that effective translators need to overcome when translating to and from Arabic, we look at a few more of the more challenging aspects faced when working with this unique language.

Capitalisation

The capitalisation of words, be they at the start of sentences or on proper nouns, is something that we take for granted in the English language, as well as 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.

It’s something that presents a particular problem when it comes to the translation from Arabic into other languages. 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.

For example, if we are talking about the West Bank, then we know that it refers to a specific place, thanks to the fact that the two words have capital letters. However, an Arabic native speaker may write it as west bank, which changes the meaning entirely and leads to confusion.

Formatting

Perhaps the easiest difference to notice between Arabic and most of the target languages translators will be using, is the fact that the former reads from right to left rather than from left to right. It means that not only do things need to be translated when going from Arabic to European target languages, but they must also be flipped so that the story is still correct, and not just the language.

This is where an experienced translator is needed, because even though things need to be flipped to make sense, it’s not as easy as simply flipping everything. For example, although something has been translated to Arabic, some clients will still want certain things written in the English text format, which needs to be taken into consideration. So in cases where a translator is using software to simply turn everything around the other way, although it generally corrects the structure of a piece, it can add in errors.

An experienced translator with the know how about intricacies like this can be a priceless asset, knowing where to flip and where to retain the original structure so that everything makes sense when read in either language. It’s not as easy as flicking a switch, and picking out the right parts is vital in this aspect.

Male and female language

One big similarity that Arabic has to many European languages, but not with English, is that it uses male and female language when it comes to describing objects. In Arabic, much as in languages like Spanish and German, nothing is ever “it”. Everything has to be gendered when it comes to talking about them, which means that even chairs and tables are “he” or “she” depending on context.

This is where we come across one of the most common problems in translation in general, where non-native speakers of English will retain this gendering notion when it comes to translating something into English, which makes pieces and spoken translations come across as unnatural and non-native.

When translating into Arabic, there’s also a problem in terms of making sure everything is politically correct that changes the wording of documents. For example, if you do not know the gender of someone who is working in a particular job, then both genders must be used, as the word “they”, which we would commonly see in English, is never considered. It can make things more complicated for a translator, and may be something that they haven’t even considered if they do not have extensive experience with the language.

As we can see, translating to and from Arabic is one of the biggest challenges that anyone working in translation will ever face. However, experienced Arabic translators who take all of the challenges from our two-part series into consideration and work to iron out the creases will become a truly priceless asset in getting things right and ensuring that Arabic translations read perfectly in both origin and target languages.



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