Guide to Arabic to English translation

The Ultimate Guide to Arabic to English Translation 


Translation from Arabic to English is an art - not a job – which takes years of practice, trial and error, diligent work and acquisition of specialist knowledge about a variety of elements and aspects involved in the process of rendering an Arabic text to English.

This guide is meant to furnish beginner as well as advanced Arabic translators with practical and focused guidance on how to deliver a genuinely high quality Arabic to English translation, one that is faithful to the original text, idiomatic, non-literal, accurate and above all reads natural to the target audience/reader (native English speakers).

A bit on the problems

Before we delve into the intricacies and nuances of Arabic to English translation, let’s highlight in few lines the current key problems in the Arabic to English translation industry.

a) Literality:

It goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of texts translated from Arabic to English nowadays are in fact too literal. For a native speaker of English, the translated text is merely an assortment of English words, most likely rendered word for word from Arabic.

b) Amateurism:

A large number of Arabic texts have been translated into English by inexperienced translators who have just begun a translation career without sufficient knowledge or practice. This problem is quite evident in translated texts where the Arabic translator basically fails to reflect or convey the spirit, or indeed the meaning, of the text. To say something in Arabic is quite often completely different from how it is said in English. Expressions vary widely between both languages.

c) Superficiality:

A very related problem is the translation of the Arabic text to English in a superficial manner. The Arabic language is quite dense and rich, and its writers vary between inexperienced, fluent, advanced and expert. Translating an Arabic text to English without getting to the depth of what the writer intended to say and only following a superficial approach is very common in today’s translation world.


Imagine you are a soldier and you have been tasked to undertake a tough mission: what do you take with you? You would normally and logically equip yourself extremely well with everything you need in order to be able to successfully complete the mission. Consider translating from Arabic to English a very tough mission. So, what do you actually need to have with you to be able to deliver a good and professional Arabic to English translation?

1. Specialist field language knowledge 

You can claim that you translate from Arabic to English in all areas and fields. Everyone is absolutely free to say so. But if you really want to excel and carve up a name for yourself in the area of translation from Arabic to English, which – by the way - is far more challenging than translation from English to Arabic, then you need to build field-specific knowledge.

Let’s take an example:

If you want to translate news articles/reports from Arabic into English, then you need to build excellent, deep and specific knowledge around translation of Arabic news into English.

This means you need to search for glossaries related to news translation, read a massive number of newspaper articles and news reports, spent a lot of time on news websites, subscribe to news alerts and updates from news agencies or media outlets, and look for any academic research or studies conducted on translation from Arabic to English in the field of media and news – IN BOTH LANGUAGES: Arabic and English.

Similarly, if you want to shine as a legal Arabic to English translator and build a good name and reputation for yourself, then you need to start accumulating legal language knowledge and expertise. This will mean reading a considerable amount of laws and legal texts in both languages, gathering or looking for related glossaries, browsing law-related websites, subscribing to legal magazines and reading books and academic studies on legal translation from Arabic to English, if available.

2. Focus on meaning, not only words 

The second thing you need to equip yourself with when you approach a translation from Arabic to English is the unique ability to read the words to understand the meaning, rather than get carried away with the words and eventually lose sight of the meaning. This may sound too obvious, but certainly it is something that the overwhelming majority of Arabic translators fail to bear in mind while translating a text or document from Arabic to English. If you really want to deliver a truly good and idiomatic translation of an Arabic text, you must build up this ability – gradually. It will also help you to avoid being literal with your translation.

Again, let’s take an example:

arabic to english translation services

One way to translate this sentence from Arabic would be:  

“The official TV announced on Monday the death of 12 persons and the infection of 61 others with the new coronavirus.” 

However, a professional and idiomatic English translation of the Arabic sentence would be:

“The state TV said on Monday that 12 people had died from novel coronavirus and that 61 others had contracted the disease.”

As can be seen, there is a considerable difference between the first translation and the second translation. While the first translation followed the original Arabic sentence, almost word for word, the second translation displayed a deeper understanding of the original Arabic text which resulted in a more idiomatic, more accurate and more professional rendition into English.

Note: The word “official” in the original Arabic is a literal translation of the Arabic word Rasmi, but here what the sentence in fact meant was “state” or “state-owned”. For a native English speaker of English, the word “state” or “state-owned” with TV sounds more idiomatic and more natural than “official”.

Let’s look at another example for further illustration:

legal arabic translation services

An English translation of this legal Arabic text could be:  

“Without affecting any harsher penalty provided for in another law, if the crime stated in article (371) of this law is committed at night, the prison sentence is a period that is no less one year and no more than three years, and a fine no less than 100,000 pounds and no more than 200,000 pounds.”

