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The Challenges Of Localizing Arabic

There’s a saying in Arabic: إذا تحدثت إلى رجل بلغة يفهمها، ستصل إلى رأسه. إذا تحدثت إليه بلغته، ستصل إلى قلبه. If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.

That’s certainly true of Arabic itself: the sixth most spoken in the world with 420 million users – more than French or German.  While standard Arabic is understood widely across the globe, it is a language with a number of variations and dialects from country to country.  Arabic is the national language of 25 states, but this apparent shared culture hides considerable diversity, leaving plenty of potential for embarrassment, and considerable challenges when some resources like websites, subtitles and books are required to cover multiple different regions.  With its own alphabet, unintelligible to most westerners, even ‘obvious’ errors are more difficult to spot in Arabic.

There are compelling (and obvious) reasons to overcome these difficulties and communicate in Arabic in the modern business world: when thinking of conspicuously wealthy cities, most people’s minds immediately leap to the skyscrapers and artificial islands of Dubai. The combined GDP of the 22-member Arab League is £2.214 trillion – 3.55% of Gross World Product.  The League is rich in fossil fuels, with global centres of telecommunications, and a tourist industry considered the fastest growing sector in the region.

Less happily, regions of the Arab world have also notoriously been rocked by instability in recent years, making countries like Yemen top destinations for international aid organisations and NGOs – for whom a good grasp of the local language can mean the difference between life and death.

Many Arabic countries are conspicuously religious, and as with Christianity in European languages, the faith has a historical and continuing influence on dialect.  It’s well to be mindful that while some translations may be understood in countries where Standard Arabic is used as a lingua franca, they are not always culturally acceptable.  Unlike the difference between US and UK English, which might be merely annoying or embarrassing (think “fanny” or “Trump”), there’s potential to cause real offence: for example, a beautiful term for a sunflower, عباد الشمس (‘sun worshipper’) is common in countries like Syria and Iraq, but totally forbidden in Saudi Arabia for its religious connotations.

Technical localization into this language family presents its own set of difficulties: although sciences like mathematics, medicine and chemistry owe much of their history to Arabic speakers, spawning many terms that are still used today (like ‘chemistry’ itself to English), there is a lack of equivalent terminology for modern scientific and technical terms given the influence of the west in more recent developments.

So, there’s a lot to think about when approaching localization for a Middle Eastern audience: even dates probably need to be translated between the local Hijri system, based on the phases of the moon, and the Western, Gregorian, solar calendar.  There’s almost no aspect of anything you’ll do or say that won’t have to be localized to some degree – so thank goodness for the professionals.

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