January 14, 2008

#01-061: Translation, Transliteration, and Transcription - Part II

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: We continue our examination of translation versus transliteration, and this time we throw in a quick look at transcription as well.

Get Ready: Have you ever had a problem with a translation or transcription from one language to another, perhaps with written instructions for something?

In Lesson #01-060, we looked at Translation, which transfers ideas between languages. And we began looking at Transliteration, the writing of a word in a different system of characters, like Hanzi and Pinyin.

This is where my reader's question arose, about how one name could be written XieHsieh, and Tse in different parts of China.

There are various systems of transliterating Chinese characters. The one used for most of the 20th century was the Wade-Giles system, created by Thomas Francis Wade. He was Cambridge University's first professor of Chinese, and wrote the first Chinese textbook for English speakers in 1867. The system was revised in 1912 by Herbert Allen Giles, another British diplomat.

The system created by Wade and Giles was meant for specialists in Chinese language. It is quite difficult for the average person to realize that in Wade-Giles t'i is pronounced ti but ti is pronounced di! Many educated people call the teachings of Lao Zi Taoism with a "T" sound, not realizing that in Wade-Giles Tao was pronounce dao.

It's true that Pinyin can still present problems for learners of Chinese; the c, j, q, r, and x sounds have to be mastered, as the sound associated with those letters in Pinyin is quite different from their pronunciation in English.

This simply means that no system of transliteration is perfect. But Hanyu Pinyin is good enough that many international bodies (including ISO) have accepted it.

The last word is Transcription. The first meaning of this is to write down what one hears, like taking dictation. Some argue that Pinyin is in fact not a transliteration system, since Hanzi have no fixed sound; these people claim that Pinyin transcribes a spoken dialect. Others say this is not so: Hanyu Pinyin represents the Mandarin (putonghua) sounds of the characters, and these are in fact fixed.

Things become more confusing when we learn that secondary meanings of transcription include translation and transliteration! The root of "transcribe" is "scribe," meaning to write. So finally transcription is any writing down of words, whether from dictation, transliteration, or translation.

And now, back to the original question: Xie, Hsieh, and Tse are just three ways of trying to represent the same sound, although perhaps with some slight regional variation. If you think that's unlikely, just remember: The British who first heard Guangdong pronounced in the local dialect eventually transcribed it as Kwangtung, and under French influence this became Canton. That same local dialect is now called Cantonese in English.


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

Practice: Mark the following statements "True" or "False." If you think a statement is false, say why.

  1. Translation transfers sounds; transliteration transfers ideas.
  2. The Wade-Giles system is easy for most people to understand.
  3. No system of transliteration is perfect. 
  4. In Pinyin, c, j, q, r, and x sounds are pronounced the same as in English.
  5. Xie, Hsieh, and Tse are just three ways of trying to represent the same sound.

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 14, 2008

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. False - it's the opposite: translation transfers ideas; transliteration transfers sounds; 2. False - "It is quite difficult for the average person..."; 3. True; 4. False - "the sound associated with those letters in Pinyin is quite different from their pronunciation in English."; 5. True.