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The Grind of Arabic Localization, or Maybe Not!

The Grind of Arabic Localization, or Maybe Not!

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Arabic has a rich history, having undergone countless changes in the course of time. Some of these transformations date back to the 1st century AD. As one of the Silk Road languages, Arabic has interacted with numerous dialects and vernaculars spoken in all four corners of the world, evolving into Old Hejazi and Classical Arabic.

The 19th century heralded a new era for the Arabic language. It was the dawn of Nahda, the fruit of scholars’ and writers’ efforts to simplify the language for a broader audience. A nascent form of Arabic localization? Maybe.
However, proper Arabic localization or Arabization did not happen before the emergence of Modern Standard Arabic about two hundred years ago, laying the foundation for the Arabic language spoken today in the MENA countries. But there’s a caveat. There is a difference between the Arabic language varieties spoken across all the Arab countries. Hence, the grind of Arabic localization.

Diversity, the pain of Arabic localization

In many cases, diversity is celebrated. In the case of Arabic localization, though, the old adage “The more, the merrier” does not apply precisely because diversity only makes things more complicated.

With 400 million Arabic speakers in all corners of the world and 28 countries speaking different Arabic dialects, Arabic is perhaps one of the most challenging languages to localize to. Let’s tackle these dialects one by one!
Maghrebi (marked by Berber) – the language of Morroco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya
Egypto-Sudanic (marked by Coptic) – the language of Egypt and Sudan
Levantine (marked by Canaanite and Aramaic) – the language of Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria
Mesopotamian (marked by Turkish and Aramaic) – the language of today’s Iraq, Turkey, and Cyprus
Arabian (marked by South Arabian) – the language of Yemen and the Gulf countries
While we’ve managed to group all the Arabic-speaking countries into language categories, the classification does not make it any easier. Each country speaks a variety of Arabic, uniquely characterised by pronunciation and vocabulary, unknown in any other Arabic dialect. Let’s have a look at a few examples!

There are as many ways of saying “How are you” as there are Arabic dialects

O Khalafallah!Akhbarak eh?Shlonak?Kayf ant?
Completely different, right? Indeed, all these varieties of Arabic are different languages. They also use different words to describe furniture, animals, food, people, actions, etc. (Still think you speak Arabic… fluently?)
Comparatively, English is more consistent across its varieties. You can say “The sun is shining” to an Australian, American, Canadian, or a Brit using these exact words and make yourself understood.

The true grit of Arabic localization: idiomatic expressions

Arabic is one of the idiom-richest language. Influenced by the many cultures and ethnicities populating the Arabic peninsula, idioms are an expressive way of adding emotion to any idea you want to convey. They reveal the spirit of any language. And Arabic is a very spirited language. To get a feel of the Arabic spirit, let us take a look at a few Arabic idioms that would make any translator run wild (like an Arabian horse).

احترنا يا قرعة من وين بدنا نبوسك! (ahtarna ya qureatan min win bidna nbuski!)

Direct translation: We’re confused, oh bald one, where should we kiss you?
Actual meaning: There’s no pleasing you!
This is perhaps one of the funniest sayings in Arabic, evocative of someone fussing over trivia. Kissing is a common habit in Arabic culture. The reasoning behind this is that a bald man is more accommodative with the kissing space on their face, hence the confusion around the preferred kissing spot. That’s creative thinking right there.

احترنا يا قرعة من وين بدنا نبوسك! تقبرني! (taqbiruni!)

Direct translation: May you bury me.
Actual meaning: the most sincere expression of love
So much emotion encapsulated in a single word…Parents usually say that to their children. Despite the seemingly dark symbolism of this word, it expresses a feeling of satisfaction and fulfilment. And this idiom expresses a mother’s wish not to outlive her children. The true meaning of it is that love never dies.

القرد بعين امه غزال (alqird bieayn amah ghazal)

Direct translation: The monkey, in the eye of its mother, is a gazelle.
Actual meaning: In the eyes of his mother, a son can do no wrong.
Nothing is stronger than a mother’s love for her children. But sometimes, a mother’s love can become destructive, making her turn a blind eye to her children’s faults.

Arabic date localization, forever a riddle?

Arab countries use both the Gregorian and the Islamic calendars, with the latter serving religious purposes. But there’s a caveat. (Again!) The Islamic calendar (also known as Hijri) falls short by 11 days compared to the Gregorian one. Although it is used only to establish the dates of religious holidays and fasting, it does pose a challenge to Arabic date localization. Let’s see what makes these calendars sooo annoyingly different!
Islamic months: Muharram, Safar, Rabiʿ al-Awwal, Rabʿ al-Thani, Jumada al-Awwal, Jumada al-Thani, Rajab, Shaʿban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Dhu al-Qaʿdah, Dhu al-Hijjah
Gregorian months: Kanun al-Thani, Shbat, Athar, Nisan, Ayyar, Hzayran, Tammuz, Ab, Aylul, Tishreen al-Awwal, Tishreen al-Thani, Kanun al-Awwal
With such a discrepancy between the month names from one calendar to another, it seems almost impossible to localize Arabic dates. And the doom continues as more variety is to be encountered across the Arab world. The Gregorian months we’ve just mentioned are only known to the Levant countries (Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria) and Iraq. What about the rest?
Levantine calendar: Kanun al-Thani, Shbat, Athar, Nisan, Ayyar, Hzayran, Tammuz, Ab, Aylul, Tishreen al-Awwal, Tishreen al-Thani, Kanun al-Awwal
Eastern Arabian, Sudanese & Egyptian calendar: Yanayer, Febrayer, Mars, Abril, Mayo, Yunyo, Yulyo, Agostos, Sibtembar, Uctobar, Nofimbar, Disimbar
Finally, some consistency! By the way, don’t any of these Eastern Arabian month names ring any English bells? Of course, they do. In fact, English has greatly influenced the Arabic language spoken in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world.
Being taught in schools and Universities, English prevails in many Arabic native countries in the public domain. 90% of the most popular street ads sprucing the streets of the Egyptian city of Assiut are in English. Does this mean that you no longer need to localize to Arabic?
Not at all! When localizing any type of material to Arabic, you need to hire professional Arabic-native localizers. We have an idea or two of how you can conquer any Arabic-speaking market. Just drop us a line.
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