x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Transliteration of names from Arabic is full of challenges

Work on establishing one standard for transliteration is just starting, and will be far from easy.

Should Arabic names be translated into English, or are they better transliterated?

This is more than just a philosophical question; the answer has practical implications that have an effect on daily life, as anyone who regularly deals with both languages knows well.

The many inconsistencies in how Arabic sounds are conveyed in Roman characters make this into a complicated issue.

For instance, should a man named Saied be called "Mr Happy" in English? Or should a Muhammad be known as "Mr Praised"?

The issue arises in other ways, too.

My favourite anomaly is between "Etihad" Airways (transliteration) and "Union" Bank (translation). Of course both come from the same Arabic word: Itihad.

Each such choice has consequences. If we transliterate, spelling becomes an issue. Is the correct version Mohamed, Mohammed, Mohammad, Muhamed, Muhammed or Muhammad?

And how about Abdurrahman: Abdulrahman, Abdul Rahman, Abdel Rehman or Abed Rahman. Which should be the standard spelling?

And which is correct, Etihad or Al Ittihad (as in The National's sister paper Al Ittihad)?

There are many names with multiple English spellings. How about Othman? Could it be Osman, Uthman or Usman?

Then there is Jamal. In the Arabian Peninsula it is pronounced Jamal, in Egypt Gamal and in Algeria Djamal. These are all the same Arabic word, but one that is spelt (transliterated) in various regional ways when written in English.

In a nation that relies on contact between Arabic and English there is obviously a great need to improve the quality of our written communication in personal, business and government documents.

Effective and efficient communication is, after all, one of the prerequisites for excellence.

However, what are the criteria for transliteration? Is there a common, agreed-upon transliteration standard for Arabic names? What would be the essential characteristics of such a standard?

In the old days, when Arabic was the dominant language over much of the world, many nations wrote their local languages using Arabic alphabets.

Arabic was capable of meeting their pronunciation requirements and offered them new or modified letters which could perfectly fulfil their pronunciation needs.

Nowadays, however, English is the international language, and has supplanted Arabic in many places. This creates certain challenges.

One response, under the pressure of necessity, has been the way that some Arabic-speaking internet users have created their own transliteration system to meet their chat needs: Arabish.

This uses the English alphabet plus certain Arabic numerals, which resemble Arabic letters not present in English. Is this a viable solution?

Such questions have to be addressed by expert linguists, translators, anthropologists and others to come up with a sustainable Arabic-names transliteration standard.

Another question: what is the reference in pronouncing and writing Arabic names?

There are cultural differences, too. For example, Muhammad is a common name globally. Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, use this name for their male children.

Sometimes they add it to other names of several brothers, so one family might have brothers named Muhammad Mustafa, Muhammad Ameen and Muhammad Zahir. With the use of second names the siblings can be distinguished.

But that still leaves the original question: in transliteration, which spelling is correct to write the name?

What is our reference to identify the right transliteration? Is it standard Arabic (fus-haa)? If not, which country's dialect should it be?

These are just a few examples to illustrate the kind of challenges awaiting linguists and other experts as they begin to work out a unified approach to help the world resolve all these questions.


Dr Abdulrahman Al Hashemi is a UAE researcher interested in Human Resource Development