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Transcription & Transliteration: Some Thoughts on Written Language & Foreign Names

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Generally proper names are problematic. Ideally, they should never be changed from their original form; after all, a name is a name, as such it cannot be changed. If someone's name is Enrique, it is Enrique, and not Henry or Heinrich.

The same applies to names of places, which are sometimes absurdly different from the original. Deutschland, for instance, is called Germany in English - extremely unsuitable from a purist point-of-view. (Read more about that in “Germanic & Celtic”.)

Tradition, however, has given different names to persons and places in different languages. Sometimes the nature of language itself - different sounds and sound values of letters and combinations of letters - makes changes practical. To ignore that and always keep original forms would be impractical and alienate the readership.

Changes from one alphabet to another are even more problematic. Different approaches are possible. Roughly, one can either transcript or transliterate.

In a transcription, one tries to describe the sound of one language with the script of another. This is based on pronunciation.

In a transliteration, one exchanges letters for letters. A transliteration can always be reversed, so the original spelling can be derived from the transliterated one. It is based on spelling.

As a simple example, we can take the Arabic article "al"; when it is followed by certain consonants, its pronunciation is adapted accordingly - but not the Arabic writing. So if we transliterate (keep to the spelling), we get e.g. al-Rahman, al-Din, and al-Zahir. If we transcribe (express the pronunciation), we get ar-Rahman, ad-Din, and az-Zahir.

Of course transcriptions are equally affected by the target language as well. After all, different letters and combinations of letters have different sound values in different languages - even when they use the same alphabet. A good example is how Russian names are written in European languages. The author the English call Chekhov, is called Tschechoff (or Tschechov) in German.

Japanese, an only partly alphabetic language, has a very good system for "Romanisation," that is, writing Japanese with Latin (Roman) letters. It is called Hyojunshiki (standard system), an adaption of the earlier Hepburn system. (In my opinion, Hyojunshiki is the only really clear and consistent transcription system in use anywhere. But it can be so only because Japanese is so phonetically simple.) It is not hard to express Japanese with the use of Latin letters.

In the other direction, however, it is complicated. Foreign names are written with "Katakana", one of two syllabic alphabets, but there is really no way to write anything that cannot be pronounced with the very primitive Japanese phonetics. So, alien words are adjusted accordingly.

Chinese is non-alphabetic, and its "tone pitches" make alphabetic representation difficult. I would say that a perfect system is impossible to achieve. It must be a matter of transcription, not transliteration. Several systems exist. Wide-Giles, created by Thomas Wade in the 19th century, was long the most widely used system, and it still holds a strong position. In 1958, however, the People's Republic of China adopted Pinyin (or Hanyu Pinyin) as a standard, and it is the ISO standard since 1982.

A number of systems have been created and used in Taiwan. The present government standard is Tongyong Pinyin.

In addition to this, "Romanisation" of Chinese names can be different, depending on which dialect it is based on.

All this can be confusing, since the same Chinese name can appear in Western texts in many very different forms. It is likely that Hanyu Pinyin will become the standard in practice too, but it will take time. Most people still think of Beijing as Peking, or Guangzhou as Canton.

Arabic names in Latin-alphabet texts are often in total confusion. Although one can transliterate, it is more useful with a transcription, and there just is no standard for that at all – and therefore no consistency. The sounds of the Arabic language cannot satisfactorily be expressed with the Latin alphabet. The worst are transcriptions made by the Arabic-speaking themselves; they often lack a clear target language and use Latin letters inconsistently, sometimes within one and the same sentence.

T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), wrote:

"There are some 'scientific systems' of transliteration, helpful to people who know enough Arabic not to need helping, but a wash-out for the world. I spell my names anyhow, to show what rot the systems are."

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Related articles:

Germanic & Celtic

Names in the Ptolemaic Dynasty, Their Meaning & How to Write Them in English

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