Two different languages, two different alphabets, and even two different directionality! That’s how far English is from Arabic. Naturally, translations between languages with such variances will not be an easy process. While some difficulties can be overcome by practice, search, and hard studying, others are a pain in the neck for translators. Here are some of the most common problematic words when translating from English into Arabic, along with some possible solutions.

Kin terms

Coming across some extended family terms like uncle and aunt, the translator pauses and thinks, is it the paternal or maternal one. Likewise, a cousin could be the son or daughter of a paternal or maternal uncle or aunt. Unlike English, there are distinctions between father’s and mother’s relatives in Arabic, and there is a specific term for everyone, namely “عم” (Amm) for paternal uncle, “عمة” (Amma) for paternal aunt, “خال” (khal) for maternal uncle and “خالة” (Khala) for maternal aunt. Having enough context at hand, the translator may go the extra mile, find the exact kinship, and use the proper equivalent that renders the intended meaning. Otherwise, which is often the case, the translator has no choice but to use a very general term that is far away from accuracy like “أحد الأقارب” (one of the relatives).

Figures of speech

Figures of speech are either universal or cultural-specific. Universal images usually present no challenge to the translator as they are easily understood in most countries and cultures. On the other hand, the cultural-specific images reflect the frame of thought of specific people. Therefore, they do not often resonate with the target audience and sometimes even transmit an improper meaning.

For example, while “owl” in English culture is associated with wisdom and respectability, it is associated in Arabic culture with doom and gloom. In such a case, the translator has either to look for another object that is associated with the same meaning or, as a last resort, merely give the direct meaning.

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In other cases, translators find themselves using the exact opposite to render the intended meaning.

warm my heart

For example, the professional translator in transmitting the idiom “warm my heart” to Arabic uses “يثلج” (ice) rather than “يدفئ” (warm). The reason is simple. Since the prevailing climate in Arab countries is hot, the “ice” is something pleasing in Arabic culture. On the contrary, the English people live in a cold atmosphere, and therefore what pleases in English culture is “warm”. Though “يثلج صدري” (ice my chest) means literally the opposite of “warm my heart”, the both, each in its respective culture, connote the same meaning, namely “cause pleasant feeling”.

English into Arabic: Good

Not all translators are that good at translating “good” into Arabic. In English, one can describe almost everything as good. However, its most common equivalent in Arabic, namely “جيد” (jyid), is not always the proper equivalent. For example, “good man” could be “رجل طيب/ صالح”, “good worker” could be “عامل بارع”, and the process becomes increasingly harder when nouns are less common as the translator has to search, sometimes just their memory, for the most proper equivalent.

English into Arabic: Your

Believe it or not, this simple word is sometimes challenging. In Arabic, the possessive second-person pronoun is a suffix of “kaf” letter for singular and “kaf and mem” letters for plural. The challenge arises when “your” is followed by a long-phrase rather than a single word. In many instances, the best solution is simply omitting it as the meaning is usually implied. If this is not the case, a professional translator may change the sentence structure to avoid this problem while accurately rendering the intended meaning. And the last resort, which is the novice translator’s usual choice, is translating “your” into “الخاص بك”. This choice is less eloquent and undermines the quality of the translated text.

Eventually, the translator finds a way or another to render the problematic terms. In the process, the produced text may become less inspired, coherent, or accurate. Problematic words are the touchstone that distinguishes the professional translator from the novice one.

Published On: January 31st, 2022 / Categories: Business Translation, Translators /

Yousra Elmrakby

January 31, 2022

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