Why cultural awareness is vital when doing business in the Arabic-speaking world

Effective communication isn’t just a simple matter of speaking a nation’s official language. Culture and religion underpin language. So, if you are translating content, it is vital to have good cultural awareness and understand your target audience’s expectations. And, of course, the differences between certain cultures, such as those in the Arabic-speaking world, can be large. There are myriad pitfalls to avoid. Even the large, well-known brands sometimes make costly cultural faux pas.

The Doha skyline at night, Qatar.

Thinking of expanding into the Arabic-speaking market?

More than 400 million people speak Arabic worldwide, making it the fifth most spoken language. It is the official language of 25 countries spanning the Middle East and North Africa. Arabic speakers are also spread across the globe, with over one million in the US alone.

Got your sights set on this market for your products or services? Then you need accurate advice on the language and culture of the Arab world, as well as getting a high-quality translation.

Addressing Arabic dialects

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) acts as the lingua franca across the Arab world. It is generally reserved for formal situations such as news broadcasts or official documents and print media. On a day-to-day basis, regional and more informal dialects are used. However, they differ widely from one country to another, to the point that they can be considered different languages. This means that the level of comprehension between these dialects can vary. It’s not uncommon to see someone being interviewed in an Arabic dialect on the news with MSA subtitles.

If you are engaging with the Arab world in general, you may choose to use MSA. If, on the other hand, you have a large customer base in one single Arab country, the best approach might be to use that country’s dialect. This is where it pays to seek advice and follow the guidance of a localization professional.

Think about your product or service

The product or service that you are marketing will influence your choice of language. It will also determine your tone of voice, depending on where you intend your content to appear. For example, using standard Arabic can sound somewhat odd when addressing children in cartoons. Disney and Pixar learnt this first-hand when they released popular animated films in MSA rather than in colloquial Egyptian dialect. This sparked widespread backlash online because a dialect would normally be used instead for films like this. The most popular dialects when producing a spoken translation for use across the Arab world are Egyptian or Lebanese. This is thanks to the success of the TV, film and music industries in these countries. On the other hand, if you are publishing a newspaper article or a professional journal, then formal MSA tends to be the accepted norm.

Who is your target audience?

Similarly, understanding your audience will influence the tone of voice that you adopt for your content. Many people think of and refer to MSA as « high » Arabic. Therefore, if your goal is to create a successful radio advert to recruit bus drivers in Egypt, you are more likely to reach your audience if you adopt the Egyptian dialect.

Of course, language is constantly evolving, with new expressions being coined and the meaning of certain words changing. The internet and social media play a significant role in this. A professional translation agency will have colleagues based in the country and region of your target audience. These professionals will provide critical guidance in this regard. They will also ensure that your content is localized to the highest possible standard.

Imagery and music – other cultural factors

The reality is that getting the wording of a translation right doesn’t necessarily go far enough. Choosing inappropriate imagery or music can cause just as much or more offence and damage to your brand. Owls, for example, are considered by many as bad luck and therefore images of these birds of prey should be avoided. As for other types of pictures, you should consider whether they are sufficiently modest. Could they cause offence by being too seductive or by showing displays of affection between individuals? Furthermore, you should be careful when selecting any music. Ensure that there aren’t any lyrics that could be contentious.

Other presentation considerations

Arabic is read from right to left, and this continues to pose a final hurdle. A simple oversight can result in the best translations being wrongly copied and pasted. If texts end up reading from left to right, they will be incomprehensible. Therefore, you need a translator and a typesetter with excellent knowledge and experience of how to lay content out at the final stages.

What should you consider?

If you are thinking about targeting an Arabic-speaking market, carefully consider the key areas that we have highlighted here. It’s not just a case of translation, but of localization as you bridge the gap between two very different cultures. In summary, once you have your source text, our advice is that you give careful consideration to the following:

  • Specifically, who is it aimed at? Target the right demographic.
  • Which countries are your target audience based in?
  • What language is used to consume this type of content?
  • Is key industry knowledge needed to translate and localize the source text?
  • Consider any brand names – do they need to be localized for your target market?
  • Imagery and music – if you are using multimedia elements, don’t overlook them, and ensure that they are culturally appropriate

If you’re uncertain, then an experienced translation and localization professional will work closely with you to help you avoid the pitfalls.

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