The need for linguistic and cultural localisation for a Middle-Eastern and North African public

Publishing a translation in Arabic means communicating with over 400 million native-speaking Arabs across the world, and an equally large number of people who use Arabic as a second language.

If the Arabic translation of your website or any other advertising or technical-scientific text is correctly localised, in other words, if it has been adapted correctly to the Arab culture, you will be able to reach a vast and continually growing international public. If we consider the states in which Arabic is spoken as a first language, it is possible to communicate with many countries including Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Chad, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen.

When assigning an Arabic translation it should be remembered that a wide variety of dialects are spoken in the Arab world, which are often very different from one another. Therefore, the population or ethnic group that the text is aimed at should be clearly defined from the outset. This enables the translated text to be localised, making it efficient from a communication point of view and avoiding any unpleasant cultural clashes.

While governments and the mass media often use a standard Arabic language for the creation and official translation of administrative documents, international advertising and formal communication to a wide public, informal communication in Arabic is conducted using local dialects, which are often incomprehensible to all speakers. Just think of the dialects of the Maghreb which significantly differ from standard Arabic, and have caused great diplomatic difficulties, due also to cases of erroneous linguistic interpretation.

Nevertheless, Egyptian Arabic and Syrian Arabic are the most well-known throughout the Arab world and consequently a translation in Egyptian or Syrian Arabic will be understood by a vast public, beyond the borders of Egypt or Syria. Of course, the popularity of Egyptian and Syrian derives from the influence of publishing and filmography which have developed in these countries, where many films are dubbed into Arabic.

In addition to the comprehension difficulties which Arabic speakers encounter when they communicate in their respective local dialects, there is a second obstacle to communication: although standard Arabic is widely understood, few can speak it correctly. In fact, it is often only those of a high cultural level who communicate in official Arabic, while the less-cultured public use dialects.

Professional Arabic translations: how to manage the specifics of legal, economic, technical and advertising texts

The native-speaking Arabic translators at SMG UK Translations Limited (SMG UK) have an extensive experience that spans many years in different translation and localisation contexts. In fact, the linguists at our translation company work for multinational companies and public administrations, mainly translating language combinations including Arabic/English, Arabic/French, Arabic/Italian, Arabic/German, Arabic/Spanish, Arabic/Portuguese and Arabic/Dutch. Certified translation services are also available in Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan, Libyan, Algerian, Tunisian and United Arab Emirates Arabic.

To help our clients in the difficult page layout of Arabic texts (writing from right to left, identification of Arabic fonts etc.), we offer our services for the verification of texts before they are printed and published, performing a proofreading service.

Legal and judicial translations in Arabic can be sworn and legalised (certified by official oath and validated for overseas). Among our language specialities is the Arabic translation of notary deeds, sales deeds, articles of association, power of attorney, company regulations, certifications and translations for practices at Embassies and Consulates. With regard to contracts, we have translated a large number of company contracts, representation and distribution contracts, sales contracts, property contracts, trade agreements, confidentiality agreements and letters of intent. With regard to calls for tenders, in Arab nations we perform accurate translations of invitations to tender, technical specifications, guidelines and assignment contracts, offering Arabic language assistance specifically for tenders for construction works and industrial supply.

Economic and financial translation in Arabic is performed and verified by linguists and sector experts, in conformity to standard UNI EN 15038. Our specialist language assistance includes the translation of economic and financial documents (company balance sheets and reports), shareholders’ meeting minutes, business letters, translations for customs practices, financial market prospects, insurance policies, bank translations and press releases.

Technical translation in Arabic is the result of the collaboration between our engineers and linguists. This professional translation service is particularly appreciated in the industrial works sector (e.g. manuals for machine tools and presses), the industrial automation sector (especially robotic islands), and the sector of valves for oil and gas pipelines. Over recent years, we have satisfied the significant increase in demand for translations in electronics and plant engineering in the energy industry, even assisting multinational leaders. Due to the optimisation of translation processes, guides, manuals, technical drawings, calls for tender, and working drawings can also be urgently translated into Arabic, in other words, quickly handed over within only a few days (although we recommend that wherever possible, the client allows sufficient handover times to enable us to perform rigorous quality-control checks on the translations).

Advertising translation in Arabic requires careful localisation, in other words, the adjustment of translated texts to the culture of the Arab world, frequently identified by its love for social harmony, its respect, and a concept of luxury that often differs from a Western one. Using this perspective, it will be possible to translate film subtitles, advertising texts and websites into Arabic in a very efficient way.

Arabic interpreters

To travel through the “Arab nations” and establish long-lasting relationships of trust, English does not often suffice, or better, the assistance of an Arabic interpreter who understands local habits and customs can be a great help to you in your foreign projects.

Our Arabic interpreters are, by profession, also cultural mediators, join intercultural assistance with a good knowledge of the subject matter in question. We in fact have Arabic interpreters who are experts in engineering, those who are experts in legal and business negotiations, as well as those who specialise in medicine.

