The beauty of Arabic: What makes Arabic into English translations so challenging?

I have always been fascinated by foreign languages and always wanted to know more about Arabic. I have always noticed that Arabic into English translations are very challenging not only from a linguistic point of view but also from a cultural point of view.

But what is it that makes Arabic so difficult to translate? Zena Alzinc, one of our senior freelance translators will guide in this short exploration of the Arabic language.

Did you know that the word 'love' has fourteen meanings in Arabic, referring to the various stages of falling in love? They start with the word 'Hawa' which means a crush, and end with the word 'Huyam' which is the highest level of love – the state where you lose your sanity or reason (check out this link http://stepfeed.com/14-stages-of-love-according-to-the-arabic-language-1371)

Unique in its letters, origins and writing styles, the Arabic language is the official language of the 22 countries of the Arab League. However, due to its emotional and religious status as the language of the Quran, it's also learned and used throughout the Muslim World. It's one of the six official languages of the United Nations (UN) and it's the fifth most used language in the world with 295 million native speakers.

Arabic is one of the Central Semitic Languages, which means that it shares several distinctive features with other Middle Eastern Languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, Canaanite and Ugaritic. It has evolved considerably throughout the ages, and the language we use today is very different from the language of the Quran or the language before

Islam. Classical Arabic, in which all the pre-Islamic and Islamic Literature was written, is very hard to understand for the average Arabic speaker. So we have linguists specialised in analysing and studying the old literature and introducing it to the public.

The more widespread form of Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), is the formal Arabic used by all books, newspapers, television and radio. It's understood by all Arabs and it is even used in mosques, conferences and conversations between Arabs who speak different dialects as a common language. Modern Standard Arabic is taught in schools as the official language and it's essential because each country in the Arab League has its own dialect, and these dialects sometimes even differ from one city to another. For example, it is impossible for a Syrian and Algerian to understand each other if they are speaking their own dialects, sometimes even the neighbouring countries have very different dialects, like Sudan and Egypt.

Moreover, there are also minorities in Arab countries who use other languages related to their culture and national affiliation, like the varieties of Amazigh used by Berbers in North Africa, and Kurdish in parts of Iraq and Syria.

countries speak arabic.png

Like many Middle Eastern Languages, Arabic is written from right to left, and even though the alphabet contains 28 letters, there are 18 distinct letter shapes, and when there are dots above or below these shapes, they become different letters.

There are no capital letters in Arabic, but each letter has three or four forms depending on its position in the word, which can be quite difficult for new Arabic learners to master The Arabic Script, which has been adapted by other languages, like Persian, Urdu and Malay, is in itself an art. Arabic Calligraphy uses beautiful formations of letters and short vowels and has several styles. Modern and contemporary artists have even invented a new style fusing calligraphy and graffiti into what is now called "Calligraphitti" – used in streets and on public buildings.

Both the English language and many other languages borrowed several words
from Arabic during the rise of the Arab Islamic Civilisation. Examples include: alchemy, alcohol, algebra, algorithm, alkaline, (the article ‘al’ in Arabic denotes ‘the’), amber, arsenal, candy, coffee, cotton, ghoul, hazard, lemon, magazine, sherbet, sofa, tariff – and many more. Interestingly, the algebraic letter 'x' which represents the unknown, is originally an Arabic word 'Shay' (thing), translated into Spanish as 'xay' and abbreviated as 'x'.

As in other Semitic languages, Arabic has a complex and unusual method of constructing words from a basic root. For example, the word "hubb", which is a common word for "love" comes from the same root as the word "seed" – implying that both words have the potential to grow into something beautiful. Using the root system means that direct translation is often difficult, especially with poetic or literary texts– the root of a word may contain a meaning that could take a few sentences to translate. However, this feature gives the Arabic language a beauty and depth unmatched by many other languages.

No wonder there are so many words for love...

This blog post originally appeared on Connections, the magazine of the Standing Out Mastermind (SOM) community on Facebook, is written primarily by and for translators and interpreters, offering us a window into each other’s worlds, zooming in on the human side of our work, exploring questions we can all reflect on, giving us fresh inspiration, and of course offering handy tips which we can apply throughout our professional lives.

http://somastermind.com/project/2017-2/#page/24

 

For your Arabic into English translations, contact TranslationsInLondon Ltd. Our team along with our network of qualified freelance translators will help you to translate your document.


 

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