Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Onomastics for Copy Editors

"It's not right, but people will rip you to shreds if you're not careful about transliteration."

Verbatim that's something my doktorvater has told me, and in slightly different forms it's something I've heard from other senior mentorly-type people as well. Because truth be told, I'm often not careful about my transliteration even though I recoil in the same way as many other Arabists do when I see someone else's transliteration mistakes, wondering whether it was a typo or whether the person never looked all that carefully at the original text.

I don't think it's just the major and puzzling transliteration issues that made me loathe the new article (unfortunately behind a paywall) on Hebrew and Arabic poetry just appeared in one of the British journals of Islamic Studies. There's quite a lot wrong with the content. In addition to ignoring the vast majority of the scholarship on its very subject matter that's been done in the last twenty years (and in fact predicating the value of its "intervention" on the fact of the work not having been done) it shows some real insensitivity to the types of source materials and does not engage directly with the texts, instead using the fact of their existence to make the point. It leaves out well-known history and texts that would help to contextualize the subject, but at the same time doesn't manage to say anything new.  It's really frustrating to see the material that one loves badly handled and, less so, the state of one's field so very badly misrepresented; it is especially frustrating when such work appears  < peer review hobbyhorse rant > in a publication that is supposed to adhere to high academic standards and have procedures in place to ensure that the high standards are met < /peer review hobbyhorse rant >.

A colleague of mine once posited that peer review works at least in as much as however much you might disagree with methods, theories, corpus definitions, etc., only very rarely does something truly awful or wrong end up in print. This? Truly awful and wrong. A genuine failure of the review process.
However, flaws in copy editing and particularly in transliterating and in rendering names certainly prejudiced my reading even further. It's not a good article, but the range of errors made it worse.


The really strange error comes when the authors of these two books are cited as Cheindlin and Baran.

Note, too, the misspelling of compunctious. It's not the only misspelling. Forget about transliteration for a moment. Nobody — not the authors and not the editors — ran spell-check. What happened here?  

It's not as though the authors misheard and mistranscribed two names; presumably they were actually looking at the books they were citing. Nor is it that they had to transliterate names that belong in non-Latin letters. (Have you ever tried to look up anything written by Nehemiah Allony? I don't know that I've ever seen his name transliterated the same way twice.) The only explanation that I can come up with for the rendering of the two surnames like that involves positing that the authors were reading the secondary literature in some kind of unauthorized, pirated Arabic translation, where the book authors would have been identified as BRN and ŠNDLN, forcing the article authors to vocalize the names as they saw fit and to choose a French transliteration system for the consonants rather than an English one. There's plenty of piracy of secondary sources, but this seems like an extra and puzzling step. Who is out there pirating and translating secondary literature on Arabizing Hebrew poetry? And, really, what kind of demand is there?

I suppose the question of why this kind of mistake throughout the text of the article is beyond the existential scope of the present discussion, why even if the copy editors weren't checking references, the peer reviewers didn't make note of something as significant as the Arabizing misspelling of the two leading figures in the field.

Maybe it's a sly commentary on cultural and linguistic Arabization that is appropriate in a discussion of an Arabized literary form?

In a way, it's reminiscent of the Paul is Dead Meatballs fiasco (though admittedly with much, much less comedic or gross-out potential) in that it requires an excessive amount of rendering a text back and forth through translation and transliteration.

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