Transliteration Guide: Definition & Examples
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. What is transliteration?
  2. How does transliteration differ from translation?
  3. Why transliteration matters
  4. How to use transliteration
  5. Practical examples of transliteration

Have you ever come across a word in another language and wondered how to pronounce it? That's where transliteration comes into play. In this blog, we'll take a close look at the definition of transliteration, how it works, and why it's so important—especially in our increasingly global world.

What is transliteration?

Transliteration is a pretty neat trick that languages do to understand each other. Simply put, it's the process of converting letters or words from one alphabet or script into another. This doesn't change the meaning of the word—it just makes it easier for you to pronounce in your own language.

The Basics of Transliteration

Let's break this down a bit:

  • The word transliteration itself comes from Latin. "Trans-" means "across", and "-littera" means "letter". So, when we transliterate, we're basically moving letters across from one language to another.
  • Transliteration is not about translating the meaning of words. It's all about sounds. So, when you see a transliterated word, you can say it out loud, and it should sound similar to the original word in its native language.
  • The goal of transliteration is to give you a pretty good idea of how to pronounce a word in a language that uses a different writing system. For example, if you're an English speaker, you might find it tough to read a word written in the Greek or Russian alphabet. But if that word is transliterated into the Latin alphabet (which English uses), you'll have a much easier time.

Transliteration in Action

You've probably used transliteration without even realizing it. Here's a common example:

Think about the Russian word for "hello" - Здравствуйте. In English, we write it as "Zdravstvuyte" — that's transliteration! We're not changing the meaning of the word, we're just changing the script so English speakers can pronounce it.

Types of Transliteration

There are two main types of transliteration—phonetic and orthographic. Let's take a closer look:

  1. Phonetic Transliteration: This type focuses on capturing the sounds of the original language as closely as possible. It gives you an idea of how to pronounce the word as a native speaker would.
  2. Orthographic Transliteration: This type is more about preserving the look of the original word. It's less concerned with capturing exact sounds and more with keeping the original spelling intact.

Both types have their uses, and the one you choose may depend on why you're transliterating in the first place.

In the next section, we'll look at how transliteration is different from translation—another process you might be familiar with when dealing with different languages. Stay tuned for some cool insights!

How does transliteration differ from translation?

Transliteration and translation might seem similar, but they're actually two very different processes. They both help us understand foreign words, but they go about it in different ways. So, what sets them apart?

Transliteration is About Sound, Translation is About Meaning

Here's the main difference: translation changes the meaning of a word from one language to another, while transliteration changes the script of a word from one language to another. So with translation, you're trying to understand what a word means, while with transliteration, you're trying to understand how a word sounds.

  • For instance, if we take the Spanish word "hola", a translation into English would give us the word "hello". Here, we've changed the meaning of the word from one language to another.
  • On the other hand, if we were to transliterate the Greek word "γειά" into English, we'd get "geia". We haven't changed the meaning of the word, just how it's written so that an English speaker can pronounce it.

Translation Requires Knowledge of Both Languages

Another key difference is that translation requires a good understanding of both the source and target languages—you need to know what the words mean in both languages. But with transliteration, you don't need to know the meaning of the word in the source language—you just need to know how to convert the script.

Transliteration and Translation Can Work Together

While they are different, transliteration and translation can often work together. For instance, if you're translating a text from a language that uses a different alphabet, you might first transliterate the text, then translate it. This way, you can make sure you're pronouncing the words correctly as you translate them.

To sum up, while both transliteration and translation are useful when dealing with foreign languages, they serve different purposes. Translation helps us understand the meaning of words, while transliteration helps us pronounce them. Up next, we'll dive into why transliteration is so important. Stay tuned!

Why transliteration matters

Now that you know what transliteration is and how it differs from translation, you might be wondering, "Why does it matter?". Well, let's dive into that.

