Cultural Difficulties in Translations from English Into Arabic | April 2017 | Translation Journal

April 2017 Issue

Read, Comment and Enjoy!

Join Translation Journal

To receive regular updates,
fill in your details below.
You will also receive a PDF listing
8 Ways to Ignite your Translation Career.
Join now. 

Cultural Difficulties in Translations from English Into Arabic

Categories of non-equivalence between English and Arabic

In the following there is a list of some categories where non-equivalence between English and Arabic will be presented and analyzed. Solutions and translation strategies to deal with these cases are presented throughout the analysis. These categories are suggested by Baker (1992) in her discussion of non-equivalence at the word level. She dealt with the problem of non-equivalence giving examples from different languages including Arabic. However, the Arabic examples she gave were limited. More extensive example list of Arabic terms will contribute to Arab translators from and into English.

Culture-specific terms and concepts in the two languages

1. Arabic customs, food and social life

A list of common culture-specific terms is presented in the following table.

Arabic term

English equivalent

Commentary

   

Use paraphrase strategy where the words are explained based on modifying the super-ordinate words and unpacking their meanings using unrelated words

Al Sharaf

Honor

   

Al Dukhlah

Wedding night

Al Dhurrah

Co-wife; wife other than the first wife of a polygamous marriage

Al Adeel

Brother-in-law

Al Silfah

Sister-in-law

Al Azaa

Funeral

Al Thayyib

Previously married woman

 

Al Bikr

Virgin

Aanis

Spinster

Beit Al Ta’ah

Obedience house; husband’s house

Fool modamees

Beans and bread

These terms are related to certain aspects of Arab values, culture and religion. They cannot be translated using their English equivalents, provided these equivalents exist in English. The word [Al ord] in Arabic is semantically complex. It is related to a male’s honor in protecting female members of his family, possessions, and other people he is responsible for. This concept has no equivalent in the English culture, and therefore, can only be translated by using a more neutral and less expressive term, e.g., “dignity” and explaining its associative emotions and judgments.

Part of the difficulty in translating such terms lies in the fact that these words require a deep knowledge of the Arabic culture with all its social values and traditions. In addition, these words represent concepts which do not exist in English. The dictionary equivalents given for these terms are either long explanations of the concepts or less expressive terms. It is recommended to translate these words by using the paraphrase strategy where the words are explained based on modifying the super-ordinate words and unpacking their meanings using unrelated words, “mahram” is translated by modifying the super-ordinate “someone” as a male chaperon, and adding some explanation to unpack the connotative meaning of this term in the Islamic culture.

Local cuisines present similar challenges to Equivalence. Of specific interest is the Arabic phrase [fool midamass]. It refers to a very popular dish that has a local flavor in some arab countries. This term can be translated by giving its English equivalent as “beans and bread”. However, this will neither capture the local flavor of this dish nor illustrate its peculiar features such as when it is eaten, its low cost, and the type of people who commonly eat it.  

2. Arabic terms which are not lexicalized in English

In this section, a group of Arabic words which are not lexicalized in English are discussed. A list of such terms is given in the following table.

Arabic term

English equivalent

Commentary

Yaktarif

To commit sinful or evil deeds

 

Yatawara

 to vanish; to hide

The above words express concepts which are known in English but simply not lexicalized; that is not “allocated” English words to express them. The Arabic verbs “yaktarif”   literally means to commit evil deeds using one of the organs of the body. This word has a religious overtone which is not captured in one-to-one word equivalent. I

3. Arabic words that are semantically complex

A sample of Arabic words which are semantically complex are discussed. These words are related to processes, religious concepts and social customs which are important enough in the Arabic culture to lexicalize as single words carrying complex meanings. A list of such terms is given in the following table.

