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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