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I would like to know how a transliteration of a foreign name becomes "the accepted version", and why the accepted version is sometimes replaced. I would also like to know why some transliterations into English make absolutely no sense to English readers: i.e. what is the main purpose of transliteration into English? It cannot be to help English speakers give an approximate pronunciation, because sometimes the transliterated form uses letter combinations not found in English, that make no "sense" in English orthography.

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    Hardly a duplicate, just some overlap. – TRomano Nov 24 '14 at 23:16
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    What are you looking for in an answer? There isn't a single reason, or even a handful of reasons, why some transcriptions or transliterations become more popular than others, and why some get displaced over time by others. There is a different story behind, for example, Czech, Lviv, Hyundai, Mecca, and Cantonese, off the top of my head. – choster Nov 24 '14 at 23:34
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    It would be useful to give an example of a transliteration which uses unfamiliar letter combinations which do not help with approximate pronunciation. The Russian -kh- for example does imply a pronunciation. – Andrew Leach Nov 24 '14 at 23:37
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    In the US, Chinese names are often not transliterated into English orthography but are allowed to remain in their Pinyin form. (Names with Q and X in them, for example). Or Kadaffy became Gadaffy. Who decided that the k, used for years, was suddenly incorrect or inappropriate? What end was served in making that change? – TRomano Nov 24 '14 at 23:52
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    The first part of your question is: Nobody decided. Anybody who had to transliterate it did it their own way. And they all had different ways, and that's the answer to the second part, too -- some transliterations were not made by or for English speakers, but were borrowed anyway. Like Tschaikowski, which is German spelling, ameliorated occasionally by a V or a Y, but always starting with TSCH. There is no universal (or even ISO) standard for transliteration, nor any set of rules. As Tom Lehrer said of folk music, the reason transliteration is so bad is because it was done by The Folk. – John Lawler Nov 25 '14 at 0:00
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In many instances the original languages were considered too difficult by the colonists or conquerors to properly repeat, so names were regularly transliterated by the occupiers to make it easier for them to pronounce and remember. And in some cases, the original name was altered in a show of dominance by a conqueror; natives were forced to use the new name as a way to demonstrate obedience.

Political independence and pervasive communications channels have given new voices to native speakers and historic preservationists. In most countries, the collapse of colonialism returned to the natives the authority to restore ancient names, or at least improve upon the anglicized versions. (I presume similar movements are happening to French, Dutch, and Portuguese names in their former colonies, as well.)

I found this was a surprisingly difficult question for an American visitor in India to get a straight answer. Directly asking someone if they preferred Bengalaru or Bangalore is rude: it puts the native in the position of giving an equivocal answer so as not to offend their guests. The only people who seemed to answer these kinds of questions directly were talking heads on the TV, all of whom had a political agenda.

  • I agree that there is often some political dynamic involved. Nowadays, I think "political correctness" may play a role. The old orthographic order is being overturned. – TRomano Nov 25 '14 at 12:35
  • The phrase "political correctness" carries a lot of negative tones, as it is used by Conservatives to decry any change based on someone else's opinion, especially when it is an exercise of newly-found authority of that other person. If the Chinese people have referred to a specific city as /ba-zhin/ for thousands of years, and someone a few hundred years ago came along and called it Peking because it was easier to say and spell, it may be considered "political correctness" to alter the spelling and pronunciation to Beijing, but that doesn't make it a bad thing. – John Deters Nov 25 '14 at 18:49
  • By political correctness, I'm suggesting that there may be a concerted effort underway in the formerly imperialist nations to avoid doing anything that smacks of colonialism. The question isn't so much about what something is called in a particular foreign language but how the sounds of that foreign word are rendered for an English-speaking audience using the English alphabet (and its rules). Many modern transliterations simply do not use the English alphabet in a manner that is intelligible to speakers of American English (or British English). They are not really transliterations. – TRomano Nov 25 '14 at 19:07
  • @John: both the b and the p in Mandarin Chinese sound like /p/ to the English ear. The Wade-Giles system of transliteration transliterated them as p and p', respectively. You can't say that spelling Beijing with a p is in any sense wrong (and of course, this is why transliteration is such a hard question). – Peter Shor Nov 26 '14 at 20:00
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Transliteration in the Latin alphabet can be done for various purposes, and what “makes sense” in one context might seem to make less sense in another. Generally, the purpose of making the pronuciation clear to English speakers is not a very important one.

In some cases, a transliteration is needed for technical reasons. Some computer systems can’t deal with the original orthography of names, so a transliteration of a name is useful for things like documents and online forms that must be filled out with the Latin alphabet; for these purposes, it only has to be written (i.e. pronunciation isn't necessary).

Another purpose of a romanization may be to represent the pronunciation in the original language. (This is generally referred to as “transcription” rather than “transliteration”.) Not all languages have the same sounds. It would be impossible to indicate the proper pronunciation of some sounds using only the traditional patterns of English orthography, so transcriptions of names often follow more general patterns of romanization that aren't based just on English spelling, but use whatever is the most convenient way to represent the original. (The X and Sh sounds of Pinyin, for example, are distinct to speakers of Mandarin Chinese, but both sound like a "sh" sound to English speakers. Spelling these according to English perceptions would collapse this distinction.)

Romanizations may change over time, as has happened for Chinese and Korean, and this may lead to the replacement of a former transliteration of a name (e.g. former Mao Tse-tung is now Mao Zedong).

So why do English-language writers use these established romanizations of languages, with their un-English orthographic conventions, rather than a system specifically designed for indicating English pronunciation of these terms or names? This is a hard question to answer, but in general, English doesn't have much of a tradition of respelling words that already have a representation in the Latin alphabet just to indicate pronunciation. For example, words like "resumé" or "ski" have their spelling unchanged from their source languages, because their spelling did not originate as a pronunciation guide. Pronunciation is not a very important consideration for how most things are spelled in English!

Another consideration is that there is often no one established “correct” pronunciation for foreign names in English. Usually for famous or well-known people, some kind of conventional pronunciation is established over time, but what that pronunciation will be is not always predictable. Some people try to pronunce names as close to the original language as they can. This means that it would be difficult to figure out how to spell these names if it was based on how English speakers pronounce them.

  • I agree that it may be impossible to come up with a combination of Latin letters that precisely reflects certain phonemes in a foreign language; but is not a transliteration that approximates those sounds better than one that makes no orthographic sense to the person who needs a clue to the pronunciation? When in Rome... has been overturned. – TRomano Nov 25 '14 at 12:56
  • @TRomano: if you had a system of transliteration into (say) Japanese that took both r and l to the same character, then you have the problem of distinguishing between the names Leonard and Reynald. – Peter Shor Nov 26 '14 at 20:10
  • @Peter Shor: Your point, if I understand you correctly, is that if there is no counterpart phoneme in the target language, then one cannot use a single letter to represent both phonemes, lest confusion arise, and that, therefore, transliteration must be defined not as an approximation of the foreign name/word using the target language's alphabet and its rules, but simply as identification of the foreign word/name using the source language's alphabet and its rules. Or am I drawing a conclusion you would not draw? – TRomano Nov 26 '14 at 22:05
  • I think this depends on the purpose of the transliteration. For example, the US government insists on a transliteration system for Cyrillic on official documents that (nearly) uniquely identifies the original spelling. This isn't so bad for Russian, but Chinese has enough consonants that representing them all uniquely in English with letters that sound like the original consonants is hard. – Peter Shor Nov 26 '14 at 23:38

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