Imagine that someone takes a word in another writing system (say, the Greek word 'αγαπη') and transliterates it into the Roman alphabet (in this case, 'agapē'). Then I take that romanization and try to convert it back into its original form in the original writing system. What am I doing? I'm not transliterating 'agapē' - I'm trying to recover the original, un-transliterated version.


I'm writing a program to _ transliterated Greek words so I can easily search a Greek dictionary for them.

I am in fact writing a program that does this to transliterated Greek and am looking for some good phrasing for how to describe it. Google searches have only yielded descriptions of the difference between 'transliteration' and 'transcription', neither of which is what is happening here...

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    – tchrist
    May 17, 2020 at 18:10

10 Answers 10


According to the University of Arizona Library:

Definitions: Transliteration - The spelling of the words of one language with characters from the alphabet of another. Ideally, this is a character for character replacement so that reverse transliteration into the original script is possible.

  • Transliteration is often not character for character. Consider the Russian name Хрущев. Going letter-by-letter, we have Х->Kh, р->r, у->u, щ->shch, e->e, and в->v, yielding Khrushchev. Six characters of Cyrillic become ten characters in the Roman alphabet.
    – George
    Apr 14, 2020 at 0:06
  • Ideally, one for one. But sometimes it takes two or more English letters to represent the letter of another language. That doesn't prevent 'reverse translit' back to the original characters, as in your example. Wiki provides further information on exceptions. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transliteration
    – tblue
    Apr 14, 2020 at 1:52
  • It is not reverse transliteration. It is substitution of the transliterated text for the original. Because no function is performed. You do A into B,then substitute A for B.
    – Lambie
    Apr 15, 2020 at 16:19
  • I think this phrasing probably strikes the balance best between the fact that I am technically still transliterating when I convert Roman characters to Greek characters, and the idea that there is still some kind of "going back" or recovery of the original Greek involved. "I'm writing a program to generate possible reverse transliterations of romanized Greek." Apr 15, 2020 at 18:46

You are transliterating it.

Just as with translating, if you translate something to another language, when you put it back into the first language you are also translating it - or possibly 'retranslating' or 'translating back'.

To make it more clear what you are doing I would go with 'retransliterating' or 'transliterating back'.

  • 1
    I'm not a native speaker but the logic that this answer is based on doesn't make much sense to me. With translation, we change words/sentences from one language to another. That works both ways. Transliterated words, on the other hand, are not actual words that belong to the language that its alphabet is being used. So, it doesn't go both ways, IMO. I could be wrong but the definition from this answer backs up my interpretation.
    – 41686d6564
    Apr 13, 2020 at 3:29
  • This is backed up by Collins' definition particularly well, and well enough by the Merriam Webster definition. Particularly like "transliterating ... back." Apr 13, 2020 at 15:51
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    Transliteration just changes the symbols used to represent the sound. It's not necessarily any less accurate than an attempt to represent a concept in another language. "Logos" represents the word "λόγος" just as well as "λόγος" and "word" represent the idea of a standalone unit of language that conveys meaning.
    – chepner
    Apr 14, 2020 at 23:01
  • Augh. You're right that I am technically still transliterating when I convert Roman characters → Greek characters. But especially to someone not familiar with that definition or linguistics more generally, I think just calling it "transliteration" (or even "retransliterating"/"transliterating back") misses the larger-scale point of what I'm trying to do: finding the original Greek spelling of a word someone's typed in using Roman characters. There's more of a sense of an original version to recover, y'know? Apr 15, 2020 at 18:52

I'd describe it as "(trying to) recover the original Greek (from the Roman transliteration)" the first time I described it, and refer to it as "the recovered Greek" thereafter. Because, while what you are doing is an act of transliteration, the word is native to Greek, and transliteration is almost always done out of, and not into, the native alphabet. You will be continuously confusing people if you just call it transliteration.

Additionally, you may in the future decide to improve your program by looking for the closest matching Greek word from some list of valid words. It would still be accurate to describe this as "recovery", but not "transliteration".


In the generic case, it's still transliteration. It doesn't become something different just because the choice of writing systems changes (for example, it's still be transliteration to go from 東京 to طوكيو). You might, in some cases, hear 'back transliteration' (as an analogy to 'back translation', the process of translating something that was just translated back to the original language, usually to verify the quality of the translation or demonstrate issues with it) for the specific type you're doing, but that kind of implies some kind of verification of the original transliteration.

In your case, however, 'recovery of the original spelling' is what I'd go with for the description, because from what you're describing it sounds like you're dealing with words that haven't just been transliterated, but possibly been modified to allow for more 'natural' pronunciation in the target language (see for example 'waifu', which is an English transliteration of a Japanese loan of the English word 'wife', the spelling and pronunciation changed in Japanese because of the phonetic and spelling rules of the language).

  • 2
    My company makes transliteration software. The term we use is "back transliteration". I agree with you that transliteration is still an accurate term.
    – Jetpack
    Apr 13, 2020 at 16:09
  • If you transliterate a text INTO language X, you already have the damn original. Back translation is completely different. Back translation is done to check a translation to an original and it is a terrible business, which I won't go into here.
    – Lambie
    Apr 14, 2020 at 22:09

How about detransliteration? It seems pretty logical.

