Islam, Oct - Dec 2005

Considerations When Translating Islamic Texts into Spanish

By Shafiq (Juan) Alvarado

Brief History of Spanish

The Spanish language has a fascinating history. Having evolved in the Iberian Peninsula, Spanish is now spoken by an estimated 332 million people in about 20 countries and within many other countries. Because very many people in many countries speak it, Spanish was chosen as one of the representative languages of the United Nations. Another result is a natural variation has evolved in all of the countries and regions. For example, Spanish words, slang, and dialect may vary within a particular country or region.

Spanish evolved out of ‘vulgar Latin’ or the Latin spoken by the masses in the Roman province of Hispania. Arabic then influenced this language for some 800 years. Two major dialects existed in Spain: Castilian and Andalusian. Castilian Spanish was generally used for administrative purposes, and the general population more commonly used Andalusian Spanish. In the Middle Ages, Castilian was considered the ‘high’ or elitist version of Spanish, hence, much of our attitudes towards Castilian today. Much of the Spanish spoken in Latin American descends from Andalusian Spanish, however.

Spanish is spoken as an official language in the following countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Additionally, Spanish is widely spoken in Andorra, Belize, Brazil, Canada, France, Gibraltar, Morocco, the Philippines, and the United States. In the 1990s, within the United States alone, more than an estimated 17 million people spoke Spanish at home. This number is greater than the population of some countries that Latinos may come from.

A related language to Spanish was the Aljamiado, or Ajami, language. This language had a big influence on Spanish. Ajami comes from the Arabic word “Ajam” meaning ugly or barbarous. The language is also known as Mozarabic. In Spanish, Mozarabe comes from the Arabic word “Musta’rib,” which means to become Arabized. Mozarabic was a full-fledged language that was spoken by about 2 million people at around the time of 1000 CE – a large population for the Middle Ages. It would unfair to characterize it as a patois. Mozarabic was very important in the life of the Moriscos, who were the Muslims after the fall of Andalusia. The language was an archaic form of Spanish highly influenced by Arabic words and grammar. Written in Arabic letters, Mozarabic had many more Arabic words than modern Spanish does. For more information about Mozarabic visit: http://www.alsintl.com/languages/spanish.htm.

Special Features of the Spanish language

What is special and unique about the ‘language of Cervantes’? Written in the Latin alphabet, the Spanish alphabet is almost exactly like the English alphabet. However, Spanish uses some characters differently than other languages. Because of common transliteration mistakes when translating into Spanish, this article focuses on pronunciation of Spanish words rather than on Spanish vocabulary and grammar.


1. There is no exact English equivalent to the Spanish letter “J.” In Latin American Spanish, the J sounds like the strong English H sound in the word “happy.” In Castilian Spanish, the J is even harsher, sounding like the Arabic “Kha” (خ) than an “H” sound. For example, ‘Juan’ sounds like “Huan” in Latin American Spanish but like “Khuan” in Castilian Spanish.

2. Other odd Spanish letters are the double “L” (LL) sound. When doubled, the L has an idiosyncratic Y sound. For example, ‘pollo’ sounds like “poyo.” Some Latin American dialects even go so far as to make the LL sound like an English J, Sh, or Zh. (as in the word “measure”).

3. Another double letter combination is the “RR” sound. The normal R in Spanish is slightly trilled – the RR is an elongated trill or rolling of the R sound on the upper palate. It is one of the sounds that many folks find funny about Spanish. For example, ‘guitarra’ sounds like “guitarrrra.” If you are old enough, you might remember the “R-r-r-r-ruffles have r-r-r-r-r-ridges” commercials. This is the sound you are trying to make.

4. The next distinctive letter I will mention is the “H.” Basically, the H is a silent letter. It has no sound wherever it is placed. An example would be ‘hola’ or ‘hielo’, which would sound like “ola” and “yellow” respectively. Some Spanish dialects have a brief aspiration as though reminiscent of the H sound in another language.

