All my stuff about Arabic goes here. As usual, this is here on Wikipedia in order to be free for the taking, in the hope that it may be helpful for the articles. All translations are from Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic.
Enough whinging about translation issues that repeat themselves; doing something in the way of fixing it is the purpose of this section.
It was some years ago on an online forum, I don’t remember which and when, that a participant complained about “the Arabs’ inclination to overflown, poetic language” (roughly that wording). The quoted snippet made the cause of that complaint clear to me. Again, memory does not serve, but I remember the main issue: the addressing of someone by using a preceding “O”, viz., “O vile oppressor” and kindred examples.
Because the particle yā precedes the addressee, many translators mistakenly think it is equivalent in force to “O”. It is not: it carries the same weight as changing -us to -e in Latin. In Latin it is possible to address Brutus as either “Brute!” alone or “O Brute!”; the force of the former is definitely weaker than that of the latter. Similarly in Arabic, if the strong, often poetic, force of address is desired, yā alone is not used, but a more forceful particle instead or in addition to it, such as ʾayyuhā (أَيُّهَا). When the addressee is preceded by ʾayyuhā or other such particles, the translation with “O” is merited. Yā by itself is a mere formality, just as it is mandatory to turn the -us into -e in Latin when addressing Brutus.
Bottom line: if only yā appears before the addressee, do not translate it.
With ʾinna the case is even more complicated, because its usage does not conform to clear rules that can be put down in a grammar-book. Of the most reasonable explanations as to the role of ʾinna, there is the one that says it is for “strengthening the nominal sentence” (Rabin, C., Semitic Languages: An Introduction, Biblical Encyclopaedia Library, Jerusalem 1991, p. 119), but that is vague, and only highlights the truth that the usage of ʾinna is not rule-based but a matter of Fingerspitzgefühl. That is, it has to be acquired by reading and reading and reading Arabic texts till one’s ghost is ready to get out (figuratively, of course).
For translators, the issue is not so acute. They need only keep in mind that, like yā, ʾinna is spice for the text, background music for the scene. So even a relatively mild translation like “indeed” is too forceful, not to mention such cases of overkill like Pickthall’s use of “Lo!” for every instance of ʾinna (the prime reason why I can’t stand reading Pickthall’s translation of the Qur’an).
Bottom line: leave ʾinna untranslated, for there is no way in English to convey its meaning. ʾaddarsu mumillun and ʾinna ddarsa mumillun both translate as “the lesson is boring” (a good reason for a university student to learn Arabic, provided he is sure his professors cannot read it), and although there is a difference in the shade of meaning between them, it is as elusive to translate as the difference between credo che venga and credo che verrà (“I believe he’ll come”) in Italian.
If one says it is not reasonable of me to expect academic-level transliteration of every Arabic name and word encountered, then I concede that point, though such a transliteration given at the first instance of the word in question would do wonders to reduce my frustration. To impress the importance of transliteration when it comes to writing down Arabic in a Latin-script context, I shall bring a few examples.
- أَذى correctly aḏa(n) (the bracketed n is a grammatical ending), simplistically adha(n), meaning “damage”, “harm” etc.
- أَضْحى correctly aḍḥa(n), simplistically adha(n), meaning “slaughter animal” (whence the name of the Islamic festival).
- أَدْهَشَ correctly adhaša, simplistically adhasha, meaning “to astonish”.
In the examples above, you get three phonetic meanings to choose from upon seeing the digraph dh; with d serving for both dāl and ḍād, and h serving for both hā and ḥā, and dh the conventional way for writing ḏāl, there is a total of five options.
You could say context would usually clarify which it is. Even inside a sentence this isn’t reliable, but when you’re up against proper names, then context is pretty useless. Add to this the fact that Arabic has no capital letters to indicate that the word is a proper name rather than a common noun. Context was of no use to me when I first saw the name of a famous Lebanese singer, Haifa Wehbeh, thus spelt. It was an open-and-shut case for me that she was named after the Israeli port city. And it was a shock for me to find out, some time later, how her name is written in Arabic script, in contrast with the city of Haifa, which I had known for quite long.
- حَيْفَا correctly Ḥaifa, simplistically Haifa, of Hebrew origin.
- هَيْفَاء correctly Haifāʾ, simplistically Haifa, feminine of the adjective أَهْيَف ʾahyaf, meaning “slender”, “slim” (how appropriate for the person in question).
In Demotic Arabic the difference is much smaller than in Literary Arabic: the final hamza of the latter is not pronounced, and consequently the stress is brought back to the first syllable; the two words rhyme in Demotic Arabic, which they don’t in the Fuṣḥa. Nevertheless, the fundamental difference between the initial consonant, ḥ (unvoiced pharyngeal fricative) vs h (glottal fricative), no matter that simplistic Latin transliteration alots h to both, means we have two different roots here, two unrelated words. And no connection between the Lebanese actress and the Israeli port city.
Transliteration, in competent hands, leads to understanding (Arabic fahm); in other hands, it can make further work with the material like walking on coal (Arabic faḥm) after a few minutes of heating. I do not take it lightly and neither should you.