  • 2
    This answer is no more than a comment. It could be improved with a sentence or two about the de- prefix and explaining why this "seems logical".
    – Andrew Leach
    Apr 13, 2020 at 11:15
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    @Andrew: It was a comment. The OP asked me to put it into an answer. No good deed ...
    – Robusto
    Apr 13, 2020 at 14:26
  • 1
    But it's not detransliteration. It's a second act of transliteration, but in the opposite direction, back to the original. So, back transliteration or retrotransliteration. Google Translate does it on the fly. If you open Russian-English and type "Ya govorit po-Russki." on your English keyboard, it will automatically transform it to "Я говорит по-Русски." and then translate the Cyrillic for you. No need for a Cyrillic keyboard!
    – George
    Apr 13, 2020 at 23:42
  • @George What Google is doing there is an "input method," which is different from detransliteration (particularly in what the allowed/expected input is and how it is converted from Latin to Russian alphabet), though it may look similar on the surface.
    – cjs
    Apr 15, 2020 at 4:18
  • 1
    Further, in this particular case what the OP wants is clearly not a second transliteration, which could be interpreted as "pretend this is an English word that we want to transliterate into the Greek alphabet," but an undoing of the transliteration from Greek to English alphabet. These two things may produce different results: recovering a Greek word is not the same as making an English word pronouncable in Greek.
    – cjs
    Apr 15, 2020 at 4:21

Per the definition, transliterate means to print/write a letter or word using the closest corresponding letters of a different alphabet or language. It would apply regardless of whether you were "recovering the original text or not.


I think the exact word depends on some details of your algorithm.

If you are simply applying the rules to go from Roman to Greek, you are of course transliterating. You could say transliterating back (to Greek) to add a little more info.

Whereas if you are reversing the original transformation, then something like detransliterating may be appropriate. The difference from simple transliteration is in cases where the transliteration is not one-to-one. Let me give you a (fake, invented) example going from Roman to Greek: say both 'd' and 'th' go to 'greek-delta', then transliteration would map 'greek-delta' to 'd', but detransliteration would find which of 'd' or 'th' is correct.


Perhaps you could use the phrase "original writing" of the word. Furthermore, you may introduce a new term such as "originalizing" to describe what you want to do.


THE OP wrote: Imagine that someone takes a word in another writing system (say, the Greek word 'αγαπη') and transliterates it into the Roman alphabet (in this case, 'agapē'). Then I take that romanization and try to convert it back into its original form in the original writing system. What am I doing? I'm not transliterating 'agapē' - I'm trying to recover the original, un-transliterated version.

There is no opposite of transliterate. Original substitution is what it is.

There is the original text and the transliterated text.

You would merely be substituting the original for the transliterated text. You are not recovering anything since you had to have the original to transliterate in the first place. You are replacing or substituting the original source text for the target text.

In translation, you have a source text (A) and a target text (B). The same would be true in transliteration.

You have an original text (A) in the source language and you create a transliterated target text (B).

Back translation is completely different. Back translation seeks to compare a target language text (a translated text) with the original text. The idea is that when a not-so-good translator did the translation, she might have made errors which the back translation is supposed to reveal or catch. The method (much used in medical and technical translation, unfortunately) is very faulty as the back translator has to be very good so as not to "mis-translate" to the original and to accept that the translation being checked may have translated the actual meaning of a poorly written original. Back translation is based on the false assumption that meaning is bi-directionally equal (like two columns that can replace each other). Text A and Text B are never "equivalent" because meaning functions differently in different languages. So Text B might be a good translation of Text A, but it is never "functionally equivalent" as in a math equation.

In short, in translation and back translation, you are dealing with meaning and trying to make sure meaning is preserved.

Transliteration has nothing to do with meaning per se and everything to do with the phonetics of a language.

Going from the transliterated text to the original is simple substitution.

(People really seem to be getting their knickers in a twist about this question but as a translator, I deal with translation and back translation all the time, and transliteration has nothing to do with translation. It is most obviously: substitution or replacement.)

  • You're right that transliteration has nothing to do with translation. However, in my case, my program doesn't have the original source text A (the standard Greek spelling of a word like αγαπη) and just has a transliterated text B (a transliteration in Latin characters). In the αγαπη case, that could be "agapē", or "agape", or even "agaph". My algorithm does do substitution, but because there are multiple options for how a given character like "h" could be used in different transliteration schemes, it comes up with multiple possibilities for what the original source A could be. Apr 15, 2020 at 19:00
  • @EmilyCatáulay You are confusing me, somewhat. You have a transliterated B: which you say can be: agape, agaph or agapē. You have those. All of them, then, are: αγαπη, according to what you are saying. It is still substitution. So, you seem to have another issue altogether. That is recognizing that agape, agaph or agapē are grouped together.
    – Lambie
    Apr 15, 2020 at 19:16

I would use revert instead.

I'm writing a program to revert the Roman transliteration of Greek words so the Greek form can be used to search a Greek dictionary.

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