top of page
  • Christina Theodorakis

The Trouble with Transliterations

For those of you who've travelled to a non-English-speaking country that has a non-English-based alphabet (for argument's sake, one that you can't read) and uses English letters to transliterate their words for foreigners, how accurate was your pronunciation of the names of places or things in that country compared to how they're supposed to be pronounced in that language?

Regardless of whether you've travelled to said countries, can you read the following transliterated words the way they're supposed to be pronounced in their respective languages?




Chika toku


Shitte Station



If you struggled, you're definitely not alone: English letters have multiple pronunciations based on English rules, so it's only natural for us to want to follow them. Furthermore, Spanish, French, and other Romance and Germanic languages have their own pronunciation rules different from English, so native speakers of those languages will predictably try to pronounce these words based on rules that they follow in their languages. As someone who grew up speaking English and Greek, the possible pronunciations are two-fold in my mind.

Now, as English is the world's current lingua franca, countries around the world have to make their languages easier for foreigners to read, especially for tourists. That's fine, but have you ever seen Indian words written out in English and noticed the way they're spelled? How about Chinese? Transliterations take own their rules for the original language, and if you don't memorize those rules, the only basis you have to rely on is English or whatever your native language is. Good luck.

Japan, in particular, is notorious for transliterating Japanese words for things like company names or cultural events. Take a look at this banner for a festival we found in Tokyo:

Don't let the English letters fool you -- the entire banner is actually in Japanese. The Japanese part reads "Culture Festival Nov. 2-4," but before the Japanese, they decided to throw in "bunka," which is the transliteration of the Japanese word for "culture (文化)." Despite the English letters here, this banner was made by Japanese people for Japanese people. There are many more examples of unhelpful transliterations just like this all over Japan. If you're going to do international business, you need to bear in mind everything about your company, even the name -- will anything be misinterpreted or useless outside of your home country?

That's where we can come in to help you. If you work with a Japanese company, have an office in Japan, or are looking to expand your brand or company into Japan, we can help you to avoid the pitfalls that can make you come off as another ignorant or overconfident Western company. We can be your experts in Japan to help you understand how Japanese people think and react to marketing or business propositions. We've worked with companies large and small, and we'd love to be the pathway for your company's success in Japan and East Asia. Not sure yet? Bookmark our website or just say hello at!


bottom of page