Arabic text
By: Autumn On: September 9, 2016 In: Languages, Translation Comments: 2

Transliteration involves rendering a language from one writing system to another.

Though it sounds similar to translation, they are two different processes with very different goals.

Here’s a look at what transliteration is and why it’s used.

What Is Transliteration?

Transliteration is utilized when a word or phrase must be conveyed in a language with a different writing system. Think of writing words in Russian or Japanese (which originally use Cyrillic and Kanji, respectively) by using Latin letters.

Keep in mind that transliteration doesn’t really render the words in a new language — just a new format.

For example, when you go to a Chinese restaurant, the menu might feature Chinese characters that you don’t understand. When those characters are transliterated, they approximate the Chinese word’s pronunciation using Latin letters. If you can’t read or speak Chinese, you still won’t understand the transliterated language. Only when that Chinese word on the menu is translated into English will you be able to comprehend it.

One detail to note when it comes to transliteration: While many words have standard spelling when transliterated, proper nouns often end up being spelled differently. For example, you’ll find that Muhammad can be spelled several ways, with Mahomet, Mohamed, and Mohammad being a few common spellings.

Differences Between Transliteration and Translation

Many people assume transliteration is equivalent to translation. However, there are some important distinctions. Translation allows words in one language to be understood by those who speak another language. Essentially, translation of a foreign word involves interpreting its meaning.

On the other hand, transliteration makes a language a little more accessible to people who are unfamiliar with that language’s alphabet. Transliteration focuses more on pronunciation than meaning, which is especially useful when discussing foreign people, places and cultures.

Therefore, if you need to read text in another language, and are more interested in pronouncing it than understanding it, you need transliteration. But if you want to know what it means, you need translation services.

Uses of Transliteration

Transliteration is more prevalent than you may have realized. Whenever you read about international news, you should be thankful for transliteration! We’re guessing most people would be rather confused if news articles were peppered with references to 京, الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام, or Мосва instead of their Latin-alphabet equivalents: Beijing, ISIS or ISIL, and Moscow.

On top of restaurant menus, as mentioned above, transliteration is also used in many other places. This includes libraries, as it allows people to perform searches for content in different writing systems; the academic world, for research papers and in language learning; and also in everyday language. Words like karate (Japanese) and pajamas (Urdu) were borrowed by the English language.

Clearly, there is often a need for transliteration of a language, either in tandem with or in place of translation. Whether you need transliteration or translation services, it’s important to get help from a professional language service provider.


    • Jennifer
    • November 22, 2016
    • Reply

    Thank you, for this!

    • Rupa
    • March 11, 2017
    • Reply

    The difference between translation and transliteration has been explained very cogently. Thanks you!

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