The doings of American philologasters are, in truth, a curious study.

Archive for the month “March, 2014”

What’s in a Name?

Translation is fraught with many problems, of which the transcription of names is possibly the least. Even so, it is by no means trivial, but rather part and parcel of the larger issues that translators face, including:

  1. Function: What is the purpose of this translation? Should we privilege the source language or the target language? Can we strike a successful compromise between the two?
  2. Audience: Is this intended for a scholarly audience or a broader public? If a religious text, is it intended for the use of the religious community that composed and preserved it? Can a translation serve more than one public effectively?

Clearly, these two issues are related, and the decisions that arise from addressing them should govern the translation from the very start, in every respect, including the transcription of names. There are, of course, any number of ways to transcribe names:

  1. Direct Transfer: This privileges the source language by using a phonemic transliteration system to render the names exactly as they appear in the source language, with each phoneme mapped onto the corresponding phoneme in the script of the target language. Thus, Mandaic ࡌࡉࡓࡉࡀࡉ becomes miriai. This is the method privileged by scholarly publications not intended for consumption by the general public or any other stakeholders such as religious communities, as scholarly transliterations can be jarring when encountered in context, particularly when the translation is otherwise fluid in the target language. Furthermore, these transliterations give no indication of how the name is pronounced phonetically. For example, one could possibly intuit that miriai is pronounced something like /mi:rijɛɪ/, but never that hibil is pronounced /hi:u̯ɛl/ or /hi:vɪl/.
  2. Substitution: This method privileges the target language, “naturalizing” the name by substituting the closest equivalent, often on an etymological basis. Thus Mandaic ࡌࡉࡓࡉࡀࡉ becomes Mary, Miriam, or Maryam. In the case of religious texts, this raises issues of equivalence; is the Mandaean ࡌࡉࡓࡉࡀࡉ indeed the same figure as the biblical Mary or Miriam, or the Koranic Maryam, and do we wish to imply this to our readers? Additionally, as in the case of ࡌࡉࡓࡉࡀࡉ, there may be more than one equivalent, or in the case of other figures, no equivalent whatsoever. What principles should govern our selection from a variety of potential candidates, and what criteria should we use when confronted with a name that has no equivalent?
  3. Adaptation: This method privileges the source language, but meets the target language halfway by employing the spelling and pronunciation rules of the target language. Although a compromise of sorts, this is the method favored by religious communities, who generally preserve the original form of the name for their own purposes even when language shift has occurred, and often do not identify them with their equivalents in other languages and faith traditions.

I feel that using the third strategy offers translations the potential to provide maximum utility to the largest possible audience of readers. It is not without its own obstacles, however; can English, for example, be said to have a uniform standard for spelling and pronunciation rules? Certainly not, especially with regard to loanwords, which have entered the language at different stages of time, and whose transcription reflects their antiquity. Furthermore, as the examples of transliteration given in direct transfer indicate, each transliteration is a compromise. If it is fully phonemic, or etymological, it can obscure the pronunciation; if it is fully phonetic, on the other hand, it runs the risk of being incomprehensible to the lay reader. A compromise transcription system, such as those used in dictionaries or for the rendering of pidgins and creole languages, is a possibility, but such systems are often marked as low in prestige, which will undoubtedly affect the reception of the translation. For example, Miriyey and Heewel may be easy to pronounce, but they are jarring as names.

For my purposes, in translating the Doctrine of John, I need to employ a system that satisfies the following conditions:

  • one that is already in wide use for rendering foreign, and particularly Semitic, names in English;
  • one that enjoys relatively high prestige, relative to other transcription systems;
  • ideally, one that is associated with the formal orthography of religious texts.

In this regard, the obvious candidate is an adapted form of the system used to transliterate names from the Bible, originally employed by the translators of the Authorized Version (KJV) and preserved in most subsequent translations by dint of tradition. For example, the preceding names would be rendered something like Miriaï and Hiuel.

There are obvious disadvantages and advantages to this system. Let’s start with the obvious disadvantages.


  • the system was devised to reflect Hebrew and Aramaic, not Mandaic;
  • the system is pre-phonemic and reflects an outdated (early 17th c.) understanding of their phonologies;
  • the orthography and phonology of Early Modern English differ from those of contemporary English.

The last point may require further explanation. In Early Modern English, letters such as i/j and u/v reflect the same phonemes, and their distribution reflects orthographic considerations rather than phonetic ones (the second member of each pair is generally reserved for word-initial position). The letters y and w were not used to represent glides, as in contemporary English. Also, the orthography does not reflect the Great Vowel Shift, which means that some readers may be tempted to pronounce Hiuel as  /haɪu̯ɛl/.

That being said, this system is not without its advantages. By preserving the aesthetics of English orthography and not violating any obvious constraints, and hearkening back to the orthography of the Authorized Version, this system introduces foreign names to an Anglophone audience as if they were already familiar to the reader. Additionally, readers will immediately recognize the names as belonging to some foreign, possibly biblical language, which immediately imbues them with a higher level of prestige than those written in an ad hoc transcription system, such as that used for pidgins and creoles. Thus the names are simultaneously familiar and exotic.

In a subsequent post, I’d like to tackle this transcription system, mapping the Authorized orthography for Hebrew and Aramaic onto the sounds of Mandaic.


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