On Transliteration: Koran, Quran, Qur’an, Qur2an

For a few brief moments, my husband and I considered registering our one-year-old’s second name as “Ta7rir.” The 7 is the most popular way to represent the breathier, harder Arabic letter that some scholars capitalize (TaHrir) and others represent with a diacritical (Taḥrir).

You’ll be relieved to know that the fancy passed, and we went with the common English-language transliteration, Tahrir.

In the past, it was just scholars who worried about such “minutiae” as transliteration, but since the rise of Arabizi, it has become a broader obsession. In the introduction to Hamlet’s Arab Journey, Margaret Litvin notes that, while she uses diacritical marks, the current trend among scholars is to eliminate them. She further notes that, as scholars move away from them, “the texting generation of Arabs is moving toward greater precision”.

Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: My City might perhaps be the first “serious” work to use the texting style of Arabic transliteration that represents sheraa (street) as shera3 and Tahrir as Ta7rirSoueif says: “What I’ve chosen here is to adopt a new system which was, I believe, initiated by Arab bloggers.”

As someone who uses this sort of shorthand anyway, I was happy with Soueif’s decision. But when I read her use of “Qur2anic, ” I was brought up short. It made me reflect that the words Koran, Quran, Qur’an, and Qur2an — while all ostensibly doing no more work than pointing directly at القرآن, or even at the text itself — mean different things to me. Roughly, the word “Koran” makes me think of 18th century Arabists’ and Midwestern grandmothers’ views of القرآن;  the Quran feels both more serious and more foreign, with the Qur’an yet more foreign; and Qur2an is either (depending on your readerly mindset) livened by a youthful hipness or suddenly too difficult to parse. (Oh my Lord above! Those Moslems are puttin’ numbers in their words!)

None of the words, however, reaches directly past my associations to القرآن. Well, even القرآن doesn’t do that.

Google image searches turn up different sets of images for each transliteration: Koran is more likely to throw up protests and chanting Arab men, while Quran and Qur’an produce images of the holy text, and Qur2an yields yet slightly different images.

New transliterations and versions of a word are a way of shaking loose our impressions and re-setting the frame. Insha’allah is very different from isA. And, for instance, if hijab turned into 7egab (not recommending it), perhaps we would see that idea-cluster afresh.



Categories: translation

22 replies

  1. Thank you for this “aha!” moment. You make a very astute observation: The shapes of words are inherently laden with connotation.

  2. Excellent idea to do the Google image search! I think many newspapers still use Koran, hence more crazed mobs in the results.

    My complaint is, how did it get to be Qur2an? Isn’t 2 meant to be qaf? Grumble. I learned the full-on Library of Congress transliteration system, and I love it…but I won’t be inflicting it on a casual reader anytime soon.

    But I love isA–it’s lighter, less ponderous, less prone to English speakers reading too much into the phrase. I could go for 7egab too–that’s an issue that definitely needs some lightening up… Maybe it should depend on who’s wearing it: teenybopper in Cilantro with triple-layered color-coordinated and bling-trimmed scarf–definitely 7egab. 7egab bgd.

  3. oooooh, i’m seeing dialects in textese right there. the 2 replacing q and ‘ confuses me no end …

  4. Interesting points. Sometimes though texting transliteration follows the local dialect instead of the written script. As a Lebanese speaker, I would have never recognized the word shera3 as street (which I would have transliterated as share3). Shera3 sounds like the word for “sail” to me. Same goes for ji7ad, which I always thought was pronounced with the soft h and not the hard 7. Maybe it would be a good idea to use numbers to translate the written script as opposed to the local dialect’s pronunciation.

  5. Ideally, we wouldn’t use transliteration at all. I hope to see the day on which all keyboards have a toggle key for an Arabic option. Transliteration is bulky and deceptive; the connotations of meaning inherent in the different ways of writing it prove my point, as does the variety of comments here. We should get rid of it altogether.

    In the meantime, we’ll continue to slog through its variations. I never did learn it. Maybe it should be firmly standardized, especially considering the dual influence of Arabic gaining popularity in non-Arabic speaking parts of the world, and Arabic texters and bloggers who must use non-Arabic letters.

    • Who would standardize & how would they communicate it to the masses?

      It’s not just dialect…for instance, here we transliterate مصر as both Masr and Misr. OK, maybe the “i” can be thrown out as wrong, but the point is they’re in use (and I am at fault as much as anyone for tossing out any old transliteration and assuming I’ll be understood….).

      • My eight-year-old, reading over my shoulder, asks, “Why don’t they just write it Msr?”