Transliteration Makes Languages Accessible

Firstly, transliteration opens up foreign languages to us. Let's say you're interested in learning Russian, but you're intimidated by its Cyrillic alphabet. Transliteration could help you get started by providing the Russian words in the Roman alphabet, so you can start pronouncing the words without having to learn a new script first.

Transliteration Helps in Global Communication

Think about how many languages there are in the world—over 7,000! Now, imagine how many of them use a different script than your own. Transliteration helps bridge this gap and allows people from different linguistic backgrounds to communicate with each other. It's a tool that allows for easier global communication.

  • For example, the name of the Chinese president, 习近平, is transliterated as "Xi Jinping" in English. This allows English speakers to pronounce his name without having to learn Chinese characters.

Transliteration Helps Preserve Cultural Heritage

Finally, transliteration also plays a vital role in preserving cultural heritage. Many historical documents, sacred texts, and literary works are in languages that use different scripts. Transliterating these texts allows more people to access them, helping preserve and spread cultural heritage.

To wrap up this section, transliteration is not only helpful for learning new languages and promoting global communication, but it also plays a crucial role in cultural preservation. In the next section, we'll look at how you can use transliteration in your day-to-day life.

How to use transliteration

Having understood the importance of transliteration, you're probably thinking, "How can I use it?" Well, you're in the right place—let's explore that together!

Learn New Languages

As hinted at before, transliteration is a great tool when you're starting to learn a new language. It can help you get the hang of pronunciation before you dive into learning a new alphabet.

  • For instance, if you're learning Japanese, the word for hello (こんにちは) might look daunting. But with transliteration, you'll see that it's pronounced "Konnichiwa," making it easier to say and remember.

Traveling Abroad

If you're a travel enthusiast, transliteration will be your best friend. When visiting a country where a different script is used, transliterated words can help you navigate places, read restaurant menus, and communicate with locals.

  • Imagine you're in Greece, and you see this sign: Αεροδρόμιο. You might not know what it means. But thanks to transliteration, you'll know it says "Aerodromio," which is the Greek word for airport. Handy, isn't it?

Professional Uses

Transliteration also has its place in the professional world. Whether you're a linguist, a historian, or a business person dealing with international clients, understanding the definition of transliteration can be very useful.

For example, if you're a historian studying ancient scripts, transliteration will help you convert ancient texts into a script you're familiar with, making your research work easier.

From learning new languages to traveling to professional use, transliteration is indeed a versatile tool. Up next, we'll make the definition of transliteration more concrete with some practical examples.

Practical examples of transliteration

Now that we've covered the basics of how to use transliteration, let's make the idea more concrete with some practical examples. Remember, transliteration isn't about translating meaning—it's about converting letters from one script to another.

Transliterating from Russian to English

Let's start with a name you might recognize from Russian literature: Фёдор Достоевский. If we translated this, we wouldn't get anywhere, as it's a proper name. But if we transliterate it, we get "Fyodor Dostoevsky". And just like that, a formidable Russian name is rendered readable for English speakers.

Transliterating from Mandarin Chinese to English

Here's a cool one: the Mandarin word for China is 中國. Translated to English, it means "Middle Kingdom." But if we transliterate it using Pinyin (the official system in China for transliterating Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet), we get "Zhōngguó". And there you have it: the Mandarin word for China, pronounced in English!

Transliterating from Arabic to English

Ever wondered how to pronounce the capital of Saudi Arabia? In Arabic, it's written as الرياض. Through transliteration, we get "Ar-Riyāḍ". So, instead of being an unfamiliar Arabic script, it's now something you can pronounce!

These examples should help you better understand the definition of transliteration. It's all about making foreign scripts easier to understand and pronounce, not changing the meaning of the words. So next time you're faced with an unfamiliar script, remember, transliteration is your friend!

If you're fascinated by the world of transliteration and want to explore more about language and wordplay, check out the workshop 'Wordplay' by Celina Rodriguez. This engaging workshop will help you dive deeper into the creative possibilities of language and enhance your understanding of transliteration and its applications.