Transliteration vs. Translation


A couple of my friends have posed the question on Facebook recently: Why are some of the news outlets referring to Osama Bin Laden as “Usama?” It’s a legitimate question, and it has an answer that ties in nicely to genealogy.

In essence it boils down to transliteration. To transliterate means “to change (letters, words, etc.) into corresponding characters of another alphabet or language.” When we change a word from one language to another, that’s a translation. When that word is originally written in a different alphabet, not only does it have to be translated, it has to be transliterated.

So, Bin Laden’s name is really a transliteration. Sometimes letters or sounds in one language or alphabet do not have a corresponding letter or sound in another language or alphabet. When that happens, the person doing the transliteration has to do the best they can to create the sound with the letters and phonics they are familiar with. We see this frequently with the names of our ancestors. Usually when we see an ancestor’s name with multiple spellings we chalk it up to the ancestor being illiterate or difficult to understand. These are often causes of foreign names having multiple spellings, but we mustn’t forget that transliteration can play a role too. This is particularly true with names that were originally written in Syrillic or Hebrew. (Think of Hanukkah and Chanukah. Both are accepted spellings in English, but of course there is only one correct spelling in Hebrew.)

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