Some readers of The Thread of Reason have asked me what rules I followed for transliteration of Arabic words.
Needless to say, rendering such sounds in the Roman alphabet is a challenge. To do so, scholars have devised elaborate systems which entail doubled vowels, dots in unexpected places, apostrophes whose direction changes the pronunciation and meaning, and capital letters in the middle of words.
However, rather than use these systems, I found it best to follow the advice that Richard Burton gave in the preface to his definitive and erotic translation of the Thousand and One Nights. That’s Richard Burton the nineteenth century Arabic scholar and adventurer, whose scandalous life would make an interesting post on this blog someday. Not Richard Burton the twentieth century actor, whose scandalous life is also interesting, but off topic:
As regards the transliteration of Arabic words I deliberately reject the artful and complicated system, ugly and clumsy withal, affected by scientific modern Orientalists….[T]his Roman hand bewitched may have its use in purely scientific and literary works; but it would be wholly out of place in one whose purpose is that of the novel, to amuse rather than to instruct. Moreover these devices perplex the simple and teach nothing to the learned. Either the reader knows Arabic, in which case Greek letters, italics and "upper case," diacritical points and similar typographic oddities are, as a rule with some exceptions unnecessary; or he does not know Arabic, when none of these expedients will be of the least use to him....As words are the embodiment of ideas and writing is of words, so the word is the spoken word; and we should write it as pronounced.
In keeping with this philosophy, I devised the following rules for myself:
1. If a word has a common spelling in English, use it. This is especially the case with names of historical figures who are well-known in the West. For example, the hero of my novel is “Omar Khayyam,” the common English spelling, and not the more precise “Umar Khayyam.”
2. For all other words, I use a simplified alphabet which makes no attempt to distinguish between emphatic and non-emphatic consonants or long and short vowels. Thus, س and ص are both rendered s; ا and َ as a. ع is represented by an apostrophe as in shari’ah. Doubled-consonants are shown as doubled as in hajj. I confess that on the last two points, pedantry may have gotten the better of me, at the expense of simplicity, but at least I was pedantic consistently.
3. Where the definite article al- appears before a “sun letter,” I spell it as pronounced, not as written. So the common greeting, “Peace to you, friend,” appears as “as-salamu alaykum,” not “al-salamu alaykum.”
By following these rules in The Thread of Reason, I hope I succeeded in amusing my readers, rather than perplexing them with “typographic oddities.”
|Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com|