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Translating Arabic

Arabic is an interesting word. It is used very freely in the English speaking world (as a noun) to denote the language spoken by people from Somalia to Iraq, with very little recognition given to the fact that, as a language, it is extremely prone to regional variation. In fact, to work on the assumption that any Arabic speaker could converse freely with any other Arabic speaker is rather like assuming that all Romance languages are mutually comprehensible.

This misconception has its roots in the fact that there is such a thing as ‘classical’ or ‘literary’ Arabic, namely the language in which the Qu’ran is written. Literary Arabic is considered to be normative: it is immune to change or development, and speakers of it are expected to respond to well-established grammatical rules and vocabulary. In the sense that every devout Muslim should be able to read the Qu’ran, we could say that literary Arabic is the closest thing to a universal language which binds all Arabic countries, similar to Latin in Medieval Europe. The only difficulty is that – unlike Medieval Latin – it is not used as a living, colloquial language.

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is derived from literary Arabic, and is used by most current publications in the Arabic world. Most educated Arabic speakers are able to understand Modern Standard Arabic, and they consider it and literary Arabic to be two different registers of what is essentially the same language. Unlike literary Arabic, however, MSA is prone to variation, both across different regions and in different people’s use of it, as well as being considerably more fluid to speak and write.

And then there are the colloquial or dialectical variations of Arabic, which differ from country to country. The main division of colloquial Arabic is between North Africa and the Middle East. Called dialects, most linguists in fact think of them as languages, and they tend to be mutually incomprehensible: a Saudi Arabian is unlikely to understand much Tunisian, say, although the inverse is not necessarily true, thanks in large part to the cultural preponderance of Egypt in the Arab world. Arabic dialects are rarely written, but are used in informal spoken media such as soap operas.

This mixture of three languages – all of which we could expect an educated Arab man to use or at least understand – means that the sociolinguistic situation of the Arab world is an excellent example of what linguists call diglossia, the use of two different varieties of the same language, usually in distinct situations. Another example of this phenomenon is the tendency amongst Londoners with Jamaican roots to talk patois at home, but a more typically English English in the wider world.

The variation of Arabic can be quite aptly compared with the distribution and differentiation of the Romance languages. Moroccan, for example, being linguistically innovative and fast-moving, is incomprehensible to speakers of more traditional dialectical forms, much as French is hard to understand for speakers of Italian and Spanish. Likewise, there is a degree of comprehensibility between conservative dialects, even if they are geographically quite distant, exactly as an Italian and Spanish speaker can generally get the gist of what the other is saying.

This difference and diversity poses a special challenge, or range of challenges, to the translator or interpreter, which we will examine in blogs to come. Have you had any experience translating to or from Arabic? How do you go about it? Any particular tips or pitfalls? Do share!

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