The Associated Press spells it Gadhafi. Time spells it Gaddafi. The New York Times (and The Atlantic Wire) uses Qaddafi. Transliterating Arabic names into Romanized form is an imprecise science. It's a headache for journalists, but bankers have it even worse: they're trying to freeze the assets of clients from Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, and there's very little agreement on how to spell any of the names.
Today, The Wall Street Journal offers a glimpse at the problem. Deborah Ball and Cassell Bryan-Low report that banks are trying to lock down the finances of a lot of Middle Eastern clients. But there are so many different ways of transliterating names from Arabic that the task is almost overwhelming. (According to language experts, there are more than 100 ways to spell "Qaddafi" alone.) Ball and Bryan-Low explain:
Unlike other so-called script languages such as Chinese or Japanese, Arabic has no transliteration standards. Pronunciation of the same names varies by place, and written Arabic contains few vowels, opening the door to a larger range of acceptable translations. Mohamed can also be transliterated as Mahmut, Mehmud or dozens of other variants.
Never fear, though: banks are bringing in consultants, like the Asian-languages expert Jack Halpern, who "who says he speaks 10 languages and is known for arriving at language conferences on a unicycle." Halpern and his team at the CJK Dictionary Institute have manually drawn up a list of some seven million spelling variations of Arabic names, working from "hard copies of phone directories, encyclopedias, student rosters and general-interest books from a slew of Middle Eastern countries." According to the Journal, Halpern is nothing if not thorough:
While the U.S. gives only four alternative spellings for one individual on the sanction list, Hatem Ahmad Barakat, Mr. Halpern says he can potentially supply 130,000 potential variants, given all the possible spellings for each of the three names.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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