Let’s Arabic

The Arabic language descends from the Afro-asiatic branch of the Semitic language tree. As many Semitic languages do, Arabic builds up words using semantic bases composed by sequences of two letters. Syntax is characterized by Protosemitic-like declensions, which is quite a conservative aspect of this language. Arabic phonological system owns a scarce number of vowels, if compared with the much wider spectrum of consonants: besides the most common consonants, Arabic uses uvulars, pharyngeals and emphatic phonemes.

Arabic is tightly linked to Southern Semitic languages such as Southern Arabic and Ethiopian, as well as Hebrew and Aramaic. But the influence of Arabic is far more recognizable; it remounts to 640 and 711 AC, respectively the date of Egypt and Spain occupation and urbanization, whereas rural areas would be reached by Arabic influence later on, during the IX Century, due to Bedouin migrations from Egypt and North Africa towards Mauritania. Islamic religion and language would then be transported in the deepest south by migrants and merchants unto Sudan and South Sahara and, afterwards, further reaching North of Chad, Niger, North Nigeria and finally South Mali and Senegal. Here Arabic took root to vehicle trading, religious and cultural contents, affecting but not supplanting Swahili, the local “lingua franca”.

At the present time, however, Arabic may be considered as the most used language in Africa: there are almost 140 million speakers among the Arabic varieties of Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon and Central African Republic. Besides we must consider the many linguistics variants of Arabic spoken in Mali, Senegal and Niger, not counting the Arabic variety of Tanzania, which descends directly from the Arabic of Arabia and Oman, or the official language of Djibouti and Eritrea. In many other countries Arabic has survived only as the language of Koran, which means also of knowledge and literature. Definitely, Arabic has determined the transcription methods of many African languages such as Fulfilde, Kanuri, Songhay and Wolof, moreover influencing their lexical burden, while the result of codemixing is clearly observable in Hausa and Swahili.

Nonetheless, a certain kind of influence of European languages over Arabic should not be ignored, especially in the religious and economic fields. Transposing into an African language may pose special problems to an European translator: linguistic variants of a same African language often suppose variety and multiplicity of meaning of specific words, thus forcing any translator to ask for the help of a local speaker when revising the text.

The second most frequent problem a translator, in the specific an English translator, may find in transposing a text in Arabic is of stylistic nature: it looks like Arabic tends, for example, to use paragraphing more with aesthetic aims if compared with English, where on the contrary any spacing is used with rigid rational criteria. This is no more than a way to show how “different” languages can be and to explain this as the result of distinct ways of thinking the reality and mentally organizing it. On the other hand, an Arabic mother tongue translator would probably incur in many other inconvenience while trying to translate into English: “mistranslation” is his worst enemy, affecting both the connotative as well as the denotative sphere. Due to the fact that English belongs to different linguistic domains, an Arabic speaker would hardly succeed in preserving the “meaning” and the “emotion” of the text; then omissions, ambiguous meanings (usually accompanied by adverbs), over translations (by the redundant adding of significance) are the most frequently used expedients to avoid translation obstacles. A habit that often prejudices the stylistic quality of a translation.

As a matter of fact, a translation may be considered as an original text itself, a sort of re-writing of contents filtered through the brain of another person who brings in the new text interferences from his mother tongue language. In the case of an Arabic mother tongue speaker, we can recognize the tendency to use coordination instead of subordination, being this last one preferably adopted by an English speaker. When using subordination, Arabic tends to put dependant clauses at the beginning of the sentence to satisfy the need of emphasizing the concept expressed in that first conceptual segment. The subordinate would otherwise follow, as usual, the stating clause. In both cases, the result of the difference between English and Arabic in translation terms would be a greater or lesser unnaturalness of sentence construction: a translator from English into Arabic would favour subordination, while an Arab speaker would probably transfer his mental coordination tendency into the new text.

Arabic is also the toughest stumbling block for localization translators: in fact, this language has not developed technical nor business tools yet. For sure, a good translator would recur to periphrasis and other stratagems to render a meaning or adapt the content of a foreigner culture to the Arabic system. Many efforts are being made in this sense and some glossaries of Internet terms are about to be published but, in factual terms, linguists’ research in Arabic to improve computer resource or grammar checkers is still scarce. In conclusion, a great challenge for translators.

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Category: Foreign Language