Behind the CETRA Scene: Interview with an Arabic Translator, Louay Abdulla

Name: Louay Abdulla

Location: Clifton Park, New York

arabic translator

What languages do you work with?  What are some of the intricacies or challenges of the particular language you work with?

I translate between Arabic and English exclusively. Arabic has its own non-Latin alphabet and goes from right to left. It also has a dual format and is gender specific, need I say more about challenges? In addition to technical issues Arabic translators have to deal with the vast cultural differences between the Arabic-speaking world and the English-speaking one. There are many regional spoken dialects of Arabic, but thankfully, written Arabic is unified and known as Modern Standard Arabic.   

What are some of your most interesting projects? Why?

The more a project is engrossed in culture the more interesting it is to me. While legal or medical translations are less culturally specific, advertising is the most culturally steeped translation subject. The most interesting project was subtitling a commercial for a brand of chocolate, where a couple of police officers sitting in a cruiser would be enticed by a chocolate bar. Everything from the police officers to the car and even the chocolate bar was American, but the message had to be transformed in a way that would not sound silly in Arabic. A cultural consideration was the high regard Arab culture bestows on policing, and more practically speaking, the fact that making light of the police may not play well on Arab television stations. So a tight rope had to be walked in order to transfer the joy of eating that chocolate bar without belittling the job of police officers.

What is the best part about being a translator? What do you love about it?

The freedom and the art of the craft are the best parts of this profession. What I love the most is the challenge and the satisfaction I feel when I conquer a new term or a difficult phrase.   

How did you know you were “ready” to be a translator?

I come from a family of linguists, so I grew up around people discussing proper grammar and syntax, but life took me away from language for a while until, at the age of 33, I took a job that required me to supervise translators. I fell in love with the craft and my love for languages came roaring back. I never turned away from it for 16 years now.  

What is the most difficult part about your job?

I always say that translation is one of the few professions where other people are not afraid to challenge the professionals, so a linguist is always on the defensive about his or her linguistic abilities. I think the most difficult part is guessing what the client is looking for, a linguist is hardly ever given adequate information about the purpose or use of their translation. 

Can you translate a sentence for us? Your favorite quote? Your favorite word?

This is one of the nicest sayings I ever heard, and I believe it is true. People who make the most noise are usually the ones without much substance.

English: Empty vessels make the most noise.

Arabic equivalent: ???? ????? ?????? ?????? ?? ?????? ???????

Back translation: The noisiest train car is the empty one.