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Arabic Translation: An Overview of Arabic Dialects

Don't let the title fool you; Arabic cannot be made easy. But we can shed some light on a few things if you are unsure about the Arabic dialects you should learn. Or if you are searching for Arabic translation services, we can lend a helping hand and guide you towards the right options for you or your business.

How many Arabic dialects are there?

When students decide to add this Semitic language to their working languages, they find themselves lost in a maze. Similarly, translation clients face a dilemma when seeking Arabic translation services. Their biggest concern is probably: "Will everyone understand me in this specific Arabic dialect?" From a Germanic or Romance language speaker's perspective, Arabic can come off as extremely difficult. Complex grammar, an intimidating alphabet, a unique pronunciation system...

The reason for which students think long and hard about this matter is probably because they don't want their tremendous efforts of learning an Arabic dialect to be in vain when the other party does not understand them. This fear is definitely justified, as Arabic dialects are not necessarily mutually intelligible.

The last thing you want is to dedicate 3 years of your life to learning the Tunisian dialect, only to not be understood by an Egyptian, Saudi, Yemeni, or Kuwaiti (and the list goes on).

What is the official form of Arabic?

Because of the large geographical area that the Arabic language covers, this ancient Semitic language is very heterogeneous. Linguistic polycentrism is a prominent trait of the Arabic language. This does not, however, preclude the unity of the language.

Modern Standard Arabic is still the official variety and the lingua franca within the Arab world. It is the only acceptable variety of the language in the written form, in general and particularly in translation. If you have ever heard that the Arabic language is shared by around 22 different countries and 400 million speakers, you were definitely hearing about Modern Standard Arabic.

From my experience, it seems that people don't realize Arabic varies in dialects, not languages. I have been asked time and time again "Which kind of Arabic do you translate into?", as if there were many different languages under the umbrella term "Arabic language". This is definitely not true. At the risk of being redundant, I would like to repeat that Arabic has a variety of dialects, not languages.

If there were different "Arabic languages" they would have different names.

What Arabic dialect should I translate into?

The truth is, any translation company will only translate into Modern Standard Arabic. This is the only acceptable form of Arabic, since it is the most suited variety for written communication. Any language that suffers from diglossia will use the high variety of the language for translation.

Dialects are subordinated by languages and generally don't have a set of grammar rules. This makes it highly inconvenient to translate, to say the least. For translation clients, this should definitely be great news.


If you would like to read more about this topic, please visit: What Is Diglossia and How Does it Affect Translation?

How can I reach the Arabic world through translation?

If your goal is to spread your wings in the Arab world, translating into Modern Standard Arabic should suffice. If you are worried you might not be understood, think again. Even though Arabs use their respective Arabic dialects for ordinary conversations, they understand Modern Standard Arabic perfectly well. Communication in Modern Standard Arabic is not an issue at all.

What are the main Arabic dialects?

Now that you know you can learn and translate into Modern Standard Arabic, here is a breakdown of the major Arabic dialects:
Dialect Areas Spoken Number of Speakers
Egyptian Egypt 55,000,000
Gulf Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE 36,056,000
Hassaniya Mauritania, southern Morocco, south western Algeria, Western Sahara 3,000,000
Levantine Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Syria 21,000,000
Maghrebi Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia 70,000,000
Mesopotamian/Iraqi Iraq, eastern Syria 35,000,000
Sudanese Sudan, Southern Egypt 40,000,000
Yemeni Yemen, Somalia, Djibouti, southern Saudi Arabia 15,000,000