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Translating Arabic Names

Patrick McNamer
(Terminology Update, Volume 29, Number 2, 1996, page 8)

Translating Arabic names that are entered in birth, marriage, and other personal documents reveals a number of interesting problems.

The sound structure of Arabic differs radically from that of English or French. Theoretically, Arabic has six vowels:  three short (a, u, i), and three long (ā,ū,ī). Distinctions between vowels depend on length in time as well as oral configuration. In English and French, oral configuration alone is the determining factor, and more vowels are distinguished on this basis. For English speakers, o is distinguished from u, e from i, a as in fact from a as in father—distinctions different from those not made in Arabic.

Arabic has a number of consonant which do not have counterparts in English or French. One of these consonants is pronounced like k (which Arabic also has), but further back in the mouth, and is generally transliterated as q in newspapers and serious works. Three other consonants whose pronunciation is characterized as "guttural" are usually transliterated h, gh and kh; another consonant, referred to in Arabic as Ain and resembling in pronunciation a sound one would make when suddenly feeling a sharp pain in the stomach, is transliterated variously or not at all. Another consonant is pronounced like a j in some countries such as Lebanon, but like a hard g in other countries such as Egypt. What would be transliterated Jamal in Lebanon would thus be transliterated Gamal in Egypt. In addition, Arabic has two consonants transliterated as d, two as s, and another two as t. Arabic has no p.

The Arabic writing system functions differently from those of the English and French alphabets. Unlike in English and French, where consonants and vowels are separately represented as equally weighted symbols following one another, Arabic short vowels are represented by means of a series of diacritics written above or below the consonants. These diacritics are optional: in most printed texts, and certainly in the birth and marriage certificates that reach Canada, they are not used at all. The result is that Arabic names in print or writing are generally incomplete and may be transliterated in any of several ways, depending on the vowel(s) used, and where they are used. Translators from Arabic have to fill in the vowels, based on how the name would be pronounced conventionally: this implies previous familiarity with Arabic proper names.

The long vowels are represented by w, y and the alif symbol (technically a consonant but generally used for a vowel sound). It is only in cases like these that we are guided by the writing system to one vowel in particular. Even then there is still ambiguity. The alif symbol can actually represent any vowel sound, and the y and w consonants may be pronounced as i or u or as ya or wa, etc.

Reading handwritten Arabic of the type commonly found in the personal documents that arrive in Canada is an exercise in educated assumptions. The Arabic letters representing d, r, and w are often indistinguishable in handwriting. In addition, there are some letters which must be differentiated by dots or strokes (representing two or three dots) above or below the letter in printing: in handwritten Arabic these dots or strokes may be difficult to differentiate from one another, from dots in the dotted lines used in printed forms, or from accidental grains on the photocopied sheet, and they may be far removed from the consonants to which they belong.

Add to the aforementioned ambiguities the fact that in our own English and French, different spellings may be used to represent the same sound. We need only think of the homonyms and variants that can be found in English: flower vs. flour, center vs. centre, love vs. luv. In transliterations of Arabic names, we may have Said or Saeed, Yakoub or Yakoob, Kadri or Kadry: for each name, either transliteration is correct (among other possibilities); both represent the same pronunciation and the same spelling in Arabic.

The end result is that translation of handwritten Arabic script brings with it a high probability of error that can be decreased only by greater familiarity with Arabic cultural and language practices and a better idea of the context of the message than one needs to have if the text was in printed English or French.

The choice of a desired spelling may depend on our own bilingual situation in Canada. Thus, what is spelled Rashid in Alberta may be spelled Rachid or Rachide by a person living in Quebec and following French spelling conventions. An applicant for citizenship may prefer a French spelling in his first foreign language is French (normally the case of applicants from Lebanon, Morocco or Tunisia), or an English spelling if his first foreign language is English (normally the case of applicants from Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Egypt).

In spite of the three-way a-i-u vowel distinction in Arabic mentioned in the second paragraph, e and o occur frequently in transliterations of Arabic names. Thus, names transliterated as Tarik and Gamal have often been be transliterated as Tarek and Gamel. In these cases, e is treated as little more than an optional replacement of either i or a; as is o for u. Thus Hossein and Hussein represent the same Arabic spelling, as do Mohammed and Muhammad.

Individual Arabic names may consist of a single word or of a compound made up of a commonly used prefix plus a name. The element Al- or El- which precedes surnames and other names in Arabic is the definite article. Both Al- and El- (rarely Ul-) transliterate the same spelling; there are other spellings as well, such as Ud- in Uddin. As it serves no function in distinguishing names, this element is often dropped in transliterations, depending upon the wishes of the person concerned.

There are other elements which frequently precede Arabic names: Abd-ul, Ibn, Ben (in Morocco), Bint (added to the patronymic following a woman’s given name), Abou, etc. Normally, Ibn and Bint are not part of the following name but simply expand on the fact that "X is the son of Y" and "X is the daughter of Y," and are usually left out behind in transliteration. One famous exception is Ibn Saud. Abdul- or Abdel (or Abd-el, Abd-al, etc., or simply Abd- in front of Allah or Ullah) may be written separately, hyphenated or combined with the following name as a single word (Abdul-Aziz, Abdelrahim, Abdel Rahman). Unlike the definite article, this is an obligatory part of the name and is not dropped in transliteration. Abdul by itself is incomplete.

The use of surnames is a moot point in Arabic. In Canada, personal names traditionally consist of a name common to a family and handed down from father to children from generation to generation, plus a specific name attributed to the individual and one or two optional "middle names," equally individual-specific. This constitutes the full name of the individual. All official records related to persons and their filing order are based upon this type of naming arrangement. In much of the Arab world, the naming of persons follows a different, older tradition: a person’s full name consists of the individual name, the father’s given name, the grandfather’s given name, and—potentially—the names of all patrilineal ancestors up to perhaps the time of Mohammed. For purposes of brevity, the grandfather’s given name is usually as far as you get in official documents. There may well be no surname at all, just an accumulation of ancestors’ names which shifts from generation to generation.

With or without surnames, there is one naming practice which is adopted throughout the Arab world: the father’s given name immediately follows the given name of a person and is an integral part of the full name of that person. Thus, if a birth certificate gives Charles, surname Rohm, as the name of the newborn and gives Georges as his father’s name, the full name of the newborn is automatically Charles Georges Rohm. This naming practice, of course, may not apply in the case of non-Arabic persons whose names appear on Arabic certificates.


Article published in Apostrophe, vols. 2-5, Translation Bureau, Public Works and Government Services Canada, December 1993, pp. 4-5, and reproduced with permission from the editor.