Yahia Yuhana: How Do You Translate a Name and its Translation?

Yahia Yuhana: How Do You Translate a Name and its Translation? February 20, 2012

The characteristic introduction in the sections of the Mandaean Book of John focused on John the Baptist (pictured above from Lidzbarski’s edition) reads “Yahia teaches in the nights, Yuhana in the evenings of the nights…”

In the translation above, I’ve merely transliterated the names used. But what we have in the text is synonymous parallelism, Yahia being the name for John in Arabic, transliterated into the Mandaic alphabet in the text, and Yuhana being the name John in Mandaic.

The challenge is to figure out the best way of rendering these two versions of the same name into English. Since neither is familiar to most English speakers, rendering them as Yahia and Yuhana might obscure that the reference is to any John at all, much less the one familiar to them as John the Baptist. Yet rendering both as “John,” on the other hand, obscures the fact that what is in the Mandaic text is different versions of that same person’s name.

Presumably one reason for using the two names is an effort by the Mandaeans to persuade Muslims that the Yuhana of whom they traditionally spoke is the Yahia recognized as a prophet in Islam.

This issue for Mandaeans in the Arab era is reflected particularly clearly in chapter 22 of the Mandaean Book of John, in which John is made to predict the coming of Muhammad. Towards the end of the chapter, it says:

…They stand questioning and they say, “Who is your prophet ?
Tell us, who is your prophet?
And tell us, Which is your Scripture?
Tell us, which is your Scripture?
And tell us whom you worship.”
They do not know and they do not understand.
(They are) accursed and disgraceful.
They do not know and they do not understand.
Our Lord, the King of Light on high,
He is ONE.

Returning to the translation issue with which this post began, at the moment I am toying with the idea of rendering Yuhana as “John” (rendering the Aramaic/Mandaic name into a native language English one) and Yahia as “Yahia” to indicate that it is a borrowed Arabic form of the name, transliterated.

But even this is not straightforward, since Yahia occurs very frequently on its own, and in those instances a cursory reading might leave readers of an English translation confused about the individual’s identity. And eventually, Yahia became every bit as much a Mandaean name as the earlier form of Aramaic origin.

What do others think? How would you approach this issue as a translator? If you were reading the Mandaean Book of John in English translation, what translation would you find most conducive to your reading and understanding the text?

Feel free to read some of the drafts of sections of the Book of John in English translation that are currently available on the project blog dedicated to that purpose, as you reflect on this question of how to translate the names used to denote John: Yahia and Yuhana.

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  • Chuck Haberl

    John itself is originally a Semitic loan to English, in much the same way that Yahya is originally an Arabic loan into Mandaic; the original equivalent would have been something like Godárfæst, not that such a name is attested!

  • I was expecting this post to go in a different direction. From memory, in the Persian Christian tradition Yahia is John the Baptist and Yuhana is John the Apostle and (reputed) Evangelist. But it seems that is not the distinction the Mandaeans are making.

  • We also have two names for John, so the parallelism is quite easy to reproduce:

    John teaches in the nights; the Baptist in the evenings of the nights.

    And then copious footnotes.

  • John McCauslin

    May I suggest that when the Arabic “John” appears you should translate it into English straight up as John. When the Mandaic “John” appears you should translate it as “Juan” or “Johann” which should communicate to most English readers the fact that in the original text it is the same name but in rendered in another language.

    • Thank you for all the comments and suggestions so far! It is interesting that Yahia became the typical way to refer to this particular John in Persian Christianity. I wasn’t aware of that, but suspect that interaction with Mandaeans as well as Muslims may be a factor.

      John, my inclination would have been the reverse, since Mandaic is the language of these texts. Perhaps, since “John” is itself a name that first comes into English by way of translations of texts, we could use Jon in place of Yuhana and John in place of Yahia…

  • Jeremiah

    How about writing the second John with an I or Y like this “Iohn/Yohn” and have an explanatory footnote. Even simpler, you could use the standard orthographic variation Jon in contrast with John. 

  • Paul Givargidze

    Hi James.  This may not contribute anything meaningful to the discussion, but, in our native tongue Sureth, my grandfather’s name, including title (he was a teacher by trade), was Rabbi Yukhana Giwargis.  My older brother was named after this particular grandfather.  My brother was born in the U.S., a few decades back, at St. John’s Hospital (pun intended) in NY.  My brother’s name is John.

    • Still interesting – thanks for sharing! It is useful to know that “Rabbi” was used more widely as a title, since one finds it in Mandaean texts in reference to Mandaean teachers.

      • Paul Givargidze

        Hi James.   My pleasure.  One can also find it being used informally, when referring to one who is learned.  Although not a teacher, the individual who is referred to as a “Rabbi” in this clip is a Ph.D. Candidate.  It occurs at about the 1:27 point of the clip.  It is a mix of the Aramaic dialects of Turoyo and Sureth.  The Sureth part begins at about the 3:27 point of the clip.  

  • Robert

    I would think it wouldn’t matter. You’ll need a footnote and/or introduction to explain whatever you use anyway. Also a personal rule of thumb of mine is that if you think whatever you pick is clever, then it probably isn’t the clearest choice. Of course, clever is better than clear for some works.

    Personally, I generally prefer that translators give transliterations for names.

  • Eli

    I can’t get my head around why Allah would refer to John the Baptist as “Yahya”. It just doesn’t make any sense because the Mandaeans lived over a 1000 miles NE in Iraq, that too a small community. Their’s no way they could have communicated with the Southern Arabs and gave this information. Their’s no record of them in Arabia, especially not in Hejaz. How do you know that This document was ‘interpolated’ after the Arab conquests?
    Yahya does seem to make sense in Hebrew-Aramaic if translated as “Yah/God lives”. HYA is the same root for all 3 semetic languages, Life. Yuhanna means Yah is Graceful, and this was a common name in his time. Why would the Quran state that John’s name was new, Yahya, for apparently no reason?

    • The Qur’an mentions the Sabians/Mandaeans. We should not assume that their presence was located then, or as small, as it would be in later times.