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Transliteration is a type of conversion of a text from one script to another that involves swapping letters (thus trans- + liter-) in predictable ways, such as Greek ⟨α⟩ → ⟨a⟩, Cyrillic ⟨д⟩ → ⟨d⟩, Greek ⟨χ⟩ → the digraph ⟨ch⟩, Armenian ⟨ն⟩ → ⟨n⟩ or Latin ⟨æ⟩ → ⟨ae⟩.
For instance, for the Modern Greek term "Ελληνική Δημοκρατία", which is usually translated as "Hellenic Republic", the usual transliteration to Latin script is ⟨Ellēnikḗ Dēmokratía⟩, and the name for Russia in Cyrillic script, "Россия", is usually transliterated as ⟨Rossiya⟩.
Transliteration is not primarily concerned with representing the sounds of the original but rather with representing the characters, ideally accurately and unambiguously. Thus, in the Greek above example, ⟨λλ⟩ is transliterated ⟨ll⟩ though it is pronounced [l], ⟨Δ⟩ is transliterated ⟨D⟩ though pronounced [ð], and ⟨η⟩ is transliterated ⟨ē⟩, though it is pronounced [i] (exactly like ⟨ι⟩) and is not long.
Transcription, conversely, seeks to capture sound rather than spelling; "Ελληνική Δημοκρατία" corresponds to [elinicí ðimokratía] in the International Phonetic Alphabet. While differentiation is lost in the case of [i], note how the letter shape ⟨κ⟩ becomes either [c] or [k] depending on the vowel that follows it.
Angle brackets ⟨ ⟩ may be used to set off transliteration, as opposed to slashes / / for phonemic transcription and square brackets for phonetic transcription. Angle brackets may also be used to set off characters in the original script. Conventions and author preferences vary.
Systematic transliteration is a mapping from one system of writing into another, typically grapheme to grapheme. Most transliteration systems are one-to-one, so a reader who knows the system can reconstruct the original spelling.
Transliteration is opposed to transcription, which maps the sounds of one language into a writing system. Still, most systems of transliteration map the letters of the source script to letters pronounced similarly in the target script, for some specific pair of source and target language. If the relations between letters and sounds are similar in both languages, a transliteration may be very close to a transcription. In practice, there are some mixed transliteration/transcription systems that transliterate a part of the original script and transcribe the rest.
For many script pairs, there is one or more standard transliteration systems. However, unsystematic transliteration is common.
Difference from transcription
In Modern Greek, the letters ⟨η⟩ ⟨ι⟩ ⟨υ⟩ and the letter combinations ⟨ει⟩ ⟨oι⟩ ⟨υι⟩ are pronounced [i] (except when pronounced as semivowels), and a modern transcription renders them all as ⟨i⟩; but a transliteration distinguishes them, for example by transliterating to ⟨ē⟩ ⟨i⟩ ⟨y⟩ and ⟨ei⟩ ⟨oi⟩ ⟨yi⟩. (As the ancient pronunciation of ⟨η⟩ was [ɛː], it is often transliterated as an ⟨e⟩ with a macron, even for modern texts.) On the other hand, ⟨ευ⟩ is sometimes pronounced [ev] and sometimes [ef], depending on the following sound. A transcription distinguishes them, but this is no requirement for a transliteration. The initial letter 'h' reflecting the historical rough breathing in words such as Ellēnikē should logically be omitted in transcription from Koine Greek on, and from transliteration from 1982 on, but it is nonetheless frequently encountered.
|Greek word||Transliteration||Transcription||English translation|
|Ελληνική Δημοκρατία||Ellēnikē Dēmokratia||Elinikí Dhimokratía||Hellenic Republic|
|των υιών||tōn uiōn||ton ion||of the sons|
A simple example of difficulties in transliteration is the Arabic letter qāf. It is pronounced, in literary Arabic, approximately like English [k], except that the tongue makes contact not on the soft palate but on the uvula, but the pronunciation varies between different dialects of Arabic. The letter is sometimes transliterated into "g", sometimes into "q" and rarely even into "k" in English. Another example is the Russian letter "Х" (kha). It is pronounced as the voiceless velar fricative /x/, like the Scottish pronunciation of ⟨ch⟩ in "loch". This sound is not present in most forms of English and is often transliterated as "kh" as in Nikita Khrushchev. Many languages have phonemic sounds, such as click consonants, which are quite unlike any phoneme in the language into which they are being transliterated.
Some languages and scripts present particular difficulties to transcribers. These are discussed on separate pages.
- Ancient Near East
- Armenian language
- Brahmic family
- Chinese language
- Click languages of Africa
- English language
- Greek language
- Japanese language
- Khmer language
- Korean language
- Persian language
- Semitic languages
- Slavic languages written in the Cyrillic or Glagolitic alphabets
- Thai language
- Urdu Language
- International Components for Unicode transliteration services ICU User Guide: Transforms
- Transliteration history – history of the transliteration of Slavic languages into Latin alphabets.
- Transliteration of Non-Latin scripts – Collection of transliteration tables for many non-Latin scripts maintained by Thomas T. Pedersen.
- Unicode Transliteration Guidelines
- United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) – working group on Romanization Systems.
- Library of Congress: Romanization Tables
- Localtyping.com implements google transliteration library and also allows to create To-Do Lists in English and Transliterated Languages.
- onlinemarathityping.com Use Google transliteration for easy typing.
- Usage of Transliterations – condensed description of the definition of transliteration and its usage.
- G. Gerych. Transliteration of Cyrillic Alphabets. Ottawa University, April 1965. 126 pp. – historical overview of the concept of transliteration and its evolution and application