I have a character who is a Syrian refugee to Canada. His first language is Arabic, but he's lived in Canada long enough that he's learned English and uses this as his primary spoken language. On occasion he'll use Arabic words in his speech, such as when he's not sure what the English translation is, but I'm unsure how this should be written in text for an English audience.

My thought would be to use the phonetic spelling, for example:

"Alaistirkha'" Essam breathed tossing the book onto a nearby table, "It is not my place to say."

Or should it be:

"الاسترخاء" Essam breathed tossing the book onto a nearby table, "It is not my place to say."

What is the correct way to write this?

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    Sorry about that. I think I hit that by accident on the app. I'll give it a few days for people to read and give an answer. Commented Apr 26, 2019 at 15:08
  • Another reason for using the phonetic spelling: while "Alaistirkha" is, to me, a foreign word, at least I know it's a word. OTOH, "الاسترخاء" is barely above completely meaningless scribble-scratch.
    – RonJohn
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 10:34

4 Answers 4


As you are mainly writing in English your target audience is probably from English speaking countries without a lot of knowledge about Arabic. It's not a common language to learn when compared to something like French or Spanish as far as I am aware of. As such you should be careful about using a language other than English in your text. I am from Germany for example and have never learned to speak Arabic. I would have absolutely no idea how to pronounce the second version, which is a problem for me when I am reading something because it completely breaks immersion. I would need to think about what the character in my head would say and how it would sound. And that's not possible when I can't read the word.

With the phonetic spelling I have a pretty good idea of how the character would say it. It's probably still quite far off, because I can't understand Arabic and wouldn't know a native Arabic speaker would actually pronounce it, but I would have an idea. And that's what I need to stay immersed in the story.

Especially when you are doing this more than just once or twice I would be careful. The second version is factually more correct than the first one, but for people who can't speak and read Arabic it's impossible to have a feeling for how your character sounds, which many people don't like.

You could also try to get around this whole issue by describing what he really wants to say with an addition that he is saying it in a different language than you are using for the reader's convenience. Something like:

'Relax' Essam said to himself in Arabic, taking a deep breath and tossing the book onto a nearby table.

It's easy to do and won't lead to any kind of confusion. Because the first version you propose could lead to a bit of confusion with people who speak Arabic and might wonder what word you mean exactly with the phonetic spelling as it's written completely different from the "real thing". And your second version will lead to confusion with people who don't speak Arabic, because they won't have a clue about how to pronounce that and whether they got the meaning right from the context.

There is no "correct" way. Only different ways with different levels of clarity for different target audiences. For the general English speaking public you just want to be careful with incorporating different languages into your text.


Unless your audience is bilingual, you always want to use the transliterated version.

When you're dealing with alphabets that are very different (or in some languages, not alphabets at all), not to mention the issue of the direction of the writing, someone who doesn't read it will get nothing from it if you use the non-translated version.

If your character says "Alaistirkha" several times over the course of the novel, the reader will figure out the rough meaning (or at least one that works for them). But an unfamiliar script won't stick in the reader's head. S/he won't even be able to tell if one phrase is the same as another.

If the look of the phrase is important, you can put in a graphic insert, but you will also need to translate and transliterate it. Sometimes you can get away without translating (like in your example, where it's not strictly necessary). But always transliterate.


It's relatively common to transclude a few foreign words into an English passage for the reasons you state. However, I wouldn't recommend creating your own phonetic transliteration. There are several standardized methods of "Romanizing" Arabic, I would suggest picking one, and using it consistently.



I'd use the phonetic spelling, unless you're planning to publish in a country where both Arabic and English are commonplace.

The reason is that it's easier for someone used to the latin alphabeth, like english readers, to read and recognize very unfamiliar words such "alaistirkha". Your audience won't have a clue on how that word is spelled correctly, but that's beyond the point: the point is giving the idea of a foreign language while still preserving readability. The next time alaistirkha appears, some people will recognize the word. The third time most of your audience will.

On the other hand, writing it in Arabic would be certainly more faithful, but you'd just be alienating your audience. There's a good chance that non-arabic readers would have troubles searching for the meaning of that word, unless they can copy-paste it into a search engine. Also, it would be difficult to recognize the word on multiple occurences, since the audience is not used to the alphabeth (the same thing goes for cyrillic, or Asian ideogram-based words).

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