Arabic shmarabic

This is a post about how to approach the editing of romanised Arabic words incorporated into English-language texts. I won’t bore you with the finer points of transliteration schemes. (I’ll save that for another time!) And, don’t worry, I won’t even touch upon the Arabic script … yet.

A lot of people, it seems, go into something of a blind panic when faced with Arabic terminology in texts, authors included. Arabic shmarabic, grumble grumble. So, I thought I’d try to write something straightforward-ish (rather a challenge for me) about how I would normally approach matters.

Here are a few basic points to bear in mind if you are ever faced with such a text, which is increasingly a possibility now with many publishers starting to develop lists in Middle East studies:

Transliteration schemes

Ok, I lied, but it’s relevant for a point I’d like to make later. And no details, I promise!

Arabic has a number of standard transliteration schemes for converting Arabic into Latin script, involving a set range of diacritical marks to reflect certain letters or vowels, and most publishers and academics will follow one of them. The two most common are probably the ones developed by the Library of Congress and the International Journal of Middle East Studies.

However, there are also other less established systems that are widely used, particularly on a more popular level, and there are also regional variations. Watch out, too, for standard schemes used in France and Germany, for example, which use different accents and characters.

And, on the other hand, it is becoming more common for publishers to avoid using diacritical marks altogether, or some use them on terminology but not on proper nouns, and there are many many more variations on a theme!

So, the world of transliteration schemes can be a minefield, even for authors, and this is the first thing to bear in mind when reviewing a text because it unfortunately means that spelling inconsistencies and other oddities do happen more often than not.

Author’s responsibility

However, some good news! (Perhaps?)

Publishers won’t hesitate to tell you that the accuracy of transliterating Arabic names or terms into Latin script is entirely the responsibility of the author. Most publishers will ask you to just check for spelling consistency and for anything odd that might occur with the unusual characters. Others are quite happy to leave all of that for the author to do.

While this does mean you probably won’t have to worry about whether an ‘a’ in a particular word should have a line above it, or whether there should be a dotted ‘s’ at the beginning (usually there is), that’s not the whole picture when it comes to transliteration.

The trouble with this approach is that, while publishers might think they can save money in this way by not hiring a specialist editor (ahem!), there are always issues, not least because often the authors themselves – especially newbie academics, but they are by no means alone – don’t really know what they’re doing with transliteration either.

I can no longer count the number of times I’ve been presented with a text that has the same person’s name spelt several different ways within a chapter, even within a paragraph, because the author has gone off-piste with their transliteration.

And, ultimately, authors can be as rigorous as they like with their checking but they won’t spot an inconsistency between one end of the book and the other like a copy-editor or a proofreader can! So there.

Just another foreign language

Now that you know what sort of issues to look out for (distorted characters, inconsistencies in spelling, not to mention the spelling going totally AWOL), it’s worth bearing in mind that Arabic transliteration can be treated as any other foreign language and there’s no need to panic.

Most of the rules that apply to French, for example, can equally be applied to transliterated Arabic: italics for terminology, but roman for proper nouns, for example. A lot of people make the mistake that, just because it’s Arabic and therefore a bit weird and unusual, absolutely everything must be in italics!

Don’t do it please. Just don’t.

Moreover, there are a number of words that are so common now in English usage that they have entered into one of the standard English dictionaries. Not only do these not need italics, but they do not need diacritics. Words like sharia, jihad, madrasa, amir, Muslim, Islam, imam, baklawa …

Modern spelling

The other cardinal sin that authors commit is to over-transliterate. Not only do they attack you visually with a sea of italics, but they insist on applying strict rules of transliteration to modern names.

Diacritical marks are often not included on place names or names of individuals anyway, but if you do find them they are probably more appropriate in historical works quoting large extracts of classical sources, for example. It depends on the text, of course, but generally they are often not appropriate for modern names, and this is something to look out for as it is another thing that happens a lot (and will tend to be common in the less specialist texts).

These days it is quite normal for places, politicians, institutions, celebrities and so on to have established romanised versions of their names. Usually, these won’t contain the diacritical marks and won’t follow the usual conventions of transliteration schemes at all. They are more likely to be influenced by regional dialects, and yes unfortunately by whichever colonial power formerly lorded it over the area and established a Latinised spelling scheme. It is probably also just down to personal taste and American TV.

For well-known figures/tyrants like Saddam Hussein, for example, a standardised spelling has come about based on how he tended to be referred to in the Press, to the extent that if an author spells it Hussain or Husain, I will query it even though it’s not technically wrong (either of those spellings would be legitimate for that name). But, it would definitely not be appropriate to spell it Ṣaddām Ḥusayn, which is how it would look if religiously following a transliteration scheme.

You see, a veritable minefield!

The steps

In summary, I would say that if you are presented with Arabic words in a text step one is not to panic! Step two is to imagine that it is French in terms of what would be appropriate usage. However, step three, regardless of what the publisher has said about it being the author’s responsibility, is to bear in mind that the author could well be just as confused as you are. Step four is to check and check again for inconsistencies, because you will likely find them.

Lastly, remember: queries are your friends.


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