        • Good questions… I agree with your eight-year-old, to an extent. Assuming that the readers and writers of transliteration know Arabic, they could throw out certain vowels. Standardization would apply to those letters that are not present in other languages.

          As I’m thinking about this, I sense that transliteration cannot be standardized, unless each dialect would have its own standardization. Won’t it be easier to develop an Arabic option for keyboards?

  6. Hy, you are right about “jihad” not being written with a “7″, which is strictly a symbol for the velarized or deep H, not the h (as in “holy”). But the “2 “standing in for both hamza (the glottal sound) and the qaaf is because qaaf almost always becomes a hamza in colloquial. Almost, but not always: we would still text al-Qahira as al-Qahira and not al-2ahira, and “ma2bool” for maqbul (acceptable). However, when the texted word would have BEGUN with a “Q” in fus7a, we don’t do 2; we do “a” as in ahwa (coffee). And of course, we Egyptians don’t do “j”; only “g” :)

    • I guess you can tell it’s Egyptians and Lebanese who developed the chat alphabet… But I thought 2 was for qaf because it looks like a qaf. Oh well. (Incidentally, I did recently see some old blueprints of the Quba Palace and they wrote it 2uba. This is from, oh, 80 years ago?)

  7. It was our own way to deal with keyboards and our dialects.
    That’s the first time I discover that “2″ can be used as a “kaf” too. As far as I know, in Lebanon, we always use it as a “hamzeh”. Why would we use it as a “kaf” if “kaf” already exists in the Latin alphabet? It’s interesting how this alphabet was born from need and gave meaning to the visual form of numbers, and then later, a number was ,without a need, used for its form.

    Thank you for the interesting remarks!

  8. Does the author of this text even know Arabic? Jihād جهاد and taḥrīr تحرير have two different h’s. That is why the last paragraph of this text is all wrong. It is easy to type Arabic and also transliterated Arabic using Unicode, so why all the numbers?

    • No worries (ahach) about my feelings!

      It’s true, I’m self-taught, and rather scatterbrained-ed-ly so. At some point, isA, I’ll either move on to a different (pre)occupation or get a proper education.

      I also have no idea what Unicode means, so there’s another giant black hole in my education.

      • I find your Arabic knowledge inspiring. I have yet to read an entire novel in Arabic, and I’m Arab! I think you have something wonderful here and hope you will choose the latter option rather than the former!

        • It’s interesting… I remember discussing blogging with an African lit professor in um… 2006ish. He thought of blogging as a space where you could “work out” various ideas before going public with them. And I think that was my original idea. Although my blog has somehow become the most public thing that I do!

          Perhaps more people have read things I wrote for The Guardian or The Believer, but they don’t interact with me…so it feels much less public.

  9. François, there’s no need to be so aggressive! But yes, jihad uses the soft ha, so it wouldn’t be written as “je7ad”, unless 7 is being used for the soft ha as well these days!

    Moving on, this is a very interesting idea! If it’s of any interest, when I read Qur’an spelt as “Qur2an”, my first reaction was to recoil in distaste. I think it comes from associating the use of numbers in transliteration with internet speak and, not giving the word Qur’an the appropriate level of respect. Of course, I’m not saying that anyone who writes it as “Qur2an” isn’t respecting it, but it was an interesting moment that reflected the topic of this post!

    • I agree that Qur2an has a less respectful feel to it (for me), although I’m sure that’s not the intention of anyone who’s used it.

  10. A really nice post! Aside of rendering Arabesque characters in Latin alphabet/Arabic numerals, the conventions of how to transliterate vowels is still being experimented with (this came up in the comments). Is street share3 or shaari3 or shaare3 for example.

  11. When I was proofreading my book manuscript, one helpful Harvard grad student finally got me to see the difference between transliteration (conveying the way the word is spelled by assigning one equivalent symbol per letter) and transcription (more of what a musicologist does, trying to convey how it sounds). Duh. Most intuitive transliterators would actually use some improvised mixture of transliteration and transcription. Which causes a lot of silly arguments about, say, “el-” vs. “al-.” Or J vs. G.
    For Arabic, fuller transliteration is nice, because it helps Arabic-learners (like my students) imagine how things would be spelled. But it does tend to fuSHa-ize the vowels and alienate native speakers, who often prefer to transcribe how things sound (to them). The “best” system to adopt just depends on who your target audience is, and your purpose.
    So is Ahdaf Soueif trying to domesticate spelling-with-numbers and convey its hipness to her anglophone readers? Or to alienate those who are easily alienated by all things that look foreign? Might she do both?

    • However, I imagine, perhaps incorrectly, that more Anglophones are primed to see Arabs (or at least Egyptians) as “cool” than at any other time in the last 20 years?

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