Numeral-based English and Arabic Formulaic Expressions: Cultural, Linguistic and Translation Issues

Numeral-based formulaic expressions, numerical idioms, numerical metaphors, translation difficulties, translation strategies


  • Reima Al-Jarf
    Full Professor of English and Translation Studies, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
May 4, 2023


This study explores the similarities and differences between English and Arabic numeral-based formulaic expressions, and difficulties that student-translators have with them. A corpus of English and Arabic numeral-based formulaic expressions containing zero, two, three, twenty, sixty, hundred, thousand…etc., and another corpus of specialized expressions with numerical prefixes (mono-, bi-, milli-, kilo-, mega-) were collected, analyzed and compared. It was found that English and Arabic numeral-based formulaic expressions fall into 4 categories:: (i) those that are identical in form and meaning in both languages (seventh heaven, four eyes, fifth column); (ii) those that are similar in meaning but differ in wording (cats have nine lives, high five, cloud nine); (iii) those that exist in English, but have no equivalents in Arabic; and (iv) those that exist in Arabic but have no equivalents in English. Specialized expressions containing numerals or numerical prefixes used in business, sports, science, politics and others are exact translations in both languages (five-power agreement, five percent rule, five tigers, tripartite alliance, fifth wheel replace). Student-translators could translate fewer than 25% of the test items correctly and left many blank. Numeral-based formulaic expressions similar in both languages were easy to translate, whereas opaque ones (at sixes and sevens, double Dutch, strap); culture-specific ones (Pentateuch, Millennialism, ثوبٌ سُبَاعِيّ، الثنائي الشيعي، ألف صحة، صحتين وعافية، مرحبتين، رباعيات الخيام، ستين داهية،, and those that require a specialized background knowledge (five C's, the big five, five pillars of the UN, three-name paper) were difficult. Literal translation was the most common translation strategy. Detailed results and recommendations are given.