The Difference Between Translation Vs Transliteration

by OFER TIROSH 03/08/2022
The Difference Between Translation Vs Transliteration

What is the difference between translation and transliteration? I will explore this topic in depth below, including defining translation vs transliteration, providing a few transliteration examples, and examining when it’s best to translate vs transliterate.

 

What Is the Difference Between Translation and Transliteration?

I’ve been exploring various bits of language industry terminology recently (such as taking a look at the back translation and its uses). Today, I want to look at the difference between translation and transliteration.

In simple terms, translation is the process of converting one language to another. The goal is for the target language to convey the meaning of the words.  

Transliteration, on the other hand, is the process of converting language from one script to another. The goal is for the reader to be able to pronounce the words in the target language.

For a translator, it’s worth noting that transliteration can be a much faster process than translation. You’re cutting the need to convert the language into another script out of the process, meaning it is often much faster to transliterate than translate. And as transliteration simply converts each word, you also don’t need to worry about grammar, word order, sentence structure, and so on. Again, this makes for a speedier process.

 

An Example of Transliteration

I’m going to dive straight into a transliteration example to explain what I mean here. Let’s use the words ‘good evening’.

If you translate ‘good evening’ into Simplified Chinese, you get ‘晚上好’. This is fine if the person who will be reading your translation can read Mandarin. However, if they can’t, the translation quickly becomes pointless. Transliterate vs translate, however, and you get ‘Wǎnshàng hǎo’ when using the Latin alphabet. This provides the reader with at least a passing chance of being able to pronounce ‘good evening’ in Mandarin.  

 

Translate Vs Transliterate: Examples of Translation

Let me expand on this a bit. I’ll start with some examples of translation, using three Chinese idioms.

 

English: To stay grounded/maintain focus

Mandarin translation: 脚踏实地

 

English: To give it your all

Mandarin translation: 全力以赴 (literally: to exert all your strength)

 

English: Throwing an idea out there

Mandarin translation: 抛砖引玉 (literally: to cast a brick to attract jade)


As we saw above, making the decision to translate vs transliterate is fine if the document you’re working on is intended for someone who can read the characters of the target language.

 

Examples of Transliteration

Now let’s use the same idioms as transliteration examples.

English: To stay grounded/maintain focus

Mandarin transliteration: jiǎo tà shí dì

 

English: To give it your all

Mandarin transliteration: quán lì yǐ fù

 

English: Throwing an idea out there

Mandarin transliteration: pāo zhuān yǐn yù


For someone who wants to hold a conversation in Mandarin that includes these phrases, but doesn’t read Chinese characters, transliteration is clearly a huge help.

 

Uses of Translation Vs Transliteration

This brings me to the uses and purpose of transliteration vs translation. You can use transliteration with any language pairing where the two languages use different alphabets. I’ve used Chinese above, but you can also use transliteration when working between the Latin alphabet and the Cyrillic alphabet (as used in Russia, Bulgaria, and elsewhere), Hindi’s Devanagari script (also known as Nagari), Japanese Kanji characters, and any other script which differs from that used for your source language.

Transliteration can work with any of these scripts to produce a document that will enable the target audience to pronounce the words. This makes transliteration an incredibly useful communication tool between parties who use different scripts. When we consider Ethnologue’s assertion that 4,065 of the world’s 7,139 living languages have a developed writing system, the value of transliteration quickly becomes clear, even accounting for the fact that some of these 4,065 languages use the same script (at least 100 languages, for example, use the Latin alphabet).

Ultimately, the decision between transliteration and translation will come down to the purpose of the document. If pronunciation is the desired outcome, then transliteration makes sense. If you want to deliver the meaning of the text though, rather than simply want to pronounce it, you’ll need to opt for translation.

If you’re working on a transliteration project, you will likely need many of the same tools as if you were working on a translation. Decent translation software should be able to deliver both translation and transliteration, for example. Any good dictionary will include details of how you pronounce the words that it contains as well.

It’s worth noting that machine translation may be an option if you want to transliterate, as well as to translate. While machine translation options vary significantly in the way they work and the quality of the results that they produce, many will deliver transliteration alongside the translation. Some (such as Google Translate) will also play a pronunciation of the translation as well.

Another point to consider is how useful transliteration can be with things like company names. The translation of company names can be a complex topic to grapple with and the approach that a business takes to the translation of its own name will result from that individual company’s plans and preferences. However, if you’re planning to do business in a country where you can’t read company names, using transliteration to ensure that you can pronounce them correctly is likely to be another point in your favour during meetings. It indicates a certain level of preparation and commitment on your part, which is never a bad thing in a business scenario.

 

Wrap Up

While translation and transliteration both relate to the conversion of one language to another, the two practices are distinctly different from each other.

If your priority is to convey your meaning accurately in another language, in a way that makes sense grammatically, then the translation will always be the option you need. Through the use of professional translation services, you can connect with people around the globe for a huge range of business (and other) reasons. Yes, translation takes longer than transliteration, but what you end up with is a document that communicates your messages clearly and accurately to anyone who can read the target language.

Transliteration, as we’ve seen from the above examples, doesn’t require the same investment of time that translation does. As such, it can be a cheaper service to source through a translation agency. It’s just important to bear in mind that its use will be limited to delivering a pronounceable version of the text you’re working with.  

When it comes to translation vs transliteration, both hold value as tools to aid communication and overcome linguistic barriers. As such, if you’re planning to do business overseas, or you are a translator who is supporting a client to do so, then it’s worth considering the merits of each discipline and deciding which will deliver the most value for each particular project or set of circumstances.

If you’re a translator with a client who is currently seeking to understand the whole translation vs transliteration debate, feel free to share this article with them. And if you have experience in delivering transliteration projects, please feel free to share your thoughts below on the merits of transliteration vs translation.

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