5. One of the Spanish language’s most distinctive letters is the “Ñ.” This letter sounds like the first N in ‘onion.’ For example, ‘señorita’ sound like “senyorita.” It is thought that it came into being as a sort of shorthand for the double N (nn) sound in Spanish, which no longer exists. Scribes began using the tilde (which vaguely looks like an N too) for those words that were written with two N letters. The tilde (~) itself is thought to have been borrowed from the Arabic language.

6. The Spanish “C” has two possible sounds, just like in English. It can sound like an S or K as in “cent” or “cat,” respectively. However, unlike English, very strict rules exist about when the Spanish C sounds like an S or a K. If the C precedes an E or I, the C will have an S sound; otherwise, it will have a K sound. The word “cocina” has both types of C’s in it. The first C makes the K sound, and the second C makes the S sound.

7. The Spanish “G” follows the similar rules that were previously mentioned with regards to preceding letters. If the G comes before an E or an I, the G will have an H sound; otherwise, it will have its normal G sound. For example, either it will sound like the English H sound as in the Spanish word “general,” or like the hard English G sound like the Spanish word “gato.”

8. The Spanish “V” is very short and quick. It almost sounds like the English B in “bed.” It is never drawn out like the English word “very.” It can almost be pronounced interchangeably with the letter B. For example, the name ‘Victor’ will sound like “Bictor” to the non-Spanish speaker.

9. The Spanish “Z” is pronounced as an S in Latin America. Thus, ‘azul’ is pronounced like “assule.” In Spain, the Z is pronounced like the English Th sound in “this.” Hence, ‘azul’ in Spain would sound like “ath-ule”. For our own purpose, when an Arabic word is transliterated into Spanish letters, the Z is supposed to make the Th sound from Spain.

10. The vowels in Spanish are “A, E, I, O, U” just as in English. The A is pronounced as in the English “father.” The E sounds like “elephant.” The I in ir sounds like “ear.” The O sound is as in the word “old.” The U sound is like the “oo” sound of “moon.” In addition to this, the vowels can be accented (á, é, í, ó, ú) in some words, making the accented vowel louder than the other letters.

Brief History of Arabic

Arabic has a history stretching back thousands of years. The language is thought to be derived from Nabataean, which in turn came from Phoenician. Arabic is a Semitic language that is classified in the Afro-Asiatic group of languages. It is related to other ancient languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac among many others. Typical of other Semitic languages, Arabic is also written with a script from right to left. It has a cursive script, which calligraphers take great pride in making beautiful. Its alphabet has 28 letters.

Approximately 225 million people speak Arabic as their native language. In addition, it is also the liturgical language of over 1 billion Muslims worldwide. Because of its importance to the modern world, Arabic has also been made one of the official languages of the UN. Arabic is the main language of about 23 countries, and it has native speakers in many other countries. The following are among the countries where Arabic is spoken: Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the UAE, and Yemen. Countries with significant Arabic-speaking populations are: Afghanistan, Chad, Cyprus, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

There are over 30 different dialects of Arabic. Indeed, some dialects are not mutually intelligible. For instance, an Algerian and an Iraqi would not necessarily understand each other even though they technically speak the same language. The difference can be as much as Spanish and Portuguese. In fact, variations occur even within an Arabic-speaking country. There are two main types of Arabic.

The “Modern Standard Arabic” is a standard that is taught in schools. Called Fus-ha (or the eloquent language) by Arabs, the Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is used in television, in newspapers, for lectures, speeches, etc. Sometimes referred to as Fus-ha, “Classical Arabic” is the language of the Qu’ran. Classical Arabic was originally the dialect of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia. Classical Arabic is important to students of religion, especially those handling older manuscripts. The main difference between the two standards is in style and vocabulary.

