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More on Geographical Name Conversion: The Process of Transliteration

According to the “Manual for the National Standardization of Geographical Names” by the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names, there are four processes for the conversion of endonyms: (1) transliteration, (2) transcription, (3) translation and (4) exonymization. My last post was exactly on this fourth and last process… Well, at least we explored the terminology and discovered how complex and ambiguous this process can really be. Through this blog post, we will explore the process of transliteration which happens to be the first method of name conversion to be considered by geographical names authorities (e.g., a national central names office or a national names committee).

The main concept behind this method of names conversion is “letter-for-letter transformation” and is only to be used between different scripts (alphabetic or syllabic but not logographic) and not between languages. If alphabetic, syllabic and logographic threw you off like it did to me, then here are some brief definitions of each term according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: alphabetic: of, relating to, or employing an alphabet; syllabic: of or relating to syllables; logographic: of, relating to, or marked by the use of logographs/logograms which are characters, symbols or signs used to represent an entire word (e.g., the ampersand sign “&”). For instance, Chinese and Japanese Kanji are examples of logographic scripts in which a character represents meaning and not just sound, hence, making these scripts not appropriate for the transliteration process which focuses solely on the sounds of characters.

In much simpler words, transliteration requires the replacement of each character in the source script by a corresponding character of the target script. However, transliteration is not as simple as it may sound since different scripts are almost always represented by different sounds. Some single characters (and in some cases character combinations) of the source script may be replaced by one character and, in some instances, a combination of characters. Sometimes, character replacement is not enough to achieve an appropriate conversion and we may need a diacritic or diacritical mark which are marks, as the name suggests, that are placed over, under, or through a letter in some languages to suggest that the letter should be pronounced in a particular way.

Keep in mind that the UN Manual states the principle goal of transliteration to be complete and apparent reversibility. This means that a person reading the name of a place (toponym) in a target script would be able to reconstruct its original form in the source script depending on their familiarity with the source script itself.