We have a cast network of over 2,000 professional interpreters, some of whom are available to provide direct language assistance and interpreting services in Arabic in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates.

As a point of reference, we have supplied Arabic interpreting services for the Italian mission in Iraq and for many high-profile political negotiations on the themes of economic cooperation and engineering projects for the water control in Venice.

An overview of the Arabic language: history, curiosities, facts and difficulties of the language


The Arabic language is a very diverse and ancient language over 1000 years old, introduced when the holy Quran was written on 22 December 609 CE. The Arabic language is not only a very old language but it has also not changed much since being adopted by the general population. There are older versions of the Arabic language such as the Safaitic dialect and Old Arabic used by nomadic people.

Differences in Arabic:

The language includes many terms that have different meanings depending on how the word is used and the context of use. For example, the word “khalas” is very commonly used across Arab countries and, depending on the sentence, how it is used and the tone adopted, the term “khalas” can mean “OK”, “stop it”, “done”, “finish” or “enough”. Another word is “yaani”, which can mean “like”, “meaning” or “it’s like”, depending on the context.

Words and numbering system:

The Arabic language is not an easy language as it does not follow the alphabet system, instead following the abjad system, which makes the language more complex. In the abjad system, every letter used is not a vowel but a consonant and vowels are replaced with vowel marks by the writer. Arabic is one of the hardest languages for native English speakers to learn and it takes around 2,200 classroom hours, as compared to the easiest languages that require around 575-600 classroom hours.

The Arabic language is the fifth most spoken language on earth after Mandarin, Spanish, English and Hindi. The Arabic language is written from right to left but the numbering system is from left to right which can be a bit confusing for non-native speakers. The numeral system began with the Brahmi numerals, which were an Indian numeral system; both India and Iran used the nine number system as far back as the seventh century A.D., unlike the Babylonians who had a base 60 number system.

The numeral system then was developed between the 825 and 830 by Arab and Persian mathematicians and later adopted in the Middle East and parts of the West. In the 10th century, Middle Eastern scholars developed fractions and the decimal point and, with these developments, a new way of writing numbers was established and the “sand table” became the modern numeral system.
Pope Sylvester II helped spread knowledge of the Arabic numbers throughout Europe using translations by Italian and Algerian scholars; major events in Britain helped improve awareness of the numeral system and, by the middle of the 16th century, it was used commonly throughout Europe.

Differences in Arabic:

Arabic is the official language of 26 countries and is spoken by more than 300 million people. There are more than 10 words for “love” in the Arabic language, which have the same meaning but are used differently depending on the desired expression.
There are several words in English that come from Arabic, such as saffron, sugar, sofa, lemon, magazine, cotton and others.
Countries in which Arabic is spoken as the main language include Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Palestine, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Iraq, Israel, Comoros, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia. The large number of Arab-speaking countries and regions means there are a vast array of dialects.

The word “yes” in Iraqi is “eey”; in Lebanese, it is “eh”; in Egyptian, it is “away”; in Emirati, it is “heh”; and in Moroccan, it is “ah”. In each country, different accents, different dialects and changing the word placement may change the meaning. But certain regions can be grouped together, as the dialects are very similar. The five main language categories are: “FusHa”, “Aamiyah”, “Shaami”, “Maghribi” and “Khaleeji”. “Fusha” is the traditional Old Arabic, “Aamiyah” is Egyptian Arabic, “Shaami” is Middle Eastern Arabic, “Maghribi” is Northern African Arabic and “Khaleeji” is Arabic spoken in the Gulf region. The word “what” across the categories are as follows:

  • FusHa: maatha
  • Aamiyah: eih
  • Shaami: shoo
  • Maghribi: shnoo
  • Khaleeji: aysh

Arabic alphabet and sounds:

Arabic has letter “sounds” that do not exist in other languages such as (خ) which is written as (KH) in English but is not pronounced as read by a native English speaker. Fusha is the pre-Islamic poetic Arabic language; it is the modern standard Arabic understood by most Arabs, but each speaker has their own dialect.

The Arabic language has only 28 letters in the alphabet, unlike the thousands of letters used in the Chinese language. However, each of these letters has a different form depending on how and where the letter is used; the position in the word or stand-alone alphabets can change the form. Pronouncing most Arabic words is hard for non-native speakers and reading words in Arabic is difficult due to the totally alien nature of the alphabet for foreigners.

The Arabic letters have been adapted in other languages besides Arabic; these languages include Malay, Urdu and Persian. A slightly modified Arabic alphabet system is used in India and Turkey. The main non-Arabic speaking countries that use the Arabic alphabet are, Afghanistan, Iran, India, Pakistan and China. The Arabic alphabet is used for languages such as Kashmiri, Sindhi, Pashto, Kurdish, Gashuni, Saraiki, Uyghur, Punjabi and Baluchi.

