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Not to be confused with translation.
"Transliterate" redirects here. For the concept of being literate in all media, see Transliteracy.

Transliteration is the conversion of a text from one script to another.[1]

For instance, the Greek phrase "Ελληνική Δημοκρατία" 'Hellenic Republic' can be transliterated as "Ellēnikē Dēmokratia" by substituting Greek letters for Latin letters.

Transliteration can form an essential part of transcription which converts text from one writing system into another. Transliteration is not concerned with representing the phonemics of the original: it only strives to represent the characters accurately. Thus, in the above example, λλ is transliterated as 'll', but pronounced /l/, and η is transliterated as 'ē', though it is pronounced /i/ (exactly like ι) and is not long.


From an information-theoretical point of view, systematic transliteration is a mapping from one system of writing into another, word by word, or ideally letter by letter. Most transliteration systems are one-to-one, so a reader who knows the system can reconstruct the original spelling.

Transliteration is opposed to transcription, which specifically maps the sounds of one language to the best matching script of another language. Still, most systems of transliteration map the letters of the source script to letters pronounced similarly in the goal script, for some specific pair of source and goal language. If the relations between letters and sounds are similar in both languages, a transliteration may be (almost) the same as a transcription. In practice, there are also some mixed transliteration/transcription systems that transliterate a part of the original script and transcribe the rest.

The transliteration discussed above can be regarded as transliteration in the narrow sense. In a broader sense, the word transliteration may include both transliteration in the narrow sense and transcription.

Transliteration of single words is often an informal non-systematic process; many variants of the same word are often used. For example the Hebrew word מַצָּה is rendered in English, according to the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, as matzo, matzah, matso, motsa, motso, maẓẓo, matza, matzho, matzoh, mazzah, motza, and mozza.

Examples for usage[edit]

The Greek language is written in the 24-letter Greek alphabet, which overlaps with, but differs from, the 26-letter English alphabet. Etymologies in English dictionaries often identify Greek words as ancestors of words used in English, and sometimes transliterate the Greek words into Roman letters.

In everyday use, words from languages using different characters are often transliterated phonetically to represent the sound, as in the example above, matzo.

Difference from transcription[edit]

In Modern Greek (and since the Roman Imperial period), the letters <η> <ι> <υ> and the letter combinations <ει> <oι> <υι> are pronounced [i] (except when pronounced as semivowels), and a modern transcription renders them all as <i>; but a transliteration distinguishes them, for example by transliterating to <ē> <i> <y> and <ei> <oi> <yi>. (As the ancient pronunciation of <η> was [ɛː], it is often transliterated as an <e> with a macron, even for modern texts.) On the other hand, <ευ> is sometimes pronounced [ev] and sometimes [ef], depending on the following sound. A transcription distinguishes them, but this is no requirement for a transliteration. The initial letter 'h' reflecting the historical rough breathing in words such as Hellēnikē should logically be omitted in transcription from Koine Greek on,[2] and from transliteration from 1982 on, but it is nonetheless frequently encountered.

Greek wordTransliterationTranscriptionEnglish translation
Ελληνική ΔημοκρατίαHellēnikē DēmokratiaEliniki DhimokratiaHellenic Republic
των υιώνtōn uiōnton ionof the sons

Partial transliteration[edit]

There is also another type of transliteration that is not full, but partial or quasi. A source word can be transliterated by first identifying all the applicable prefix and suffix segments based on the letters in the source word. All of these segments, in combination constitute a list of potential partial transliterations. So a partial transliteration can include only prefix or only suffix segments. A partial transliteration will also include some unmapped letters of the source word, namely those letters between the end of the prefix and the beginning of the suffix. The partial transliteration can be “filled in” by applying additional segment maps. Applying the segment maps can produce additional transliterations if more than one segment mapping applies to a particular combination of characters in the source word.[3]

Some examples or "partial transliterations" are words like "bishop" via Anglo-Saxon biscep from the Greek word "episkopos" and the word "deacon" which is partially transliterated from the Greek word "diakonos".


A simple example of difficulties in transliteration is the voiceless uvular plosive used in Arabic and other languages. It is pronounced approximately like English [k], except that the tongue makes contact not on the soft palate but on the uvula. Pronunciation varies between different languages, and different dialects of the same language. The consonant is sometimes transliterated into "g", sometimes "k", and sometimes "q" in English.[4] Another example is the Russian letter "Х" (kha), pronounced similarly to the letter "j" in Spanish. It is pronounced as the voiceless velar fricative /x/, like the Scottish pronunciation of ch in "loch". This sound is not present in most forms of English, and is often transliterated as "kh", as in Nikita Khrushchev. Many languages have phonemic sounds, such as click consonants, which are quite unlike any phoneme in the language into which they are being transliterated.

Some languages and scripts present particular difficulties to transcribers. These are discussed on separate pages.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kharusi, N. S. & Salman, A. (2011) The English Transliteration of Place Names in Oman. Journal of Academic and Applied Studies Vol. 1(3) September 2011, pp. 1–27 Available online at
  2. ^ see Koine Greek phonology
  3. ^ Machine Learning For Transliteration - Transliteration
  4. ^ Language log

"Translation" citation 15: ^ Kasparek, "The Translator's Endless Toil", pp. 85–86. "Roger Bacon wrote that if a translation is to be true, the translator must know both languages, as well as the science that he is to translate"

External links[edit]

Online transliteration[edit]