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Challenges in translation – Arabic to English and other languages – Part one

in Language Connect

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. As many as 26 nations across the Middle East and North Africa have Arabic as a recognised language language.

However, 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 has huge differences to the languages spoken in the western world, which means that it takes a highly skilled translator to effectively translate between these and Arabic.

Here, we introduce just a few of the most common challenges that come with the translation of Arabic, and discuss why expert translators are an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to getting it right for documentation.


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

In Arabic, however, it’s a different story altogether. A unique aspect of Arabic is that each of the countries that speak it have, over time, developed their own entirely separate language, derived from Classical Arabic roots. What this means is that even though two people may be speaking Arabic, if they are from two different nations, then they could potentially have great difficulty in understanding each other.

This, of course, presents problems when it comes to translation, because although someone can be fluent in Arabic, the chances are that they will not be fluent in any more than one or two dialects, making it an even more specialised role.

Spoken language

Another issue that can come up when it comes to translation of materials into Arabic in particular is what the client wants to use it for. The translator must always make sure they find out what the reason documents are being translated for is, because spoken and formal written Arabic are two entirely different things altogether.

If the translator knows that the client is looking to have something 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), which technically all countries use for newspapers, religious TV shows and some other media formats and is generally universal across the Arabic world.

However, when it comes to spoken languages, it’s a different story. If something is to be used for advertisements and surveys, or other spoken forms of communication, then SMA is not going to be as useful, and we need to know what country the materials will be used in so we can translate into that nation’s specific Arabic rather than the language in general.

Sentence structure

When a document is translated, the client wants it to come across as natural and read like a native of the target language has written it. This is one of the biggest problems that can come from translating from Arabic, where sentence structure is completely different from western dialects.

What it means is that even though an Arabic speaker may be able to translate something perfectly well, and the document reads or sounds fine, it doesn’t quite have that native air about it that allows it flow naturally thanks to the structure of the sentences therein.

For example, while in English, someone would say “many years ago”, an Arabic speaker who had not spoken to many native English speakers would stick to their own sentence structure, and say “since many years ago”, which would read oddly in English.

This shows the importance of having a translator who has not only studied the target language when translating out of Arabic, but also someone who has experience of speaking the language, so they can get the hang of the way people actually speak, rather than just the technicalities of the language.

Arabic may be one of the most widely spoken languages on earth, but its unique qualities also make it one of the most challenging languages to translate to and from. Click here to read part two of our look at the hurdles that must be overcome by an expert translator in this field.


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