It's a rare newscast today, in any language, that does not include coverage of unrest in one or more countries of the Middle East, where people seem to have reached the limit of their patience with and tolerance of repressive, nonrepresentative governments. Nearly all of the countries in upheaval now are Arabic-speaking countries – and Arabic being a language very remote from English (different alphabet, different language family), we in the Anglophone world form our view of  Middle Eastern events partly through the prism of translation. Even the excellent LinkTV program Mosaic, which digests newscasts from the Middle East in their original language, provides an English translation voiceover. So how much of this tremendous upheaval – upheaval that Aljazeera now dubs the Arab Awakening –  do we really "get"?

We asked our friend and colleague Tim Buckwalter, author of A Frequency Dictionary of Arabic, what he thought of contemporary translations of Arabic journalism into English. He does not find the meanings of any particular words misleading, though he notes that the Arabic word انتفاضة intifāDa (from the root ﻧﻓﺽ nafaDa, shake, shake off, shake out) is now used widely outside the Palestinian context to describe any popular uprising – especially by those who are sympathetic to it. He also finds the usual translation of the commonest chant of protesters,  ash-sha'b yurīd 'isqāT an-niZām, to be spot on: "the people want the overthrow of the regime."

Every journey of words from one language to another runs the risk that something will be lost. Indeed, the idea of something being "lost in translation" is universal and may apply to translation even between languages closely related. The moment you translate a word from another language, you cut it loose from its moorings in that language. The chances that the word you use will find compatible grounding in the target language is not guaranteed.

In our view, this phenomenon is particularly true of translation from Arabic. Though Arabic may appear to untrained Western eyes as only a series a squiggles, and sound like guttural snarls and explosions, it is a language of startling integrity and regularity. It has borrowed considerably less from other languages than most modern European languages have, and its system of morphology would be the envy of a mathematician or systems engineer: theme and variation, along extremely uniform and almost predictable lines, is the rule. If you were going to design a language from the ground up with a goal that it be internally consistent, it would probably look a lot like Arabic.

We've been studying Arabic news reports online with the help of Google News' Arab World edition, looking at some of the words that appear frequently in today's newscasts with a view to contextualizing them better from a native point of view. To show you what we mean, here's a brief and very simplified lesson in Arabic morphology. (Those who want to go in at the deep end may want to look here.)

Most Arabic words are based on a particular three-consonant root (sometimes two consonants and a vowel) that in its simplest form is a verb. The vast majority of words in the language consist of one of these verb roots modified by the application of a template. There are up to a dozen templates for a root verb that can transform it into a different verb with a meaning that is related to the meaning – often in a predictable way – of the root verb. Verbal nouns and adjectives are formed from different templates applied to the roots, and they also display a certain degree of predictability: a particular template, applied to a certain root, transforms the meaning of that root in a predictable – or at least not entirely surprising – way.

The table below shows a few common roots with their most basic meanings at the heads of columns; under the headings, there is a selection of words derived from each root. Words frequently recurring these days in newscasts are linked to their Visual Thesaurus entries.

ظهر Zahara
become visible or apparent

عرض  'aruDa
widen or become wide

ﺜﺎﺭ thāra
stir up, rouse

ﺤﮐﻢ Hakama
pass judgment, decide

ﻧﻈﻢ naZama
put in order, arrange

aZhara show, demonstrate
Zahr top, surface
Zahīr supporter, partisan
Zuhūr appearance
mutaZāhir demonstrator
maZhar guise

'araDa offer resistance
ta'araDa resist, oppose
'urDa target, aim
mu'āraDa opposition
i'tirāD  resistance

athara stimulate, irritate
thawra revolution
thawri rebel
mathār incentive, stimulus
ithāra agitation
muthīr exciting, provocative

Hakkama appoint as ruler
Hukmī legal
Hukūma government
maHkama court, tribunal
Hikma wisdom
iHkām accuracy, precision

niZaam regime
niZāmī orderly, regular, normal
tanZīm control, regulation
manZūm ordered, tidy
munaZZam systematized

The first thing to notice: every Arabic word contains a ghost of sorts, and that ghost is its etymon: the same consonants, in the same order, appear in all words related to a particular root. So if your first language is Arabic, you don't really need to be an etymologist to know where a word comes from: most words carry their derivations on their shirtsleeves. If you read the "Word of the Day" in the Visual Thesaurus, you'll know that this facility does not exist in English: common and uncommon words alike in English may have their roots in any number of languages: Latin, Greek, French, German, Old English, or Italian, for example. As an English speaker you have to be very deeply and broadly educated to recognize, at a glance, the underlying root or idea in a typical word. The general effect of this in English is that many words do not have any particular resonance at all beyond themselves – they do not necessarily invoke a whole family of words and concepts, like Arabic words do.

Another item of interest is the semantic web that is implied by the relationships among Arabic words. Would you expect "opposition" to arise from the idea of widen, or "government" to arise from the idea of judgment? The linguistic ontology of Arabic is in fact quite different from the one that spins out of English. The ontology of Arabic words is also remarkably coherent when viewed from the inside, which is of course the way that native speakers view it; and it gives rise to a very different view of the world than you get if English is your first language.

A word that does not appear in the native Arabic semantic web is democracy. Like many languages around the world, Arabic uses a Greek loan word for this concept: ديمقراطية, demokratia. There is an Arabic compound word Hukm ash-sha'b, "government of the people," with a similar meaning, but contemporary news reports – and the people and developments they report on – use the loan word. So we wonder what kind of resonance this foreign word "democracy" has in the minds of the people who so fervently seek it now. But more than that, we wonder how much of what is in their minds that we don't really get at all.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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