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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.”




June 2023

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