Arabic is spoken by 166 million people in 27 countries across 6,000 miles, from Nouakchott on the western coast of Mauritania to Muscat, Oman. When a client asks for a translation “into Arabic,” it’s important to know which dialect they need. Benjamin B. Sargent, a researcher at Common Sense Advisory, explains in the September issue of Multilingual Magazine how to “rethink” Arabic for global marketing.
Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)
All Arabic speakers will understand MSA, but it’s “nobody’s mother tongue.” MSA is bloodless, stereotypically stuffy, and understood by all. MSA is used throughout the Arabic-speaking world to convey written information and formal spoken information, but is not used in everyday speech. Therefore MSA is the standard for official, technical, or scholarly translation, but marketing translation requires copy that connects at a more personal, emotional level.
The global Arabic-language entertainment industry has been centered in Egypt for the past half-century – therefore, the Egyptian vernacular has become associated with modernity, media savvy, and flair. Translations into this dialect convey a more relaxed and informal mood, but Sargent warns that this might not appeal to members of more conservative Arabic speaking cultures in the Gulf States. It might also seem outdated to young digital natives for whom the importance of mass-market entertainment is fading.
Persian Gulf vs. Mediterranean
Sargent advises marketers who are seeking to reach a large Arabic audience with a minimum of expense to consider localizing into two major variants. These reflect a basic distinction between the more European-influenced countries clustered around the Mediterranean Sea, and the traditionally closed cultures on the Persian Gulf. This saves on the expenses of localization while still allowing for a more localized feeling than Modern Standard Arabic.
According to Sargent, more sophisticated marketing campaigns seeking regional flavor can be translated into regional variants. These are represented on the map above: Maghreb covers North-West Africa, Former Greater Egypt includes Chad and Sudan, Eastern Mediterranean covers the Levant through to Iraq, Persian Gulf includes the countries on the Arabian Peninsula, and Horn of Africa covers Eritrea and Somalia. Sargent recommends taking regional variants into account if you are not yet ready to target specific countries.
For really granular targeting, especially for digital or broadcast video that includes spoken material, country-level targeting is needed to capture a local feeling. Sargent writes, “The 27 countries where Arabic plays a role all entail unique vocabulary and usage, due to admixtures of local languages and different influences from ex-imperial languages including English, French, Italian, Persian, and Spanish, depending on the region.” Translators skilled in transcreation will be essential to this type of project.
What about Arabic speakers in the United States?
While Modern Standard Arabic will be understandable to all Arabic readers, outreach campaigns might take into account the demographic makeup of their target audience. For example, the Arab American Institute finds that the largest Arab American community in Arizona is from Morocco, Rhode Island has a plurality of Syrians, and Arabic speakers in Nebraska and South Dakota are primarily Sudanese. Local immigration agencies can provide information about which Arabic dialects are most likely spoken by your particular target audience.
Overall, translation for the Arabic-speaking world requires flexibility and and a language partner who can advise you on what level of localization is needed for which purposes. For example, a luxury car maker would create advertisements that were highly localized for a particular country such as Kuwait, but the car manual would be written in Modern Standard Arabic.
Thank you to Benjamin Sargent and Multilingual Magazine for sharing their research with the language community.