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.