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Transliteration vs. Translation: Arabic Brand Names

Foreign companies are increasingly making the decision to expand into the Middle Eastern marketplace. As one of the few global markets that is still growing in terms of GDP, the Arabian Gulf represents a far less risky location for expansion than other parts of the world.

An important aspect for any foreign company setting up shop in the Middle East is how to present the company's name and associated branding while in the region. This matters, as in most Gulf States it is mandatory for company names, whether in English or other language, to be converted into Arabic.

Following a commercial registration, the translated Arabic brand name will appear on the business license and other corporate documentation, stationary, business cards, multimedia and websites and will be the Arabic face of the company.  

Translation of English brand names in to Arabic is often problematic. For example if the name of your company name includes any of the letters G, P or V, for which there are no Arabic equivalents, these are likely to be transliterated into the equivalents; J (ﺝ), B (پ) and F (ڤ) respectively.

An example of this was highlighted in 2011 when PepsiCo filed a complaint with the World Intellectual Property Organisation to recover the domain name for Pepsi Arabia. PepsiCo won.

A 2006 a study investigating the cultural reception of fast-food brand names translated into Arabic found that "97% the respondents believed that the translations are incomprehensible in Arabic. The other 3% stated that they sometimes understand the translations".

Although the number of respondents in the sample is quite small, it is not difficult to see that some companies are targeting incomprehensible brand names or advertising messages to population who are unlikely to understand a word of what they mean.

Below is an example of an English company name transliterated directly into Arabic. Although the two logos may appear bilingual to an English speaker, what the two logos have in common is that they say exactly the same thing whether they are read in English or in Arabic. 'London Dairy' in Roman script is reads as 'London Dairy' in Arabic script. To an Arabic speaker with no knowledge of the English language there is no meaning beyond the name of city in the UK.

transliteration translation Arabic brand

Unsurprisingly, many Arabic speakers may find such transliterations a source of frustration. The author of the study, Basem Abbas Al Agha, points out that this approach often causes such translations to be "rejected by the target culture". However, as anyone living in the Middle East is likely to tell you, big brands such as global fast-food chains with transliterated Arabic names don't appear to be suffering as a consequence.

Such pitfalls are also not limited to English-Arabic translations. When Coca-Cola originally entered the Chinese market for example, the company opted for a transliteration that allowed a spoken pronunciation similar to the English. However, what the Chinese script actually spelled out was "Bite a Wax Tadpole". Sounds funny, but probably not what the company had intended. This meant Coke had to resubmit their entire commercial and trademark registrations with a more appropriate option. In the meantime, another organisation had trademarked the name they should have originally selected.

In the Middle East, there are a few simple ways to avoid similar scenarios. The key thing to remember is to use a native Arabic speaker to do your translation, ideally also native to the country in which you are looking to set up. Get a second, third and fourth on the translation and get a back-translation to check the English meaning of the Arabic brand name and/or slogan.

In the case of our company, Openmind, we decided to opt for a professional translation into Arabic (Aql Mutafeteh / عقلية متفتحة) instead of the clumsy transliteration (Obnmaind / اوبنمايند).

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