Spotlight on Arabic: Dialect vs Modern Standard Arabic

Spotlight on arabic

So I just wanted to take a quick moment this week to talk about a translation issue that has been puzzling me for over a week and for which the penny finally dropped yesterday, leaving me feeling pretty foolish! It seemed like an insurmountable problem, but when I worked it out, I realised it was actually incredibly simple.

When doing a piece of Arabic to English translation this week, I came across the term فخز (fakhiz). I’d never seen this particular word before, so I stuck it into my favourite online dictionary (Oxford Arabic Dictionary Online), but couldn’t find anything. This sometimes happens, because no dictionary can possible contain every single word in a language, plus I always think it’s good practice to check more than one dictionary, so I popped it into almaany and reverso context. Unfortunately, I still had no luck.

So what to do? I decided my best option was to head over to proz.com and enter it on the forums there to see if anyone could help me. I had a little bit of context for the word – I had worked out that it must be a body part, because the character in the text complained that it was hurt. I figured it must be a bone, because they said it was broken. And I thought it might be in the upper body because it was said to hurt when the character laughed.

So, imagine my surprise when the wonderful translation community at proz.com told me that it was either ‘hip’ or ‘thigh’. This seemed incredibly weird, as it didn’t really match my presumptions, but I decided to rely on the more experience translators’ knowledge. But how to work out which it was? 

I pondered over it for a couple of days before having a lightbulb moment. I could just try putting ‘hip’ and ‘thigh’ into an online dictionary and see if either of the words was remotely similar to فخز. So I did just that…and ‘thigh’ came up with…

فخذ

At which point, the penny completely dropped. Anyone who has a vague understanding of the differences between Arabic dialects and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) may have already worked out what it took me over a week to figure out…in many dialects of Arabic the letter ذ (th) is often spoken as ز (z). Therefore, it is entirely possible that a speaker of one of those dialects might misspell a word by putting ز when they meant ذ…

The moral of the story? If you don’t recognise a word in Arabic and can’t find it online, try sounding it out first and think about dialects! It might save you a week of confusion!

Published by verityroat

Verity Roat BA CANTAB MA TRANSLATION CIOL Career Associate is a Norfolk-based Arabic and French > English translator and languages tutor.

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