The other known varieties of Arabic are classified as “Colloquial Arabic,” which includes the many regional dialects resulting from Classical Arabic. This category includes the Egyptian (made popular by Egyptian films and television), Maghrebi (spoken in Morocco and other North African countries), Sudanese, Levantine (spoken by the Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians), and Najdi (spoken in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria). The Maltese language (spoken on the island of Malta) is not an Arabic dialect. Maltese is written in the Latin alphabet from left to right. Although derived primarily from Maghrebi Arabic, the Maltese language is also heavily influenced by Italian and other languages.

One of the unique features of Arabic is that most words are made up of trilateral roots, or three-letter roots. However, quadrilateral roots, or four-letter roots, also exist. The addition of prefixes and suffixes generally make up new words. Because of this, one can gauge what the word might mean. For example, K-T-B has to do with writing. Words derived from K-T-B include Kitab (book), Maktab (library and/or office – a place where writing takes place), Kataba (he wrote), etc. Islam, Muslim, and salaam are derived from S-L-M.

As mentioned before, Arabic is written in a cursive handwriting from right to left. Europeans imitated the cursive style of Arabic, which is where we get our script in the West. Arabic has an alphabet of 28 letters with various diacritical marks. The shape of Arabic letters change depending on their position in the word, whether the letter is isolated or in the beginning, middle, or at the end of the word. (Refer to Chart I).

Translation of Islamic Texts

Because it is a universal religion, Islam has appealed to many people. Because of this interest, information about Islam has been translated into diverse languages for the various people around the world. Islamic history is replete with a history of a continuum of translations. The translations were going both ways – into Arabic and into other languages. The translation of Islamic texts into Spanish goes back hundreds of years. However, the translations into Spanish were usually of a polemic and hostile nature, generally against Islam although a few notable exceptions might exist.

Importance of the Continued Translation of Islamic Texts into Spanish

Spanish Islamic information is very important, because translated literature serves as a vehicle to Islam. Indeed, this should be the more important reason to do so. As Muslims, we have a duty to spread the religion of God to all people, fisabilillah. In the Quran 4:015, Allah (SWT) states in part (Yusuf Ali translation), “Now then, for that (reason), call (them to the Faith), and stand steadfast as thou art commanded, nor follow thou their vain desires…” Currently, there are as many Spanish-speakers as English-speakers in the world. Furthermore, Spanish is the second most spoken language in the United States. Therefore, we have much work to do.

If as much Islamic information in Spanish existed as in English, we would have gained many more Spanish-speaking Muslims. We would also have more educated Spanish-speaking Muslims, because most Spanish Islamic literature available is very basic. Translating Arabic into Spanish encourages a fair and balanced view about Islam, particularly in the media. Obviously, non-Muslims are not necessarily interested in making Islam an alternative in people’s lives. Rather, many have a vested interest in making Islam look bad.

How to Translate Texts Into Spanish

In today’s computer age, computer software and Internet websites can easily and inexpensively translate long documents into other languages. Among the most popular websites used for online translations, include babelfish.altavista.com and google.com/language_tools. The downside is that the translations are usually full of errors. The reasons are varied. The website or computer program may not be familiar with a word that needs to be translated. Hence, the word will remain untouched. Words with dual meanings may result in odd sentences. For example, the English word “spirit” is always translated as ‘alcohol’ in Spanish rather than ‘espíritu.’ Therefore, you should recognize that these programs have their limitations and are not perfect. You will have to reread the translated material to edit for word choice, grammar, etc. Some programs will simply translate the words but will not arrange the words into a working or readable sentence. For example, “the little dog” should be translated as ‘el pero chiquito’ rather than as ‘el chiquito pero.’ In addition, chances are that you may come across archaic terms.

