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Cultural Differences in Translating Arabic

In previous articles, we have already talked about how cultural gaps impact translations. (Article: How to Correctly Interpret the Japanese)

When cultures are very different, they produce what we might call “cultural translation”, i.e. when in the source text contains an element that is culturally unfamiliar or extremely opposed to the target culture. That is why we explained that the task is not simply “translation” but rather “interpretation”.

For example, in a translation from English into Arabic we find the word “owl”. While we can all recognize what kind of bird it is, it does not symbolize the same in both cultures. In English, the owl symbolizes wisdom; on the contrary, in Arabic it has a very negative connotation, as it represents pessimism.

In such a case, the translator should transcend the literal and find a way to express the symbolism in the text, beyond words.

Another difficult case would be translating the expression “as white as snow” to a culture where it never snows! Rather, we should find some other equivalent to forward the same message: “as white as cotton”, for example.

The real challenge lies when a “concept” does not exist in the target culture for your translation and we must find a way to explain it, so that the text makes sense as a final product that is easily understood by the intended audience.

Other good examples of concepts in Arabic that are not present in most of the Western world:

سحور saHuur (food that is eaten before dawn; see picture above);
تيمم tayammum (use sand to cleanse the body, when water is not available);
قطيعة الأرحام qaTii’at al-arHaam (being on bad terms with family members);
عقيقة ‘aqiiqah (the goat that is slaughtered and the meat is distributed to the most humble to greet the arrival of a new baby);
صلاة الاستسقاء salaat al-‘istisqaa (the request to God for rain);
صلاة الاستخارة Sallat al-‘istikhaarah (the request to God to help us make the right decision);
عدة ‘Iddah (the period during which a Muslim woman stays at home, not wearing makeup or perfume; this is 130 days for widows)

As we see in these examples, the difficulty here lies in the concept that all these terms represent … and how to transmit a culture where these concepts do not exist.

Once again we see how challenging translations can be sometimes, as well as how creative translators must be to achieve the goal of getting the message across while being true to its original.

Spanish version: