Challenges and specificities of translation from Arabic

Arabic language is official in 26 countries, spoken by around 240 million people all over the world and is the second language of 50 million more. Being so peculiar and unusual to Europeans, it is considered one of the most ancient and mysterious languages.

Translations from Arabic used to be made relatively early. According to different sources one of the first evidence of that dates back to as early as the 7th century, and the period between the 8th and 13th century was marked by a real bloom in the translation of various Arabic texts. The science of Arabic translations developed in quite a specific way. A huge volume of works were translated, however the Muslims hesitated with translating their main book – the Quran – because it was forbidden to read it in any other language. It was not until the 12th century that the Quran was translated into Latin for the first time, and later on – into Italian, French and Russian.

Since Arabic is part of the Semitic languages, it contains a number of peculiarities that need to be taken into account when making a translation. We won't be delving into specificities familiar to anyone who speaks a classic language (tense, gender, person), but will focus only on those interesting features that present difficulties even to experienced translators.

One of the possible problems that may arise with a translation is a result of the lack of capital letters in Arabic language, i.e. names and initial words in sentences are spelled with small letters. Thus, if a certain word is borrowed or transcribed it sometimes takes a lot of time before the translator becomes aware that it is a proper name and that it is not necessary to be translated.

In the Arabic alphabet there is no analogy to the letters P and V, therefore, when transcribing foreign words containing these letters, those are indicated respectively by BA and FA. Due to this peculiarity, in a reverse translation of transcribed words such as names and titles there occur many misunderstandings.
There are no vowels in the general Arabic language, therefore proper names have no vocal indications and there may be several ways to pronounce one and the same word. In order to avoid such difficulties in the translation from and into Arabic language it is recommended to use consonants indicating long vocals – alif, wāw and yā – when transcribing.

Certain details when spelling dates and numerals may also make a challenge out of the translation from Arabic language.
The Arabic calendar differs from the Gregorian and counting begins from Hijra – Muhammad and his adherents' migration from Mekka to Medina in 622. Moreover, unlike the Gregorian calendar, the Arabic one is entirely Lunar: a year comprises 12 Lunar months and consists of 254 days, which is 10 or 11 days less than a Sun year. This means that when translating dates from the Islamic calendar it is not enough just to subtract 622. Usually in Arabic documents the dates from the Islamic calendar coincide with those from the Gregorian. A translator must pay a lot of attention. If the dates do not coincide, it must be clarified in the translation which the calendar in question is, and in case the date needs to be translated, a special formula is applied.

Special attention must also be paid to numerals spelled as numbers in a European style (1, 2, 3...), as well as in an Arabic style. Regardless of the fact that Arabic writing is directed from right to left, numbers (incl. fractions) are spelled in the usual direction – from left to right.
Letters from the Arabic alphabet can also be used to indicate numerals, when numerating sections or paragraphs from the text. The first nine letters equal units (from 1 to 9), the next nine indicate tens (from 10 to 90), the third set of nine letters – hundreds (from 100 to 900), and the last letter's numerical meaning is 1000.

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