April 03, 2023 | Ayman Elias Ibrahim

Same meaning? The dilemmas of translating ‘conflict’ into Arabic

The language and terms we use to describe the world around us are important – especially when we are talking about conflict. They help us to build a shared understanding with others about the context and shape our cognitive and emotional reactions to this. Consider the differences between the English terms “house/home” or “death/murder”. Each of these has different connotations that nudge us towards certain responses. In the jargon-heavy context of the aid sector, we often forget that the terms we use don’t always translate neatly from one language into another. This can lead to confusion and incoherence in how we work together within teams and across organisations.

The idea of this blog stemmed from the problem of dual Arabic terms used interchangeably as an equivalent to the English word “conflict”. The two words are “النزاع” [alniza’a] and “الصراع” [alsira’a], which are both used in the Arabic equivalent to the phrase “conflict sensitivity” and the wider aid sector. This often creates confusion during CSF trainings or discussions around conflict that have distracted from more practical discussion of conflict sensitivity. Specialists in the field of linguistics and translation refer to this as ‘terminological chaos’. So is there a difference between the two – and does it matter?

Capturing the idea of ‘non-violent’ conflict in translation

We have encountered different opinions about whether “النزاع” and “الصراع” are synonyms with an identical meaning in Sudan, or have important differences worth noting. The studies of “peace” and “conflict” are among the branches of modern social sciences that originated in Europe in the mid-twentieth century[i], and have not been taught in universities of many Arab countries – including Sudan – until around the mid-eighties. Therefore, it is natural that there are some problems related to the Arabic translation of key terms and concepts.

Among those who interpret them differently, many believe that the word “النزاع” implies that two or more parties have differences and disputes, but which do not necessarily lead to violence or fighting. By contrast, they believe the word “الصراع” implies that two parties are fighting each other until one of them gets rid of the other party. In this sense, the word “الصراع” implies an existential conflict or battle for survival.

This presents a dilemma for those talking about conflict sensitivity. On the one hand, the word “النزاع” might be a more direct translation of the English word ‘conflict’. According to the definitions used in Anglo-Saxon peace and conflict studies, the concept of ‘conflict’ does not necessarily mean the use of violence and force, as in the case of “الصراع”.

This distinction is important since it emphasizes the relevance of ‘conflict sensitivity’ – or “حساسية النزاع” in Arabic – in a wide range of contexts that may not necessarily be affected by violence. So the use of the term “النزاع” helps to highlight how conflict-sensitive approaches are just as important in the markets of central Khartoum as in the IDP camps in North Darfur.

Respecting the emotive power of language in translation

On the other hand, some people felt that using the word “النزاع” to refer to some conflicts can underplay the seriousness of conflicts where there is an existential risk to either party. For this reason, they prefer the use of the word “الصراع” to describe conflicts of survival – where there is not only a perceived or actual incompatibility of interests or goals, but also a perceived incompatibility of identities or co-existence.

According to these people, to call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a “النزاع” would draw attention away from the way they believe it represents a deep injustice and is part of a political strategy to shift the demographic composition of an area. In this sense the word “النزاع” might be similar to calling such a conflict a “disagreement” or “dispute” – words that risks depoliticising analysis and legitimising technical fixes. The decision of whether to describe a conflict as “النزاع” or “الصراع” therefore raises its own conflict sensitivity dilemma that needs to be navigated sensitively with some audiences.

A way forward

These differences of opinion are not surprising considering that the Arabic language is characterized by its richness, the diversity of its vocabulary, and multiple linguistic connotations in Sudan. While an awareness of these different translations can help to ensure our communication and analysis is itself conflict-sensitive, there is a risk that these differences are overstated and distract from the important challenge of promoting conflict-sensitive approaches in practice. Indeed, Arabic-English dictionaries do not reflect these different connotations reported by some of our staff and partners.[ii]

In deciding our own approach, we noticed that the use of the term “حساسية النزاع” is the most commonly and widely used as equivalent to the “conflict sensitivity”, and that the use of the word ” النزاع” is increasingly accepted among the organisations working in the aid sector including the UN agencies. This has been adopted by the Conflict Sensitivity Facility (CSF) and is a part and parcel of its name وحدة حساسية النزاعات. Greater agreement on the use of this translation across the aid sector in Sudan may help to ensure we have a shared understanding that conflict sensitivity is relevant in both non-violent and violent conflicts.

But the discussions that the CSF team have had internally and with partners highlights a wider lesson – that as professionals in the aid sector we often have different assumptions and understandings about basic terms. We can all benefit from listening hard to how we are being understood and being curious about the implicit, unintended messages we may send in how we communicate. Are we really being understood as we think we are?


[i]     مركز الجزيرة للدراسات. إدارة الصراعات وفض المنازعات، إطار نظري، 2014، انترنت، https://online.flippingbook.com/view/229234/2/ ، تمت زيارة الموقع بتاريخ فبراير 2023

[ii] Referring to modern and contemporary Arabic dictionaries, we find that they define the two Arabic words by each other as synonyms, for example, the Contemporary Arabic Language Dictionary lists several synonyms for the word صراع, including: rivalry, competition, dispute, and altercation. Bilingual dictionaries also translate the word “conflict” into the two Arabic words “نزاع” and “صراع, in addition to several other synonyms and meanings such as: fight, dispute, rivalry, difference, disagreement, divergence, and other synonyms that flow in the same direction

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