A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, June 26, 2009

"She was a Splendid Beast": The Arabic Transliteration Problem

I'm an editor. Editors have to decide how things are spelled. Arabic is not English. These three statements may be the only indisputable sentences to occur in this entire post.

In previous posts about the Arabic language and related issues, I've said I will deal with the question of transliteration sometime. It's time. I held off because it's one of those insoluble problems, since you can never really put a square peg in a round hole, and you can never really put Arabic into English, at least without so burdening the typesetter with macrons and diacriticals that it becomes impossible to read. That's true, I suppose, of all languages written in non-Roman alphabets, but there are only two or three ways of transliterating modern Hebrew, and two dominant ways of doing Chinese (Wade-Giles and pinyin). Why is Arabic such a problem? At least one site has come up with 32 transliterations of Qadhafi's [+31 alternates] name.

Somewhere earlier (forgive me, I'm too lazy to find the link), I've noted that the Guide of the Libyan Revolution seems to have achieved the signal distinction (aside from his claim of contriving the one universal system of world government, the Jamahiriyya) of having more tranliterations of his name than perhaps any other human being in history. This web page lists those 32 different ways to translate the name of the Libyan leader and Revolutionary Guide, Brother Colonel [insert transliteration here]. And they don't even include any versions with his kunya, Abu Minyar. Nor do they include diacritical marks, which produce wonders like the true "scientific" method of reproducing his name, which is beyond my HTML skills but would start with "al-Qadhdhafi", but with digraphs under the "dh" sounds, and a long vowel sign over the A. And as I noted sometime back, Libya is astride a major cultural dividing line which I, and many before me, informally refer to as the couscous line because it's where couscous supersedes burghul and other wheat grains; Tripoli sounds more like Tunis, Benghazi sounds more like Alexandria; the area in between, where Brother Colonel was born, sounds more like the Sahara. Libyans don't even agree on how to pronounce their leader's name, let alone spell it in Roman character.

An old Guardian article on the subject.

The reasons are multiple: though literary Arabic is a single language, its pronunciation varies from country to country; a transliteration that works for English does not work for French, so continental and English-speaking transliteration systems differ; loan-words and such also complicate matters. In North Africa, where local pronunciations often are far from the classical, the convention is to use the French tranlisteration, not the "scientific" English one: the average reader who is baffled by Bu Raqiba may have heard of Bourguiba. Don't even ask about Berber names. Then there are standard conventions: to refer to Cairo as al-Qahira sounds pedantic and obscures one's meaning; we don't write Köln for Cologne, or München for Munich, though we expect Germans to. And we don't write Baile atha cliath for Dublin, either, though a few ultra-nationalist Irish may. I once had an extended debate with the late Majid Khadduri, who helped found the Middle East Institute and was writing for it into his early 90s: he insisted that the holy city of Islam must be referred to as Makka. For years, we have used the conventional Mecca in the Journal. In the end I compromised on "Makka (Mecca)". We still get into debates with our authors over transliteration systems. In this blog I am a bit more liberal than the Journal itself is (we still say ‘Abd al-Nasir, not Abdel Nasser, because we've been doing that since before he was famous), but I recognize there are no perfect solutions short of what looks like a typographical disaster.

But the most famous of all comments on Arabic transliteration is certainly that of T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia"), in a 1926 exchange with his proofreaders, which may be found here in part and reads, in full:

Q: I attach a list of queries raised by F. who is reading the proofs. He finds these very clean, but full of inconsistencies in the spelling of proper names, a point which reviewers often take up. Will you annotate it in the margin, so that I can get the proofs straightened?

A: Annotated: not very helpfully perhaps. Arabic names won't go into English, exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district. There are some 'scientific systems' of transliteration, helpful to people who know enough Arabic not to need helping, but a wash-out for the world. I spell my names anyhow, to show what rot the systems are.

Q: Slip 1. Jeddah and Jidda used impartially throughout. Intentional?

A: Rather!

Q: Slip 15. Bir Waheida, was Bir Waheidi.

A: Why not? All one place.

Q: Slip 20. Nuri, Emir of the Ruwalla, belongs to the 'chief family of the Rualla.' On Slip 23 'Rualla horse,' and Slip 38, 'killed one Rueli.' In all later slips 'Rualla.'

A: Should have also used Ruwala and Ruala.

Q: Slip 28. The Bisaita is also spelt Biseita.

A: Good.

Q: Slip 47. Jedha, the she-camel, was Jedhah on Slip 40.

A: She was a splendid beast.

Q: Slip 53. 'Meleager, the immoral poet.' I have put 'immortal' poet, but the author may mean immoral after all.

A: Immorality I know. Immortality I cannot judge. As you please: Meleager will not sue us for libel.

Q: Slip 65. Author is addressed 'Ya Auruns,' but on Slip 56 was 'Aurans.'

A: Also Lurens and Runs: not to mention 'Shaw.' More to follow, if time permits.

Q: Slip 78. Sherif Abd el Mayin of Slip 68 becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin, and el Muyein.

A: Good egg. I call this really ingenious.

Since I can't top that exchange, I'll stop now.


David Mack said...

Loved this post. Even before leaving the U.S. Foreign Service, I found the CIA's transliteration system impossibly cumbersome. I knew why it was important -- for information retrieval -- but it interfered with my efforts to communicate with the my readers outside the intelligence community, most of whom were blissfully unaware of the CIA transliteration guide. As a 29 year old Second Secretary and interpreter for the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, I decided that I would stop referring the Captain Mu'ammar as al-Qadhdhafi. Most of those reading my reporting had never heard of the Arabic shadda in any case and probably thought it was a typo to repeat dh. I insisted on the double m, however, in an often futile effort to avoid people calling him Momer. My partial simplification took hold with most folks in the USG, although one senior official expressed indignation to me that Libyan leaders did not even know how to spell their own names, along with other shortcomings.

Sam said...

It is a good practice to always represent shaddah as a double letter. Omitting the shaddah may result in confusion.

Have you heard of the BATR scheme?

The advantage of using BATR is the wealth of online tools which have been built around this scheme... mainly to efficiently type and search the web or Arabic content.

John Cowan said...

"Bulghur wheat I know. Burghul I cannot judge", even if it is the Arabic form.

Here is the Library of Congress name authority record for That Guy, listing 63 versions of his name that have been used in catalog cards as author, title, or subject. The canonical form chosen by the library is on the 100 line, the 62 variants are on the 400 lines.