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.

November 20, 2017

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 1: Sources of Variations

by Ælfwine Mischler

As a native English speaker and editor in Cairo, I am often asked how to spell a name or Arabic word “in English,” meaning with the Latin alphabet and for an English-speaking audience. A child’s name on a birth certificate, a name and address on a visa application, Islamic terms in a web article or book. English-speaking copyeditors frequently joke or complain about the multiple spellings of Arabic names (“twelve ways to spell Muhammad”), and other difficulties might appear in a manuscript.

In this and subsequent essays, I explain why these differences occur, what you as an author or editor need to know, and how to use special characters if you (or your publisher) choose to include them.

Romanize, Spell, Transcribe, and Transliterate

Transcribe and transliterate are often used interchangeably, but if Wikipedia rather than Merriam-Webster is to be believed, transliterate is to represent a word letter by letter from one alphabet to another, whereas transcribe is to represent the sounds of a language. Arabic does not write short vowels, so (according to Wikipedia) the Arabic كتب (“to write”) should be transliterated as ktb, which does not give enough information to pronounce it. A transcription would show the vowels: kataba. Some transcriptions, especially for linguistic studies, use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to show the precise pronunciation. I do not have expertise in such transcriptions and do not discuss them.

For these essays I avoid using transliterate. I usually use transcribe for romanizing Arabic in more-precise ways using diacritics, such as in an academic text, and spell for romanizing without diacritics, such as in documents, newspapers, and trade books.

My focus is on Arabic represented by Latin letters in an English text, as that is my area of expertise. Speakers of other languages that use the Latin alphabet, such as German and French, will have their own ways of romanizing Arabic.

Why So Many Spellings?

As noted earlier, there are often multiple Latinized spellings of the same Arabic word. The four primary reasons for this are as follows:

  1. Several Arabic phonemes don’t exist in English. Among these are pairs that when spoken sound very similar to non-Arabic speakers. In less-precise English spelling, these pairs are usually represented by the same letter, but in more-precise transcription the emphatic consonant is shown with a dot or other diacritic underneath (e.g., ḥ or ḩ versus h). Some other phonemes may be romanized with a digraph or diacritics (e.g. kh or ḫ).
  2. The short vowels are not written in Arabic. Their pronunciation and romanization can vary across dialects.
  3. Arabic names and terms are used by Muslims in many countries, and the spelling of phonemes varies across languages. For example, the Arabic letter shīn (ش) is written by English speakers as sh. French speakers render the same letter as ch, and Malaysians as sy. The letter jīm (ج) is written as j in English if it is pronounced as “soft g” (see below), but it will be spelled as dj where French influences the spelling. The Arabic ḍāḍ (ض), an emphatic letter, is often spelled dh by South and Southeast Asians, so they spell the month of fasting as Ramadhan.
    A doubled consonant in Arabic changes the meaning of a word, but sometimes names are romanized with doubled consonants to prevent a mispronunciation in English. The name Yāsir (ياسر) does not have a double consonant in Arabic, but a common spelling in English is Yasser because with a single s the name would likely be pronounced “Yazer.”
  4. Another source of variation is that a few Arabic letters are pronounced differently in different dialects. The letter jīm (ج) is pronounced as English “hard g” in Cairo and northern Egypt. (Gamal Abdul Nasser’s first name begins with jīm.) Meanwhile, the letter qāf (ق) — an emphatic consonant pronounced in classical Arabic something like a k but with the tongue touching the palate farther back than for k — is pronounced as English “hard g” in some dialects. In the more popular academic transcription systems it is written as q, but many people use k in spelling their names (therefore not distinguishing qāf [ق] and kāf [ك]). In Cairo, qāf is usually pronounced as a glottal stop, but in romanized place names it is written as k, leading uninitiated tourists and expats to pronounce the neighborhood Dokki in a way that might confuse taxi drivers. The letter qāf is also one reason the world had such trouble spelling al-Gaddafi (al-Qaddafi, al-Qadhdhafi) (القذافي), the ousted Libyan leader. The Libyan dialect pronounces qāf as “hard g.”

So How Do You Spell…?

When I am asked how to spell an Arabic name or term in English, I usually ask what is being written (e.g., an academic paper, a trade book, a letter, a journal article) and who is the audience. If you’re deciding the spelling of your child’s name or writing something for a general reader, my answer will be different than if you are writing an academic paper.

If you are writing an academic paper, several different systems for romanizing Arabic exist. If you are writing or editing a scholarly text, you will have to follow the publisher’s preferred method. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends ALA-LC Romanization Tables: Transliteration Schemes for Non-Roman Scripts and the IJMES system of the International Journal of Middle East Studies. There are others.

