The first rule of foreign policy, says the adage, is never to invade a country where they use q’s without u’s. Besides saving the Republic from overseas boondoggles, I like to think this chestnut exists to rescue American copy editors from endless niggling over Arabic names. If war is, as Paul Rodriguez quipped, God’s way of teaching Americans about geography, it is also a way of teaching his humble servants at the Atlantic copy desk how to cram foreign words and phrases into an alphabet that manifestly doesn’t suit them.
Since terrorism and Iraq began to dominate our coverage, The Atlantic has crammed many Arabic names and phrases into our text, and some have not gone gently. The simplest cases demand fussiness and attention: We spell Iraq’s second-largest city Basra. But why not Basrah, as writers in English called it for hundreds of years before? And why no dot under the s, as scholars seem now to prefer?
I discern three major currents of thought on transliteration. Our own policy, following that of other fastidious copy desks, is somewhere at the intersection of the three.
1. Spell Arabic names using a strict one-to-one correspondence between Arabic letters and English ones.
Generations of pedants have bequeathed us highly arcane and exact systems for putting Arabic into English, and for those who believe in consistency and precision, the temptation to use one is immense. But it is a temptation The Atlantic resists.
Adopting a strict system—one that truly honors the nuances of Arabic—would mean festooning our copy with strange apostrophes, with dots, with macrons, with seemingly unpronounceable clusters of consonants. English simply lacks the sounds of Arabic, and to mark the differences would demand an arduous regime of annotation. Because Arabic has two s’s, for example, a word that is easy on our eyes, like Basra, would require a disfiguring mark—usually a dot under the s—to distinguish it from its dotless, nonsense counterpart.
Similarly, the name of the leader of Libya could, according to one strict scheme, be spelled Qadhdhafiy. We spell it Qaddafi, which doesn’t do justice to the consonants in the middle of his name but is a much less forbidding jumble of letters. What we render as dd sounds in Arabic not like our d but like a hollow buzz, a th (“ this”) pronounced with the tongue arched down to open up the space of the mouth. The dh of strict transliteration is meant to capture that sound, and those who know Arabic will recognize it as the Arabic letter dhal.
But at what price consistency? H. W. Fowler wrote a full-throated protest against transliterative didacticism in 1926:
We owe no thanks to those who discover, and cannot keep silence on the discovery, that “Mahomet” is further than “Mohammed,” and “Mohammed” further than “Muhammad,” from what his own people called him. We want one name for the one man […] and the one should have been that around which the ancient associations cling. It is too late to recover unity; the learned, and their too docile disciples, have destroyed that, and given us nothing worth having in exchange.
The sole accomplishment in using the strict system is, as T. E. Lawrence pointed out to his editor in response to a query about inconsistent Arabic, to help people who know enough Arabic not to need helping. And what’s worse, for the ordinary reader the page just gets trashed with annoying and meaningless symbols, most of which bring one no closer to authentic Arabic sounds.
2. Spell Arabic names so an uninitiated speaker of English will say them approximately right.
Slavish devotion to the dons would, however, save us from the chaos unleashed by this second guideline, however well-intentioned. Speakers of English pronounce Basra and Basrah identically. How do we decide whether to keep the h? And how, in the absence of a strict system, are we to remember that since the names of Basra and Falluja each end in the same vowel, we should at least try to spell their endings the same? To write Fallujah on one page and Basra on the next would trade away consistency and precision for nothing at all. (An added concern is that Arabic words can have a pronounced h at the end. In the first word of the name of the Iraqi province of Salah al-Din, for example, the h is an audible, non-optional puff of breath before al.)
Moreover, readers do eventually get used to strict transliterations, at least the ones without too much diacritical adornment. As recently as 1949, we wrote Iraq’s capital as Bagdad, in defiance of the conventions of the age, which had long since adopted Baghdad.The authority of Douglas Fairbanks ( The Thief of Bagdad, 1924) and Whoopi Goldberg (the short-lived sitcom Bagdad Cafe, 1990) wasn’t enough to convince us or anyone else to revert to the old spelling, and by now reversion would look wrong.
And when applied gently, rather than dogmatically, some changes—gh for g, for example—allow non-Arabic speakers to read comfortably, while violating few of the sensibilities of scholars. Ordinary readers will pronounce Baghdad just as they would Bagdad. But what we now transliterate as gh is in fact a sound very different from the English hard g, as in golf. To make the right sound, put your tongue and the soft part of the roof of your mouth, way in the back, in exactly the same position as you would for the g. Then make a buzzing noise where the tongue touches the soft palate. The result is a dry gargle.
While the pedants are gargling dryly, happily distracted with their exotic consonants, the rest of us English-speaking yahoos can read on comfortably, our experience undiminished by the extra h. Everyone wins.
3. Spell Arabic names using traditional English spelling.
Neither of these rules suffices, though, when the Arabic word already has a familiar English spelling. There are obvious examples— The Atlantic writes Cairo, never Al Qahira, even though many modern maps use the Arabic transliteration and relegate the English name to parentheses. But there are also more recondite examples. I wince when I see Iraq’s northernmost Arab province written as Ninawa, when the English name Nineveh is both close to the Arabic and present in the foundational texts of literary English.
Similarly, when an Arab expresses unambiguous preference for an unorthodox spelling of his or her name, we generally acquiesce. Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, will always be known by the transliteration he himself uses, rather than the stricter Muhammad al-Baradai.
Our policy, then, is to be as exact as we can without trespassing on the comfort of our readers, to be as conventional as we can without irking the sticklers, and to respect the traditions of our language and the reasonable requests of the people whose names we transliterate.