This brings us to the choice of words. Because Spanish has been taken to diverse places, it has come to have many dialects. The definition of a Spanish word in one dialect can have a different meaning in another. English-to-Spanish dictionaries, such as wordreference.com, can be found online. Like the English language, different words can be used to convey the same meaning in the Spanish language. To compound the problem of getting the message of Islam across, many Hispanics may not have much schooling. People have different levels of education. Some words are more common than others. As a general rule, it is easiest and best to just keep it simple by avoiding flowery or grandiose language as this may lose your reader or listener in the translation. It is to his/her benefit to read or hear something understandable. The goal is to make a translation understandable to the largest number of Spanish speakers without sacrificing the beauty of the original work.

Romanization or Latinization

Romanization, or latinization, is an approach for representing a language with the Roman (Latin) alphabet. Spanish and English both use the Roman (Latin) alphabet. Generally, the language that is romanized cannot be expressed with Latin characters. For example, Arabic script is often represented by the Latin alphabet. Romanization of Arabic words allows English and Spanish speakers who are unfamiliar with Arabic script to pronounce Arabic words. Methods of romanization include transliteration and transcription.

Transliteration and Transcription

Transliteration is a formal method of replacing the letters in an alphabet of one language with the letters of another language. Consequently, if the source language contains 30 letters in its alphabet, the corresponding transliteration language will also contain 30 letters. For example, Arabic letters can be transliterated into Roman letters. It is usually used within scholarly material. Transliterations are used primarily by linguists, such as in academic research.

With regards to transliteration, certain standards are produced to make sure that all letters are sounded out the accurate way. For example, Arabic speakers would frown on using a “D” for the letters “daal” and “Dod.” Similarly, they would frown on the use of “S” for seen and Sod. The two have distinct sounds to the Arabic speaker even though they may not to the English or Spanish speaker. Hence, standards in transliteration have been made. These standards include letters that are not normally used in the Roman (Latin) alphabet. There are many English standards for transliterating the Arabic language. One of the more influential is the “Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft” transliteration, which was adopted by the International Convention of Orientalist Scholars in Rome. It is the basis for the Hans Wehr dictionary. There is actually a Spanish standard produced by F. Corriente, Catedrático (university professor) for Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Madrid. The Spanish Arabists School (SAS) standard is another popular Spanish transliteration standard. Other Spanish transliteration standards for Arabic may also exist.

Transcription is more liberal in that it is concerned solely with pronunciation, more specifically, with how a foreign word sounds in a native language. The two most popular formal transcription standards are the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) followed by the SAMPA standard. However, other formal and informal transcription methods are commonly used to transcribe one language into the alphabet of another language. Consequently, transcriptions are most often used in writing intended for the general public, such as in newspapers and magazines.

Both transliteration and transcription are often used interchangeably, because most transliterated letters are pronounced similarly to the source language. Consequently, both are essentially used for the same purpose. For our own purposes, the two terms are used interchangeably throughout this article. Another way of understanding transliterations and transcriptions is to replace the sound of one language with the letters or commonalities of another language. An example would be for the common phrase: Se habla Español. In English, the phrase can be transcribed, or replaced by, “Say obla Espanyol.” Similarly, other languages are transcribed with the letters and sounds of another language. In English, for example, we may see such common Arabic terms transcribed as such: salaam or salam (Arabic: سلام), dawa, dawa´, dawa´a, or dawah (Arabic: دعوة). Unfortunately, this may bring confusion to translations. To transcribe or transliterate Arabic into Spanish also brings such challenges. For example, although the most accurate way to transcribe the Arabic word for Muslim into English and Spanish is “Muslim”, “Musulmaan” is most often used to mean “Muslim” not only in Spanish but also in Urdu, Hindi, and Russian. (Refer to Chart I).

Because Spanish has some idiosyncratic letter sounds, it might be a good idea to take note of how odd some English words might sound (and look) in Spanish. “Allah” looks and sounds like the Spanish word “allá” meaning ‘over there.’ The accepted word in Spanish “Alá” looks like “ala” which means ‘wing.’ “Imán” (the Spanish word for Imam) looks and sounds like the word that means “magnet.” Some alternatives could be to write Allah as “Al-láh,” Muhammad as “Mujammad” and “Imém” for Imam. If you are interested in transliteration, just make sure to remember the unique sounds of the following letters: h, j, ll, ñ, i, and rr. Some possible alternatives are to use the ‘y’ for the letter ‘j.’ And, always remember to use accents where they belong: á, é, í, ó, ú.

