Nine Pitfalls of English-Arabic Translation
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Nine Pitfalls of English-Arabic Translation

Arabic is the fifth largest language spoken in the world and one of the fastest growing in the US. But it’s consistently ranked as one of the hardest languages to learn, and to localize. Whether you need to translate content from English to Arabic or vice versa, it’s important to understand the dynamics of this complicated match-up to resource for them accordingly. So, what kinds of pitfalls does this language pair have?

1. Vocabulary

A Semitic language, Arabic boasts more than 12 million unique words. Compare that to English—with a relatively modest 1 million words—and you can start to see why this language might require translators to have hefty vocabularies.

Translating from English to Arabic, a linguist has to know more than 10 times the number of words—and more letters, as the Arabic alphabet contains 28. When translating the other way, given that some Arabic letters have no English equivalents, English spellings may best resemble the sounds of the Arabic words. For example, a double (a), “aa,” is a standard attempt to sound like the Arabic letter ع, even though it’s pronounced slightly differently.

2. Dialects

Accents aside, English-speaking countries don’t have much trouble understanding each other. In the Arabic-speaking world, it’s another story. Each region across the Middle East and North Africa has developed its own entirely different set of dialects, so any two nations can easily get lost in translation—both in written communication (many dialectal terms are never written and lack spelling conventions) and spoken (for example, “camel” is pronounced jamal in Eastern Arabic but gamal in Egypt).

It’s difficult to translate English to Arabic and vice versa without a keen sense of these differences—between not just dialects, but their spoken and written forms. Which brings us to the next challenge.

3. Diglossia

Arabic is part of a linguistic phenomenon called diglossia: when a language varies in spoken and written form according to the situation. A Moroccan and an Iraqi might work around their dialectal differences by conversing in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a standardized form of the language used in formal or universal content (like articles or broadcast media). But in day-to-day speech, it would feel stiff. At home, they’d use their own dialects.

So, problems come up when a translator isn’t clear on locale. When translating English to Arabic, they’d need to know the specific country (thus dialect) to target. Going the other way, translators must pay close attention to the situational use of Arabic and how best to express each dialectal element—or whether it can be translated at all.

4. Untranslatables

Disparate as they are in lexicon size, Arabic and English don’t always translate well. In Arabic, the term “access” doesn’t technically exist. Likewise, concepts we can’t phrase in English (or can, but awkwardly) can be conveyed in Arabic in a single word—for example, zankha: a word used to loosely capture a certain indefinable smell.

In these cases, translators have to decide whether to adapt Arabic content to English or to keep Arabic terms to give English speakers a taste of the culture—perhaps using transliteration (converting words from one script to another).

5. Ambiguity

Given the differences between Arabic and English, it’s not uncommon to find three or more different translations for the same source text—all considered correct, but not necessarily clear.

Lexical ambiguity is when there’s more than one way to translate a word— especially the written word, which doesn’t have short vowels in most Arabic texts. For example, the word jzr could be read as juzur (islands) or jazr (ebb) or jazar (carrots), and can’t always be clarified by context.

And in English to Arabic, you might come across pronoun reference ambiguity, which is when it’s unclear to which noun a pronoun refers. In English, we use the second- and third-person pronouns “you” and “they” no matter the gender. In Arabic, pronouns vary by number and gender. Again, when “you” or “they” is the only context available to translators, it’s not always clear which Arabic pronoun to use.

English Pronoun Number and Gender Arabic Pronoun
You Singular masculine أَد
  Singular feminine أَ ِتد
  Dual masculine أَرًا
  Dual feminine أَرًا
  Plural masculine أَرى
  Plural feminine أَرٍ
 They Dual masculine هًا 
  Dual feminine هًا 
  Plural masculine هى 
  Plural feminine هٍ


6. Sentence structure

In English, sentences aren’t considered grammatically correct unless they’re verbal (meaning they use a subject > verb > object structure) and indeed, structured in that order (as in “The cat sat on the mat.”). Arabic, however, uses both nominal (verb-less) and verbal structures and even reorders the latter (verb > subject > object).

It’s easy to make the mistake of translating Arabic and English sentences in the same order. Instead, translators have to get creative when adapting nominal sentences to verbal and vice versa by adding, removing and rearranging words to ensure they make sense.

7. Design

Like other Semitic languages, Arabic expands. Pitfalls abound when content isn’t designed to accommodate longer text, which is why it’s always important to design for translation by leaving a good buffer—of at least 30%, depending on the number of English characters. And, as the World Wide Web Consortium points out, Arabic also requires more height than Latin scripts.

However, if you’re translating Arabic to English, length isn’t a worry. Unless you’re dabbling in…

8. Machine translation

Arabic is syntactically rather long and complex for MT to process well. Because it is substantially different from other languages (in terms of its characters, syntax and morphology), researchers cannot generally use solutions from other languages. In short, MT for Arabic dialects is still emerging. It’s important to partner with an expert here.

9. Resourcing

Translators with deep knowledge of dialectal Arabic are crucial to creating content that resonates with the Arabic-speaking markets you’re targeting, but they are nonetheless elusive. For years, demand far outweighed supply. The landscape has improved as more young English speakers have opted to study Arabic, but as the demand for Arabic content around the world rises, so too does the demand for linguists.

Also, in emerging Arabic-speaking regions like Africa, whose technological infrastructure is booming but still somewhat lacking, translators tend to have less access to the internet or experience with translation tools. This is why, for many companies, it makes sense to work with a localization partner that can manage training and resourcing for them.

What you need in a translator

As you can see, Arabic-English and English-Arabic translation problems are linguistic, cultural and technical. Effectively conveying the jargon, metaphors, slang and other linguistic/cultural differences of your target market requires highly specialized translators with advanced knowledge of both language and lifestyle.

Ideally, you’d source translators who, if not native speakers of Arabic, have at least spent time in one or more Arabic-speaking countries. The best Arabic translators can tap into a network of subject matter experts to add the terminology of your industry to their repertoire. This is where an LSP helps—to make sure you’re working with the most qualified translators for your Arabic localization project.


Translation between Arabic and English in either direction is difficult, but not insurmountable.  We hope this post helps to relieve some of the overwhelm you might be feeling after reading about all these challenges. The right partner can make sure your content hits its mark in Arabic markets.


Any questions about Arabic translation and sourcing Arabic linguists? Drop us a line here or in the comments below!