January 10, 2008

#01-060: Translation, Transliteration, and Transcription - Part I

graphic of the word "Transcription" with two lines leading to the next row: "Translation" over the Chinese character for "moon" with the English word "moon" next to it; and "Transliteration" over the Chinese character for "moon" with the Hanyu Pinyin characters "yue" next to it

Note: Meaning is often "lost in translation"--and even in transliteration! But what's the difference between the two? It all started with a question from a reader...

Get Ready: Do you know the difference between translation and transliteration? Have you ever translated anything?

In the summer of 2008, I received a letter from a reader who posed a very interesting question.

She asked why one family name might be spelled Xie in the mainland, Shieh in Taiwan, and Tse in Hong Kong.

In answering her question, I had to turn to an examination of three words starting with trans-: Translation, Transliteration, and Transcription.

Of the three, Translation is the most familiar to us. In simple terms, it means taking an idea from one language into another. When a Chinese person says Xiexie and an English speaker changes it to thank you in his or her mind, that's translation.

This can create some problems, of course. Things can indeed be "lost in translation." Some of the Chinglish errors we discussed in Lessons #01-040, #01-041, and #01-042 result from accidents like this.

For example, No thank you is close to a literal translation of Buyong xie. But generally, No thank you means "I don't care for any." "No thanks needed" or, better, "You're welcome," is a better translation of Buyong xie.

From this we can see that translation is better done idea for idea rather than word for word.

The next trans- word is Transliteration. This is fairly simple. When two languages have different sets of characters--say, the Arabic script and the Roman--then we must transliterate words when writing them from one system into another. The root of transliterate is liter- meaning "letter." So we are crossing over from one set of letters (or characters, as in Chinese) into another.

There can be problems, however. Chinese is usually written in syllabic, not alphabetic, characters. That is, one Hanzi usually represents one syllable. There is a fixed number of these sounds, so it's sometimes difficult to take a word from another language directly into Chinese.

Take names, for example: One common way to write my name is zhan mu si. This is quite far from the one-syllable pronunciation "James" (rhymes with "names").

Hanyu Pinyin, on the other hand, would be a great way to take foreign words and names into Chinese. But it is seldom used for this. Most often, Pinyin is used to transliterate Chinese characters (Hanzi) into Roman characters, a process also called "Romanization." When I write China's capital's name as "Beijing," I am Romanizing the two Chinese characters into Pinyin. (If I were translating, I'd call it "North Capital.")

In Lesson #01-061, we'll continue discussing Transliteration, and then talk about Transcription. Then we'll find the answer to the question about Xie, Hsieh, and Tse.


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Translation

Practice: Match the halves of the sentences.

  1. Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong
  2. Translation transfers the meaning of words;
  3. "Buyong xie" means "No thanks needed,"
  4. The Chinese language is written
  5. "Beijing" is a transliteration;

  1. in syllables, not with an alphabet.
  2. not "No thank you."
  3. use different systems to transliterate Chinese words.
  4. "North Capital" is a translation of the same word.
  5. transliteration transfers the sound.

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 10, 2008

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