If you are completing a form or writing for a general reader, I usually recommend a simplified spelling without using diacritics. If you are writing Islamic materials for a general audience, you might prefer to use diacritics for Islamic terms. Editors have asked me about spellings when their non-Arabic-speaking authors apparently took materials from various sources that used different systems of romanizing. Whether you choose to use diacritics or not, be consistent in spelling or transcribing terms.

Place names and personal names are more difficult. Names of recent and living people will unlikely be transcribed following an academic system, but there are exceptions. I indexed a book on Arabic literature in which the names of authors who had only published in Arabic were transcribed with diacritics, even if their works were well known in translation. Thus Nobel Prize–winning Naguib Mahfouz was written as Najīb Maḥfūẓ.

If recent and living people have a preferred spelling for their name, use that. If a personal name or place name appears in the news or is otherwise well known, use that spelling. If there is variation between news sources, choose one and stick to it.

In Part 2: Other Challenges for Editors, I discuss some other features of Arabic that may cause problems for editors and writers who are unfamiliar with the language.

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.

February 26, 2014

On Books: Dictionary of Untranslatables

Over my career as an editor, I have observed that no matter how much I know about language and usage, I know very little. Consequently, I am always on the lookout for books to add to my collection that I can also use in my work as an editor.

Regular readers of An American Editor know that my primary rule when editing is that the message from the author must be unmistakably communicated to the reader. Should there be any possible doubt about the message, then the language used is questionable.

In that light, I have always assumed that certain words that are used in American prose have clear and precise meaning when used to convey an author’s thoughts. In most instances, I, like many editors and readers, failed to consider the broader concepts that certain words convey; I understood, or so I thought, the common, everyday meaning and assumed it was that meaning that the author was using.

Words, however, can be philosophical in the sense that a word can be both specific and can be used as a substitute for a broader, more conceptual perspective. In my early years, I learned, for example, that the Russian word pravda, which was used as the name of a Soviet Russia newspaper (Pravda), was translated as “truth” — read Pravda and learn the truth about what was happening in Russia and the world.

Unambiguous words — truth, vérité, Warheit — are used to translate the word pravda but, as the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (Barbara Cassin, editor, Princeton University Press, 2014 [English translation]; originally published in France as Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionaire des intraduisibles, 2004) notes, pravda also means justice. And the scope of its meaning as truth is limited: according to the Dictionary, “Pravda is never used to designate scientific truth.”

What the Dictionary does is trace the origins, usage, and conceptual meanings of a selection of words that are important in the worlds of literature, philosophy, and politics, yet which are not easy to translate (and sometimes are wholly untranslatable) from one language to another. The Dictionary illustrates that those words that seem translatable, such as pravda, actually have meanings and nuances that are important to understanding the concept of the word, which concept leads to a different definition than the standard translation implies as being the correct definition.

In its exploration of words, the article authors delve into the cross-linguistic and cross-cultural complexities of the words and their meanings. The terms chosen for exploration have had a great influence on thinking over the ages. The Dictionary cites a word’s contextual history and usage to give additional meaning to the discussion.

Consider the entry for “matter of fact, fact of the matter.” The discussion is of the expression “matter of fact,” which is “found in English philosophy, notably Hume.” The discussion dissects the expression in an attempt to establish its origins and meanings. Following a several-page discussion, the article ends with a bibliography. The bibliographies that follow each entry are interesting in their own right.

The idea of the Dictionary is to elucidate the differences the concepts of the included words and expressions have based on the language in which a word or expression is used, both originally and in translation. The languages are Arabic, Basque, Catalan, Danish, English, French, German, Greek (classical and modern), Hebrew, Hungarian, Latin, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, and Spanish.

The terms are often transferred from one language to another without change. For example, praxis and polis are used in a variety of languages without translation; they have become part of a second language’s lexicon as if they were original to that language. Other terms are often mistranslated, even if just in the sense that the translation doesn’t express the breadth of the word’s meaning in its original language (e.g., pravda).

The essays make for some interesting reading. Even if a particular word is not one that I would encounter in my daily editing, reading the essays makes me think about the words I do see daily. In other words, not only are the essays interesting in what they have to say about a particular word’s origins and meanings, but they help reshape my approach to words as an editor.

The Dictionary of Untranslatables is wonderful addition to my language library. I view the Dictionary in the same light I view Steven Pinker’s books on language: not as resource that I will daily open as I would my Webster’s Collegiate, but as a book to savor and think about and to learn in the broader sense of learning. For anyone interested in language, in words, and the scope of meaning that a word can encompass, I recommend the Dictionary of Untranslatables.

If you would like to see a sample entry, Princeton University Press offers a few samples. This link will take you to the page where you can view online, in PDF format, a few entries. You might find the kitsch entry particularly interesting.

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