Arabic idioms: a challenge for the English translator

The main duty of a translator is to bridge the gap between two cultures by means of an interpretive act that makes the division less visible. Characteristically, languages harbor a great deal of expressions and idioms that belong to a specific culture. These Arabic idioms do not appear out of thin air, and the translator must not turn a blind eye to them. In order to execute the translation task effectively, the translator must flex his muscles and set sail.

Intuitively, the translator might begin to brainstorm in an attempt to find an equivalent to the idiom in hand, or even carry out an internet search and end up with a classic case of literal translation or a poor adaptation style. Unfortunately, the target language might not enable the translator to provide a prototypical text and the translator's hands are tied. This could be particularly true in the case of Arabic to English translation. The complexity here is that the translator needs a savoir-faire between culture and expression. On the contrary, paraphrasing or providing a literal translation can put the cultural aspects and references at stake. Additionally, this approach gives the reader a compositional effect, which means the reading process is experienced differently depending on the language.

Examples of problematic expressions

  1. الأطرش في الزفة (phonetics: al'atrash fi alzifa)
Literal translation: "like a deaf person at a wedding." This idiom is used to describe someone who has no idea what is going on. Similarly, a deaf person would be completely lost at a wedding because they are oblivious to all the noise surrounding them.
  1. الباب يفوت جمل (phonetics: albabu yufawitu jamlan)
Literal translation: "the door is (big enough) for a camel." This proverb is commonly used to tell someone that if they are not willing to respect the rules, then they are not welcome. The metaphor implies that if the door is big enough for a camel, it is big enough for the person you are speaking to.
  1. القرد في عين أمه غزال (phonetics: alqirdu fi eayn 'umihi ghazalun)
Literal translation: "in his mum's eyes, the monkey is a gazelle." This idiom is used to describe the blinding love a mother can have for her child. The gazelle is used metaphorically to designate beauty (what the mother sees) and the monkey is used to resemble ugliness (what others may see).
  1. الجمل لا يرى اعوجاج رقبته (phonetics: aljamalu la yara aewajaj raqabatihi)

Literal translation: "the camel cannot see the bend in its neck." This idiom was created to express that, similarly to the camel's bio-psychological inability to see its own neck, other people fail to see their own faults or shortcomings. It is therefore a way to tell someone to stop judging others because they have flaws as well.



We can see from the examples above that the issue is particularly contentious when Arabic is the source language. This is because certain historical events or cultural aspects are the matrix of these idioms; they are deeply rooted in the creative force of the language. This clearly demonstrates why it is nearly impossible for these idioms to be mentally evoked in a different language.