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Page last updated at 11:45 GMT, Friday, 20 June 2008 12:45 UK

Lost in translation

By Andrew Fagg

Kabul sign
Some names need no amendment
As Nato-led forces try to establish security in Afghanistan, another lesser-known mission is happening - to make sense of the place names for English-speaking people.

As Nato and Afghan forces try to overcome the Taleban, with help from Afghan forces, western officials behind the scenes are also trying to standardise the names of every town and village.

At a conference in London, US and UK officials discussed how important it was that western translations of Arabic place names in the country should be consistent.

The process of transliteration - translating from one alphabet to another, such as Greek to Russian - has so far happened in a rather ad hoc way in Afghanistan and can leave the English-speaking armies and NGOs a little confused.

Graphic showing Kandahar in Pashto and English
The first and second 'A's are not represented in this Pashto script

Although the well known cities and regions - such as Kabul, Kandahar and Helmand - have a clear and common translation in the western Roman alphabet, many Afghan villages have multiple spellings, even in their original forms, and many villages in different areas are called the same thing.

There is nothing unique in that: Springfield, the home of the fictional Simpson's family, is so called because there are 14 real towns in the US with the same name.

The confusion comes because Dari and Pashto are the main languages in the country and like all languages in Arabic script, vowels are left out of the written form.

There is the danger that food parcels, school textbooks, or whatever, will be inadvertently directed towards the village held by the Taleban, with lives endangered
Paul Woodman

This explains why the boys' name Mohammed can be spelt in several ways in the Roman alphabet, such as Muhammed or Muhamid. Only the consonants M-h-m-d appear in the written version of Perso-Arabic scripts.

Equally, to a Western reader, place names can resemble text-message shorthand. A village written down as Mskr, for example, could possibly be Maskar, Musukar or Misakir.

'Organised enemy'

Naming is such a minefield that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office funds the Permanent Committee on Geographical Names (PCGN).

It is in daily contact with the US Board of Geographical Names (BGN), which keeps a global database of place names for the English-speaking world.

The two organisations met recently for their biennial conference in London, with Afghanistan at the top of the agenda.

British forces in Helmand
GPS ensures mistaken place identity is kept to a minimum

"Let's imagine there are two villages written as Mskr perhaps 10 miles apart, with one really being Maskar and the other really being Musakkir," says Paul Woodman, secretary of the PCGN.

"Then imagine that one of those villages is occupied by the Afghan security forces and the other by the Taleban.

"You'll see why we and the BGN need to be in touch all the time - to make sure that we not only have identical naming policies in place, but to ensure that we Romanise every little village and hill and valley exactly the same way.

"Otherwise there is the danger that food parcels, school textbooks, or whatever, will be inadvertently directed towards the village held by the Taleban, with lives endangered as a result."

Glen Lauber, his counterpart at the BGN, sees the same danger. He regards every village as a potential communications, logistics and manufacturing centre for war.

"We face an enemy organised in cells and living in small places. It is critical to know where those places are and what they are called - not just by Westerners, but by the local populace," he says.

I think it's exaggerated to say standardised naming becomes a matter of life and death
General Carlos Branco

The report of the conference is still at draft stage but even after it has been ratified it will only be seen by the UK and US governments.

Mr Woodman is quick to add that place-name confusion has so far been avoided in Afghanistan, partly down to good preparation and partly to advances in GPS (Global Positioning System) technology.

But there are instances of confusion, even for natives. He recalls that prior to the 1991 Gulf War, the media turned up at the wrong riverbed when an Iraqi television journalist mistakenly thought Byd was Ubayyid, instead of Abyad.

General Carlos Branco, the spokesman for Nato forces in Afghanistan, says caution must be taken when army commanders are identifying places, but agrees that technology has largely solved the problem.

"I think it's exaggerated to say standardised naming becomes a matter of life and death," he tells the BBC. "It's possible to sort out potential confusions in advance and the extensive use of GPS to determine an exact location minimizes the problem."

Below is a selection of your comments:

As a long-time resident of Saudi Arabia, it amazes me that something similar to the work of the two bodies mentioned has not been carried out here. Or, if it has, few people know of it. Transliteration of place names from Arabic, in which minor vowels are regularly omitted from normal script(but can be seen as the floating "squiggles" above, below or behind letters in calligraphy), depends entirely upon talking to locals. My first job was in Jizan, a city for which there at least a dozen transliterations of its name in Roman script.
Tony Marshallsay, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

As an Afghan western thinker, I believe naming standardizations for towns and villages in Afghanistan is not easy done. Translation of 15 or 16 century naming conventions of Pashto-Arabic or Perso-Arabic into modern western style will be a challenge. Communist Russia during their rulings in the former breakaway republics never had the desire to change the original naming conventions, but indeed more local standard names were adopted as time passed by. To an average Afghan this could give a sense of change in their norms and ways of lives, which could imply western dominance. I believe the solution is to keep the system as it is. Only add zip codes to define the areas. This way the standardization could be defined without touching some sensitive issues.
Khalil Nouri , Seattle, Washington

Not just an Arabic issue. Driving in Israel, there seems to be no standard spelling of places in the Latin script - so you can easily pass a couple of signs within a few hundred yards, one saying "Jerusalem" (the English name) and the other saying "Yerushaliam", the transliteration.
Amanda Jones, London

So does this mean that with GPS computer-speak we no longer have to promote the learning of foreign languages? Sorry, but I'm a big fan of learning languages and interacting with native speakers. Why the need to "Romanise" everything? There are plenty of polyglots out here and we're quite happy to help out. A few basics like "hello, please, thank you" are not difficult, and if it helps prevent Mskr from becoming Massacre then let's stop thinking English is best.
SCarr, Dublin

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