Transliteration of Oriental Terms in the English Bahá'í Literature

By Cyrus Ala'i

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #22
London, England
August 27–29, 1999
(see list of papers from #22)

    In his letter of March 12, 1923 to the Western Bahá'í Shoghi Effendi wrote: "On another page is given the list of the best known and most current Bahá'í terms, and other Oriental names and expressions, all property and accurately transliterated, the faithful spelling of which by all the Western friends will avoid confusion in future, and ensure in this matter a uniformity which is greatly needed at present in all Bahá'í literature..." ('Transliteration' means writing words or letters in the letters of a different alphabet, as from Arabic/Persian into Roman letters.)

    At present, although the uniformity of spelling in Bahá'í literature has been restored, the accuracy of pronunciation has declined. The Western readers have shown little interest in learning the presented code. Instead, they are inclined to pronounce these terms as if they were written in conventional English.

    This paper briefly compares the alphabets of Arabic, Persian and English, examining which letters represent what phonemes and vice versa. Thereafter, the transliteration system adopted for Bahá'í literature is compared with the other Oriental transliteration schemes which are most widely used by the English-speaking societies.

    Based on the above investigation, one may conclude that there is little point in switching to any other system of transliteration for the Bahá'í literature, as there is no clear advantage for such a move and several major disadvantages.

    However, a few other effective improvements have been suggested and discussed in detail which may prove useful in fulfilling the noble desire of the Guardian and rendering a service to the Bahá'í literature in English. In particular, it has been argued that we should make use of ever-increasing Anglicized Oriental terms which are replacing the transliterated versions in the English-speaking world.

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