Translating Names: What Do You Call a Horse Named ريح?

This must be Hamama / Dove depicted on the cover.

Regular Arablitters know that Wajdi al-Ahdal’s بلد بلا سماء (A Land without Sama/Sky), trans. William Hutchins, is scheduled for release this fall from Garnet Publishing. Plans are to call it A Land without Jasmine.

I appreciate the difficulties here — the name “Sama” does not mean “that bluish air above your head” in English — but A Land without Sky is a lovely metaphor for claustrophobic absence, whereas A Land Without Jasmine is just a place that lacks a certain flower.

Names are a lesser but persistent issue in Ibrahim Nasrallah’s newly released Time of White Horses (trans. Nancy Roberts, April 2012). For instance, the horses often have common-noun names, like حمامة (Dove), فضة (Silver), ريح (Wind), and خضرة (Green).

Roberts’ solution is more or less what I’ve done above:

“Fidda (Silver)!” shouted Tariq.


As for their other horses, their names were Khadra (Green), Rih (Wind), and Jalila (Majestic One).

I find the parentheses inelegant. I understand that clauses confuse the agency of the author with that of the translator, but I far prefer: “…their names were Khadra, or Green; Reeh, or Wind; and Jaleela, or Majestic.”

After this, Roberts simply uses the Arabic term: “At last Khaled arrived on Rih’s back.” But why not translate: “At last Khaled arrived on Wind’s back”?

If “Wind” is too awkward in English — and let’s say that it is — then there are dozens of synonyms for moving air.

All this reminds me of an interview I read a while back with German-English translator Sally-Ann Spencer. She was discussing her translation of The Dwarves, by Markus Heitz, over at SFFanz. She said:

The names of the characters and places gave me lots of room to be creative. The original German names wouldn’t mean anything to English-language readers, and a direct translation wasn’t appropriate. For example, the fantasy continent that is home to the dwarves is called das Geborgene Land, which directly translates as the ‘safe’ or ‘secure’ or ‘snug’ country, from the past tense of the verb bergen to ‘save’, ‘rescue’, ‘salvage’ etc. Geborgen has shades of meaning in German that don’t immediately translate to English, so I came up with Girdlegard, which echoes some of the sounds in the German name and alludes to the double girdle protecting (or gu(a)rding) the dwarves’ homeland.

I’m not suggesting that Roberts should’ve changed the village in Time of White Horses from Hadiya (Peaceful) to Sereneya. Nor am I suggesting that the character Kareem should become Corliss. (According to some baby-name website, “Corliss” is an English name that means “cheerful and generous.”) I’m just interested in playing around.For a variety of reasons, Arabic–>English literary translation has not been as playful as some other language pairs.

Also from Spencer, who certainly had more room to play because Dwarves is fantasy:

There were two groups of characters whose names had a fascinating provenance. Heitz’s dark elves are called Albae (singular: Alb) in German. Alb is similar to the old word for elf, Elb, and it’s also linked to the German word for nightmare, Alptraum, because the Alb of German mythology is responsible for bad dreams. Of course, this association isn’t possible to recreate in English, but I wanted to demonstrate the relationship between the elves and the dark elves. I couldn’t very well call them alves (singular: alf!), so in the end I went for älfar (singular: älf), which has echoes of the álfar of Norse mythology and sounds similar to elf. Heitz also invents a set of characters called boglins (an anagram of goblins), but Mattel produces toys of that name, so we went with bognilim (singular: bognil) instead.


11 thoughts on “Translating Names: What Do You Call a Horse Named ريح?

  1. Translating names is a problem, but you can leave them untranslated, or use an exotic name on purpose. Karl May’s alter ego, for example, had a horse named Rih. Just like that, and it suggests speed and swiftness. This is what German Wikipedia says on ‘Fast Wind’, the magic horse that has a kind of overdrive:
    Kara Ben Nemsi erhält den legendären Rappen Rih (= Wind) als Geschenk des Scheichs der Haddedihn, Mohammed Emin. Wenn ihm Kara Ben Nemsi die Hand zwischen die Ohren legt und „Rih!“ ruft, mobilisiert Rih seine letzten Kraftreserven und wird enorm schnell. Rih hat einen Sohn, Assil Ben Rih, der vom Sohn Hadschi Halef Omars, Kara Ben Halef, geritten wird. Rih kommt im letzten Band des so genannten Orientzyklus, Der Schut (1892), ums Leben.

    Rih is also a famous Dutch hand built sports bicycle (since 1921), undoubtedly named after Karl May’s horse, that was introduced at the end of the 19th century. No translation needed…

    1. Would an English-language reader get any of that? Seems like a stretch, but perhaps!

  2. I don’t find it convincing to translate ‘sama’ into ‘jasmine’, for many reasons. First, jasmine is not a metaphor for the sky by any means though it is associated with Spring in some Arab cultures, such as the Damascene culture. I’d rather translate the title into “A Land without Space/Horizon”. This woud be closer to the meaning that the Arabic title seems to convey, and to the author’s choice of words (diction). Metphorically speaking, it’s a land without any hope, or any future”. I find it weird that many translators complicate the title and make unnecessary changes that reflect their own assumptions and interpretations, without giving the reader the chance to question and to interpret the title. Anyway, it’s always up to the translator to decide. This is my point of view as a professional literary translator and researcher.

    1. Dr. Iman, I agree, “A Land Without Jasmine” is totally different in many ways.

      Many titles are totally different (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was more like “Men Who Hate Women” in Swedish, wasn’t it?). But “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” sounds fun and interesting, and probably resonates with the book (I don’t know).

      Does the title “A Land Without Jasmine” do justice to the book, its ideas? Does it lure in new readers? Or is it just wrong?

      I might add that the name “Jasmine” carries its own particular freight in English. While in Arabic it’s a spring-y word, in English it’s got Disney princess and fairy-tale connotations.

      1. Thank you for your comment. I think the word jamine is not only wrong; it does not do justice to the book. If the main idea is just attracting the reader, a new title can be invented as in the Swedish work you referred to. In Arabic, jasmine is a flower, and Damascus is referred to in the Syrian culture as the “city of jasmine”, because this flower grows abundantly in it.

        Since ‘Sama’ is a female character in the novel which revolves about her “disappearance”, as far as I know, the title can be translated into ” Lands without a Woman”. That would convey the message of the author while remaining true to the original title. In the novel, Sama is a woman who is exposed to harrassment, so she is either forced to disappear, or probably disappears in a suspicious manner. If you want the title to sound interesting, you can translate it into “A Land Without A Rainbow”. At least, the rainbow is associated with the “sky”. This is a suggestion, but it might help the translator find a proper and interesting title.

        1. Unfortunately, I agree with you, but I’m not sure I have any influence here…

  3. As long as I know, in the novel Sama’ (Sky) is the name of the main character, who disappears. This explains, I guess, the choice of the title. I want to emphasize, however, that titles are more often chosen by publishers rather than by translators

    1. Yes, sorry that’s not more clear in this post.

      And yes, generally, although I have to assume in this case they worked together on a solution, since the name is an integral part of the narrative? Perhaps not.

          1. I had thought about just calling her Sky … although of course then it’s not an “arab-sounding” name. How much does that matter? Not that all Arabs have Arab-sounding names, cough cough.

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