Arabic term

English equivalent

Commentary

Al Ghusul

Washing/showering

Symbolic washing of the total body following intercourse

Al Taharah

Purity

State of cleanliness or purity achieved after performing the symbolic wash

Al Najasah

Impurity

Lack of cleanliness or purity

Al Wudhu’

Ablution

Symbolic act of washing face, hands and feet with water prior to performing prayers

Al Tayamum

Washing with earth dust

Symbolic washing by using earth dust; using ‘dust” as a substitute if there is no water

Al E’tikaf

Seclusion, prayer in seclusion;

Retiring into mosque for worship, especially in the last ten days of Ramadan

Al Tahajud

Late night prayers in Ramadan

A special prayer performed in the last ten days of Ramadan late at night

Akh Bir Ridha’ah

Milk-brother/sister

Those who achieve the status of brother/sister by virtue of nursing from the same mother

Al Hijab

Veil

Is it the separator or the cloth? Is it “hijab” or simply “veil”?

Hadi Al Ees

No equivalent

Singing for the Camel caravan to gain speed

The words in this category are difficult to translate because they refer to semantically complex concepts which are not found in English. For example, the word [taharah] in Arabic means many things such as virtue, purity, cleansing, cleanness, cleanliness, chastity, righteousness, virtue, virtuousness, decency, chastity. It is a complex concept which refers to the process of ablution “washing with water before prayers”. It also means cleaning the body and the clothes a person is wearing in addition to cleansing the heart and the soul.

There are no English equivalents to capture the complex concepts associated with these Arabic terms. The best strategy in translating these terms is to use the loan word plus a short explanation to describe the expressive, evoked and associative meanings. A longer explanation may be used in a foot-note. In some cases, for example [Hijab], the loan word is sufficient to give the full meaning without any short or long explanations. However, because this word represents a concept which is important enough to be talked about in English, English has developed a very concise form for referring to it, i.e., “veil”. Still, the complex concept embedded in the Arabic “hijab” may not be matched by the concepts associated with the English “veil”.

4. Arabic and English make different distinctions in meaning

A list of such terms is given in the following table.

Arabic term

English equivalent

Commentary

Degrees of temperature

[bærid]

Cold- cool- warm- hot- lukewarm

English and Arabic make more or fewer distinctions. Use context to approximate the intended meaning

[faætir]

[dæfi]

[sahin]

[har]

[radee]

Stages of human life

English and Arabic make more or fewer distinctions. Use context to approximate the intended meaning

[Tifl]]

Infant, baby, toddler, child, adult, middle-aged, senior citizen (infancy, babyhood, childhood, adulthood, Middle-age, old-age)

[bælig]

[ʃʃæb]

 

[kahel]

[ajzu:z]

 

English makes more distinctions to refer to the degrees of temperature than Arabic. For example, the two words “cool” and ‘cold” have one Arabic equivalent [bærid]. However, Arabic makes more distinctions in referring to some stages of a human being life. For example, “adulthood” has two terms in Arabic “siba” and “shabab”, whereas English has more distinctions for the concept of [Al Tufulah] as “infancy, babyhood and childhood”.

5. English lacks specific term (hyponym)

Some Arabic words have several hyponyms for which English lacks equivalents. A sample list of such terms is given in the following table.

Arabic term

English equivalent

Commentary

 

In translating these hyponyms into English, the general word is used supplemented by adding a description to convey the precise meaning.

 
 
 
 

[alfadzer]

Times of the day and prayers (no one-to-one equivalents)

   

[asabah]

   

[að̲ uher]

   

[alæsar]

   

[almaɤɤrib]

   

[aliʃʃa]

   

[allail]

   

[alsahar]

   
     

Arabic has many specific words (hyponyms) for words related to the Arabic culture for which English has no equivalents. For example, Arabic has many hyponyms to refer to the times of the day. Most of these words are based on the prayer times for which English has no equivalents, e.g., [alfajer] [alð̲uher] [aʕʕsar] [almaɤɤrib] and [aliʃʃa]. Another interesting example is the

Rain in Arabic has several hyponyms which are not found in English. For example, “hattan” means light rain, “tal” means fine rain, “wabil” means heavy rain, or torrential rain, and “dimah” means a long but quiet rain:

In translating these hyponyms into English, the general word is used supplemented by adding a description to convey the precise meaning.

