Issues Faced by Arab Translators
Arab translators have several distinct challenges when translating to or from English.
Arab translators face a lot of problems when working with English because of the cultural differences between the English-speaking world and the Arabic world. Some of these differences are purely semantic. One example I can think of involved the title ‘Secretary of State.’ For Americans, and even for most of the Western world that have access to any kind of U.S. television shows or movies, people are familiar with this cabinet post in the U.S. government, and an easy translation into another culture would be ‘Prime Minister.’ However, in Arabic cultures there are no obvious connections and the translation is often performed literally, resulting in a phrase that means nothing to the Arab reader.
Some challenges go deeper. Much like the recent incident where the Iranian press manipulated photos of American First Lady Michele Obama at the Oscars to cover her bare shoulder and arms, many of the concepts and ideas in English writing are distasteful or forbidden in many Arab cultures, making high quality translation of those concepts very difficult – how can you translate something you’re not supposed to read in the first place? Arab cultures do not see this as censorship, and thus often get confused when Westerners complain about or mock this tendency. To the Arab world, there are simply some concepts that are insulting to God, and thus must be avoided. This obviously complicates document translation work!
Arabic and English are vastly different languages, and Arab translators have to have a firm grasp on the structures of both languages in order to create high quality translations. It’s fair to say that the goal of translation services is to produce a version of the source document that appears to have been written by a native speaker of the target language. This means the Arab translators must first be able to comprehend the English version, including how its structure affects comprehension, and then recast it into a more appropriate Arabic structure. These challenges aren’t shared by, say, Spanish translators, as Spanish and English share a great many structural concepts. English often has very long, complex sentences, and its tense structure is fluid, both factors in making translations into Arabic very difficult.
We can only admire the intrepid translators who continue to work hard at bringing the world closer. In the case of the Western and Arabic worlds, this cannot happen quickly enough.
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