Have you ever toyed with the idea of adding Arabic to your language combination? During my interpreting career, I have only come across a handful of brave souls who ventured to learn Arabic and actually add it as a working language. I hope this article gives you some food for thought about this world language.
What makes Arabic a special language?
- It is a diglossic language: it has two levels, one of which is the formal Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and the other is the plethora of dialects spoken all over the Arab World. As the Arab World extends from the Atlantic ocean in the west to the Arab Gulf in the east, the dialects can vary greatly.
- It is spoken by about 300 million people which makes it the sixth most spoken language in the world.
- It is a semitic language like Hebrew and Maltese.
- Arabic is written from right to left. It has an alphabet of 28 letters but none of the letters can be capitalised. The letters have to be joined and they can take different forms depending on their position in the word.
- It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations and the last to be added as an official language. This happened on 18 December 1973. This day is also the World Arabic Language Day which was introduced in 2012.
Issues with interpreting Arabic
As an interpreter, there are issues that you need to look out for when working with Arabic.
- With some few exceptions, Arabic has no acronyms. This means that you have to spell out every single acronym a speaker uses. For instance, when a speaker says WASH, the Arabic interpreter needs to say: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene then find a way to shorten the term in order to be able to keep up with the speaker.
- In the booth, you are expected to work from/into MSA. As the name indicates, this is supposed to be a standardised form of Arabic. It should be understood by any Arabic speaker who went to school. There are, however, regional variations in MSA. Common words and terms like training, law and raising awareness can be expressed differently by speakers from Iraq and Morocco for instance.
- Arabic is a floral language and the sentences can even be long-winded. If you are working from Arabic, you will need to chunk the sentences into shorter units of meaning and get rid of the redundancies.
- If the concepts or terms you are dealing with originate from outside the Arab World, it may be difficult to find equivalents in MSA. Dialects, which are used on a daily basis, develop much faster that MSA and can sometimes be more adept at expressing new ideas.
I hope this has shed some light on Arabic as a working language. If you decide to go ahead and learn Arabic, I wish you an enjoyable journey!
Maha El-Metwally is a conference interpreter in the Arabic booth. She is also a consultant interpreter and trainer on mainly technology for interpreters related topics.
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