Online Social Site Offers Machine Translation

One of the earliest Utopian promises of the Internet was that it would connect the world and give different cultures a greater understanding of each other. Imagine if you could sit at a coffee shop and talk to people from across the world, and hear what they have to say. In theory, at least, everyone would emerge from the coffee shop with a better understanding of and a deeper appreciation for each other’s views.

Of course, even though the Internet allows people to communicate across continents, there’s still one problem: the language barrier. Now, an online social networking site called Meedan aims to break down the language barrier between Arabic, Hebrew and English speakers. The site uses translating software to translate members’ comments and messages to one another. Unfortunately, translation software is never perfect, and Meedan’s is no exception, as the New York Times reports.

Programmers face a number of obstacles in writing translation software aimed at translating Arabic to English (and vice versa). For one thing, currently all translation programs work by having computers review copies of human-translated documents. By giving the computer a copy of the same text in each language, it can compare the two texts and “learn” which words correspond to each other.. The more translated text the computer sees, the more accurately it can translate. However, there is less common material available between English and Arabic than there is between English and many other languages.

Also, syntax is more fluid in Arabic than in English. Arabic speakers use content and meaning (basically, common sense) to determine the meaning of a particular sentence. Computers, unfortunately, lack common sense.

According to the New York Times’ article, Meedan’s software is “surprisingly good ,“ even for some abstract phrases and figurative language. However, human translators have no need to worry about being replaced by computers anytime soon-Meedan also produced this little gem:

“The mother your visit in Israel is a sleep to the favour or to the bed your mind on the conflict are Israeli Palestinian and on relational Israel Holland.”

As the New York Times’ astutely points out, given how fraught with tension the semantics of the conflicts in the Middle East are, it remains to be seen how well Meedan will be able to build to a bridge between here and there.

4 Localisation Strategy Secrets from the World’s Most Popular Arabic Website has gone from “just an idea” to the top Arabic-language website in the world in only six year’s time. But what are the secrets of the site’s success? Are there lessons that can help your own organisation design a killer localisation strategy?

In 2010, two medical students from Jordan were hanging out in a cafe. As they discussed the lack of quality Arabic-language content available online, they decided it was time to do something about it. Mawdoo3 was born.

The site, which is an Arabic version of popular English sites like, and Wikipedia, has skyrocketed in popularity since then. In February, it had 23 million unique users. That makes it the most popular Arabic-language website in the world, according to

Expanding into international markets is exciting but can be fraught with difficulty. Here are 4 essential lessons in localisation strategy from the rise of to help you take your business global.

Localisation Strategy Secret #1: Find a Need and Fill It

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Next Year, Twitter Will Be Available in Arabic

Popular messaging service Twitter just announced that it would be broadening its appeal by launching in Arabic next year. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone announced the plans in an interview with Abu Dhabi’s The National.

Currently, Arabic speakers who want to use Twitter must either tweet in English, tweet in “Arabish,” a system used to render Arabic words using Roman numerals and letters, or use one of the Arabic-language Twitter clients instead of the Twitter website itself.

Fast Company notes that optimizing the Twitter homepage for the Arabic language will be a bit of a challenge for Twitter, since Arabic is read from right to left instead of left to right.

Considering how many Twitter users use the service via text message, another challenge is the fact that many cell phones don’t have Arabic keypad options available. Read more

New French Prime Minister’s Name Lost in Translation

Poor Jean-Marc Ayrault. The new French Prime Minister had hardly a moment to enjoy his new position when it was revealed that his last name, if pronounced properly, sounds like “penis” in Arabic. More specifically, it sounds like a slang term used to refer to the organ in the third person singular possessive form (i.e. “his penis.”)

Of course, the press was all over the awkward translation — the potential headlines and  jokes were just too good to ignore. For example, observed that under the circumstances, Ayrault ” would be considered linguistically as well as parliamentarily-speaking to be the ‘dick-head’ of cabinet.” Meanwhile, the Daily Mail’s headline pulled no punches: “Jean-Marc Ayrault leaves Middle East red-faced… as his name sounds like the Arabic for penis.”  Bloomberg chose to be more delicate: “France’s Ayrault Creates Anatomical Challenge For Arab Press.”

The mainstream Arabic press, of course, has less of an opportunity to snark, as they’d prefer to offend neither their more conservative readers nor the French Prime Minister himself.  They coped as best they could, taking liberties with both spelling and pronunciation, or just referring to him by his first name.

Obviously, a more permanent solution was needed, and fortunately the French foreign ministry stepped forward to issue some guidelines. Per the Daily Mail,

‘The ministry has sent out a press release to the Arabic media, telling them how the name should be said in French. But it also says that Mr Ayrault finds it acceptable that they pronounce all the letters of his name, including the “l” and the “t” at the end, so that it sounds like “Eye-rolte.”

There are only so many sounds that can be used to form words, making occasional occurrences like this inevitable. Fun fact: as the Daily Mail observes, the French themselves had to alter the pronunciation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s last name, as it sounds like “prostitute” in French. Or, remember the Australian woman who got her nickname inscribed onto her car’s vanity plates only to find that it had an unexpected meaning in Tagalog?

For more name translation humour, head on over to the Atlantic for a very funny round-up of names that just don’t travel well.


Facebook introduces two new languages

The internet giant Facebook has dramatically increased its target market by introducing Arabic and Hebrew. Many people will now find this social networking website much easier to use.

They conquered many problems during the production of the site into these languages including changing the sites layout so that it reads right to left and producing new software which recognises whether the user is male or female and adjusting the translation accordingly.

The addition of Arabic and Hebrew brings Facebook’s language total to 40 and there are over 60 more in development.

Learn a Language

The Top Languages to Learn in 2018

Fancy learning a new language this year? As one of the UK’s leading translation service providers, we’re in just the right place to give some tips on the most useful ones to pick. Whether you’re still a student or you’re just looking for a way to improve your career outlook, we’ve selected the top languages to learn in 2018.

1. Mandarin


The official language of China, Mandarin is already the most widely spoken language in the world. Per Wikipedia, 955 million people, 14.4% of the world’s population, claim it as their native tongue.

The demand for Mandarin speakers will only grow in the years to come, as China nudges the United States out of the top spot as the nation with the world’s largest GDP.  According to Bloomberg, as of November 06, 2017 the Chinese economy is projected to overtake the United States economy in 2028.

Meanwhile,  China is busy constructing a “New Silk Road” to connect the Chinese mainland with Europe, the rest of Asia, and emerging markets in Africa. 

Mandarin is also the second most popular language online. And according to Statista, while the US will probably remain the largest economy overall for a few years yet, by the end of 2018 China will be the largest digital economy in the world. 

When you look at the facts, it’s easy to see why the British Council ranked Mandarin as one of the most important languages for the future of the UK.  If you’re learning a new language this year and you’re up for a challenge, Mandarin is definitely one of the top languages to learn.

Want to learn more about the languages of China? See our beginner’s guide to Chinese translation services!

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Does the UK Need More Foreign Language Speakers?

Is the UK facing a shortage of foreign language speakers in the near future?  That seems to be the case, a new study from the CBI confirms.

Last year, the British Council released a report describing the potential economic harm caused by not having enough UK workers with the right foreign language skills.

The 2014 CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey supports those conclusions. According to the CBI survey, two thirds of UK employers prefer to hire employees with foreign language skills.

Which languages are companies looking for? The most requested language was French, with 50% of businesses looking to hire French speakers. 49% were looking for German speakers, and 44% were looking for Spanish speakers. However, the number of businesses looking for Mandarin and Arabic speakers is growing. For example, 31% of the firms surveyed considered Mandarin a  useful language for their business. In 2012, only 25 percent did. Likewise, demand for Arabic language skills is up 4 percent since 2012.

In a statement,  CBI deputy director general Katja Hall expressed concern about the number of UK students learning these languages:

“With the EU still our largest export market, it’s no surprise to see German, French and Spanish language skills so highly prized by companies. But with China and Latin America seeing solid growth, ambitious firms want the language skills that can smooth the path into new markets. It has been a worry to see foreign language study in our schools under pressure with one in five schools having a persistently low take-up of languages. The jury remains out as to whether recent government initiatives can help spur a resurgence in language learning. Young people considering their future subject choices should be made more aware of the benefits to their careers that can come from studying a foreign language.”

To address this problem, the  government is making foreign  languages mandatory in UK schools starting at age seven.

Is there anything else we should be doing to encourage British children to learn foreign languages? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by mklapper

Happy Arabic Language Day!

December 18th is the second annual World Arabic Language Day.  Established in 2010 by UNESCO, it marks the annual anniversary of the date in 1973 that Arabic was given the status of official UN language.

This year, Arabic Language Day was celebrated not only by UNESCO, but by companies and organizations around the world. For example, in Dubai, the Dubai Centre for Arabic Language  was launched to “foster a stronger understanding and appreciation for the Arabic language,” according to Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed, who chairs the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is hosting a book fair in Riyadh, and Egypt’s Supreme Council for Culture hosted a conference featuring Arabic scholars and local poets.

In a speech commemorating the holiday, Director-General of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Irina Bokova called the occasion 

“an opportunity for us to acknowledge the immense contribution of the Arabic language to universal culture and to renew our commitment to multilingualism. Linguistic diversity is a key component of cultural diversity. It reflects the wealth of human existence and gives us access to infinite resources so that we may engage in dialogue, learn, develop and live in peace.”

To celebrate World Arabic Language Day, here are 7 facts about the Arabic language:

  1. Arabic has between 380 and 422 million native speakers, making it the fifth most spoken language in the world.
  2. It is the 11th most-spoken language in the US.
  3. The Arabic alphabet is read from right to left, rather than left to right.
  4. Different Arabic dialects vary from each other about as much as the different Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, etc) do.
  5. Arabic letters are drawn differently depending on where they appear in a word.
  6. The Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State ranks Arabic as one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn.
  7. Some surprising Arabic loanwords in English include but are certainly not limited to: cotton, algebra, hazard, mattress and orange.

Arabic Becomes Popular Language Choice At New York City’s Friends Seminary

When New York City’s Friends Seminary began offering high school courses on Arabic language and culture two years ago, the decision was not without controversy, especially since few of the school’s students are of Arabic descent.  In particular, some parents were concerned that by offering the language, the school was taking sides in the interminable conflict between Israel and Palestine.

However, the classes have proved quite popular, attracting a group of dedicated students who plan to continue studying the language, both in US colleges and abroad. And although more students take Spanish and French, the Arabic students seem more inclined to use the language outside of school and to seek out future careers that revolve around speaking it. For example, the New York Times interviewed the first nine graduating seniors in the Arabic class, and this is what they found:

Of the nine graduating seniors who studied Arabic, all plan to continue — most applied only to colleges that offer the language; several say Ms. Swank’s classes influenced their thoughts about their futures. For Mr. Adamopoulos, that might mean practicing medicine in an Arabic-speaking country. Mr. Smith-Stevens, who starts Middlebury College in the fall, intends to major in international relations, with a focus on the Middle East. Even Mr. Peebles, who hopes to keep performing, plans to continue his Arabic studies at Tufts University. “Inshallah,” he added — God willing.

With the relationship between the Muslim world and the United States becoming more and more tense, it’s encouraging to see young people who are willing to bridge the gap between the two cultures. Hopefully, more US schools will begin to offer Arabic as an option in high school, since students are much more likely to become fluent if they start studying a language in high school rather than college.

Did Disney Drop the Ball With Frozen’s Arabic Translation?

Just when you thought Disney might be running low on “princess stories” to adapt, along came “Frozen.”  Inspired by the old fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” “Frozen” quickly became one of the most successful Disney movies ever. In fact, it is number five on the list of the highest-grossing films of all time.

No matter what part of the world you live in or how old you are, “Frozen” is unavoidable. It’s been translated into 41 different languages. However, if you are one of the world’s 290 million native Arabic speakers, Disney’s translation might leave you a little cold.

Arabic is what’s called a diglossic language, which means there is a formal standardized version that almost everyone in the Arabic world learns in school (Modern Standard Arabic), and there are the localized dialects used in everyday life.

Previous Disney Arabic translations used the Egyptian Arabic dialect, which has the most speakers and is widely understood in other countries thanks to Egypt’s movie industry. For “Frozen,” they decided to go with Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). While this might seem like a good way to maximize their Arabic audience, using MSA changes the casual, modern language of the English original into something much more biblical, as Elias Muhanna writes in the New Yorker:

The Arabic lyrics to “Let It Go” are as forbidding as Elsa’s ice palace. The Egyptian singer Nesma Mahgoub, in the song’s chorus, sings, “Discharge thy secret! I shall not bear the torment!” and “I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me…” From one song to the next, there isn’t a declensional ending dropped or an antique expression avoided, whether it is sung by a dancing snowman or a choir of forest trolls. The Arabic of “Frozen” is frozen in time, as “localized” to contemporary Middle Eastern youth culture as Latin quatrains in French rap.

“The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me?” Awkward! There’s a more accessible translation from a fan on YouTube here, but even so the lyrics come across as awkward and stilted. Reaction in the Arabic world has understandably mixed- some people love it and some people hate it. So why not make multiple Arabic translations for a few of the more widely spoken dialects?  Disney obviously has the resources, and they’re willing to put forth the effort for European languages like Spanish and Portuguese.

Muhanna proposes one possible reason for the shift in an interview with NPR:

I think that it has something to do with the fact that last year, Al Jazeera inked a big deal with Disney to basically buy all of its distribution rights for its children’s programming. And if you go on to the website of Al Jazeera’s Children’s Channel, you will find a policy document there that states very clearly that all of its content will be in what they call Classical Arabic.

Do you think Disney dropped the ball with its Arabic Arabic translation of “Frozen?” Let us know in the comments!