One of the last things I would like to touch on is to always remember to keep things simple. Remember to always define Islamic concepts and terms. Do not assume that your readers will know what you are talking about. Even common terms will not necessarily make sense to non-Muslims – make sure you define them. Some common terms that Muslims use that are rarely defined can be found in Chart II.

Reinventing the Wheel

When you come across Islamic terminology that is difficult to translate, chances are that there already exists a Spanish word for the Arabic terminology. On the other hand, be careful not to use words that are offensive or that can inaccurately portray Islam. Some common Arabic words that have come into Spanish that you might be aware of or that you can use are:

English transcriptionSpanish transcription
Harem (from Haraam)Harén

Other Spanish words that have come to us by way of Arabic are:

Arabic word (transcription)Spanish wordEnglish translation
Al-qadiAlcaldeMayor, judge
Qitaar, qitaaraGuitarraGuitar
NaranjNaranjaAn orange

Some Spanish words are offensive, or at the very least, portray Islam inaccurately: Chart II shows acceptable transcription for various Arabic words into the Spanish language.

English transcriptionSpanish word/s to avoid
IslamIslamismo or Islamism
MuslimMahometano or Mohammadan
IslamMahometanismo or Mohammadanism


The Spanish-speaking world can use as much dawah material as possible and may Allah reward all those that try. We have to remember, however, that the Spanish language has an idiosyncratic use of letters. Many times, we are tempted to use the English transcription of an Arabic word in Spanish but this may produce a different word altogether. With a bit of study and some effort, we can overcome such difficulties. Remember, Islam is not new to the Spanish language. In fact, Islam helped develop the language.

Charts Mentioned

Chart I: Transcription of Arabic letters


Chart II: Transcription of common Arabic words into English and Spanish.

ArabicEnglish transcriptionSpanish transcription
اللهAllahAl-lah, Alá, Aláh
الله أكبرAllahu AkbarAláju Akbar
الله عليمAllahu AlimAláju Alim
الله تعلىAllah Ta’alaAlá Ta ala
عليه السلامAlayhis-SalaamAleiji salám
الحمد للهAlhamdulillahAljamdu liláh
السلام عليكمAs-salaamu alaykumAs-salámu aleikum
أستغفر اللهAstaghfirullahAstagfirul-láh
آيةAyahAya (Aleya)
بسم اللهBismillahBismilá
الدينDeen, DinDín
في سبيل اللهFisabilillahFisabililáh
الحجHajjHach, Hayy
إمامImamImám, Imém
إن شاء اللهInsha’AllahIncha’Alá, Ojalá
الإسلامIslamIslám, Islam
جزك الله خيرنJazak Allahu KhayranYazak Alláju Kayran
جنّJinnYin (Genio)
جهادJihadYihad, Yijad
كفرKufaar, KufrKufár
لا إلّه الا اللهLa ilaha illa AllahLa ilaja il-la Alá
ما شاء اللهMasha’AllahMacha Alá
مسجدMasjid (Mosque)Masyid (Mezquita)
مكّةMakkah, MeccaMeca
مدينةMadinah, MedinaMedina
ماذانMuezzinMuecín (Almuecín)
مسلمMuslimMuslim (Musulmán)
قبلةQiblahQibla, Kibla
القرآنQur’an, KoranCorán
شيخShaykhCheik (Jeque)
الشيعةShiaChia (Chiita)
سنّيSunniSuní (Sunita)
سبحان اللهSubhaanallahSubjána Alá
تجويدTawhid, TawheedTaujíd
علماءUlema, UlamaUlema
زكاةZakaatZakát, (Azaque)