Using Transliteration Tables

Doing research related to area studies oftentimes means using specialized research tools that you may not have encountered previously. Becoming familiar with these tools can make all the difference in your research and the Glocal Notes blog is here to help! This week’s post is about transliteration tables, which are an essential tool for scholars whose work involves non-Roman alphabets. 

Introduction to Transliteration Tables

Perhaps the best place to start when discussing transliteration tables is by defining a couple of key terms: transliteration and Romanization. Transliteration is the process of converting one script into another. Transliterating a term does not mean translating it, rather it means representing in a different alphabet. Oftentimes, transliteration is done on the basis of phonetic similarity. Romanization is a specific kind of transliteration, in which words from other languages are written in the Roman (also called Latin) alphabet.

Transliteration example.

The Russian words for “library” and “alphabet” transliterated from Cyrillic into the Roman alphabet.

Transliteration tables are one of the most important research tools for scholars working in international and area studies to master. Scholars working in this domain conduct a substantial portion of their work using resources in foreign languages and scripts. While preferable, using the original script is not always an option. For example, records in library catalogs do not consistently include bibliographic information in the original script and not all systems are configured to allow input in non-Roman characters.

There are many conceivable ways to represent letters from one alphabet in another and it would be very confusing if everyone transliterated words according to their own interpretation. Romanization tables have been developed over time in order to simplify this process as much as possible. A typical Romanization table lists each letter from the vernacular alphabet alongside the letter (or combination of letters) of the Roman alphabet chosen to represent it and any notes about special cases are included at the end of the table. Once you know where to find them, the tables are actually very easy to use and will be extremely helpful in searching library catalogs, databases, and reference materials containing vernacular language materials.

Partial Romanization table for Hindi.

Part of the ALA-LC Romanization table for Hindi.

In the United States, the most commonly used Romanization schemes are those developed by the Library of Congress in partnership with the American Library Association. Up-to-date tables for 70 languages are available on the Library of Congress website and I recommend printing out a copy of the tables for any language you use regularly to have on hand as a quick reference. Additionally, many of the research guides put together by the subject specialists in the International & Area Library include information about transliteration standards.

Beyond the Basics

Once you understand the basics of using transliteration tables, here are a few caveats to keep in mind that will aid you in your research. Should you run into any trouble, the subject specialists at the Library are here to help.

One important thing to keep in mind is that transliteration standards are different in different countries. If you are looking for materials held in the United States, the ALA-LC tables have you covered. However, if you encounter materials produced in other countries (including foreign library catalogs) the transliteration scheme used could be considerably different. If you are searching for items held in the country of interest, you should use the original script, as information in those databases is not always transliterated.

Additionally, transliteration tables (even in the United States) have changed over time and materials are not always updated to reflect changes. For example, books in the library catalog are listed according to the standards in place when they were originally acquired by the library.

Finally, keep in mind that formal transliteration standards are not all-encompassing and oftentimes learning informal Romanization systems in addition to formal standards can benefit you in your research. The growing popularity of social media platforms (many of which do not support non-Roman characters) has led to the increased prevalence informal Romanization systems that look very different from the formal systems, but which have their own internal logic. Scholars interested in new media in an international context, among others, would benefit from becoming familiar with these alternative systems, several examples of which are listed below.

Learning how to properly use transliteration tables is an easy way to improve your research skills in order to locate foreign language materials in the library catalog and beyond. If you found this tutorial helpful and would like to see something similar about another specialized research tool, let us know by leaving a comment below or stopping by our Facebook page. We would love to tell you all about it!

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