Are your working languages English and Russian, Thai or Arabic? Are you constantly navigating between scripts? If so, then translation includes the added difficulty of transliteration, and the ‘to transliterate or to not transliterate’ dilemna.

Transliteration is the conversion of characters from one script to another. Transliteration into the Latin script is usually called ‘Romanisation’. The result of the process is roughly phonetic for languages in the target script. For example, a Latin transliteration of the Greek phrase ‘Ελληνική Δημοκρατία’ is ‘Ellēnikḗ Dēmokratía’, which is usually translated as ‘Hellenic Republic’ in English.

Picture of the Aurebesh alphabet
The fictional Star Wars Aurebesh language has its own transliteration system too.

There are many systems for transliteration between languages. This means that the same text can be transliterated in many different ways. For example, the moons of Mars, ‘Phobos’ and ‘Deimos’, are romanisations of the Greek ‘Φόβος’ and ‘Δεῖμος’ into Latin letters, using the classical transliteration system. The UNGEGN system is an alternative standard with different correspondences, such as φ → f instead of φ → ph. As such, ‘Φόβος’ would be ‘Fobos’.

There are also national, official transliteration systems, creating further variations. Although both languages use variations of the Cyrillic alphabet, a Ukrainian name will be transliterated one way while the Russian equivalent will be romanised another way. For example, the capital city of Ukraine is either ‘Kyiv’ (transliterated from the Ukrainian ‘Київ‘) or ‘Kiev’ (transliterated from the Russian ‘Киев‘).

Needless to say that this may be a great source of contention, especially when it comes down to people’s names. Given the great diversity of transliteration systems, we always ask our clients to provide their ‘preferred spellings’, and use them if they are indeed possible transliteration options of the original.

Being aware of this issue is particularly important for several reasons:

  • It prevents additional to and from with clients wishing to get their translations amended.
  • Our reputation is protected: clients will often view these spelling variations as errors rather than valid transliteration options.

If no preferred spellings are available, we generally use nationally accepted transliteration systems. If you have any questions or doubts about which transliteration standard to use, please leave a comment or get in touch.

This post was inspired by a question raised by Tim on our recent blog post on translating academic documents. He asked whether we should transliterate the names of institutions, degrees or courses. After consulting with our in-house Slavic language expert Bill, the answer is yes