6. Differences between Arabic and English in expressive meaning

Some arabic words which have equivalent English words but these words may have a different expressive meaning or may be neutral compared to Arabic. The difference is important enough to pose a translation problem. A sample list of such terms is given in the following table.

The word “qalaq” in Arabic may be translated by its English equivalent “anxiety”, but this equivalent carries only one part of the meaning of the word in Arabic, i.e.m tension caused by fear associated with the expectation of the unknown. The other component of meaning of “qalaq” which is related to “uneasiness” and worry” represents an essential part of the meaning of the Arabic word. This component doesn’t exist in the English equivalent. Translators have to add the evaluative element by means of a modifier or adverb as necessary, or by building it somewhere in the text.

Arabic term

English Equivalent

Commentary

Hubb

Love

Difficult to establish a one-to-one equivalence between various terms in the two languages

Qalaq

Anxiety

Eshtyaq

Longing

Walah

Enthrallment/adoration

Law’ah

Agony

Wajd

Passion, ecstasy of love

Wala’a

Passionate love, craving

Hiyam

Passionate love

Eshq

Passion, ardor of love

Gharam

Infatuation

Sababah

Fervent longing

Sabwah

Youthful passion

Hawa

Love

In the lexical set of [hubb] “love”, Arabic has a vast repertoire of terms. Rajaa Salamah, in her book titled Al Isheq wal Kitabah (Passion and Writing) enumerated 104 such terms. These terms are not exact synonyms. Rather, they differ either in scale and intensity of emotions or in the extent of physical involvement.

  Some of the definitions ascribed to some of these terms are given in the table above. We also see that each of these terms would require the combination of two or more procedures in the TL.

English, too, has many terms in this lexical set. Here are the words for love in approximate descending order. .

Requited love:

worship

idolatry (to idolize someone)

passion

adoration

cherish

reverence

venerate (v.)

dote [on] (v. to dote on someone : love that often involves spoiling of other person)

love

to fall for (v. phrase)

to lose one’s heart to (v. phrase)

6. Conclusion

The concept of equivalence is central in translation although its definition, relevance, and applicability within the field of translation theory have caused heated controversy. Indeed, “Equivalence” has provided a useful theoretical and pragmatic foundation for translation processes.

Equivalence is a key concept in translation. It is a process of finding an “equal” code in the TL to replace a ST counterpart. This concept therefore has assumed a remarkable space in the literature of many theorists of translating, especially after the field has been looked at from a different perspective, i.e. a rule-governed entity. One could safely claim that equivalence is the axis round which almost all related disciplines revolve including: contrastive textology, contrastive syntax, error analysis, machine translation, simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, etc..

Non-equivalence in translation can be evidenced through numerous examples in the process of translating from Arabic into English. Terms that lack equivalence due to markedly different cultural contexts are best translated into English using one of the strategies suggested by Baker for translating non-equivalence to convey their conceptual and cultural meanings to the English speaking readers.Some of these strategies are summarized below:

When English equivalents can’t give the full meaning, particularly in terms of religious nature, often a strategy of Borrowing the SL term (loan word) + a short explanation is deployed.

In culture-specific terms that lack a corresponding point in the target language reality, we could use a paraphrasing strategy.

For terms that are semantically complex, the best strategy is to use the loan word plus a short explanation to describe . A longer explanation may be used in a foot-note.

In translating hyponyms into English, the general word is used supplemented by adding a description to convey the precise meaning.

In nearly all such cases, equivalence or translating using equivalence is not necessarily the best strategy, i.e., it does not produce a meaningful rendering of the source term [ST] into the target term [TT].  

Log in

Log in