The Meaning of Transliteration

Last Updated On: May 26, 2020

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The Word Or Phrase Transliterate In A Dictionary

Transliteration is the term used to describe the process of converting a language from one unique writing system to a different one. Many languages such as Russian and Bulgarian use the Cyrillic alphabet, while Japanese uses Kanji and Hindi and Nepali share a script called Devanagari. What transliteration does is covert these scripts into Latin letters. It doesn’t actually translate the meanings.

What often Happens in a Chinese Restaurant?

If you go into a Chinese restaurant in New York and you want to buy chow mein, these words aren’t English but you know from experience what you are buying. If chow mein was written in Mandarin characters (炒面), unless you were a Mandarin speaker you would have no idea what these characters mean. Chinese restaurants oblige their customers by providing a transliteration of Mandarin script into Latin letters to help your understanding.  This happens in key tourist spots in China as well. Of course, some Chinese restaurants go a step further and provide an English translation of chow mein which is ‘stir-fried noodles,’ as it helps customers make the right selection from the menu.

How do Transliteration and Translation Differ?

As can be seen from the Chinese example, transliteration is not the same as translation. The aim of translation is to allow a speaker of one language to understand words in another language. The meaning of the text in the source language has to be the same when translated into a second language. Transliteration is different as it enables a reader to be able to read a text which is normally written in say Cyrillic but is converted into for example Latin lettering so that those who understand Latin lettering can pronounce the words.


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    Latin lettering is used in some of the commonest languages spoken in the world, like English, German, French and Spanish and many others. If the word ‘Good Morning’ is transliterated from Mandarin to Latin lettering the Mandarin (早上好) is virtually impossible for anyone but a Mandarin speaker to understand. Transliterated into Latin letters it becomes Zǎoshang hǎo. All those who understand Latin Letters can easily learn how to say good morning in Mandarin once it has been transliterated. Of course, you have to know how to pronounce the words as well, which is a skill you can learn with some perseverance.

    In summary, translation provides the meaning of words in a second language. Transliteration does not provide the words’ meaning but it makes it easier to pronounce them. Transliteration alters the letters from a language or alphabet into characters of a similar-sounding in a different alphabet. It is quite clear that there is frequently a demand for the transliteration of some languages, especially in this globalised world where people who do not share the same language can have some access to languages with a dissimilar alphabet.

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