An American Editor

December 18, 2017

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 2: Other Challenges for Editors

By Ælfwine Mischler

I have edited many articles and books with Arabic names and terms. Because of my language skills, I can often answer questions about romanized Arabic that colleagues ask in e-groups or to me directly. For example, a copyeditor once complained about the variant spellings her author was using, such as Kamal and Kamel, and asked which way she should fix them. Editor, beware! There are a lot of pairs or triplets of Arabic names that you might think are the author’s careless spelling when in fact they are different names. Don’t be too quick to correct, but do query.

Kamal and Kamel (or Kamil) are different names, Kamāl and Kāmil, respectively. Another common pair is Salah and Saleh (or Salih), which are Ṣalāḥ and Ṣāliḥ, respectively. There are several names romanized with a-m-r in English, but not all are from the same root: Amr or ʿAmr; Ammar or ʿAmmar; Amir or Ameer; Aamir or Amir (see image below). The last is rare but I came upon it while doing a quality control edit: there was a caliph known as al-Aamir. That one is hard to spell without diacritics; the double a is ugly, but Aamir and Amir have different meanings and should be distinguished.

Arabic names

And be aware that in addition to there being multiple ways to spell Muhammad, there is another name that you might think is a typo but is not: Muhannad.

What Does All This Mean for a Copyeditor?

If the text is academic English, romanization with diacritics will eliminate the ambiguities between similar names and terms. However, you do have to keep a careful watch for mistaken variants, such as an author forgetting a macron or a dot under a letter. In my experience, software to catch inconsistencies does not catch them if they involve special characters with diacritics.

Whether or not the author uses diacritics, keep a detailed style sheet — which you should do in any case. Record the first instance of every romanized name or term, and check every subsequent instance of it against your record. If there is any variation, correct it if you know enough Arabic to check it and do so, or else just flag it for the author to check and put the variant spelling on the style sheet. There is always the possibility that there are in fact two different but similar names or terms.

Dealing with terms and with names from the classical era of Islam is easier in that there should not be variation within a text. A name such as Yūsuf might be spelled Yusuf without diacritics, but if there are multiple people with the same name in the text, the name should be spelled the same way for all of them.

However, the same name from the current or recent centuries might have various spellings for the reasons I gave in Part 1. Without diacritics, Yūsuf could be spelled, for example, Yusef, Youssef, Yousef, or Yousuf. Of course, if there is a common or preferred spelling of a particular person’s name — especially if that person wrote his or her name in the Latin alphabet — that is the spelling that should be used.

When you are editing, if the variant spellings of a name are clearly referring to the same person but you do not know which spelling is correct or preferred, keep a record of them and query the author. If they are not referring to the same person, the “variants” might in fact be two different names, as I noted above. If you are editing a memoir, history, or other material where there are several people with the same name but different spellings, make a note in your style sheet to identify each person (“sister of the author,” “financial minister,” etc.).

Names with Abu

Another source of apparent inconsistency is names that in Arabic change the final vowel in the genitive. Many names are formed with Abu (Abū) plus another name, for example Abu Bakr (Abū Bakr) and Abu Taleb (Abū Ṭālib). In Arabic, the nominative Abū changes to Abī in the genitive, but in English the nominative ending u/ū should be retained. Untrained translators often keep the Arabic genitive ending i/ī when the name follows a preposition — for example, “She gave the money to Abi Bakr” rather than “to Abu Bakr” — but I correct Abi to Abu.

In most transcriptions an exception is made when Abu is preceded by ibn (“son”) or bint (“daughter”). Then the genitive is kept because the full name in Arabic will always have the genitive: Asma’ bint Abi Bakr, Ali ibn Abi Taleb. If you see bint Abi [something] or ibn Abi [something], you can keep Abi. If your author has consistently kept Abu after ibn or bint, query it. Some publishers might prefer to keep the nominative form of the name in all cases.

Virgules in Transcriptions

Another colleague asked about the use of a virgule in a transcription. Her author had followed the translation of a term with the romanized Arabic term followed by a virgule and more romanized Arabic. What did it mean and what should she do with it? For example, the author had written “companion (ṣāḥib/aṣḥāb)” and “word (kalimah/-āt).”

Fortunately for the editor, she did not have to do anything. The author was presenting the singular and plural forms of the words. Arabic has more than ten plural forms, so this is often necessary. In the first case the word has a broken plural in which letters are inserted, and in the second case the word has a regular feminine plural and only the ending is shown. This would be understood by the book’s intended audience. If you see a similar use of virgules when you are editing, it should not worry you.

Splitting Headaches

When you are proofreading, keep an eye out for Arabic names and terms that are split and hyphenated at the end of a line. It is best to not divide them except after the definite article al- or ibn. The letter pairs dh, gh, kh, sh, and th can represent the end of one syllable and the beginning of another, or they can be digraphs (two letters representing one sound), in which case they must not be split. If either letter of the above pairs has a dot or other diacritic, the word can be divided between the letters if necessary, according to New Hart’s Style, but The Chicago Manual of Style says the word can be divided only if both letters have a dot. Vowel digraphs (ou, oo, ee, aa) and diphthongs (ai, ay, aw, au) must never be split, and words must not be split before or after hamza, which is represented by an apostrophe or ʾ.

In Part 3: Spelling the Definite Article and Part 4: More on the Definite Article, I discuss some of the editing questions raised by al-, the Arabic definite article.

(For the first essay in this series, see: Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 1: Sources of Variations.)

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

1 Comment »

  1. Thank you! My Arabic is sketchy and this helps a lot.

    Like

    Comment by Enid Rosenstiel — December 19, 2017 @ 6:51 am | Reply


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