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Old 12-21-2018, 06:25 PM   #1
stuartjmz
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Lost in Transliteration

The upcoming New Leaf Book Club theme "Lost in Translation" got me thinking about the importance of transliteration, and I was reminded of this when I came across a striking parallelism of thought between authors widely separated in time:

One of my favourite bits of writing is by
T.E Lawrence in his Preface to Seven Pillars of Wisdom - I still chuckle when I read the passage. Here's the key extract
"Arabic names won't go into English, exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district. There are some ‘scientific systems’ of transliteration, helpful to people who know enough Arabic not to need helping, but a washout for the world. I spell my names anyhow, to show what rot the systems are." (e.a.)

Because I have liked that passage for nearly 40 years, I was struck when I saw this from
Raza Mir, in his Preface to The Taste of Words: An Introduction to Urdu Poetry
"those who are finicky about transliteration are usually familiar with the original script, and can therefore make do with the originals."

What I've learned as I work through Mir's compilation is that, at least for me, transliterations DO matter. I'm not an L1 speaker, and so I often struggle with the inexactness of informal transliterations. I can't read nastaliq at all, so obviously I'm glad he's put the poems in Roman, which I can read. But the inconsistencies of his transliterations do leave me scratching my head at times, wondering what sound exactly is meant. Happily, he links to performances of most of the poems, so I can hear the words as I read along.

I'll soon be starting Khushwant Singh's A Celebration of Urdu Poetry, and am really looking forward to it because in addition to Roman, he chose to present the poems in devanagari, a script much better suited to Urdu and which I can read. There are many though who would still say that any script other than nastaliq is a transliteration, and indeed Urdu in devanagari is a vanishing beast, sadly.

Mandarin has a very well-defined standardised transliteration system in Pinyin, but afaik, no South Asian languages do, nor do Japanese or Korean. Such standardised systems may EXIST in those languages, but they seldom seem to be used in the real world, unlike Pinyin. If you're a learner of such languages, how do you find transliterations? Do you prefer them, or would you rather read the native script? As a non-L1 speaker, do you find transliteration inconsistencies challenging?

Last edited by stuartjmz; 12-21-2018 at 06:29 PM.
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