Lost in Transliteration

If you want to learn Arabic through written materials, you should learn the alphabet. You just should. There are some books out there that will string you along with English phonetic spellings, but that has problems. And since in writing this blog I’ve had to attempt some kind of WordPress compatible transliteration, I want to spend just a little time revealing my problems to you. If you haven’t caught on yet, I hope you’ve noticed that I try and write transliterated words in italics. Sure sometimes I emphasize English words in italics too, but I’ve decided to use an old Arabic trick and let context tell you when I’m doing what.

So be ye warned, trivia ahead.

Letters and Our Lack Thereof

Arabic has some sounds that aren’t writable in English, but we have some conventions which can help. Mostly. If used consistently. Let’s start with the easiest convention. The letter ق is like a click sound back in your glottis. No English click quite maps to this Arab click, but thankfully Roman letters have provided us with an excess of clicks: k, c, q. Arabic sounds exotic to us, so why not assign to this strange sound the most exotic of our clicking letters? Thus we write the letter with a q as in qaf, dangling a carrot before Scrabble players to get some Arabic into the dictionary.

Let’s move up to some trickier letters ذ, خ, غ. These can be represented using letter combinations: gh (like the German sound), kh (like the Yiddish sound), dh (a voiced th sound). This looks all fine and dandy, except when you remember that d, k, g, and h are all used to transliterate other Arabic letters already. So when you see the word haadha you can’t visually tell whether it is “haad-ha” or “haadh-a.” One way to get around that is to add some extra keystrokes to ensure your two-lettered sound is united with an underscore, and now you can visually understand haadha.

Okay, a little tedious, but not much of a sacrifice for clarity. Moving on.

Next we come to the letters ط, ص, ح. In English we would still consider these letters an ordinary h, s, and t, but in Arabic these sounds are different enough to be different letters. The h is much more throaty, the s and t more open and emphatic. “Emphatic” you say? Then why not write them in caps like you might write words receiving emphasis. Now you have H, S, T. There’s another letter, ض, that’s not quite in English. It’s almost a d or a z but if your mouth was shot with Novocaine. It’s the last sound in “Riyadh” if you hear a native speaker say it. It’s also kind of emphatic, so you can write it with a big D or Z. I went with the former.

The nice thing about having set up these two principles is that you can then combine them for out next letter.

5) Арабский Алфавит | Arabic letters | Pinterest | Arabic ...
Bane of my existence.

This sound is kind of like the dh, but more open and emphatic, so we can write it DH. I hate this letter. Can’t get it right in a word to save my life. But I can transliterate it!

Then there are the letters for which nothing Roman shall do. First I’ll tackle hamza as the letter for which we do have a good option, but it’s sloppy. A hamza (ء) is a glottal stop, and in English we love using the apostrophe for this. No fantasy fic series is complete with out it’s Gua’uld or Muad’Dib type names. What do you do when the word ends with a hamza though, and you want to make it possessive? Case in point, surat an-nisaa’ ends with a glottal stop, so what if I want to reference the inheritance laws in an-nisaa’? Do I write, “surat an-nisaa’‘s inheritance law’s…”? Ew. Or maybe I just tack an “s” onto it and call it good from there. Humans are smart enough to get the context, and it’s better than importing some unrecognizable symbol to do the trick. In chat messaging, before tech started adapting into Arabic, Arabs looked at the ء and figured that a 2 was close enough in shape. That convention makes sense to most Arabs, and it’s visually clear, but who else knows how to pronounce a 2?

And then there’s ع. I’ve come to terms with this letter by copying how I say the r in “Paris” when I’m faking a French accent. I’m sure I sound ugly to Arabs, but they get it. It’s like a partial glottal stop, and as such some people write it using an apostrophe as well. In some fonts, you can point the apostrophes in different directions to distinguish between the two. Not only can I never remember what direction signifies what, but WordPress doesn’t think much of this fine-tuning and uses directionless apostrophes. Now, chat speak looks at the Arabic symbol and thinks a 3 looks close enough, but again few will know what to make of that. Alas, short of importing the IPA sign, apostrophes have had to serve my purposes in the past.

So here we have some rules and they seem easy enough. But they get ugly in application. You can’t capitalize titles because that literally could change the word. You can’t start sentences with transliterated words because it just jars visually with Roman sentence etiquette. And in the end you still can’t get perfect clarity for your readers. So from now on I’m making the choice now to…

Embrace the Tedium

The answer for perfect clarity is to embrace full tedium. Not only do you underscore two-lettered sounds, but you employ special characters either by writing HTML or copy-pasting from a library. Short of going full IPA (which rather destroys the point of communicating to an English-speaking audience) the easiest symbols to use for the emphatic sounds are letters with a dot underneath them: ḥ, ṣ, ṭ, and ḍ. What about that DH? Use ẓ. Sure, English speakers won’t quite know what to do with those dots, but at least they’ll still have the gist of the sound and know that something is just a little different there. The beauty of these symbols is that I can still follow English capitalization standards, which is very helpful since many of the words I transliterate are titles.

I’m going to keep using the apostrophe for my glottal stop, and just settle on tacking on a non-italicized s when I need the thing to be possessive. How to write the ع? I’m going to resort to importing the IPA ʕ. It’s true no one will know quite know how to pronounce it, but at least it’ll be confusion with only one possible right answer, an answer that is easy to find through Google, and not a hanging question as to which letter it’s even supposed to be in the first place. And at least it’s only one letter that is unfamiliar, and people can handle that dosage.

So in the future I’m committing to more clarity when I transliterate Arabic, despite the inconvenience and tedium. I’ll even go back and rectify past transliterations bit by bit. So if you’re confused by this resolution because you’ve only experienced visual clarity in my blog, then I say “Welcome! Thanks for joining us!”

Have you really read this far? Well bless you!

If it’s any comfort, English transliterates hideously into Arabic. We have some sounds that aren’t writable in Arabic: p, v, hard g (or soft g if you’re in Egypt), ch, o, or soft e. (Phonetically speaking our “r” is different too but we’ve already agreed with the world that their rolling thing is close enough). Sorry, Penelope, you’re biniilubii now. Because the Islamic Empires of history did assimilate civilizations with these sounds, regional dialects will often adapt Arab letters to represent them, but the systems are not universal. But more awkward than writing unrepresented sounds, English vowels are wickedly more complex and varied than Arabic’s, requiring them to spell things out in the most awkward ways. Take the the word “computer,” which has traveled into Arabic vocabulary. Remember that they don’t have a “p” or “o” sound in their language, and that the “u” in “computer” is a diphthong that slides from an eeee to oooooo. This renders the word in their language as كُمبيوتر, which transliterates back to us as kumbiiuutr.

You’re welcome, Arabs.

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