Choosing the correct word to express something can be tricky in Arabic, as the same word may have several meanings depending on how it is used. The Arabic language is a Semitic language, meaning it is related to Aramaic and Hebrew. The two main types of Arabic are Classical Arabic, which is mainly used for writing scripts, texts, etc. and Modern Standard Arabic, which is mainly used in spoken form by television presenters, politicians, etc.

Arabic culture:

The word Arab describes people who speak Arabic and does not refer to a race or religion; it focuses more on culture, as Arabs come from different ethnic and religious environments. The Arabic culture is split into three main categories: rural culture, urban culture and nomad culture. Rural culture includes farmers (usually men), who work on the land they own to make a decent living for themselves and their families, and providers (usually women), who cook the food to feed the family, care for and raise the children and take care of the housework. Most people in rural regions have a low level of education: most leave to work either in the city or on the land to help provide for their families.

Urban culture is a bit more open, with greater freedom for individuals who tend to rely on themselves instead of the family for survival. Urban culture offers a greater variety of jobs, giving people more choices, which promotes the personal development of the individual. As cities have a denser population than small rural villages, the city culture is more diverse and there is more social interaction, giving city dwellers wider and more numerous social circles. Nomad culture is the culture of the Bedouins. The Bedouins are a group of nomadic Arabs that live in the desert.

Bedouins usually make a living from breeding cattle, sheep and camels. They live in family groups within their tribes and the family “clans” are combined to form larger tribal groups that provide support in surviving nomadic life. Bedouin tribes ruled the Arabian Peninsula before the rise of Islam. Bedouins have a rich culture of traditional poetry, dances and music.

Help with the Arabic language and understanding the culture:

The Arabic language is one of the 6 languages approved and used by the United Nations. Audio-visual aids are very important in teaching individuals the Arabic language because listening whilst seeing the word helps in memorising the Arabic vocabulary and thus improves reading skills. In Arabic culture, respect is very important, especially towards elders. Arabs prefer to “break the ice” with associates before conducting business and keeping your word is paramount in Arab society. Arab society is very family-oriented and the bond between family members is usually very strong. Given the many different Arab-speaking countries, different nations have different dress codes and traditions.

Difference in clothing between countries and regions:

In Jordan, the traditional dress for men is the “keffieh” which is a red and white cloth sheet used to cover the head, though most people wear on the body what they find comfortable. In Palestine it is the same but the “keffieh” is black and white and most people wear t-shirts and jeans. In Lebanon, people wear whatever they want but the traditional dress is the “sherwal”, which is a baggy garment worn as pants. In Syria, the women wear a “thob”, the men wear the “sirwal”. In the Gulf region, men usually wear a white tunic called a “dishdasha” over a “sherwal” with a “ghutra” which is a white headscarf. The women in the Gulf region wear “abays”, which are long black robes, with a “shayla” or “niqab” worn on the head. In North Africa, they wear a “djellaba”, which is a hooded tunic with long sleeves that come in earth-toned colours for men and bright colours for women; the tunic is usually worn with “balgha” which are a type of slippers.

More general information about Arabs and the business culture:

Arabs enjoy food to an extent where massive amounts of food are prepared and presented for celebrations, at family gatherings and when guests are invited. In general, Arabs enjoy celebrating on a large scale; weddings, for example, are highly regarded as they are a celebration uniting two families into one big family, with some weddings lasting several days. Different Arab countries have different ruling systems: parliamentary republics, constitutional monarchies and monarchies. Loyalty and honour are very important between family members and individuals in society in general; mutual respect between people in the Arabic community is of utmost importance and is taught from birth. Tardiness for Arabs goes way beyond “Western” tardiness, with most Arabs arriving late to meetings with no worries at all, as business meetings are very relaxed and the meeting agenda is usually designed to facilitate getting to know one another better. When it comes to greeting, Arab men do not shake hands with women unless she initiates the hand shake and greetings follow a rough order of seniority. Greetings in Arabic culture take some time; eye contact is very important to build trust, even if the person is talking to a translator, and sunglasses are frowned upon. Looking at your watch or a clock could be taken as a sign of lack of interest in the other person and an indication that they are not worth your time and you would like to leave, even if this is not the case. It is best to start a greeting with “Al salaamo aaleykum” instead of “Hello” or “Good morning”; the expression translates as “May peace be upon you”. Social classes in the Arab business world are structured to show power and authority. Authority, loyalty, reliability and consistency are values to be respected in Arab countries, thus they are vital in any business for earning mutual respect. Gaining trust in the Arab business market is very important, as most business men won’t invest money with untrustworthy people.

Trust can be earned by making small talk and getting to know the people first. Communication is fundamental when it comes to business meetings, though there are several topics that it is advisable to avoid, such as personal matters, financial status or family members, unless the business associate is a friend, then it depends on the individual.