A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

New French PM Ayrault's Arabic Transliteration Problem

What was that name again?
There are only so many sounds in the world, and lots of languages; so it's inevitable that some people are going to have names that mean something quite different in some language somewhere. Sometimes something indelicate. (There's no bad language in what follows, at least in English. And the august French Foreign Ministry has actually had to issue guidance on this.)

As this Bloomberg report notes, (or for those who read French, this piece from Le Point or this one from Le Figaro), the newly-named French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has reportedly created a problem for Arabic-language editors. As the English article (the French ones are more blunt) indirectly and oh-so-delicately puts it:
When spoken, his family name is colloquial Arabic in many countries for the third-person singular possessive form of the male sex organ.
If you're still struggling to remember what "the third person singular possessive form" means, it's "his." In other words, it's hard not to spell it  أيره.

And a minor quibble: it's not just colloquial Arabic. While the pronunciation in literary Arabic would by a "u" vowel rather than an "o" vowel, the spelling would be the same,

Supposedly the French Foreign Ministry has even addressed the problem, and editors are taking various courses:
The potential for embarrassment prompted France’s foreign ministry to put out a statement today as Ayrault took office with the recommended spelling in Arabic. The official solution would add the letters L and T to the transliteration. Arabic is a phonetic language where normally all letters are pronounced, unlike French where these two letters in “Ayrault” are silent.
An Nahar, a Beirut-based newspaper, chose that solution. Al Hayat, a London-based newspaper widely considered a reference across the Arab world, published a front-page headline chopping Ayrault’s name to “Aro,” when a more correct transcription would be “Ayro.”
A U.A.E.-based Arabic-language channel has sent an internal note to its journalists, asking them to write his name as “Aygho.”
The Dubai-based Al Bayan newspaper chose to use just his first name on its front-page headline: “Hollande Inaugurates his Mandate by Appointing Jean-Marc as Prime Minister.”
A note for non-Arabists: "Aygho" is not as bizarre as it looks on paper, since the Arabic ghayn  (غ) really does have affinities to the French "r" (not the English "r").

A suggestion from this editor: how about ايراو? I know it still contains اير but at least it gets rid of the "his" element. Similarly, Google's transliteration site offers up ايراولت , which would be this plus the "lt" that the Foreign Ministry recommends.

Ah, the challenges of modern diplomacy. That's all I'm going to say right now. You can make up your own jokes. I know I have.

Update: The superb linguistics blog Language Log has seen fit to link to my post (among others), and have in addition noted the problems the French have had with Vladimir Putin's last name, and the problems faced by the Pakistani diplomat Akbar Zeb, whose problem in the Arab world is even more embarrassing than Ayrault's, because both his first and his last names are involved. ("Akbar" is "biggest" in Arabic "Zeb," usually zibb or zubb, has the same meaning as ayr, but a bit more vulgar.)

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