Calamus Translations

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East meets West in Arabic legal drafting


While recently doing a set of Arabic-English legal translations for an Algerian company, I was struck that some of the word choices in the Arabic were quite different than what is commonly used in eastern parts of the Arab world, i.e. the Gulf, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, where most of my work comes from and indeed where the majority of the Arab world lives. This post lays out just a few of the less common uses that caught my eye and tracks their source to be a mix of good old regional variation as well as influence from French and/or Spanish. Here are a few of the differences I noted:

the provisions of law
company capital
members of the Board of Directors

Most common/Eastern Arabic
أحكام القانون
رأس مال الشركة
أعضاء مجلس الإدارة


This document/North Africa
ترتيبات القانون
رأس المال الاجتماعي


Some of these differences, like the question between حصص (hisas) and أسهم (ashum) for 'shares', aren't that drastic. At other points, however, these documents used extremely rare terms instead of their common counterparts. For example, they talked about ترتيبات القانون (tartiibaat al-qaanuun) instead of أحكام القانون (ahkaam al-qaanuun) "provisions of law" even though the latter phrase has 394,000 google hits compared to the 843 of the former. Outside of this context, the word tartiibaatusually means "arrangements," which is shown well by this forum on استفسارات العروس وترتيبات وتجهيزات الزفاف (istifsaaraat al-3aruus wa-tartiibaat wa-tajhiizaat al-zafaaf) "Bridal questions and wedding arrangements and supplies." Where these hits are coming from shows what is going on: the first link for ترتيبات (tartiibaat) above is the facebook page of an Algerian news site, and four of the remaining results have Moroccan domain names. Clearly, this is a regional variant.

Having seen this example that the written Arabic of North Africa has some divergences compared with that of the Middle East, we can also find a clear French/Spanish influence in using the term رأس المال الاجتماعي (ra's al-maal al-ijtimaa'i) as opposed to رأس مال الشركة (ra's maal al-sharika) for company capital. The difference in how much each is used isn't as drastic here; رأس المال الاجتماعي (ra's al-maal al-ijtimaa'i) has 78,500 hits, and رأس مال الشركة (ra's maal al-sharika) has 344,000. The thing to note here is that while the second literally means "the company's capital", the first actually means "social capital" but they don't mean it in the sociological value of social networks sense. Instead, it is a calque from French (and also Spanish) where société (Spanish: sociedad) means company and thus capital social means "company capital".

The last difference I will address is between مبالغ (mabaaligh) and قيم (qiyam) 'amounts of money'. The former normally means 'amount of money' and the latter means 'value', so other Arab writers might even use the two together and write things like دفع مبلغ قيمته (daf' mablagh qiimatuhu) 'payment of an amount with the value of [i.e. equaling]', and indeed Arabic writers have written that exact phrase 35,200 times on the internet. However, my text used قيم (qiyam) with the meaning of مبالغ (mabaaligh), and thus made quite rare constructions like قيمة تتم دفعها (qiima tatimm daf'uha) 'an amount to be paid' which is only on the web 196 times as opposed to the much more common مبلغ يتم دفعه (mablagh yatimm daf'uhu) which has been spotted in the wild 38,100 times.

These were just a few examples that got my interest, but the reality is that we as translators are faced with this kind of variation all day everyday. Paying attention to where exactly our text comes from helps, as does remembering that context is king.

Olivia Barrett