However, a more professional, accurate and idiomatic legal translation of this Arabic sentence would be:

“Without prejudice to any harsher sentence stipulated in another law, the perpetration of the crime set forth in Article No. 371 of this law in the night time shall be punished by a prison sentence of no less than one year and no more than three years and a fine of no less than 100,000 pounds and no more than 200,000 pounds.”

As can be seen, the second translation exhibits a far greater understanding of the legal Arabic text, and is certainly a more robust and accurate translation. See also how the legal English lexicon is expertly utilised in the best manner in phrases and words like: “without prejudice to”, “stipulated”, “set forth” and “punished by”.

To sum up this point, when translating a text from Arabic to English, try your very best to get to the bottom of the meaning and do not get carried away with the Arabic copy, to avoid eventually producing an English translation that is both meaningless and completely literal.

3. Learn from experience 

In life, every new skill one learns has often come through learning from others with more experience. Nobody is born a great swimmer; to be a great swimmer, you need to be taught by a swimming instructor. The same goes for translation of Arabic text to English. You need to learn from people who are genuinely experienced in the Arabic to English translation field.

One of the most practical and helpful things that I personally benefited from was getting my Arabic to English translations revised and corrected by senior professional Arabic to English translators with many years’ experience.

Find an expereinced and specialist translator at your workplace or through friends or in any other way and ask them to be your instructor.

Begin by translating short pieces from the field you would like to specialise in and get the experienced translator to revise and review your work and mark it out of 10. Go through the corrections and suggestions made by the expert translator very very carefully to learn from them for future translations.

The more you translate and get your translation corrected by a senior translator, the better you will be at doing it.

After a while, move to longer pieces of translation and again keep getting them revised and marked by a senior translator with specialist knowledge in your preferred Arabic to English translation field.

Always take notes and learn a thing or two from every translation corrected for you.  

4. Have a proper kit 

Specialist dictionaries have been created for a reason: to offer help to those who need them, and certainly translating from Arabic to English in any field, be it medical, technical, legal or political, needs the translator to have the right dictionary at their disposal.

If you were going to translate from Arabic to English in a legal field, there are several dictionaries and online resources out there that can offer you the greatest help.

The same goes for medical, political and technical fields, and others. To avoid spending a fortune, you should do some research online first as to what is the best dictionary in your specific area. See what others say and think and read reviews as part of your due diligence work. You can then decide on which dictionary you are going to buy a hardcopy of.

Also, in today’s world, there is nothing easier than going on Google and searching for the best lexical resources related to your area of translation. You will find a variety of options out there which you can sift through to decide what is best for you.

5. Keep up to date

Any activity in the world, if you do not practise it, you get rusty and you lose the ability to do it proficiently.

This is exactly the same case with translation from Arabic to English. You need to keep practising it all the time and you need to stay up to date with any new developments related to this specific Arabic to English translation sphere.

You can achieve this by regularly reading field-specific news and material. If you are focusing on the medical Arabic to English translation area, you can then search on Google in both languages regarding any articles or updates published related to translation of a medical text written in Arabic to English.

Also, you can sign up to any websites or resources that are focused on Arabic English translation.

By keeping up to date, continually practising and continually being exposed to Arabic English translation in your area of expertise and specialism, you will certainly be ahead of your game and be able to produce an up-to-date, professional, accurate and idiomatic translation to English of the Arabic text.

6. Do not over-rely on Google Translate

Google Translate is certainly a helpful resource that can be utilised to the translator’s best interest. However, a key problem that emerges today is that many Arabic to English translation service providers/or individual translators put an excessive emphasis on Google Translate.

Some Arabic to English translators would even just copy the original text and paste it into Google Translate and use the output as the final product and send it to their clients.

Others would probably make a sheepish effort and make slight changes to the English translation produced by Google Translate and claim it as their own.

In fact, neither camp have done the right thing or even made a good use of this completely helpful and useful resource: Google Translate Arabic to English.

As a professional translator, you will probably come - on many occasions - across a word or expression in Arabic that you have no clue about its meaning, something you have never heard of or read before.

Here comes in Google Translate, which is extremely effective in particular related to technical or medical expressions, names of towns and cities, names of organisations and institutions, abbreviations, acronyms, and several other things.

Using Google Translate as an additional resource for your Arabic English translation, together with web-based and hardcopy specialist Arabic English dictionaries is certainly the most effective and practical way of utilising this facility without affecting the quality of your Arabic to English translation.

Mohamed Ibrahim is a professional Arabic to English translator with the Loghat Arabic Translation Service, a provider of unique English to Arabic translation services.