What you need to know before you record Arabic voice-over

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With 420 million native speakers worldwide, Arabic is the fifth most widely spoken language in the world. It is the official language of 28 countries, as well as one of the official languages of the United Nations. Despite this, Arabic is one of the trickiest languages when it comes to recording foreign-language voice-over, in part because of its unique history and development.

This post will list the three things that any localization project manager must know before starting an Arabic audio translation project.

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Many local languages with one lingua franca

To understand Arabic today, it’s crucial to know that the Arabic used in the Quran became a kind of lingua franca for the Arabic-speaking world. Because of this, two things happened at once in the Arabic-speaking world since the 8th century. First, the different Arabic-speaking locales – all the way from Northwest Africa to Eastern Iran – developed very different, and sometimes mutually unintelligible, colloquial versions of the language, which some linguists consider dialects or even distinct languages, but which share many common features. However, education after the rise of Islam focused on what’s known as Classical Arabic – the Arabic used in the Quran. Thus, the development of a lingua franca.


With that brief history lesson out of the way, here are the three things you must know before finalizing a localization plan with Arabic voice-over services provider.

1. Modern Standard Arabic is most widely understood – but it leaves out part of your audience.

Modern Standard Arabic is effectively Classical Arabic, but – as its name implies – “modernized” to include words and concepts that weren’t around in the 8th century. In fact, many Arabic speakers don’t make a distinction between MSA and Classical Arabic. The great thing about MSA is that many people in the Arab world learn it at school. The bad thing is that it’s not commonly used in colloquial or everyday speech.

MSA is pretty useful for corporate communications, e-Learning, and generally for very formal communications. However, it’s not great for a lot of marketing or even for some entertainment content, or content going to a specific locale in the Middle East or Northern Africa.

2. There are large regional variants of colloquial, spoken Arabic.

There are a few main regional variants of Arabic spoken colloquially:

  • Egyptian Arabic: Spoken mainly in in Egypt, with 94 million native speakers. Because of the predominance of Egyptian media in the region – especially newspapers, music, TV shows and movies – this variant is commonly spoken in many other regions as well.
  • Maghrebi Arabic: Spoken mainly in Northeastern Africa – mainly Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. About 70 million speakers.
  • Levantine Arabic: Spoken in the Levant region (the area near the eastern coast of the Mediterranean), with speakers in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Palestine, and even parts of Cyprus and Turkey. About 20-21 million speakers.
  • Iraqi Arabic: Spoken in Iraq and the eastern part of Syria. Also known as Mesopotamian Arabic. About 32 million speakers.
  • Sudanese Arabic: Spoken mainly in northern Sudan and some parts of southern Egypt. About 17 million speakers.
  • Gulf Arabic: Spoken in the areas surrounding the Persian Gulf, in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and parts of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Oman. Not a huge number of speakers – only 5 million – but heavily-requested because of the region’s economic vitality.

It’s key to understand that the regional variations aren’t mutually intelligible, so that you most often can’t re-use one Arabic voice over talent to record for two locales. That said, you may find talents who can record both a Modern Standard Arabic and a regional variation, though this is tricky to do well.

3. Often, marketing or other local content requires more localized dialects or accents than the broad regional variations.

The regional variants in the list above contain many regional accents or even distinct dialects within them. Likewise, there are many other dialects of Arabic with large populations of native speakers, like Najdi and Hejazi Arabic, both spoken in Saudi Arabia, and both with millions of native speakers (about 10 and 6, respectively). Likewise, some relatively standardized variants of Arabic, like Egyptian Arabic, have distinct dialects – for example, Cairene, which is spoken primarily in Cairo, and which is very prominent. Or, as a final example, a client in Kuwait may want a specifically local accent, rather than a more general Gulf Arabic one.

The key is to remember that specificity is crucial in Arabic audio translation.

Know your content and audience before translating and recording voice-over

Is your content a corporate or official message that works well in MSA? Or are you dubbing a TV spot for Sudan, which would really benefit from being recorded in Sudanese Arabic? More importantly, who is your audience? What regional variant of Arabic do they use in their daily lives? Are they well-versed in Modern Standard Arabic, and do they expect it in the context of your audio or video? You must ask yourself both these questions before beginning localization. Finally, if at all possible, engage your local partners – whether employees, marketing managers, or even local contacts – during the process, from script proofing to voice sample review, to ensure that your localizaed content really speaks to your local audience.

Download “7 Myths of Audio & Video Translation,” JBI Studios’ indispensable guide to audio translation and dubbing.