Helping businesses to transliterate data to read it in familiar characters
Did you know that there are over 7,000 languages in the world? Chinese tops the list as the most widely spoken language in the world with over 1.2 billion speakers. There are about one billion people native speakers of Mandarin Chinese which is followed by Spanish (with 400 million native speakers) and then English (with 350 million native speakers).
However, a lot of languages are dying out fast and there is a dire need for preservation. Of all the languages in the world, about 2,000 languages have less than 1,000 native speakers. 23 languages are at risk of extinction in the next 100 years if efforts are not made to preserve them. This brings us to the concept of transliteration.
In this article, we are going to look into transliteration, the essence of the concept, and how it differs from translation and romanization. Additionally, we will look at some challenges faced by transliteration.
What is Transliteration?
The word “transliteration” is derived from a combination of two Latin words “trans” meaning transfer and “liter” meaning letter. Thus, in the basic sense, transliteration means the process of transferring letters. In a more technical sense, transliteration refers to the process of converting the words of a given text from the alphabet of the source (donor) language to the alphabet of the target (receiver) language.
Transliteration helps the reader understand how a particular word would be pronounced in the target language. This is achieved by putting the alphabet of the original text in similar sounding and corresponding characters of another alphabet in a foreign language.
Transliteration is usually reversible, in other words, if a text is transliterated to Mandarin, a transliteration of the Chinese version should return the text back to what it was in the source language.
As some older generations often have their names transliterated from their native language to English, transliteration can be particularly useful in helping native English speakers pronounce them.
Using Mandarin Chinese, here are some examples of how transliteration works:
“维他命” has been borrowed from English and means vitamin. However, the characters used are only related to pronunciation and not the overall meaning. The word is transliterated into Chinese as “wéi tā mìng” which is pretty close to what it sounds like, “vitamin” in English. If the characters were to be read literally, the meaning would be closer to “only his life”.
Some brands also take advantage of the Chinese radicals to market their products. For instance; the Chinese word “可口可乐” can be transliterated to “kě kǒu kě lè” which sounds like Coca Cola. When translated to English, kě kǒu kě lè means “drink and you’ll be happy” which also works beautifully for marketing purposes.
Maybelline is also a great example of how transliteration helps brands sell their products. When translated to Chinese, Maybelline becomes “美宝莲”. The transliteration yields it to be “měibǎolián” which means ‘beautiful, jeweled lotus’.
What is the Essence of Transliteration?
The primary essence of transliteration is to enable the definite recreation of a word into another language without obliterating the meaning of the original word. Transliteration is used especially for names of people, places, and things.
When a user inputs a search query on the internet, this technique allows information written in another language using a different alphabet to be processed in such a way, that results relevant to the user’s search query can be returned into the user’s script. Essentially transliteration eliminates the issue of different characters between the alphabets of the two languages.
Transliteration allows the reader to type out text in foreign words using a keyboard in another script (alphabet). It is particularly useful for when you are typing out text and the keyboard or word processing software you are using does not have a font with the letter in your target language. This is especially applicable for languages that use non-Roman/Latin alphabets (i.e. a, b, c, d, e – z) such as Indic, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, and Cyrillic.
To illustrate, Mandarin Chinese is written using letters that differ from the English alphabet. With transliteration, an individual can use a regular QWERTY keyboard to type a text in Mandarin Chinese or any other language that uses a different alphabet.
Transliteration is also useful in cases where an individual does not know the alphabet of a certain language but understands and knows how to speak the language nonetheless.
What are the Differences Between Transliteration, Translation, and Romanization?
Although they are commonly used as interchangeable terms, there are slight differences in meaning between transliteration, translation, and romanization. In this context, translation refers to the meaning of a word or text in another language.
Please note that the translation of a text doesn’t necessarily need to sound like the original text. Translated texts rarely sound or even look alike. While translation is solely based on the meaning of a word, transliteration is based on the pronunciation of such a word.
For example, the Hebrew word “חנוכה” can be translated to mean festivity. It is a Jewish winter holiday which celebrates the re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem. On the other hand, the English transliteration of חנוכה is Hanukkah or Chanukah while the Spanish transliteration is Jánuka or Janucá. Notice that while translation gives you the meaning of a word, transliteration is focused on the phonetic mapping to express how it sounds.
Romanization, on the other hand, is a lot more similar to transliteration. Like the name gives away, romanization is simply the conversion of a text from one alphabetic system to another alphabetic system using the Latin or Roman alphabet, hence the name. Romanization is a type of transliteration that focuses on the conversion of written text based on how it is pronounced from the source script to the target language.
Romanization, just like transliteration, can be achieved in more ways than one. Essentially, there is no one way to romanize and as such, one word can have several transliterated or romanized forms. However, certain countries may adopt certain standards that serve as guidelines for the romanization and transliteration of their language. For example, in the Republic of China, the “Hanyu Pinyin” is the officially adopted system for the romanization of Chinese.
Challenges of Transliteration
Transliteration is usually faced with several challenges when trying to transliterate text from one script to the other. A major issue with transliteration is the fact that the Latin script has only twenty-six letters. As such, transliteration is limited to using just twenty-six characters for the representation of foreign text.
Another challenge is the fact that there are several sounds present in other languages that cannot be appropriately or correctly represented using any of the letters in the Roman/Latin alphabet.
Although the phonetic alphabet (traditional Roman/Latin alphabet with diacritic marks) can be very useful in the transliteration of text, this phonetic alphabet is composed of special symbols which may only be available in high-quality fonts and special word processing software.
There is also the problem of uniformity in transliteration. A single text in any given language may be transliterated in a variety of ways. This brings a lot of complexity to the technique as one transliterated string of text can produce several varying results. As such, unless countries adopt standard guidelines for transliteration based on a unique superset of letters, uniform transliteration will remain impossible.
English classes have become standard in China and across most secondary schools in the world. This and the increasing rate of globalization, it is apparent that transliteration is going to become more popular than ever. Foreign languages are going to be increasingly transliterated into English. For example, in Hong Kong, the degree of insertion of English words into the Cantonese dialect is higher than ever before. The primary essence of language is to provide a means through which people can express themselves and be understood and there’s no doubt that transliteration is and will be an important part of that.