As an Arabic content specialist, I was utterly excited when I learned that the Emirates Literature Foundation was holding the first ever Arabic Translation Conference (October 2016, Mohammed bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Science). I packed my full top management team at HOUSE OF CONTENT and off we went, only to come back with the disappointment of our lives. Not that the conference was a failure in anyway, but what we saw on stage was simply a reiteration of what my team and I have been calling “everything wrong in the Arabic translation industry”.

To be fair, the conference was dedicated to Arabic literary translation, which made the title of the conference a bit misleading. Indeed, literary translation is an important component of Arabic translation, but so is modern digital content and many other forms of modern Arabic content. To simplify, we expected to see discussions about modern translation practices, Modern Standard Arabic, translation technology, Arabic transliteration, and other contemporary issues in need of urgent industry-wide attention. Instead, we faced the same problem with classical linguists, whose adherence to 7th century practices in Arabization is way too close to radicalism that we cannot even hope for a common ground with them.

On the other hand, I was lately invited to sit as juror for an Arabic Short Story contest, organized by an Arabic language enthusiast who is not a native Arabic speaker. I was impressed with the idea and the person, and after a long process of deliberation and selection, I asked if the winning stories were going to be proofed for spelling and syntax errors. I got a sharp answer that we Arab writers oppose natural evolution of our own language, and that literature is where language flies without boundaries. Well, my answer was that I won’t have my name in a jury that is ok with saying “I are happy”.

For non-Arabic speakers, it may sound puzzling that in Arabic, we still need to decide on a unified spelling for words like “Google’, “Facebook”, and “Instagram”. Strange as it is, it is true. Unlike English for example, Arabic does not have an authority like Oxford University to study new terminology and incorporate them to the language or certain jargons in it. But the problem extends beyond this technicality: Arabic does not have well defined jargons in the first place. Moreover, and I say this from experience, if the client has a reviewer who is a “bad” linguist, we will have to write bad Arabic, and the media will publish bad Arabic. What I am referring to in the last idea is of course the lack of standardization.

On the other side of this equation, Arabic translation agencies are not doing any better in modernizing the industry. I have written extensively on the obsolete “agency model” in Arabic localization, and today, six years after writing the linked article, I still get calls from self-proclaimed “Translation Agencies” that have a sales team of ten, and not a single Arabic linguist, to “outsource” an urgent large translation project to us for a profit margin. Even in those incidents when I gave preliminary approval and asked for a sample of the content to make the final decision, the answer was always: “No time for content analysis or glossary creation, we are already past the deadline.” When asked about their quality guidelines, the answer was: “ha?”

The Arabic translation industry is in immediate need for a complete overhaul. The required change needs to encompass all aspects of the industry, from language itself, to Arabic translation providers, and awareness among readers and “content users”.

Disclosure: HOUSE OF CONTENT is the owner of AL Press and its mother company AL Publishing. HOUSE OF CONTENT is the leading Arabic translation and content provider in the GCC region.

Dr. Ali Mohamad, Founder and Managing Director, HOUSE OF CONTENT