Transliteration means the letter-for-letter transfer of a text from one writing system to another, for example from the Russian to the Latin alphabet. The term transliteration is composed of the Latin words ‘trans’ (across) and ‘littera’ (letter). With this method, diacritical marks such as dots, dashes or circles help to ensure that a clear reversal is possible.
Transliteration occurs, for example, when a text that is in Cyrillic, Japanese or Russian script is translated into Latin script. The individual characters are transmitted in a letter-perfect and unambiguous manner. This is possible because each character of one alphabetic writing system is assigned exactly one character of another alphabetic writing system. If the source system contains more characters than the target system, diacritics or a combination of several characters are usually used in the transcription.
Characters in transliteration
When diacritics are used in transliteration, it is usually to represent sounds that do not occur in the target alphabet. These can be dots or dashes on the one hand, but also letters such as “í”, “é”, “õ”, letter combinations such as “tsch” or diagraphs such as “nh”, “rh”, “gh”. Special knowledge is needed to read such a transliteration, as there are often several ways of transliterating a sound.
Difference: transliteration and transcription
Transcription is not a synonym of transliteration, although it is sometimes used as such. Transcription is the pronunciation-based representation of speech and is primarily intended to enable non-native speakers to pronounce a word mostly correctly. A phonetically defined phonetic transcription is used for the transcription. Transliteration, on the other hand, is when a word’s spelling is transferred directly into another writing system. Unlike transcription, transliteration aims at complete reversibility, which it does not always achieve.
Examples of transliteration
To clarify the difference between transliteration and transcription, we have a few examples for you: The Arabic word كتب (in English: books) is transliterated to “ktb”. The English transcription is “kataba”. The Greek word Ελληνική Δημοκρατία (in English: Greek Republic) is transliterated to “Ellēnikḗ Dēmokratía”. The English transcription is “Elliniki Dimokratia”. The Russian city Щёлково is transliterated to “Ščëlkovo”. The English transcription is “Shchyolkovo”.
The best-known writing systems for transliteration
The following writing systems are used for transliteration. They are among the best-known writing systems.
The Latin alphabet forms the basis for the German language as well as numerous other European languages such as English, Spanish and French.
Many writing systems have their origins in the Greek alphabet, including Latin and Cyrillic. Good to know: The word “alphabet” is composed of the Greek letters alpha and beta.
As an alphabet of Slavic origin, the Cyrillic script is used in several Slavic countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria and Serbia. The transliteration of Cyrillic script into the Latin writing system has its own name, by the way: translit
The Indian scholarly language Sanskrit was originally a spoken language and was initially only transmitted orally. Later, the Devanagari script became established, which is also the basis of modern languages such as Hindi and Marathi.
The Japanese script is based on three writing systems: Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. By the way, the transliteration of Japanese proper names is called “Heoburn transcription”.
The Chinese script is the oldest writing system in continuous use in the world. The characters are called “Han” characters and stand for individual syllables and words, not for letters, as is the case in the Latin alphabet.
The Arabic script is one of the oldest in the world and is used for the Arabic language, among others, but also for Persian, Somali and Indonesian. In the transliteration of Arabic or Arabic transcription, care must be taken to write from right to left.
FAQ: More questions about transliteration
What is a transcription?
Transcription is the transfer of the words of one script into another. A distinction is made between transcription and transliteration.
What does transliteration mean?
Transliteration is a method of transferring words from one writing system to another in a literal manner.
What is the difference between transliteration and transcription?
While transliteration means the writing-based transfer of a word into another writing system, transcription is intended to enable the correct pronunciation of the word.
What should be considered when transliterating?
Not every writing system contains the same number of characters. In order to be able to transfer words into another script, so-called diacritical marks are used.
What is the purpose of transliteration in translations?
Transliteration merely means the transfer of words into another script, whereas translation also transfers the meaning.
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