Scholars have recommended a computer-friendly system, based on standard Arabic rather than colloquial pronunciation.
Other countries grapple with same issue
ABU DHABI // Many people are familiar with the myriad spellings of the name Mohammed.
But the problem of how to render Arabic names in the Roman alphabet extends to countless other names, including that of Dr Abdulrahman Al Hashemi.
"It's written too many different ways," he said. "I write it every day, and I am 100 per cent [certain] that I am doing something wrong. It's really painful."
Dr Al Hashemi - learning and development adviser for the National Drilling Company - organised a two-day symposium on the issue in 2009, which was sponsored by Abu Dhabi Municipality, Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and other organisations.
There are several established systems for writing Arabic in Roman script. But the methods are insufficient for practical purposes, said Dr Sattar Izwaini, an assistant professor of translation at the American University of Sharjah, who helped organise the symposium.
"They use very elaborate rules, and special letters with dots under and above and tildes and all kinds of things," he said. "These kinds of letters are not available for the common people on their PC, or for an officer in immigration, or a clerk in a hospital writing births."
The scholars at the symposium recommended a computer-friendly system, based on standard Arabic rather than colloquial pronunciation. Their research papers were published in a book by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development.
The UAE is not the first country to grapple with the issue. Similar symposiums were organised in Saudi Arabia in 2003 and 2006, said Mansour Al Ghamdi, associate professor of phonetics at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, in Riyadh.
His research team developed a patented software system that can transliterate any name from Arabic to Roman script.
"Although we did the standardisation, it is very difficult to impose it on people to use it," he said. "We already have people who have names in a different way than the standard we established. A person ... who has already registered his name in his passport and who has a certificate or property, it would be very difficult to change his name."
Dr Al Ghamdi said new standards should be applied to new names, "the coming generation".