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Why Arabic Is the Most Difficult Language for Localization

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Arabic is widely considered one of the most difficult languages to deal with in a localization context. Generally commentators have focused on the technical difficulties of working with Arabic, but Yehia Yassin says that the technical aspects are just the beginning.

“Arabic poses some of the greatest web localization challenges because of poor software support and an acute shortage of Arabic translators”
- John Yunker, Beyond Borders – Web Globalization Strategies
Yehia A. Yassin The Arabic language lacks many of the developments and refinements needed for dealing with modern business and technology. In this sense it may be termed a technologically under-developed language. At the same time technology has yet to make as significant an impact on Arabic culture as it has in many other areas of the world. Arabic therefore, lacks many linguistic developments needed to deal on an even basis with more technologically developed languages. As a result, localizing from a language like English, with abundant vocabulary for dealing with technical subjects, into Arabic entails not only translation and cultural adaptation of content, but also overcoming the linguistic barriers between technologically developed and under-developed languages.

For example, there are many terms in modern business that simply do not have corresponding Arabic terms. A classic example in business terminology is that Arabic makes no distinction between “administration” and “management” - both are management in Arabic. This can create unacceptable ambiguities in business translation.

Other examples of terms that have ambiguous meanings in translated Arabic are:
Calculate = calculate; calculator = calculator
Compute = compute; computer = computer

While it is not easy to express computing terms in Arabic, it is possible to create custom Arabic terms that can accurately express the exact meanings of the source language terms, and to make a glossary that explains the real meanings of the source terms.

However, on top of ambiguous terms, there are other terms that were incorrectly translated but which have gained currency in current Arabic literature. The problem with these terms is that don’t convey the intended meaning and you lose the message in Arabic when you use them, even though they are commonly used! Some examples are:

The Prefix Tele-
  • The term telegram is translated in Arabic by the word telegram but the exact meaning of the term is telegram exact
  • Telephone = telephone; the exact meaning of the term is telephone exact
  • Television = television; the exact meaning of the term is television exact

The Prefix Inter-

  • National = national
  • International = international; the exact meaning of the term is international exact
  • Internet = Internet; the exact meaning of the term is Internet exact

In an effort to improve the situation (aside from the Arabic documentation for our delivered systems to our customers), we published a data base of Internet terms, and we are about to publish a glossary of computer and business terms. We have also created a health and medical glossary for Arabian Internet Publishing (AIP), which has launched a content website about health and medical subjects (www.feedo.net) using our terminology management and content management systems. We also created style guidelines for content on the feedo website that are capable of expressing modern meanings in a modern way with simple sentence constructions. We did the same with our own company website (www.ebm.com.eg) as a model for Arabic-localized web sites. The Arabic terms and style demonstrate how technically complex content can be efficiently localized into modern Arabic.

Other Problems

Another problem is that there is insufficient linguistic research in Arabic to create computer resources needed in a modern computing environment. There are no grammar checkers for Arabic, no OCR, and, most importantly, no powerful linguistically-aware search engines or string-processing utilities to handle Arabic.

In most cases, translation into Arabic is an ad hoc process with no clear methodologies to follow. Many Arabic companies have their web sites, brochures, reports and manuals in English, but not in Arabic—they cannot successfully express their intended messages in Arabic!

Because of the difficulties discussed above, localization into Arabic can be difficult and costly. As a result we at EBM have had to develop our own proprietary methodologies for translations of terms, as well as style guidelines to convey very complex modern messages in Arabic. We create our own terms and explain them in a glossary that compares them with ambiguous common Arabic terms. Finally we create a modern and complex, yet easy to read and comprehend, text to express the complex meanings conveyed in the source language.

We have contributed our own translated terms to the Arabic community, and some of which are now commonly used in Arabic literature, especially in the computer- and Internet-related fields. We are cooperating with established and reputable organizations and initiatives to develop the Arabic language to deal with modern needs.

A Case Study

Our own company website (ebm.com.eg) was first prepared in English and then localized into Arabic. Of course, all terms were identified and translated before we proceeded to localize the content itself. There were some difficult portions in the section of customers’ projects, since complex meanings were expressed in complex sentences structures. Arabic does not normally use such complex sentence structures.

One example of a difficult customer page was the Egyptian Drug Policy and Planning Center (DPPC), which featured such sentences as:

“After extensive efforts and structured meeting sessions with DPPC senior officials, an outline plan of the information requirements was defined with a general design of the information system that meets these requirements, along with the detailed design of the human drugs part of the information system.”
Long quote #1
“The operation rules and work flow chart model:
Exclusive determination and revision of the operation rules and work flow of the center. These rules determine the procedures of drug registration and center policies. The operation rules and workflow model should meet the transparency requirements of the information system”
Long quote #2

These examples show some of the issues that make Arabic even more complex than other complex languages for localization. Companies seeking to localize into Arabic need to be aware of these issues and be prepared for the difficulties inherent in working with Arabic.

Yehia A. Yassin is cofounder of EBM. He holds a Bachelor of Science in physics, with a specialization in solid state electronics from the American University in Cairo. He also studied artifical intelligence at Depaul University in Chicago, USA, and has tought courses on knowledge-based systesm for post-graduate systesm at Ein Shams University’s Scientific Computing Center.


Reprinted by permission from the Globalization Insider,
9 September 2003, Volume XII, Issue 3.6.

Copyright the Localization Industry Standards Association
(Globalization Insider: www.localization.org, LISA:
and S.M.P. Marketing Sarl (SMP) 2004

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