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The Meaning of Transliteration

To non translators and the general public, much of what goes on when one language is converted into another is not of great interest. However, because many people around the world today have become much more familiar with each others’ languages, culture and history, it has become commonplace to read words in another language which have been changed or altered to make their pronunciation easier. This is called transliteration, and although it sounds like translation, it doesn’t have much in common. Transliteration is a useful and in many ways necessary way of converting words in one language which are written in a different alphabet or different script altogether become readable in another language.

For example, both Russian and Ukrainian might seem similar to anyone absorbed in the current news cycle, as they both use the Cyrillic alphabet. This alphabet is quite different from the Latin alphabet used in much of Western Europe and other parts of the world. Even though some letters seem to be the same at first sight, most actually are not pronounced the same way as the equivalent Latin letters are. Through transliteration, Ukrainian and Russian words in the Cyrillic alphabet can be changed into the Latin alphabet which makes it easier for anyone familiar with that alphabet pronounce them. This doesn’t mean the words themselves have been translated, just the pronunciations made easier.

Similar transliteration makes languages like Hindi, Thai, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese easier to pronounce. All these languages and many more have quite different ways of writing their language other than that of the Latin script. Some languages have evolved through time so that older ways of writing have been modified into Latin script. A good example is Malay. The written script used in the pre colonial past was a form of Arabic called Jawi. Although Jawi is still used by Malay scholars and in the Islamic faith, Malay has been transliterated into Latin script making it easy for many more people around the world to speak it, even if they don’t understand what they are saying!

Defining Translation

Translation is simply the conversion of text from one language into another. Depending on the context of the text, translation may take the form of localisation, which adapts the translated copy to take into account local variations of a language, such as dialects and colloquialisms. Localisation experts are translators who specialise in localisation or can offer these services as part of their translation services. Translators tend to specialise anyway because of the variety of different fields of translation. Marketing translators, for example, concentrate on website translation, in addition to translating slogans and advertising. Medical translators concentrate on translating medical information such as instructions for the use of drugs and medications, medical procedures and research and manuals for medical technology.

Translation vs Transliteration

Translation and transliteration do not have a lot in common, except for the fact that they both involve pairs of languages and that whatever is done to the text in one language makes it somehow easier for someone who speaks another language to be able to speak or understand the other.


Translation and transliteration both help people speak and understand other languages, but other than that they are different processes.