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Transliteration vs. Translation

You say potato, I say ποτατο. Here we have just one example of transliteration.

Well, what is transliteration? How is transliteration different from translation? In this post, we explain when and how transliteration can be a valuable component of the translation process.

What is transliteration?

Transliteration involves converting a text from one language script or writing system to another. In practice, this usually means replacing the characters from the source with characters in the target script, or, put even more simply, writing a word from one alphabet or format using a different one.

For example, take the Russian word Нет (no). To transliterate this from the Cyrillic alphabet into the Latin or Roman alphabet (a process also known as “romanization”), we would transliterate each letter and end up with the transliteration: nyet. If you live in a country where the Latin alphabet is predominantly used, then you’ve likely come across transliterations of languages that use other writing systems, such as Russian, Arabic, Chinese, and Hindi, among others.

What are the challenges of transliteration?

As you can see, however, the transliterated form of a word is far from conveying the word’s meaning, which is the job of translation. The difference between transliteration and translation is a bit like converting measurements from a U.S. recipe into the metric system—on paper, you can convert cups to milliliters and Fahrenheit to Celsius, but that doesn’t mean you’ve actually baked a cake.

While transliteration is in some ways a simpler process than translation, that doesn’t mean it’s without its obstacles. For instance, not all languages have the same number of characters, and not all sounds have perfect one-to-one equivalents across multiple writing systems. How would you use the Latin alphabet to capture, say, the click consonants from a language like Xhosa? Plus, translators don’t necessarily agree on a standard way to transliterate certain sounds or characters, adding an extra complication.

Why and when to use transliteration?

Despite these challenges, transliteration can be very useful in specific contexts. You’ve probably seen transliteration on restaurant menus, street signs, news articles, textbooks, and more. Transliteration is especially useful for pronunciation—if you’re meeting a new colleague or trying to order a new dish in a restaurant, you want to know how to pronounce that name phonetically, not how to write it out.

Transliteration is also common when it comes to proper nouns. If you’re launching a global business campaign, your brand or product name may not have a suitable translation in another language. Or worse—its translation could be unintentionally offensive or comical, like when Mercedes-Benz attempted to enter Chinese markets with a new name, Bensi, only to find it meant “rush to die” (maybe they should have stuck with transliteration).

Similarly, news articles and headlines, which rely on capturing readers’ attention, make extensive use of transliterating names, places, and well-known concepts. A headline might not grab the eye of an English-speaking reader unless they realize it transliterates to a place or person they recognize.

Finally, transliteration can be necessary when working with technology, since not all devices are equipped with a full complement of scripts. Or, if you want your customer database to contain international information (such as buyers’ addresses) in one common format, you’d want to transliterate them all to the same script for ease of analysis.

All in all, when considering whether transliteration is valuable for your translation purposes, a professional language services provider like Trusted Translations can give you guidance on when and how to use it wisely.

Photo by Markus Winkler at Pexels