7 Key Challenges of Translating English to Arabic


Arabic is the world’s fifth most widely spoken language and one of the fastest-growing in the United States. It is, nonetheless, constantly rated as one of the most difficult languages to learn and localize. Whether you need an English to Arabic translation or the other way around, it’s critical to grasp the dynamics of this complex match-up so you can properly resource for them. So, what are the potential hazards of this language pair?

#1 New Vocabulary

Arabic is a Semitic language with over 12 million distinct words. When you compare that to English, which has only about 1 million words, it’s easy to see why translators would need an extensive vocabulary.

When translating from English to Arabic, a linguist must be familiar with more than ten times the quantity of words—as well as more letters, as the Arabic alphabet includes 28 letters. Given that some Arabic letters have no English analogs; English spellings may best approximate the sounds of the Arabic words when translating in the other direction. A double (a), for example, is a common attempt to sound like the Arabic letter aa, despite the fact that it is pronounced significantly differently.

#2 Different Dialects

Aside from accents, English-speaking countries have little issue communicating with one another. It’s a different story in the Arabic-speaking globe. Because each region of the Middle East and North Africa has developed its own set of dialects, any two countries can easily become lost in translation, both in written communication (many dialectal terms are never written and lack spelling conventions) and in spoken communication (for example, “camel” is pronounced jamal in Eastern Arabic but gamal in Egypt).

It’s difficult to translate from English to Arabic and vice versa without a thorough understanding of these distinctions—not just across dialects, but also between spoken and written forms. That brings us to the next obstacle.

#3 Diglossia

Arabic is an example of a linguistic phenomenon known as diglossia, which occurs when a language’s spoken and written forms change depending on the situation. A Moroccan and an Iraqi might talk in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a standardized form of the language used in formal or universal material, to get over their dialectal variances (like articles or broadcast media). However, it would feel stiff in everyday speech. They spoke in their own dialects at home.

As a result, when a translator is unsure about the location, issues arise. When converting English to Arabic, they’ll need to know the country (and thus dialect) they’re aiming for. Translators, on the other hand, must pay particular attention to how Arabic is used in different situations and how to best portray each dialectal element—or whether it can be translated at all.

#4 Incomprehensibility

Arabic and English, with their vast lexicons, don’t always translate smoothly. Technically, the term “access” does not exist in Arabic. Similarly, notions that we can’t (or can, but clumsily) express in English can be represented in Arabic in a single word—for example, zankha, a term that loosely describes an indefinable odor.

In these circumstances, translators must choose between adapting Arabic text to English and keeping Arabic terms to offer English speakers a taste of the culture (possibly through transliteration) (converting words from one script to another).

#5 Uncertainty

Given the cultural variations between Arabic and English, it’s very uncommon to come across three or more distinct translations for the same source text, all of which are regarded as correct but not always comprehensible.

Lexical ambiguity occurs when there are multiple ways to translate a word, particularly the written word, which in most Arabic texts lacks short vowels. The term jzr, for example, might be read as juzur (islands), jazr (ebb), or jazar (carrots) depending on the context.

You may also encounter pronoun reference ambiguity when translating from English to Arabic, which occurs when it is unclear to which noun a pronoun refers. Regardless of gender, we employ the second and third-person pronouns “you” and “they” in English. Pronouns in Arabic vary in number and gender. When the only context accessible to translators is “you” or “they,” it’s not always clear which Arabic pronoun to employ.

#6 Sentence Structure

In English, a sentence isn’t considered grammatically accurate unless it’s verbal (that is, it has a subject, verb, and object structure) and constructed in that order (as in “The cat sat on the mat.”) In Arabic, however, both nominal (verb-free) and verbal forms are used, with the latter being reordered (verb > subject > object).

It’s all too easy to make the mistake of putting Arabic and English sentences together in the same sentence. Instead, when translating nominal sentences to verbal and vice versa, translators must get creative by adding, eliminating, and rearranging words to ensure that they make sense.

#7 Obtaining Resources

Translators who are fluent in dialectal Arabic are essential for developing material that appeals to the Arabic-speaking populations you’re targeting, but they’re hard to come by. For years, demand outpaced supply by a large margin. As more young English speakers choose to study Arabic, the environment has improved, but as the need for Arabic material grows around the world, so does the demand for linguists.

Furthermore, in rising Arabic-speaking regions such as Africa, where technology infrastructure is booming but yet weak, translators have less internet access and translation tool experience. This is why many businesses benefit from working with a localization partner that can handle training and resourcing.

What to Look for in a Translator?

As you can see, there are linguistic, cultural, and technical issues with Arabic-English and English-Arabic translation. Translators with deep knowledge of both language and lifestyle are required to effectively transmit your target market’s jargon, metaphors, slang, and other linguistic/cultural variances.

You should look for translators who, if not native Arabic speakers, have spent time in one or more Arabic-speaking nations. The top Arabic translators have access to a network of subject matter experts who can help them learn your industry’s terminology. This is where an LSP comes in, ensuring that your Arabic localization project is handled by the most skilled translators.

It is difficult, but not impossible, to translate between Arabic and English in either direction. We hope this essay alleviates some of the stress you may be experiencing as a result of reading about all of these issues. The proper partner can ensure that your material is well-received in the Arabic market.

Do you have any questions concerning Arabic translation or where to get Arabic linguists? Send us an email or leave a comment below!