Transliteration vs. Transcription

The words transliteration and transcription are frequently misunderstood and exchanged. Basically, a transliteration replaces letters without paying attention to the sound, while a transcription only looks at the sound. Words written like tlhIngan Hol are described as the "romanized transliteration" of Klingon.

Example: "chair" kusquS (transliteration = letters) ➞ [KOOSH] (transcription = pronunciation)


Taken from Wikipedia: (1)
Transliteration is the conversion of a text from one script to another. For instance, a Latin transliteration of the Greek phrase "Ελληνική Δημοκρατία", usually translated as 'Hellenic Republic', is "Ellēnikḗ Dēmokratía".

Transliteration is not concerned with representing the sounds of the original, only the characters, ideally accurately and unambiguously. Thus, in the above example, λλ is transliterated as 'll', but pronounced /l/; Δ is transliterated as 'D', but pronounced 'ð'; and η is transliterated as 'ē', though it is pronounced /i/ (exactly like ι).


Taken from Wikipedia: (2)
Transcription maps the sounds of one language into a writing system, but not necessarily the spelling. So "Ελληνική Δημοκρατία" could be transcribed as "elinikí ðimokratía", which does not specify which of the /i/ sounds are written as η and which as ι. Transcription in the linguistic sense is the systematic representation of language in written form. The source can either be utterances (speech or sign language) or preexisting text in another writing system, although some linguists consider only the former to be transcription.

Klingon examples

Klingon Transliteration Transcription
gawran ghawran Gowron
qoznos Qo'noS Kronos
betleh betleH bat'leth
petaq petaQ P'tak
xifan tlhIngan Klingon

The Klingon Dictionary

In the introduction of TKD, the author Marc Okrand writes about the Klingon writing sysem named pIqaD:
This writing system is not yet well understood and is, therefore, not used in this dictionary. Instead, a transcription system based on the English alphabet has been devised.

This choice of word may be confusing, since according to the above explanation, it should be a "transliteration", not "transcription". For this, one needs to know that at that time, the klingon font we use today was not known yet. So from his point of view, back in 1985, his way of writing really is a transcription, since the used letters indeed are focused on the pronunciation only. (He did not have a writing system to transliterate from.)

Common Use

(3)It is the explicit policy of the KLI's mailing list not to do naked transliterations (i.e. transliterations not marked with asterisks or whatever). It confuses the hell out of people, especially beginners, who often don't know not to going looking up such "words" in the dictionary.

It is permitted but strongly discouraged to do marked transliterations (with punctuation). Transliteration is innately hard to understand and requires an extra level of decryption. The purpose of this list is to communicate with others in tlhIngan Hol, not to be cutesy and clever. It does not profit anybody to have to decrypt that *maS'e'chu'Setlh* is supposed to mean "Massachusetts". It doesn't teach anything useful about the language and is just a pain. In addition, transliteration requires that the person already know what you're talking about in advance. If, for instance, I tell you that I went to *ghlaStIr* , you'd better damn well know your Massachusetts geography (and dialect) in order to know that I'm talking about Gloucester. Still another problem is that some things just don't transliterate well, because they use sounds Klingon doesn't have. This is particularly a problem because different people might come up with different solutions. I may think I'm all clever and all when I come up with *HalIvatlh* or *'elIveqS*, but it is problematic whether or not anybody is going to figure out that I meant "Halifax". In short, one is strongly encouraged to consider the issue from the point of view of the reader, who in most cases, really has his hands full just trying the understand the tlhIngan Hol without having to buy a decoder ring just to grok your transliterations. The point here is not to be "tidy"; the point is to communicate and learn. It is also understood that formal translation projects do have a legitimate need to be "tidy", so marked transliterations in posts of formal translation works are accepted without complaint.

So, to summarize: marked transliteration is discouraged but acceptable. Unmarked transliteration is unkosher.

Also: when one does use the direct English of a word, one is encouraged to quote it, so that people can instantly see it isn't tlhIngan Hol. Thus:

chay' *Gloucester*vo' *Halifax*Daq ghoSlu'?
How can I get from Gloucester to Halifax?

The original version of this last example used quotation marks for the English words. The community has had more experience dealing with this situation since the above was written in 1994. Now using quotes in Klingon is discouraged as they can be confused for apostrophes. It is recommended that asterisks are used instead, see ➞ punctuation for more details on that topic.

Comment: "Why we shouldn't do transcriptions"

Written by Lieven L. Litaer (4)
bubble   This is an OPINION PAGE. It may contain different points of view about different parts of Klingon. You may add useful thoughts, but please remember this is not a forum.

I just noticed a nice event that shows what can go wrong:

1994: Nick Nicholas translated the Gospel of John (and other parts of the bible) into Klingon. While doing so, they decided to transcribe many names. One of them is "Peter" which turned out to pe'tlhoS, probably based on Latin "Petrus".

2013: Obviously, that text was added to the database of Bing. The software started to learn and found out the word for "Peter" (which is actually nonsense, because it's a name that should not be translated, but that's another topic).

2020: Some lazy workers at FOX studios used Bing to translate a Klingon dialogue. And so, the Klingon version of "Peter" pops up in Family Guy!

future: If anyone who knows nothing about Klingon, Marc Okrand, the group's conventions, or anything, tries to analyze that text - assuming they find out the corrected grammar - they will also find out that pe'tlhoS is Klingon for "Peter".


So you see how one apparently minor insignificant decision can have large consequences many years later.

That's why I still keep insisting that translators should avoid making transliterations and making up new words as much as possible.

See also


1 : Transliteration on Wikipedia, retrieved 06 July 2015

2 : Transcription on Wikipedia, retrieved 06 July 2015

3 : by Captain Krankor, Thu 11 Aug 1994, imported and adapted from the Mailing list's FAQ, with kind permission of its compiler d'Armond Speers

4 : email to the mailing list of February 27, 2020

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