Perspectives: Translation and transcreation for the Arabic-speaking marketplace

Globalization, the integration of international socioeconomic communities fueled by rapid advances in information and transportation technology, exists as an indisputable fact of life in the internet era. Yet despite the spread of English as the international business world’s lingua franca, the translation industry continues to grow and expand with profit projections regularly surpassing $20 billion each year.  

Accordingly, multinational firms from Apple to Nike and everywhere in between increasingly invest millions of dollars in translation and localization services. The language service industry, the sector that facilitates international and multilingual business communications, proves indispensible to the process of translation and localization; duties performed by the language service industry include translation, interpretation, language technology development and linguistic consulting. Of the industry’s array of manifestations, Shelley Morrison defined transcreation in her 2013 SIETAR conference talk “Embarrassing Mistakes in Global Marketing: When Innovation Needs Better Cultural Research” as “adaptation of a message from one language to another, while maintaining its intent, style, tone and context.” Industry professionals agree that transcreation displays the greatest future growth potential; perhaps no global region better illustrates the challenges and opportunities of translation and transcreation than the rapidly changing Arab world.

Accurate, effective translation goes far beyond simply substituting the words of one language with their equivalent terms in another. Rather, it requires the adaptation and transmission of the original message’s intent, context, style and tone to the target language as well. Scholarly definitions of translation thus link the linguistic act of translation with awareness and understanding of the target language’s culture, its communicative norms and expectations — all of which fall precisely within the domain of sociolinguistics. Percy Balesman notes in a July 14, 2010 blog post that “Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture,” meaning that one must perform the agentive act of “creating a text for the target audience.”


Translation, transcreationand the Arabic marketplace

Multinational companies regard the Arab world, teeming with emerging socioeconomies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as a vast region of untapped potential; accordingly, corporations as diverse as Ford Motor Company and TGI Friday’s Inc. devote considerable effort and resources toward localizing campaigns and products for the Arab marketplace. In order to reach these consumers, however, experts in the local sociolinguistic culture are clearly needed; for instance, as The Economist article “Surfing the Shabaka” found last year, “the proportion of Arabs online grew 30-fold between 2000 and 2012,” even though “fewer than 1% of all web pages are in Arabic.”

Effective and accurate translation from one sociolinguistic standard to another requires individuals intimately familiar with the target culture, as well as its language and its expectations for socially acceptable behavior, particularly with regard to translation and transcreation into Arabic. In “Arabic Translation Across Cultures,” Moheiddin A. Homeidi reviews the myriad of challenges and linguistic complexity of providing accurate and culturally relevant translation. Homeidi asserts that language is an integral part of culture and vice versa: after all, “words only have meanings in terms of the culture in which they are used.”

Beginning with a review and bidirectional translations of Arabic and English idioms, Homeidi transitions to a discussion of the theoretical and applied considerations each translator must be cognizant of when carrying out his or her duties. Rejecting the need for literal translations, which, crucially, fail to capture the original intent of the text, Homeidi instead stresses the importance of contextual and cultural knowledge to effective and accurate translation. For example, in Arabic the closest approximation of the term “one-parent child” is laqit, literally “foundling,” a translation non sequitur. However, this may be unclear to Arabs unfamiliar with Western mores of child rearing that differ from the parenting norms of Arab society. In order to rectify this and similar situations, the translator must provide explanatory footnotes when “the event or case is not found in the Arab/Muslim target culture, so the concept expressing it doesn’t exist, and consequently, the language has not devised a linguistic means to express it.”

In an article in British Studies in Applied Linguistics 13, Susan Bassnett supports this notion, highlighting the untranslatable nature of certain words going from English to Arabic and back again, whether due to context or form. The task of the translator working with such languages, therefore, “is not to ignore cultural differences and to pretend that there is such a thing as universal truth and value-free cultural exchange, but rather to be aware of those differences.” Because one “can’t take the language out of culture nor the culture out of the language,” the proper approach to translation grants equal weight to linguistic, semantic, pragmatic and cross-cultural considerations. Clearly, then, this culturally aware approach to translation and transcreation in the Arab world aligns with the proclamations of intercultural scholars; more importantly, it meets the needs of client firms operating within the sociolinguistic paradigms of the target Arabic language marketplace and maximizes opportunities for profits, revenues and growth therein.