Linguistic and Cultural differences in translations in English and in Arabic


The translation is a job which requires lots of efforts, strength, concentration, perseverance and constancy. This is because the translator has to focus on the passage of the same information from the source text to the target text, without losing any concept as well as pay attention to the style used in the target language. In addition, every translator should have a linguistic and cultural background of the languages they translate, because only with this knowledge he/she is able to understand the true meaning of a sentence and translate it in the best way possible. Sometimes it is acceptable to preserve the meaning with slight changes in the tone. However, when it comes to specific fields, the everlasting challenge is to interpret both the original meaning and style.


There are different methods used by translators in order to be more concise, coherent and faithful to the source language. As a matter of fact, the two main characteristics a translator must consider is cohesion and coherence: ‘Cohesion is the network of lexical, grammar and other relations which provide links between various parts of a text’; ‘Coherence is a network of relations which organize and create a text’.

Some examples of the translation strategies are:

  • Translation by a more general word (superordinate): for example, translating the English verb “shampoo” with a general word “wash” in another language.
  • Translation by a more neutral/less expressive word: for example, translating the verb “mumble” in another language with the verb “suggest”, so neutralising it.
  • Translation by cultural substitution: for example, using the Italian word “pasticceria” (pastry) to translate “Cream tea”.
  • Translation using a loan word plus explanation.
  • Translation by paraphrase using a related word.
  • Translation by paraphrase using an unrelated word.
  • Translation by omission, deleting some words which haven’t got an equivalent in the target text.
  • Translation by illustration

Some of the translation problems involve the interaction between cultural and linguistic problems. They often involve the lack of equivalents in Standard Arabic for certain English terms. It is the role of the translator to understand the applications and connotations of words and determine suitable equivalents in specific contexts. The translator should decide whether to use the original term to preserve the essence of the meaning of the culture-bound word or to use an appropriate translation equivalent. This general background illustrates several differences between Western, and particularly British, and Arabic cultures, which are expected to be problematic in English/Arabic translation. These two languages belong to two different and distant language families: Western Germanic and Semitic. Consequently, their grammars and syntaxes are different. Otherwise, there are not only differences in grammar but also in culture.




For the linguistic and grammar differences, we can notice that the order or the types of sentences are the main problems. There are two main types of sentences, nominal and verbal: English has verbal sentences only, while Arabic has both nominal and verbal ones. The nominal sentence requires no verb, but it consists of two nouns: English has a noun in every sentence, but it is followed by a verb, while in Arabic there can either be a noun plus a verb or two nouns. In addition, the basic structure of sentences and word order in English is SVO (Subject +Verb +Object), in Arabic it could be SVO, but the frequent one is VSO (Verb+ Subject+ Object). So, the translator must change the word order of the pronouns/nouns and verb translating from/to English and Arabic putting the noun before the verb in English and the verb before the noun in Arabic. This is a second linguistic difference. Another one is the number, which expresses the idea of countability that in English is represented by singular and plural, while in Arabic by singular, plural and dual, which refers to two people, things or animals. In this case, it is very difficult for a translator to adapt the verb of the original text to that of the target text, so he/she has to express it in numbers. For what concerning the gender, it is a grammatical distinction according to which a noun or pronoun is classified as masculine or feminine. In both languages English and Arabic there is the same distinction, but the problem is that in Arabic the translator has to distinguish the number and so there will be “you feminine” and “you masculine”. For example, if in English, an imperative verb is expressed in the second person, in Arabic it is needed to choose the second person but the feminine or the masculine form.

Another linguistic difference between the two languages is about the abovementioned cohesion which is composed of conjunctions, references and related constructions. For example, always because of the difference in the number English uses pronouns to disambiguate sentences and avoiding confusion among the verbs, while Arabic tends to repeat nouns and verbs distinguishing them in feminine and masculine. In addition, Arabic tends to use more conjunctions than English, in order to render the sentences smoother and to be accurate as well as the use of repetitions to avoid misunderstanding.




Culture includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities or habits acquired by man as a member of society. In addition, cultural variables affect the degree of understanding between two language communities. As a result, language is an integral part of culture because the vocabulary of a language derives its meaning from its culture. Arabic, for example, is associated with specific cultural and social norms quite different from those, associated with other languages.  Translation from English to Arabic is normally bound to be into Standard Arabic rather than colloquial Arabic. Although Arabic has colloquial equivalents for many English terms, Standard Arabic has limited terms which are included in a formal register. So, there are almost no informal terms available in Arabic to relay informal English ones.

Religious facts and Islamic beliefs are connected with every aspect of Muslim social culture even proper names. “Mohammed” and “Abdullah” are common names in Islamic culture because they have religious significance. Many of the Muslims choose their children’s names from the Quran, names of prophets, “slave”, “servant” and the names of “God” or religious occasions. So, Arab societies are more conventional and traditional in using proper names than Western societies. Traditional proper names may also be a good indicator of social and cultural background. For instance, urban communities have a greater tendency to use new names than rural communities. Sometimes, it may be appropriate to have a footnote in the translation to explain the related social and cultural aspects or religious dimensions of proper nouns. Islamic-based greetings are another important aspect of Muslims’ daily life. Expressions of good will, resignation to God, self-ingratiation and other forms of social grace have different social functions.

Another cultural difference is diglossia, which is the coexistence of Standard and dialectal Arabic. Diglossia implies that the high and low languages are inevitably related. This is a language situation in a specific speech community in which two or more varieties of the same language exist side by side. One of them is a “high” variety that is used in formal situations such as Modern Standard Arabic. The other is informal and colloquial. This linguistic phenomenon gives rise to certain difficulties in English-Arabic translation. Arab translators may understand formal English, but they may not understand colloquial English. It is useful for English/Arabic translators to be aware of the differences between the Arabic and English linguistic systems, since differences between the two linguistic systems may cause problems in translation.

Another cultural difference is the Arabic alphabet because it consists of 28 letters, while English consists of 26 letters. There are some Arabic letters that have no equivalent in English, so the difficulty is the pronunciation of these letters because some of them have special tones that are not found in any other language.

Shifting the way of thinking is another cultural difference. Phrasal verbs are the perfect example. In English, the sentence “I think of/about something/someone” would translate most closely into Arabic as “I think in something” or “I think by someone.”  Or for example, the word “owl”, which is a kind of bird symbolizing different ideas 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 this case, the translator should transcend the literal idea and find a way to express the symbolism in the text, beyond words.

By Fabiola Sibilla


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