More on Geographical Name Conversion: The Process of Transcription

Now that we have explored transliteration, the first method of name conversion being the one established by the “Manual for the National Standardization of Geographical Names” by the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names, it is time to move on to the second method described, better known as, transcription.

Transcription is an old practice. It was the method used by explorers and cartographers to retain the sound of the foreign names learned from the endemic populations they encountered during their travels. It is defined by the UN Manual as the written phonetic transformation of a name, in this case a toponym, from one language to another. So, in other words, it is the representation of the sounds of a foreign language in the script of a target language. Consequently, in transcription, unlike in transliteration, the process of name conversion does not involve diacritics or special letters. One of the advantages of transcription is the fact that those who wish to pronounce a foreign name will be able to pronounce it without any help. Such a transcription would not require an external aid, such as a transliteration key to pronounce the foreign name.

It is important to keep in mind that transcription is usually a non-reversible process; this means that once a toponym has been transcribed from a source language into a target language, retranscribing it into the source language may not produce the original name. The manual provides the example of the English name Chichester. The transcription into German of this English city’s name is Tschitschester which is nearest to expressing the sounds of the original source language (English) in the script of the target language (German). When retranscribing Tschitschester into English, the results are many, including, Tshitshester, Tchitchester, Tshitchester or Tchittshester, apart from the original and correct version: Chichester.

Unlike in the case of transliteration, the Manual establishes that transcription is seen as a “popular” but not “professional” method of name conversion, namely due to the fact that it is a non-reversible process. Nevertheless, the great thing about transcription is that it is a phonetic approach to name conversion rather than a “letter-for-letter transformation” as in transliteration; making the reading of toponyms a much easier task, particularly without diacritics and other special characters.