Arabic transliteration: what’s in a name?

The eagle-eyed following events in Libya will have noticed that not all news sources agree on how to spell the name of the man who has ruled there for 40 years. Go to the BBC and you will see Muammar Gaddafi mentioned. The New York Times calls him Muammar el-Qaddafi. CNN or Forbes will tell you it’s Moammar Gadhafi, while AFP talks of Moamer Khadafi. Certainly this bothered the Atlanta Journal-Constitution which asked on Friday “Why the many variations of Moammar Gadhafi’s name?”

The answer lies in the fact that Gaddafi’s name is actually written in Arabic. The Arabic alphabet is different to the English alphabet, and so the name has to be converted. Writing a word using letters of another alphabet in this way is know as transliteration, and is often needed in languages such as Arabic and Russian. However, it is often not an exact process as the sounds of letters in one alphabet tend not to match precisely those available in another.

As Slate notes, in an interesting explanatory article on this, “A variety of systems exist to Romanize Arabic letters and words, but there is no dominant one.” Almost a decade ago, Brian Whitaker writing on the transliteration of Arabic in the Guardian pointed out many competing systems exist, and predicted that the spread of the internet and databases would only make matters worse:

This leaves plenty of scope for scholarly debate, with the result that there are now many supposedly international standards.

One of the earliest was that adopted by the International Convention of Orientalist Scholars in 1936. Another was agreed in 1971 at a conference of Arab experts in Beirut and accepted – at least in theory – by the countries of the Arab League.

Besides these, there is ISO 233, DIN 31635 and even a British standard, BS 4280… Slightly more successfully, the US Library of Congress and the American Library Association have issued “Romanisation tables” covering more than 150 languages and dialects (including Arabic) that are written in non-Roman scripts.

All of this tends to explain the variations in the transliteration of Gaddafi’s name. In fact, one website lists some 32 different versions. As an excellent blog by the editor of the Middle East Journal points out, due to regional pronunciation variations:

Tripoli sounds more like Tunis, Benghazi sounds more like Alexandria; the area in between, where Brother Colonel was born, sounds more like the Sahara. Libyans don’t even agree on how to pronounce their leader’s name, let alone spell it in Roman character.

Differences in pronunciation help to explain some of the other variation seen in the romanised spellings of Gadhafi. A clue as to why the AFP version is so different lies in their full unabreviated name: Agence France-Presse. Their romanisation actually rests on a francophone pronunciation.

An interesting problem this sometimes raises in our Arabic translation of business cards and the like is the lack of reversibility. Having the transliteration of a name does not always allow you to recreate the correct spelling in the original language. This can be an issue for multinational companies: one possible scenario being a UK office producing bilingual business cards for several people with a mixture of English and Arabic names. In this case, it becomes crucial to have the name in its native language as well as any pre-existing transliteration.

Of course, this is in no way a new problem. One famous exchange on Arabic transliteration between T.E. Lawrence and his proofreaders in 1926, begins:

Publisher: I attach a list of queries raised by F. who is reading the proofs. He finds these very clean, but full of inconsistencies in the spelling of proper names, a point which reviewers often take up. Will you annotate it in the margin, so that I can get the proofs straightened?

Lawrence: Annotated: not very helpfully perhaps. Arabic names won’t go into English, exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district. There are some ‘scientific systems’ of transliteration, helpful to people who know enough Arabic not to need helping, but a wash-out for the world. I spell my names anyhow, to show what rot the systems are.

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