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

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Airships and Volapük

The final decade of the 19th century was marked by a rash of airship stories, similar in some respects to more recent tales of flying saucers and other UFOs. One distinctive motif separating those earlier tales from the contemporary ones is the frequent reference to Volapük, the constructed international auxiliary language, in connection with these airships.

The first such incident, an obvious hoax, allegedly occurred near Lanark, Illinois on April 9, 1897. According to the Freeport Daily Democrat, a local farmer, Johann Fliegeltoub reported that an airship spun out of control during a blizzard and crashed on his farm. Two of the occupants were killed, but Fliegeltoub pulled one injured pilot, dressed like the early Greeks, from the wreckage. A General F.A. Kerr, who was fluent in Volapük, reportedly conversed with the creature in that idiom, and thereby divined that he was from Mars. When his strength returned, he repaired his ship and left.

A scant few days later, on April 15, 1897, the Jefferson Bee similarly reported that an airship had crashed near Jefferson, Iowa on 10 April. A terrible sound was heard and the next day a craft was found. Armed with (of all things) a Volapük dictionary, the intrepid reporter entered the airship, which was discovered to contain four bodies mashed to a pulp. Despite this, it was ascertained that they had two faces, and two sets of arms and legs, and they were taller than Earth people. This too was subsequently acknowledged to be a hoax by the newspaper staff.

In the following year, the science journalist Garrett Putnam Serviss published his first pioneering effort in science fiction as a serial in the Boston Globe. This serial, an early space opera entitled Edison’s Conquest of Mars, includes some speculation on the Martian tongue:

It seemed a fair assumption that the language of the Martians would be scientific in its structure. We had so much evidence of the practical bent of their minds, and of the immense progress which they had made in the direction of the scientific conquest of nature, that it was not to be supposed their medium of communication with one another would be lacking in clearness, or would possess any of the puzzling and unnecessary ambiguities that characterized the languages spoken on the earth.

“We shall not find them making he’s and she’s of stones, sticks and other inanimate objects,” said one of the American linguists. “They must certainly have gotten rid of all that nonsense long ago.” […]

“I think,” said a German enthusiast, “that it will be a universal language, the Volapuk of Mars, spoken by all the inhabitants of that planet.”

Serviss’ words reflect a certain fin de siècle attitude towards natural languages and nature more broadly, namely that its ultimate fate was to be subjugated and tamed by man. Peculiarly, all of these endorsements of Volapük (if indeed they can be considered as such) were made well into the twilight of the language movement. The last Volapük congress was in 1889, the Kadem Volapüka that had been founded to promulgate the language had completely sidelined its creator Martin Schleyer in favor of developing a new competitor subsequently known as Idiom Neutral, and Volapükists were defecting by the thousands every year to the banner of the verda stelo. These were not the most auspicious of circumstances for the language. It would not be long before Charles Sprague, the foremost American Volapükist (and, incidentally, grandfather of the author L. Sprague de Camp), would declare Volapük to be a failure.

It is possible that news of the decline in Volapük’s fortunes had not yet penetrated Lanark, Illinois and Jefferson, Iowa, but I find it difficult to believe that Serviss, who was based in New York, was ignorant of these developments.

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.

Checking In

I’ve been away for a while, but I’ve been working this entire time.

I’ve since returned to my research, but what occasioned this blog post today was the announcement of a new digital research resource on the Hugoye list, namely Iraqi Academic Scientific Journals. This is an online repository for (currently) 51,892 articles from 206 academic peer-reviewed journals produced by 35 institutions in Iraq.  Among these 51,892 articles was one on the Mandaeans, entitled “الزي الديني لطائفة الصابئة المندائيين في البصرة” (“The religious garb of Sabian-Mandaeans in Basra”), written by Abd al-Latif Hashem of the Basra Studies Center.

You can read the full article here.


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