The Arabic Cake
Grammatical gender is baked right into the Arabic cake. Arabic nouns come in either strawberry or vanilla, and the frosting(verbs), candles(adjectives), and sprinkles(pronouns) all have to match the cake’s flavor.
This presents us Arabic translators a conundrum when translating anything from English.
See, English doesn’t really do the whole gendered language thing. In English, go is just go. No need for lipstick or a mustache. So what’s a translator to do?
Well, we kind of have a baked in solution.
(yeah, the cake analogy was just a ruse to make these puns. Deal with it.)
It’s grammatically correct in Arabic to default to the masculine form when addressing someone whose gender is unknown.
Problem solved, right?
This linguistic convention served us well, but in this day and age, it raises important questions around representation and inclusivity.
- Why assume the masculine is the “default” when using Arabic?
- More importantly, why are we still doing this when there’s a better way?
To understand this phenomenon, you have to know 2 very important facts about Arabic:
It hasn’t evolved in any meaningful way in centuries, and as a result, It’s a dead language.
Let me explain.
The State of Arabic
Arabic is not dead in the same sense as other extinct tongues. It’s technically still spoken by 420+ million people around the globe after all.
But notice that “technically”? It carries most of the statement, because what’s spoken today is not the same Arabic read in books, heard in dubbed media, or used in writing.
And why’s that?
I’ll let someone else speak instead. This quote sums it up nicely:
Arabs have tried to elevate the only so-called true or pure Arabic, while working to discredit, disable, and even destroy dialects. They have thus made an official language out of a form that nobody considers a native tongue, while making everyone’s different native tongues seem subpar, uncouth, and useless.
This emphasis on preserving Classical Arabic — itself an acknowledgement that the language needs protection, without which it will die out — has made such reading an unlovable experience for most speakers, who struggle to properly speak the language.from Hossam Abouzahr’s “How Arabs Have Failed Their Language“
More importantly, the fixation with our sacred view of the old language has directly affected the dialects.
Arabic’s strict rules and its inability to evolve left every “Arabic” speaker using their local dialect, which is often derived, and independently evolved, from Modern Standard Arabic (Also called Classic Arabic or Fusha).
Arabic linguists & religious extremists have effectively put their sacred language 6 feet under by quarantining it from the heart and soul of every tongue: the everyman, leaving it unsullied by the unwashed masses and as a result unfit to be used by those same peasants in their day to day.
Arabic, like Latin, is a dead language that never died.
I could go on and on about this (and I likely will at some point) but hopefully this little detour gave you enough context for the important question at the end of the article.
Inclusivity is Not That Hard
This is a gripe I had with Arabic game localization for a long time, long before I even considered entering the field in fact. Gaming is already a male dominated hobby, so let’s at least not make 95% of games constantly remind you of that.
That’s why, whenever the chance presented itself, I strived to make my localizations as gender-neutral and inclusive as possible.
Games are often riddled with direct language; using and abusing imperative sentences to communicate the objective clearly and concisely. In game localization, translating such language into Arabic literally necessitates gendering the player because imperative sentences have to start with a gendered verb in Arabic.
|Original English||Explore the area|
|Masc. AR||استكشف المنطقة|
|Fem. AR||استكشفي المنطقة|
The solution? Don’t even bother with them.
Here’s a neat little trick that works nearly every time: Forget that the original string is an order, and re-imagine it as a request or a suggestion.
Let’s try that again:
|Original English||Explore the area|
|Reimagined English||You need to explore the area|
|Masc. AR||عليكَ استكشاف المنطقة|
|Fem. AR||عليكِ استكشاف المنطقة|
|Neutral AR||عليك استكشاف المنطقة|
Notice anything different?
Now it’s possible to use non gendered language!
But wait, there’s something else. Don’t they all look the same?
Well, yes and no.
How Gendering in Arabic Works
You see, re-imagining the string as a request still necessitate it be gendered. There’s no escaping that, however, now the gendering happens in a much more subtle way.
We needed to use the feminization word end “ـي” at the end of the verb in the first example, while the masculine verb stayed the same because it’s the default form.
In the second example, we only had to use the barely noticeable Arabic diacritics “Al Fatha” and “Al Kasra” to denote the receiver’s gender!
This is why all of our options look nearly identical. We’re only changing, or conveniently omitting, diacritics—not the verbs’ spelling itself.
Diacritics exist to augment the meaning of a word in Arabic, changing its pronunciation while preserving its spelling in the process.
They are often used to denote gender, on words that have multiple meanings, or in sentences with highly complex structures where you don’t want the reader to misunderstand anything.
Luckily for us, we don’t need to use them in straightforward sentences, say, like in tutorial or menu strings. Arabic speakers subconsciously apply them!
Oh, and how could I forget?
That doesn’t even matter in Gameloc, because Arabic implementations seldom support diacritics anyway. Gameloc specialists have adapted to omitting diacritics in case a rogue Fatha breaks the entire Arabic rendering.
See where I’m going with this? 😛
Yeah, it’s That Easy
Since all of our options end up looking pretty much the same except for their diacritics, omitting them where there is gendering keeps our translation inclusive, leaving it to the player to subconsciously apply the right one for themselves.
Does it Work in Practice?
Well duh. I wouldn’t preach if I wasn’t willing to practice.
One project I’m very proud of in this regard is Dicey Dungeons’ Arabic localization, where our amazing team spared no expense translating every non story string as inclusively as possible.
This trick is one of my favorite ways to introduce inclusivity into Arabic localization, as it works on basically any string that addresses the player.
If applied at the start of the project (and not introduced later into the localization process), this technique instantly makes a localization inclusive while requiring minimum extra effort from the translator’s side.
Unless the project has an extremely strict character limit, I don’t see any reason not to go nuts with it.
Why not try it, or ask your linguists to try it next time they work on an Arabic localization for you? Your audience will thank you!
If it’s so easy, how come it’s rarely used?
Here’s where that long, seemingly irrelevant introduction comes in: People are afraid of change in more ways than one, and they’ll resist it for as long as they can.
That goes doubly so for an academically conservative bunch like Arabic linguists. Ask them what’s wrong with the method, and they’ll confidently say “it’s not how things are done in Arabic” without missing a beat, as if that answers anything.
Ranting aside, I believe it’s more offensive to treat a language, a tool for communication, as a sacred heirloom than to try to change it. But that’s just me.
It’s not all doom and gloom though.
The future of Arabic, led by many talented linguists that are just entering the fray and challenging the status quo, looks very bright.
We may see the day Arabic finally rises from its grave once we’re out with the old and in with the new.
(A huge thank you to Jenn & Guido for suggesting this topic!)
I’m Seif, Director @ loclait.
When I’m not doing localization, I’m talking about it. When I’m not talking about localization, I’m thinking about it. It’s a vicious cycle. Please send your thoughts and prayers🙏