What Is Transliteration, And How Do You Do It?

Transliteration may seem complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple. Well, most of the time it is.
Transliteration represented by the sign outside Ledianaya station with the cyrillic and latin alphabets represented.

Understanding a written language you’re not very familiar with is hard enough even when it does use the Latin alphabet. When it uses another writing system, then you’re entirely at a loss without even some familiar symbols to guide you. Fortunately, there’s a way around this problem: transliteration.

What Is Transliteration?

Transliteration is the act of converting a written language from one writing system to another. It’s different from translation, because the result isn’t in a different language. It’s also different from transcription, because that focuses entirely on the sounds of the language. Transliteration should reflect the sounds of the language to a certain extent, but it is not always as exact as a transcription might be.

Transliteration may also go by other names. A common term for transliterating a script into the Latin alphabet is romanization, and transliterating into Cyrillic is called cyrillization. You may also see terms like sinicization or francization that seem similar, but those usually refer to cultural shifts rather than shifts in writing systems. That said, the histories of cultural spread and transliteration are certainly linked.

How Does Transliteration Work?

If you’re new to transliteration, you might think that there is some advanced linguistic formula behind it. Really, though, it’s pretty simple when you get down to it. The only thing you need to get started is a chart to see which symbols are equivalent to the letter combos of the Latin alphabet. Because it’s probably easier to do this with an example, let’s try working with the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Macedonian and other languages. Here, we’ll focus on Russian.

Cyrillic Transliteration Guide

Cyrillic Latin Cyrillic Latin Cyrillic Latin Cyrillic Latin
а a з z п p ч ch
б b и i р r ш sh
в v й jj с s щ shh
г g к k т t ъ
д d л l у u ы y
е e м m ф f э eh
ё jo н n х kh ю ju
ж zh o o ц c я ja

Note: While not technically a letter, we should mention the soft sound ь is transliterated with the ‘ mark.

Cyrillic-To-Latin Alphabet Examples

Now that you’ve got the table above, you can start transliterating away. To begin with a common word you might run into, let’s try Россия, the Russian word for “Russia.” The first letter is Р, so you go to the chart and see that it’s equivalent to R. Then there’s o, which conveniently stays an o. The double cc becomes a double ss. Then there are two letters that look like backwards Latin letters, but have no fear! The и becomes i and the я becomes a ja. Put it all together, and you get Rossija.

You probably don’t need us to walk you through every word like that, but we want to include a few examples with more letters so you can practice if you want.

  • Да. — Da. (“Yes.”)
  • Нет. — Net. (“No.”)
  • Привет! — Privet! (“Hello!”)
  • До свидания! — Do svidanija! (“Goodbye!”)
  • Спасибо! — Spasibo! (“Thank you!”)

While every language and writing system has its own needs for transliteration, the basic concept is the same. There’s no magic spell or secret formula — it’s a process of replacement.

What Problems Exist In Transliteration?

Alright, so we talked a big game about transliteration being easy, but that’s kind of a best-case scenario. The truth is, transliteration can get a little complicated. Here’s a rundown of some of the problems with transliteration.

There Isn’t A One-To-One Correlation

The Latin alphabet has 26 letters. The Cyrillic alphabet has 32. Arabic has 28. And if you count the full number of kanji used in Japanese, there are tens of thousands. This problem isn’t completely insurmountable, but it does mean that decisions need to be made to decide which letter combinations, accent marks or punctuation will be used to express these nuances.

There Are Differing Standards

As an outgrowth of the previous problem, transliteration is not always standardized universally. For the most part, there are agreed upon norms, but there are still plenty of edge cases. Going back to the Cyrillic alphabet, you can find the letter я transliterated as ja, ya, i͡a, ia or â. This doesn’t present too much of a problem as long as enough people agree, but it can be confusing for newcomers to figure out.

Some Sounds Don’t Exist Across Languages

When you’re learning a new language, the hardest pronunciations are the ones that you’ve never come across before. Maybe it’s the rolled R in Spanish or the hard CH in German, but almost every language has some sound that you’ve not encountered. (In fact, some sounds may be altogether impossible for you to hear, but that’s a complex topic in itself.) 

How, then, can you represent that sound in transliteration? It’s not easy. Take, as an example, the three clicks in Xhosa. These are made by creating a vacuum in your mouth using your tongue and then making a noise with it (think of the “tsk” sound in English). There’s no noise in Latin alphabet-using languages that is comparable, so there’s simply no way to transliterate them. The best option is usually to use the specialized symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet, which has a symbol for every possible sound in human language.

There’s really no way to solve every problem with transliteration in a way that would work seamlessly for everyone. What it really comes down to is the fact that written and spoken language — while inextricably linked — are not perfect mirrors of each other. There’s always going to be some messiness when you try to transliterate, translate or transcribe.

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