The Arab Market: An Untapped Opportunity
Valuable insights from Arabic translator Hady Sharafeldeen
With the Southeast Asian market starting to become saturated, large companies are starting to take notice of the MENA market (Middle East and North Africa).
What’s so attractive about the Middle East? A lot, as it turns out.
- The Arab region has one of highest grossing mobile games markets in the world (25% annual growth)
- 22 countries with a population of over 400 million people
- The games market in the MENA region has reached $4.8 billion in revenue and represents 23% of the market globally
- The region has one of the highest ARPUs (average revenue per user) in the world at $181 (compared to just $48 in China)
What’s striking is that only 3% of online content is available in Arabic, despite the fact that 70% of the Middle Eastern population use an Arabic interface. Western marketers and developers are clearly missing out.
Habib Chams, founder of Digital Games Conference Dubai, stated that “if your game is translated into Arabic, including some history content and some Arabic dialogue, it will boost like a star.”
It paints a tempting picture, so we at Nitro professional translation services decided to do some research and give our readers a nice solid overview of the Arab market. We’ll be focusing on the game market, but we hope our insights will be helpful to many companies thinking about going East.
We sat down and talked with Hady Sharafeldeen, an English-Arabic translator. Below he shares his experience in Arabic game localization and tips for approaching the Arab audience.
Modern Standard Arabic or one of the 30+ dialects?
I speak the Egyptian dialect, but when I translate texts from English into Arabic, I stick to Modern Standard Arabic (MSA).
MSA can be considered lingua franca among educated people in the Arabic-speaking world. When you localize a product, you are probably planning to reach out to all Arab-speaking countries. Modern Standard Arabic ensures that everyone who uses the localized content will understand it.
Dialects are used in colloquial speech, but books, online content, and other written materials normally employ MSA. Dialects are still used on the radio, as broadcasts are directed at a specific audience/country where the dialect is spoken and understood.
Some people claim that MSA sounds stiff and formal to Arabs, but you know, when I was working on localizing Battlefield into Arabic, I also used Modern Standard Arabic. If Electronic Arts uses this variant and their users are happy with it, why shouldn’t you?
Other major gaming companies also share this approach: “We are exploring other dialect options for future games, but text-based localization will always be MSA to ensure that the common denominator is always accessible to all,” says Malek Teffaha, head of communications and localization at Ubisoft’s Middle Eastern branch.
So, in my opinion, Modern Standard Arabic is the key to success for localization in the Arab world. It is understood by people of all ages, and we can use simplified language that even very young gamers can understand.
Regarding dialects, I might point out that the Egyptian dialect is the one that most Arabs understand and prefer. So if you want to make the language of your product more informal and maybe include some slang, you might want to employ the Egyptian dialect — just like Sony did with their game Detroit: Become Human.
The title Just Cause 3 by Square Enix featured a Lebanese accent in the dubbing, which worked perfectly and received a really positive reaction from the Saudi Arabian and Gulf community. Arabic-speaking gamers said that despite some of the terminology being a bit weird for certain people in the Gulf and people in North Africa, they got the gist of it and it fit the comic nature of the game, reports Malek Teffaha from Ubisoft.
But choosing a dialect can also be a misstep. When Ubisoft announced that The Division 2 would launch with dubbing in the Syrian dialect, gamers were not happy about the news, and the publisher had to revert back to Modern Standard Arabic dubbing.
So playing with different dialects and accents is possible, but tread lightly and make sure that menus and subtitles are in MSA so that everyone is able to understand.
How bad is Google Translate for Arabic translations?
While Google Translate is not bad for general topics, it can still fail you, both with idioms and with individual words. Try translating the Arabic word تنزيلات which means “discounts.” Well, Google Translate thinks it means “downloads,” as machine translation can’t understand the context and position of the translated word.
A funny translation fail that I came across in my work: “later, alligator” was rendered by machine translation as “Hey woman, be careful or the alligator will catch you!”
Texts for games, websites, and marketing materials cannot be translated properly by Google Translate. They need to sound authentic, and marketing texts also need to be catchy. Only human translators can do the job.
Arabic is a rich language, and when a word or phrase is repeated over and over in the source text the translator can choose from many Arabic equivalents. This ensures that the Arab user will find it more appealing, which in turn helps to build trust.
Successful marketing in Arabic
The first challenge is to translate the meaning in a creative way, and the second is to preserve the message from the English version. For example, the Domino’s Pizza slogan is “Happiness is just a bite away.” The translators kept the original message, but transformed it to match the way Arabs think: “The taste will tell you.”
In English, the writer can begin a sentence with a parenthetic, and then mention the main idea. But in Arabic the sentence should start with the main idea to make sure it is highlighted to the reader.
Arab users don’t like wading through a long sentence just to grasp the meaning, so we as linguists try to make sure the translated sentences are short and to the point. For this purpose, we often use the imperative to convey the meaning.
Marketing in Arabic should make references to what touches the heart. An excellent example of successful localization is the Vodafone slogan: “Power to you.” It is translated as القوة بين إيديك which means “The power is between your hands; you are the one who owns it.” That’s a very good, catchy slogan in Arabic.
Whether it’s a marketing campaign or an app store page, if people are shown, make sure to use models from the targeted region. Like users in any country, Arabs want to see ads with a personal touch, and “nation-neutral ads” put them off.
Other changes made for Arabic-speaking audiences included covering up a pregnant belly in the Pregnancy app and including “a prayer when putting a baby to sleep” in the Arabic version of their Babycare app. Check out this article to learn more about Wachanga’s approach to different countries and cultures.
Game localization and Arab gamers
Arabs are avid gamers, and with 50% of the population being under 30 years old this should come as no surprise. Almost 90% of smartphone owners in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt play mobile games.
Unfortunately, not many companies take the trouble to localize their products into Arabic. One major gaming company that actually does is Ubisoft, which has released many games with Arabic localization. It’s worth noting that Ubisoft actually has an Arabic account on every major social network, and that they localize every trailer for every game, even dubbing some into Arabic.
CD Projekt was asked what made them decide to localize The Witcher III into Arabic. Their answer? “It’s a logical step. We wanted to grow and reach a bigger audience. Because the game is very story- and quest-heavy, without localization a lot of people will simply be left out because they don’t speak the language.”
I was lucky to be one of the translators for the amazing game Battlefield 4. This game puts the player into real battles, providing an authentic combat experience. We as localizers needed to convey the text with the same powerful tone and make it simple for all ages to understand.
An example of these challenges is localizing curses and insults. We must absolutely soften and adapt these terms to be suitable to the culture and religion of the people. For example, Arabs don’t use swear words like the F-word, and such curses are localized to the equivalent of “damn it.”
As Arab users prefer to grasp the meaning at first glance without extra effort, one of the goals in localization is to use phrases that are transparent and don’t make the user think too much. This gives them the sense that the text is authentic, instead of it feeling like a translation.
In-game texts contain a lot of colloquial language and slang. Once again, machine translation is unable to grasp the subtle nuances of this kind of language. The translator is able to use his/her search skills to convey the correct meaning.
Names: translation or transliteration?
Game titles. Usually the names of games are left in English. But this can very well depend on the name. Here’s an interesting example: when the Arabic version of Assassin’s Creed was released, the localizers chose to transliterate the word “assassin,” as translation of this particular word would give a strong negative connotation to the whole game (in which assassins are actually the good guys).
In Battlefield IV, a game that I worked on, we had a bit of a challenge with the names of weapons and modes. We decided to leave their names in English, as they do not have Arabic equivalents and are known to gamers by their English names.
People’s names should not be translated into Arabic. They may be transliterated or left in English. I prefer to transliterate them and enclose them in double quotation marks.
Here, one should follow the guidelines for proper transliteration, which include using long vowels instead of diacritics. For example, the names Roberto and Alexander are transliterated as روبرتو and ألكساندر respectively.
Why bother translating into Arabic when most Arabs speak English?
Most Arabs do understand English and can express themselves, even when they are not fluent English speakers. But here’s the thing: Arabs love and admire their language, as it is the language of the Quran, our sacred book. So we are people who love to use products in our own language.
Remember that over 70% of the population in Arabic-speaking countries use Arabic as the default language on their smartphones. If you address the Arab audience in the language that they speak, understand, and admire, your chances of succeeding are much higher.
Another reason to localize your product/website is that the original English text can come across as rude and insulting without cultural adaptation. For example, in one game a character’s name coincided with the name of the prophet’s wife, and that name of course had to be replaced, as using it would be totally inappropriate.
Let’s talk a bit more about what’s acceptable and what’s not in Arab culture.
Considering Arab culture in games and advertising
Localizing games and ads into Arabic poses certain technical and cultural problems.
In the West, advertisements often include suggestive images and text, mention of God, drug and alcohol references, and swear words to boost sales or for humorous effect.Arab audiences however definitely don’t see this as humorous, and won’t tolerate any such references.
In some cases you will only have to adjust the text (here translators will be of help), but in other cases you will have to change/replace scenes that are not appropriate from an Arab cultural perspective.
In The Witcher III, a game that contains many of these taboos (nudity, alcohol, gods and mythical creatures), they had to make changes in order to be approved by the Media Council, which ensures that new games don’t violate the values of the Arab world and bans those that do.
So for the release for the Arab world, CD Projekt had to change the opening scene with a naked Yennefer and clothe her a bit. Also, they had to replace the word god(s) with more abstract terms like universe or destiny throughout the game.
Portraying supernatural beings (witches, vampires, etc.) is also prohibited. Another interesting thing is that you should use caution with the words to create and greatest, as they are mainly associated with God.
For mobile games it’s a good idea to include the major Islamic holidays Ramadan and Eid, taking the opportunity to congratulate Arabs and offer them thematic quests or special deals. These holidays are a peak season for the game industry as people work short hours and kids are on summer vacation, so everyone plays games to pass the time.
Arabs value these events, as they have special spiritual significance for them. Even if you just say “Have a blessed Ramadan!” (رمضان كريم), your Arabic users will appreciate it.
See how PUBG Mobile integrated a Ramadan event in their game: they offered log-in rewards for the entire duration of the holiday (which lasts for about a month, as we pointed out in our article “How to turn international holidays into in-game events”).
If you hold weekend activities in your mobile game, remember that the weekend in most Middle Eastern countries is Friday and Saturday.
Is targeting the Middle East worth it? Absolutely!
The MENA region is home to the world’s most active gaming community. By 2022 the mobile gaming market in the Arab world is expected to become a $2.3 billion industry.
Many of the biggest spenders are from the Middle East, and countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) have the highest average revenue per paying user (ARPPU) in the world.
But there is still a shortage of quality games and other content in Arabic. Certain major game publishers like Ubisoft Middle East and Blizzard have already realized that they can capitalize on this situation, and so can you!
Localize your content into Arabic before this market becomes oversaturated. You may think you’re too small to make it in the Arabic-speaking world, but this interview with indie studio Duck Rockets proves that any developer with a good game can make it big. Users from Iran are now Duck Rockets’ most loyal and active players.
Stick to Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) so that players throughout theMENA region can appreciate your localization efforts. Experimenting with dialects is possible, but for dubbing only.
Don’t forget to check your game for excessive violence, drug and alcohol references, and other taboos discussed above.
We’re sold on this opportunity! How about you?
Interested in expanding your game audience? Check out these tutorials: