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How Wehr and Google translate: Arabic dictionaries

“Basically I’ve only used the Wehr,” intones the large journalist, eyes roving the lines of Arabic print before him. He glances up.

“Okay, let’s say 80% Wehr and 20%Google Translate,” his eyebrows fidget behind his spectacles. “To save time.”

Andrew Bossone shared The Daily Star article of June 13, 2014

The longest article about Arabic dictionaries and it doesnt describe the one problem with hans wehr: entries within each letter are organized left to right.


The journalist, let’s call him Leon, is an Arabist, one of a relatively small group of non-Arabs (Leon’s from California) who work in Arabic.

Like many Arabists who came to maturity in the late 20th century, Leon honed his skills speaking, reading, writing and translating Arabic during an extended sojourn in Syria.

Nowadays he labors at an English-language daily in Beirut, deciphering reports of Syria’s immolation.

You can’t learn Arabic properly without a dictionary. Leon’s is the English translation of the Arabic-German “Arabisches W?rterbuch” (1952), generally known as “Hans Wehr,” after the Arabist who compiled it.

“One word that’s not in Wehr,” Leon says, “is ‘wajif,’ the ‘beating or pulsing’ of the heart.” He flips over the stack of A4 papers in his hands and pens wajif in Arabic.

“Beautiful word. One day I punched it into Google Translate to see what’d come up.” He’s not quite smiling. On the A4, just beneath “wajif,” the pen scribbles “And Jeff.”

This August, Oxford University Press will launch its new-and-improved Oxford Arabic Dictionary.

This English-Arabic/Arabic-English resource promises everything the early 21st-century Arabist needs – “130,000 words and phrases,” the press release effuses, including “the latest vocabulary from computing, business, the media, and the arts across both languages.”

The OAD will be available online but technology slaves may be disappointed to learn that Oxford’s product hasn’t reached the “app age.”

Confronted by a poetic graffito spray-painted on a wall in Meknes or Ramadi, an OAD-user won’t be able to retrieve all possible word usages simply by pointing his smart phone at it.

Inheritor of the sprawling Oxford English Dictionary – the language’s most expansive etymological database – OUP is the patriarch of Anglophone lexicography and the sole rival to Webster and his spawn.

Oxford published its first Arabic-English dictionary decades ago. Leon has never used it. But then, as an American, he would be one of Webster’s children.

In the tradition of checks and balances, the only other U.S. citizen implicated in this story contracts Leon. “Unless I am absolutely confident of the root and the form,” declares the consultant, “I often go to the Oxford first, get all the options and then run them by Wehr to figure out what’s what.”

The consultant, let’s call her Eliza Dushku, is a Massachusetts-born Arabist who graduated from a respected Arabic-language program in Cairo. In Beirut, she devotes much of her energy to raising funds for worthy humanitarian projects around the region.

“I have all sorts of ‘tasjeel tijari’ papers that I use every time I renew my work permit and iqama,” Dushku confides. “So I was recently writing an email to my accountant to start the renewal process.

“One paper is called the “idha’a tijariyya.” So I’m trying to translate that and all that comes to mind is that Lebanese radio station jingle – ‘Idha’a al-sharq … in Beyrouth.’ (Radio transmission of the Orient…)

“Hans Wehr isn’t of much use because, quite honestly, I have no f ?ing clue what the jidhr [root] of “idha’a” is. According to Google Translate, “idha’a tijariyya” means “commercial radio,” which is confusing, as I thought I worked for a social development consulting firm, not a radio station.

“Consulting with a native Arabic-speaker,” Dushku says, “I learned ‘idha’a tijariyya’ is the ‘commercial broadcast announcement’ – as in the announcement of your registration as a commercial company. Who knew?”

Not every foreigner working the Middle East and North Africa is an Arabist, of course, but anyone who’s had a serious curiosity about this region has had to grapple, more or less desperately, with Arabic.

Heidelberg University Arabist Ines Weinrich says Wehr is the dictionary she uses most often, “although it is not well-equipped for texts from the 7th century.

If there’s vocabulary in that seventh-century Arabic text of yours that really needs translating, she elaborates, “you may refer to some Latin or French [dictionaries], and, of course, the Arabic-English Lexicon of E.W. Lane.

Weinrich has lived all over but has been a serial resident of Syria and Lebanon. She holds a Ph.D. in Arab studies and has written upon a range of musicological subjects, from the oeuvre of Fairouz and the Rahbani Brothers to the place of sound in Sunni devotional practices.

Wehr, she continues, “naturally does not include vocabulary of very modern Arabic literature. You may use the Modern Standard Langenscheidt dictionary for that, which is, annoyingly, arranged [in a way that] makes it difficult to trace the origin of a word in order to decide what translation fits best.”

Ralph Bodenstein echoes Weinrich’s assessment of Langenscheid and Lane.

An architectural historian, Bodenstein is nearing the end of some years at the DAI (German Archaeological Institute) and Cairo University. He’s written two book-length studies on Beirut. “Villen in Beirut,” a study of domestic architecture and culture in 19th- and early 20th-century Beirut, was published by Imhof Verlag in 2012.

“I use very occasionally ‘Al-Munjid’ [apparently compiled by Louis Ma’luf al-Yassu’i and Bernard Tottel al-Yassu’i, a pair of Catholic monks, in the early 20th century], and sometimes ‘Muhit al-Muhit,’ [compiled by Al-Nahda intellectual Butrus al-Bustani (1819-1883)],” Bodenstein testifies, “and the Zenker – a late-19th century Arabic-Ottoman-Persian-into-German dictionary, which has all those non-Arabic words that every Arab uses but no one puts in the Arabic dictionary (‘kobri,’ ‘karakol,’ ‘dughri,’ …).

“My most practical dictionary is the miniature Elias Arabic-English,” he continues. “I carry it in my laptop bag and look up those odd words when I need to.”

Like all cultural production, Arabic dictionaries have a history. One debate that’s shaped this story is how to arrange its listings.

While it makes sense to lay out European-language dictionaries in alphabetical order, not everyone agrees that’s the case for Arabic.

It’s worth noting that, like Wehr, the OAB organizes its Arabic lexicography by jidhr – the 3 or 4 consonant root- beneath most Arabic words.

Jens Hanssen is a tireless collector of historical anecdote who a few years back published the insightful “Fin de Siècle Beirut: The Making of an Ottoman Provincial Capital.” A Wehr-thumbing Oxford alumnus, he nowadays teaches history at the University of Toronto.

The very first Arabic dictionary, he notes, dates from the Umayyad period. Its words were apparently arranged on the basis of what part of the maw is used in pronunciation – starting with the deepest point of the throat and ending at the lips. Another early dictionary arrayed its entries by rhyme.

“Bustani’s ‘Muhit al-Muhit’ (1870) was strictly alphabetical, and an expansion of Faruzabadi’s 15th-century dictionary,” Hanssen says. “Edward Lane’s famous 1863-90s Arabic-English dictionary is a translation/addition of Zabidi’s 18th-century ‘Taj al-‘Arus’ dictionary. Lane got all the way to ‘qaf’ when he died in 1876.”

A fair bit of drama has grown out of the history of Arabic dictionaries.

Whether out of conviction or utility, Wehr himself was a product of his times.

“Yes he was an NSDAP [German National Socialist Party] member (joined in 1940),” Hanssen notes, “but defenders point to his efforts to save his Jewish dictionary assistant, Hedwig Klein, from the Gestapo, ultimately unsuccessfully. His ‘defenders’ in the Orientalist guild downplay his critique of Zionism and support of Arab nationalism.”

Hanssen’s favorite lexical anecdote concerns a quarrel among the leading lights of the Nahda (the late-19th century Arabic renaissance) in Beirut – unearthed by Moroccan writer Abdelfattah Kilito – about whether Arabic ought to be translatable at all.

It stemmed from the poem Ahmad Faris Shidyaq (1804-1887) wrote for Queen Victoria, which did not get him invited to court, as he had hoped.

“Basically,” Hanssen says, “Shidyaq realizes … that Arabic is doomed to be made translatable. The only way Arabic poetry would find acceptance in the West is to … render Arabic more transparent.

“This provoked Ibrahim al-Yaziji’s ire and they attacked each other in the press about dumbing-down the language. At one point Yaziji publically called Shidyaq an ‘ignorant ass.’

“Shidyaq then takes it out on Butrus al-Bustani, calling his ‘Muhit al-Muhit’ fundamentally flawed because it was designed for foreigners, hence redundant for Arab purposes, et cetera.”

All three of these Arabists favor Wehr over the Oxford. As they’re all German born, their preferences invite speculation that Teutonic Orientalists are more susceptible to Wehr indoctrination.

Weinrich, for one, sniffs that she doesn’t feel at all indoctrinated to Wehr’s culture.

OUP has compiled its own periodized history of Arabic dictionaries – Google-able as “Oxford Handbooks” – which includes a critical survey of the lexicographical literature.

It encapsulates the period from Wehr’s first edition to today’s online databases.

“It could be said that we still live in the ‘Wehr era,’” Oxford concedes, “in terms of the influence that the last Arabic–English edition (1979) continues to hold among English-speaking researchers and students of Arabic.”

In a hopeful codecil, the anonymous author suggests that Dutch researchers may claim that this “Wehr era” ended with the publication of Van Mol’s Arabic-Dutch learner’s dictionary (2001) and the Arabic-Dutch lexicon (2003) by Hoogland et al.

Establishing that the end of the “Wehr era” can be imagined (at least in Holland) implies that there is a market for a new Arabic-English dictionary.

This optimism rings with the unspoken confidence that no Anglophone in his right mind would bother learning Dutch just to use the Van Mol or Hoogland et al.

Dutch political scientist Reinoud Leenders is an Arabist of this post-Wehr generation.

A reader in International Relations and Middle East Studies at King’s College, London, Leenders’ 2012 study “Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-Building in Postwar Lebanon,” belongs on every Lebanese bookshelf.

Though he studied in Holland, Leenders was weaned on Wehr. He says he seldom uses it now, not because he dislikes Germans but because it’s not practical for his needs. He is diffident about Van Mol and Hoogland et al.

“Never heard of them,” he shrugs. “I usually use this Lebanese pocket dictionary, the Baalbaki.

Like all adventures, the Arabic language holds both frustration and discovery in store.

This journalist once embarked on the adventure of Arabic and, like many, he never quite arrived. Yet Wehr did provide a few discoveries on the road to failure.

Take the verb “saba’a,” which shares the same root as the noun “isba’” (finger). “Saba’a,” Wehr informs students, is “to insert a finger into the hen, so as to ascertain whether she is going to lay an egg.” 

This sort of lexical specificity is sure to wring chortles from bewildered Anglophones stumbling through their first few Arabic classes, especially the adolescent male kind.

Since introduced to “saba‘a,” the journalist has inflicted it upon dozens of bemused Syrians, not one of whom professed to have heard the usage.

Weinrich’s sighs linger frequent but unspoken in the margins of this business. “I know that many non-native Arabic speakers are fond of these words. Most of them are about camels,” she jokes, “or sexual practices or the sexual practices of camels, or whatever. I find it tells us a lot about the language system – how to build many words with different meanings around three letters – and the life-sustaining culture.”

She speculates there are dozens of Arabic names for different clouds – invaluable in an environment where water is scarce – and a rich vocabulary of movements typical of animals.

“Fantastic,” she says. “But try to imagine translating a poem that uses these words.”

Are secular States an Impossible Mission? Lebanon Civic (Laic) Pride movement. Part 3

I have been following the comments and suggestions on “How to establish a secular central State in Lebanon”. You may read the previous post:

Over a century ago, while the current Near-East States were part of the Ottoman Empire, Butrus al-Bustani (1819-83), the Lebanese polymath author, secular and Arab nationalist, wrote: “Religion belongs to God, the country to everyone

The secular leader Antoun Saadeh wrote: “Our fighting for Heaven made us lose the Land”

Alex posted a condensed version of the article on the UK National Secular Society website (with minor editing).

Under the title “Asking the impossible? Lebanon’s march for secularism”, Alex wrote:

“While in most respects the previous 17 months have seen undreamed-of victories for civil liberties in the Middle East, there is one crucial measure that didn’t improve. In fact, the  problem of not separating religion from politics threaten to worsen considerably.
In the Arab Gulf States, petro-monarchs and absolute Emirs have set aside their traditional tribal and other distrusts in the spirit of Islam Sunni unity and purity against the Shiaa heretics of Bahrain and Iran.
Entire cities in Yemen have been taken over by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
In Syria, what started as a nonviolent uprising now looks to be heading toward a civil war with ugly sectarian undertones.
And in North Africa, Islamist parties have won by dizzying margins in every election from Cairo to Casablanca (Morocco).

So it was with no small satisfaction that I surveyed the crowd at the Lebanese Laïque (Civic) Pride Secular March Towards Citizenship in central Beirut on Sunday.

For the third year in a row, the country’s secular community took to the streets to call for an end to the sectarian order and the implementation of a number of draft laws against things like censorship and domestic violence.

To the bemusement and occasional encouragement of bystanders, some 1,500 students, professionals, activists and even the odd celebrity marched for three hours carrying banners like “Civil marriage not civil war” and variously chanting “What’s your sect? None of your business!”; “Revolution!”; and “The people want a secular state”.

Lebanon is a country where being born into the wrong religion means you can’t become President of the State, or Prime Minister, or Chairman of the Parliament… and so on down the cabinet level, every seat of which is constitutionally reserved for a member of one faith or another.

Civil service, military and security positions are rationed along communal lines. Not even university faculty appointments are  suffered to upset the sanctity of the sectarian calculus.

Similarly, citizenship is officially defined by faith, so that marital, inheritance and other such disputes are settled not by civil lawyers but the clergy of the religious sect (theologians). What does that mean in practice?

A Muslim man thinks that he is fully within his rights to beat his wife, thanks to Sura 4:34 of the Qur’an, which, after laying down that “Men are in charge of women”, instructs husbands to “strike” wayward spouses.

This jewel of 7th century Bedouin culture is the Law of the Land in 21st century Lebanon, though most verses are stated “Out of Context”.

In 2011, the Sunni Grand Mufti, Muhammad Qabbani, actually rejected a draft law against domestic violence on the grounds that “it harms the Muslim woman and denies her of the rights granted [to her]”.

But the humiliation doesn’t end there: that same husband may also rape his wife, since the learned sheikhs decline to recognize the concept of marital rape in the first place. “There’s nothing called rape between a husband and wife”, as the al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah [Islamic Group] MP Imad Hout eloquently put it last December. “It’s called forcing someone violently to have intercourse.”

What else?

Those born outside the 18 officially recognized sects – such as the 4,000-odd Jehovah’s Witnesses – are effectively disowned by the State, unable to get married and denied various other basic entitlements. While atheism isn’t illegal – Article 9 of the constitution guaranteeing “absolute freedom of conscience” on the God question – every Lebanese is nevertheless branded from birth, on official identity documents (except the passport), by his father’s sect, so that an atheist born of a Christian is forbidden from marrying an atheist born of a Muslim.

Nearby Cyprus, as a result, does a lucrative trade in civil marriage tourism. In that case, civil marriages performed in Cyprus are recognized, but the couple does not enjoy any civil status outside the religious framework…

To the outsider, this might all seem fairly straightforward to reform with some basic legislation. How  immense are the obstacles to secular reforms?

Many of the barriers are spawned and cultivated by the system itself. For one, the clergy has a financial interest in the status quo.

For example, every Christian who marries is obliged to pay a fee, or ‘donation’, to their local parish. This implicit tax or fees can run into the thousands of dollars, and is required irrespective of where the ceremony actually takes place. And it is, of course, distinct from the substantial extra raked in for the hiring of the premises and priest, or priests. Thus do the Lord’s terrestrial deputies succeed in turning even an occasion of love into yet another sordid extortion racket.

Politicians have created a viciously destructive cycle in the phenomenon of patronage. Without exception, every major party invests its funds in the development of its ‘own’ religious community, whether it’s Hizbollah for the Shia (bankrolled by Iran); the Future Movement for the Sunnis (bankrolled by Saudi Arabia); the PSP for the Druze (bankrolled by foreign western services); or any of the Christian parties (bankrolled by various domestic and foreign donors).

Nor is it limited to philanthropy – a tantalizing array of string-pulling services are offered the loyal coreligionists, from legal assistance to healthcare to circumventing commercial red tape to simply getting a better number plate for the Merc. This of course sees to it that the State is kept weak – for what politician would choose to work for legitimacy so long as it can be bought instead?

And what voter, without a viable state alternative, will opt for anyone who doesn’t put their interests first?

Kept permanently supine by these twin jackboots of religious and political authority, Lebanon’s secularists also face the task of winning over the country’s liberals, many of whom are unconvinced of the merits of scrapping the existing system altogether.

Michael Young, the Lebanese-American columnist and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle, even partially defends the present arrangement, writing in the book that: “What makes Lebanon relatively free in an unfree Middle East is that the country’s sectarian system, its faults notwithstanding, has ensured that the society’s parts are stronger than the State; and where the state is weak, individuals are usually freer to function.

I asked Young last week to elaborate on his position, which he did as follows [Disclosure: He is a regular contributor to my employer, NOW Lebanon]: “I would love to see, between now and tomorrow morning, a completely civil and secular order in Lebanon, but the reality is that we are not in London or New York. This is a society whose social and political development since around the 19th century has been based on confessional power sharing. So it’s unrealistic to say we will simply dump this sociological reality and go for a secular system. Change has to come gradually, from within, and you have to think in terms of wedges. Civil marriage, for example….

Michael Young resumes: ” From these we can eventually move on to secular parliament, as stipulated by Ta’if [the revamped constitution that ended the civil war in 1989], in the context of a national dialogue on de-confessionalisation. But I’m not a big optimist that any of this will happen soon. Unfortunately, sectarianism has really entered the consciousness of many Lebanese, and it’s almost a default part of thinking in the country.”

Whether or not one agrees on the details, Young is surely right that secularism must be accepted socially before it can be sustained politically. The startling electoral successes of Islamists in countries as developed as Turkey, and now Tunisia, attest to that. What’s so disheartening in the case of Lebanon is that it didn’t by any means have to turn out this way.

For at that very moment, Young mentioned in the 19th century, when the Ottomans were beginning to institutionalize sectarianism by partitioning Mount Lebanon into two distinct Maronite and Druze qa’imaqamat, or administrative districts, something very different was taking place simultaneously.

From Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, the lexicographer, novelist, founder of Arab socialism (al-ishtirakiyya) and pioneering modernizer of the Arabic language; to Ibrahim al-Yaziji, the poet, scholar of grammar, music, medicine, art and astronomy, and creator of the first Arabic typewriter font; to Butrus al-Bustani, the polymath known as al-mu’allim (the master)… the Lebanese were playing a central role in an extraordinary intellectual and cultural spring that was flourishing across the entire Levant.

It’s sometimes argued – usually by theocrats – that secularism is merely the latest guise of imperialism; yet another round in the White Man’s perennial quest to subdue the Orient. This is an argument that can only be made from the densest ignorance of Lebanese history, for, as the above men showed, there certainly need be nothing ‘Western’ about the values of the Enlightenment.

My favorite example of the unprecedented spirit of resistance to piety and irrationality in the air at the time is the 1882 ‘Lewis Affair’, in which students at the Syrian Protestant College (as the American University of Beirut was then known) boycotted classes and even dropped out in protest at the firing of a professor for expressing Darwinist leanings.

Orientalism, you say?

Tell it to the dozens of freethinking young Arabs who were prepared to sacrifice their college degrees to defend reason and science from the ossified superstitions of American Christian fundamentalists.

Indeed, in many ways that was the whole point. Bustani and his peers were men of tremendously diverse interests and backgrounds – both Christians and Muslims among them – but they were united by two passions above all: secularism and Arab nationalism. Crucially, they understood the subversive potential of the former, and its indispensability for the latter, so that, so far from being an appeasement of their colonial masters, they saw secularism as their greatest hope of shaking them off. Simply put, for them, secularism and independence were one and the same struggle.

Who can look at today’s Lebanon, beholden to the dictates of regional allegiances cultivated on purely sectarian grounds, and disagree?

To get an idea of how far we’ve declined since then, consider that the name given to the period by Arab historians is al-nahda, or ‘the awakening’. If that sounds familiar, it might be because it’s also the name of the new ruling party in Tunisia – a party that in just a few months has carried out what commentator Hussein Ibish has described as “severe attacks on religious dissidents”, including the jailing of bloggers and television producers for blasphemy.

To crush your country’s irreligious community is one thing, but to do it in the name of secular emancipation takes a very special kind of contempt.

Yet, nobody complains at this despicable insult to a noble chapter of Arab history. If the region’s secularists, therefore, are to indeed eradicate sectarianism from the consciousness of their people, there are surely worse ways to begin than by reclaiming the memory of their own intellectual – and yes, if you like, spiritual – forefathers, who appreciated so keenly so many years ago that secularism and liberation and dignity were not only mutually compatible, but in fact equivalent expressions of the same common goal.” End of quote

Revisiting most political systems, even in the so-called democratic developed States, religion still meddle heavily in the political process and decisions, particularly during election campaigns.




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