Last updated: 6 months ago
Arabic dictionaries often lack political terms, current terms used in media as well as academic terms. Furthermore, you will struggle to find good translations of names of international organizations or economic terms.
A friend recently asked me how I would translate the English Term LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex) into Arabic as he read something on Twitter.
I was not sure because the words used in the abbreviation are words that you hardly hear in Arabic due to cultural and religious reasons. Especially in Arab countries, one has to be careful to use such words.
- The lead singer of the Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou' Leila (مشروع ليلى) is openly gay. In 2017, at a concert outside Cairo in Egypt, men and women were seen waiving rainbow flags, the symbol of gay pride. In the next days, the worst-ever crackdown on Egypt's gay community followed.
- In August 2023, Iraq's official media regulator has ordered all media and social media companies not to use the term homosexuality (المثلية الجنسية) and instead to say sexual deviance (الشذوذ الجنسي). The Iraqi Communications and Media Commission (CMC) document stated that the use of the term gender (الجندر) was also prohibited. It banned all telephone and Internet companies licensed by it from using the terms in any of their mobile applications. A government spokesman said the penalty for violating the rule has not yet been determined, but could include a fine.
So, I tried to look it up on the internet and in Arabic media but wasn't sure if the translation is appropriate because it is quite a sensitive issue, and you may harm someone's feelings. Then I remembered that a friend once told me about a database of the United Nations (UN). It checked it and found an Arabic translation of LGBTQI, which is used by the United Nations office in Geneva, department gender issues:
المِثْلِيّاتُ وَالمِثْلِيُّونَ وَمُزْدَوِجُو المَيْلِ الجِنْسِيِّ وَمَغايِرُو الهُوِيَّةِ الجِنْسانِيَّةِ وَأَحْرارُ الهُوِيَّةِ الجِنْسانِيَّةِ وَحامِلُو صِفاتِ الجِنْسَيْنِ
Interestingly, in the search results, we also see the term مُجْتَمَع الْمِيم which is used for LGBT. The ميم is no coincidence because مِثْليّ (gay, lesbian) and مُزْدَوِج (bisexual) and مُتَحَوِّل (trans) and مُتَحَيِّر (queer) all start with the letter م.
Nowadays, however, the terms are often not translated at all, but taken directly from English into Arabic. For example, trans (ترانس).
So, what is this UN database about?
First of all, it is not a dictionary. It is the database UNTERM which provides terminology and nomenclature on topics relevant to the work of the United Nations. UNTERM was primarily created to facilitate the work of United Nations staff and others around the world who are involved in or have an interest in the activities of the Organization. Sounds abstract and useless – but it is not!
UN organizations produce tons of papers and documents every year (that perhaps hardly anyone reads). These documents have definitely an upside: they are a remarkable resource for Arabic learners. The information is provided in the six UN official languages – and Arabic is an official language of the UN!
We can use the UN database as a linguistic tool. If we check the term collateral damage, we get two translations: أضرار تبعية and the more common أضرار جانبية.
With very topical terms, it is often the case that there are several options at the beginning. It takes some time to agree on one. Therefore, a term in the UNTERMS database may not be the most frequently used term. Most of the time, however, the terms are correct. However, you should not blindly copy the translations. I've also found a few misspellings and grammatical errors, but that's nothing special in such large amounts of data.
You can apply the usual search operators that you know from Google. If you look for an exact term, you should put the term in quotation marks. You can even search for expression, e.g., violation of human rights.
You don't need to search for the exact. It may also help to just use the more prominent part, e.g., Egypt.
One last example, the expression climate change summit:
REMARK: If your search results are empty, you might have to adjust the settings of the database search. You should at least enable full-text and bilingual databases and acronyms:
That's not all the United Nations (UN) has to offer for Arabic learners.
A reader (@Paul H.: thank you!) told me about an Arabic-English lexicon of electoral terminology. With close to 500 entries, the trilingual (Arabic, English and French) lexicon provides explanations of concepts and terms in the field of elections. It also shows regional language variations, namely, in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Tunisia, and Yemen.
You can download the PDF file for free. Here is the link: