In the UAE, business can be gained – or lost – in translation

Translating business and legal documents accurately is perhaps a more keenly felt issue in this country than most others. Expert services are vital for foreign firms here if they are to avoid potentially damaging mistakes.

Illustration by Alvaro Sanmarti / The National
Powered by automated translation

This country is home to many foreign residents and companies, but a significant number do not read and write Arabic – which means commercial translation services are crucial.

The UAE has an 85 per cent foreign population and while Arabic is the official language, English is widely spoken. Other languages in circulation include Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Persian, Tagalog, Tamil and Urdu.

Often documents originate in another language but need to be translated to Arabic for recognition by the UAE courts. At Dubai’s courts alone, 257,960 documents were notarised last year – a 12 per cent increase from the previous year.

This growth is especially noticeable for Islamic insurance, known as takaful. The Sharia-compliant instrument offers an alternative to conventional insurance and uptake is growing at rapid speed across the region and wider world. The global gross takaful market is estimated to be US$14 billion, and is expected to reach more than $20bn in 2017 at the current growth rate, according to EY, formally known as Ernst & Young.

The London-based consultancy projects that the GCC makes up just under $9bn of the world total takaful with Saudi Arabia accounting for nearly half of the global share. From 2013 to 2016, EY expects the global takaful market to have grown by 14 per cent annually. Saudi Arabia is expected to lead the charge with the GCC, mainly the UAE, following.

For the Dubai-based FWU Global Takaful Solutions, it is a problem to find people with the qualifications and understanding to accurately translate documents from English to Arabic for the insurer’s Sharia board and back again to English. The firm’s chief operating officer, Sam Thanvi, says it is not so much the initial price of translation that is a hurdle but rather the cost in terms of time.

To translate a 35-page business document from English to Arabic, typically at a cost of about Dh4,000, can take four to five days in this country. Then the client must check that all the technical terms have been properly translated. If there is a problem, the document is returned to the translation company, adding further time to the completion date. And the process may have to be repeated after it is reviewed by the relevant official body for which the document is meant.

“The amount of times that we send back documents for corrections in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia is double the amount that we return documents in the UAE,” Mr Thanvi says, because English is more widely used here and the country has a larger pool of skilled professionals.

Mr Thanvi, who has worked in the takaful industry for 12 years, cites the incorrect translation of “rider” as a common mistake. This term means an add-on to a basic insurance policy, such as a critical illness rider. The addition of the critical illness rider to a basic insurance policy that covers death allows a customer to receive a payout while alive if a range of unforeseen conditions such as a heart attack or cancer occur.

Mr Thanvi says he has seen "rider" translated as the Arabic word rakeb. "[Translators] say rakeb and it has no relation to insurance – it actually literally means riding a horse or bike," he says adding that a better phrase would be alaqd (contract) al alidhafi (additional). Such technical disconnects occur because, invariably, translation companies deal with pure language rather than technical or professional terminologies, he says.

There are 22 different Arabic dialects in the region but there is no standardisation of terminology despite the Arab League monitoring the growth of the language. A cabinet resolution was issued on the legal translation profession last year by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Under the legislation, applicants must register with the Ministry of Justice and obtain official permits from authorised entities in the local governments. Applicants, except Emirati nationals, must have a degree in translation from an accredited educational institute and have more than five years experience after graduation.

However, one freelance translator says the level of qualification of some in the sector is still a major issue in the UAE.

“These contracts, statutes and laws [can] get translated by non-professionals, meaning someone that studied four years of English Literature and isn’t specialised in translation, let alone specialised in banking translation,” he says. “It’s a big mistake that clients make because they don’t vet translators enough and just blindly trust them with significant projects.”

The Dubai-based Elaph Translation says its translators are required to have a degree in translation that is in compliance with the European quality standard EN15038, a certificate developed specifically for translation services.

It is what has helped the small firm work with PwC in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. “All translators should have the competencies in the EN15038, and one of those is holding a degree in translation,” says the company’s executive manager Ammar Elgohary.

One experienced translator, Reem Owais, the co-founder of Lotus Translation Services in Dubai, says when graduating, translators usually have two main sub-specialisations: translation (written); and interpretation (oral – consecutive and simultaneous).

Ms Owais adds specialised subjects such as economics, politics or other such subject matter are not usually part of the teaching process. “[Specialisation in such areas] comes with practice throughout many years of work,” she says.

When The National contacted several UAE companies claiming to have experience in translating legal business documents – after finding the firms via the online keyword search "UAE translation takaful" and "takaful translation Dubai" – many were unwilling to provide information as to the qualifications of their employees.

Some misunderstood a request for an interview for this article. Instead, some firms repeatedly replied asking how large was the document that The National needed to be translated.

The first point of call may not best represent the firm, says Michael Kortbawi, a partner at the Dubai-based Bin Shabib & Associates law firm specialising in the takaful sector. “The front desk is often someone that doesn’t have client service experience and doesn’t know how to market or explain the quality of their products,” he says.

However, if front desk is unable to comprehend the initial request, how does a company get through to the right person? How does a firm vet the translators to know the exact qualifications?

“Trial and error,” says Mr Kortbawi. Translation is an art, it’s not a science and it’s extremely difficult.”

He says insurance documents, historically, are very unclear.

“You need to translate the intentions and legal documents have a lot of technical terms. They’re designed in a way that the layman doesn’t understand so when you add translation, you make it even more difficult,” he says.

Mr Kortbawi says that while it costs his firm a great deal of time to have documents translated accurately, the quality of the end product can vary from company to company. “Not all translators are equal,” he says.

So why did his firm not create its own in-house translation department?

Mr Kortbawi says most documents need to meet certain legal certification criteria and many of these translation companies provide a sort of one-stop shop.

“We discovered that in most cases, documents needed to be attested by translators so you need that external stamp,” he says. “It was better for us to avoid having something else to manage.”

The law firm uses three translation companies varying in proficiency. Mr Kortbawi says the cheapest of the three, averaging a charge of about Dh50 a page, is only used to translate charts.

The second firm, which charges about Dh80 per page is used when there is more time. And the best company, which charges about Dh100 per page, is when “pristine translation” is required.

He says in this country the average level of service in the profession is not s good as it could be and many translators are overwhelmed with the amount of work they are given.

“They don’t take time to translate properly and the standards are low, so there’s more room for mistakes,” he says.

He adds that many translators, who typically come from countries such as Iraq and Egypt, are underpaid and overworked. nd the Arabic version of documents, no matter what the original language of the text, is the one upheld in UAE courts.

“And mistakes might cost you the case,” he adds. “If you want good quality, you have to pay a lot for it.”

Follow The National's Business section on Twitter