Lebanese Translators and Diglossia


Diglossia… A curious Greek-based term I came across a few years back , and which served as an eye-opener to the linguistic “situation” I have been unawarely facing since birth, practically.

A good definition is the following: “In linguistics, diglossia is a situation where, in a given society, there are two (often closely-related) languages, one of high prestige, which is generally used by the government and in formal texts, and one of low prestige, which is usually the spoken vernacular tongue. The high-prestige language tends to be the more formalised, and its forms and vocabulary often ‘filter down’ into the vernacular, though often in a changed form.”

And this what exactly applies to Lebanon and probably to Arab-speaking countries, where the written language differs in many respects with the one spoken.

The matter actually goes beyond the “level of speech” as in the mainstream European languages. There you might have “Argot” in the French language, or Slang in the case of English.

However, The problem with dialects of Arabic, is that they differ from the classical written Arabic, not only on the level of words origins and sentence structures, which is only used in written material and read on the broadcast news bulletins and other formal speeches, but they also differ in logic and structure. Here lies an unconscious problem for translators which reflects automatically in the work of many of them.

For instance, in Lebanese dialect the same word means foot and leg “Ejer” إجر (a deviation of

“Rejel” رجل in classical Arabic). In the latter the word for leg is “Saq” ساق.

In my work as a reviser of Arabic translations for a subtitling company, in 99% of the times I had translators writing “Rejel” instead of “Saq” obviously due to the confusion of the dialectal term in their head.

In order to make them aware of the nuance, I used to show them the monolingual Arabic dictionary’s entry of “Rejel” defining the foot as the body part extending from the ankle to the toes, while “Saq”, the leg, is the limb extending from the knee to the ankle.

I had also the same problem with the word “Left” designating the direction. The classical term in Arabic is “Yassar”. The dialectal commonly uses “Shmel” (a deviation of Shimal) that might means left, but is mainly used for designating the North. And here again, many translators would write “he went to “shimal” إتجه شمالاً which might imply to readers that “he went North” and not left يساراً.

Unfortunately, examples abound in that regard.

The crux of the problem lies in the fact that we automatically assume that “we speak Arabic” while in fact we speak and think in our local dialect, which is a tongue that developed in a path of its own, due to many pre-Arabic and post-Arabic linguistic and cultural influences (Syriac, Turkish, Persian, French but to name a few).

One of the possible solutions would consist in raising the awareness of the translators and language professionals to this matter and inviting them to read further and think in classical Arabic when writing it or translating it, and not confusing this mainly written language with their daily spoken dialect.



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