Understanding Transliteration vs. Translation

What is transliteration?

Simply put, transliteration is the process of converting a word or single character from one writing system to that of another. This conversion process is normally done by taking a letter from one alphabet and phonetically matching it to one or more characters in another alphabet.

For example, the Japanese word こんにちは will transliterate to KONNICHIWA in English. In this case, each letter from the Japanese word can be transliterated to English on its own.

  • こ ⇒ KO
  • ん ⇒ N
  • に ⇒ NI
  • ち ⇒ CHI
  • は ⇒ HA or WA

Notice that the last letter in the word, は, has two possible transliterations – HA and WA. This is because depending on the context of how the letter is used, the character on its own can have two different sounds, thus leading to different phonetic matches. In English, this would be similar to the letter C sounding different for the words ‘company’ and ‘civil.’

Transliteration is not just dependent on phonetically matching one language’s alphabet to that of another. Multiple languages share the Roman alphabet, but the pronunciation of some letters will differ from language to language. Therefore, they will be transliterated differently even though the alphabet is the same. Transliteration is also dependent upon the country in which the language is used.

Take the letter Z, for example. In the United States of America, the name of the letter Z is pronounced ZEE. In most other English-speaking countries, such as Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom the name is pronounced ZED. In Spanish and Italian, the name is pronounced ZETA, while in Dutch, Polish, Romanian and Czech it is pronounced ZET. Without knowing both the language (e.g. English, French, German) and the country (e.g. France, Germany, United States of America, United Kingdom), the letter Z cannot be transliterated on its own, since there are multiple possibilities.

Transliteration is not always the process of just making a phonetic conversion. In some cases, a character in one language may have an equivalent in another despite the pronunciation of the character being different. This is more commonly the case with diacritics (umlauts and diaeresis). Take the letter Ö for example. The letter Ö is commonly used in the names of localities and streets of countries that speak a Germanic language, such as Danish, German, Swedish and Icelandic. The Germanic letter Ö is interesting in that the English transliteration of the letter can be represented as either O or OE, but not because the letter phonetically matches O and OE but is instead considered equivalent to them.

The word transliteration is sometimes confused with romanization. This is because romanization is the transliteration of a language that does not use Roman characters, such as Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, Hindi, Japanese, Korean and many others, to a language that does use Roman characters, like English, French, German and Spanish. However, they are not the same, since transliteration is not limited to just Roman characters. In terms of converting one writing system to that of another, romanization can be considered as a type of transliteration, but it would be best to avoid the term altogether and stick with transliteration to ensure that you are not pigeonholing yourself.

Transliteration is also not just limited to letters as it can involve converting numbers. For example, the first five Roman numerals transliterated to Japanese are as follows.

I ⇒ 一

II ⇒ 二

III ⇒ 三

IV ⇒ 四

V ⇒ 五

Overall, proper transliteration is more than just converting a character or word from one alphabet to that of another.

Transliteration vs translation

Transliteration is not translation. If you are unfamiliar with the language of the word being transliterated, then it is unlikely that its transliteration will give you insight into the meaning of the word. Take the Japanese example from above, KONNICHIWA. If you are unfamiliar with Japanese then the word KONNICHIWA has no meaning to you, but at least you will be able to sound it out.

It’s not until the word is translated that it will have meaning to someone who is unfamiliar with the language that it belongs to. The word こんにちは translates to HELLO in English and vice versa the word HELLO translates back to こんにちは in Japanese. This relationship does not work with transliteration. The English word HELLO transliterated to Japanese is ハロー. The Japanese word ハロー transliterated to English is HARŌ. As you can see, it is not bi-directional. Going from English to Japanese and then back to English ( HELLO ⇒ ハロー ⇒ HARŌ ) results in some loss of information. Again, it is unlikely that a transliteration will give you insight into the meaning of the word being transliterated.

The reason why I say unlikely is that some alphabets make use of glyphs, where a character may be composed of one or more glyphs. Glyphs may have several meanings, so unlike Roman characters, which have no meaning on their own, a word composed of glyphs could potentially give someone insight into the meaning of the word even though they may not be familiar with the language of the word being transliterated. However, be aware that any inferred meaning could be wildly inaccurate since the purpose of transliteration is to phonetically match a letter from one alphabet to that of another.

How DOTS Address Validation – International can help

Now that you have had a taste of how complex transliteration can be and how it differs from translation, you may be feeling either a little overwhelmed – or preferably, a little more confident about approaching the topic when it comes to validating international addresses. If you are feeling overwhelmed, then you don’t have to be, because the Address Validation – International service will do all the heavy lifting for you.