Too Many Markets, Too Many Dialects: How to Conquer Arabic
There are many good reasons to translate and localize your website or service into Arabic. For one, according to recent studies, Arabic is the seventh most important online language. You can reach a total audience of 166 million and an online gross domestic product of $1.7 trillion was up for grabs in 2016, according to SCA Research. But as soon as you look into getting your Arabic translation and localization project off the ground, you’ll probably be surprised by the number of options you are facing as well as the costs involved. They can run significantly higher than what you are used to with other projects and an Arabic project can also take longer than usual.
That you have to decide between so many options is owed to the fact that there is no universally understood Arabic just as there is no one “Spanish”. The language instead reflects the great variety of cultures, regions, and countries where it has spread. That your Arabic project will take more resources than your average project also comes from the fact that Arabic runs from right-to-left (RTL) with the writing sometimes changing direction within a sentence or a paragraph, making it a bi-directional language. These languages pose additional challenges that result in increased costs. Let’s take a closer look.
There are 27 countries in which Arabic plays a role. All of them use unique vocabulary and have developed their own rules, influenced by local languages as well as ex-imperial languages like English, French, Italian, Persian, and Spanish. Only car makers and luxury brands usually have the means to cater specifically to all these 27 local markets. With budget and time constraints in mind, your approach most likely has to be more strategic.
If this is your first shot at Arabic translation, you’ll probably end up translating into Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). It has the reputation of being a little too formal and technical but can work well for business-to-business content. It also has the big advantage that it is understood by audiences in all major ِِِArabic markets. The downside is that it’s nobody’s mother tongue, which makes it hard, if not impossible, to convey any kind of emotion, local flavor, or intimacy. As this article in the MultiLingual magazine points out, MSA might be found in a car’s manual, but when it comes to marketing and advertising this car, big brands make sure they cater to each specific market individually.
The alternative to translating into MSA is to pick one major Arabic-speaking market and concentrate on it. Luxury brands often choose the Gulf states, while companies focussing on entertainment or media might go with Egyptian Arabic. It conveys a more modern, techy flavor and it is well understood outside of the country due to Egypt’s influence in the entertainment and media industry throughout the region in the last half-century. If you wanted to one-up it from there, you would probably translate and localize your content in five different Arabic dialects, concentrating on the more modern Mediterranean countries on the one hand and on the conservative Gulf states on the other.
Finally, a word about the challenges of translating and localizing a bi-directional language in general. We touched on them in more depth in this blog post about bi-directional languages, but in short, the flipped direction of the writing requires special attention to layout and design as well as to QA. Many bi-directional languages also run significantly longer than English, posing an additional challenge to press all the content into the given space. Some of the software from the toolbox of translators and designers do not fully support bi-directional languages and require workarounds that add to the timeline and the cost of projects. Make sure you ask your translation partner for more information.