What is a transliteration and how is it different to a translation?

Hello. I have to get some business cards for my boss printed for a trip to Russia and he’s asked me to get them done in Russian and get his name translated but when I spoke to my friend she said the name should not be translated it should be transliterated. I don’t know the difference and I need to get this done like yesterday. Can you help?

Hi Kerry,

Don’t worry, many people find this issue confusing so I’ll do my best to clarify the differences below.

What is translation?

There are many definitions of translation but the one I like is “Translation is the art of expressing an author’s intended meaning in another language in which they are not fluent”.

The key point here is that the words the translator uses do not have to be identical in both the source and target language, it is the meaning which is the crucial element. Even more importantly for this discussion, the sounds of the words are usually entirely different.

For example the word ‘hello’ in English sounds completely different to the French translation of the equivalent greeting, “Bonjour”.

What is transliteration?

Transliteration is the process of expressing the sound of how a word is pronounced in the source language in the alphabet of the target language.

The most popular use of transliteration is in the context you have been advised to use it, with names of people or places.

Here’s some examples.

If your colleague’s name was Alexandru Cazacu (A Romanian name) and he was going on a trip to Russia, his name would be transliterated into Russian as “Александру Казаку” which when pronounced in Russian would sound like “Aleksandru Kazaku”, very close to the original.

If he were going to Serbia, his name would be represented as “алекандру Цазацу” which would sound like “Alekandru Cazacu”, again very close to the original.

Finally, if he were going to Ukraine then the transliteration would be “Олександру Козаку” which equates to “Oleksandru Kozaku” which is about as close as one can get to the sound of the original in Ukrainian.

Russian, Serbian and Ukrainian all use Cyrillic alphabet but the principle is the same whichever alphabet is being used.

The same example in Yiddish would be “אַלעקסאַנדרו קאַזאַקו” which would be pronounced “alʻqsʼandrw qʼazʼaqw”.

There are sometimes different ways of transliterating a name in a given language and so consistency is important. It’s a good idea to check with the person if their name has been transliterated before or if they have a preferred version before going to print with business cards.

Also be aware that a transliteration of the name could be inappropriate or even offensive in the target language. For example, the Hungarian name “Ferenc” when transliterated into English would be “Feri” (pronounced like ‘Fairy’).

A transliteration of the English name “Pete” into Mandarin Chinese is too rude to even mention!

Do you need translation or transliteration?

Now that I’ve explained the difference, it’s time to decide what you need.

As a general rule, it’s best to go with a transliteration of your bosses name so long as it’s not going to be offensive in Russia.

We’d be happy to check his name to make sure everything is OK and do the transliteration for you if you would like us to? And don’t worry, it won’t take long and it won’t be expensive, simply contact our Customer Delight Team.

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