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Transliteration vs Translation

by Elizabeth White

Q. What’s the difference between a transliteration and a translation?

A. A translation tells you the meaning of words in another language. A transliteration doesn’t tell you the meaning of the words, but it helps you pronounce them. Transliteration changes the letters from one alphabet or language into the corresponding, similar-sounding characters of another alphabet.

Translation is quite a familiar concept. A translator takes text in one language and converts it to the equivalent text in another language. In the case of biblical translation, a translator takes the ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic text, which is unreadable to the majority of Christians, and converts it to the equivalent text in English (or the common tongue for another culture).

However, the problem with translation is that there is not always equivalent text from one language to another. We don’t just have different words; we have different sentence structures, different figures of speech, and some words which have no match in a different language or which carry different connotations and nuances.

This is transliteration - A translator takes a word in one language, adjusts it a little to make it look and sound more like another language, and then places it in with the rest of the text in that other language. So in biblical translation, a translator would take, for example, a Greek word and adjust it to fit in in our character set, usually changing the pronunciation a bit to make it sound more like English. This can be a very useful tool for translators, especially biblical translators who want to be careful not to make the translation seem like it means something the original does not. Better to just stick with the original than to give a faulty translation, right? But it can also cause other problems. A transliterated word essentially creates a new English word. And over time, these new words take on connotations and nuances of their own, which may not have been present in the original word they represent. Therefore transliteration is the act of changing letters from one alphabet into the closest corresponding characters of another alphabet. The aim is not to convey meaning, but to aid in pronunciation.  Names are not translated they are transliterated.

Examples -The best way to see how all this works is with an example. Angel is a transliterated word. It comes from the Greek word aggelos, which literally means “messenger” or “envoy.” When we hear the word angel, we usually think of a heavenly being with wings, but such a meaning is not actually present in aggelos. However, in many examples, these messengers were indeed beings sent from heaven. In some cases, the biblical authors were referring to these beings when they used aggelos, while in other cases they just meant normal human messengers.

We could draw a parallel with the word alien. An alien is just a foreigner. However, the word has gained an extra connotation so that it is often used to mean a foreign being from outer space. Yet we still sometimes use it to refer to human foreigners.