Tibetan Translation & Transcription

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The Transliteration and Transcription of Tibetan

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The Tibetan script in its initial forms dates back to the seventh century and classic Tibetan orthographic conventions date back to the ninth through eleventh centuries. The spelling of Tibetan is thus extraordinarily conservative and reflects, presumably, the way Tibetan was pronunced in Central Tibet more than ten centuries ago. However, while the spelling may be unchanged, pronunciation has undergone many dramatic changes over the centuries, in addition to varying tremendously from dialectic region to dialectic region. The result of this is that there is a great divergence between the standard spelling of a Tibetan word and its pronunciation; in addition, that divergence is different in character for each dialectic region. Thus many aspects of the spelling of a Tibetan word are either not pronounced at all or are only indirectly related to the contemporary pronunciation of a given word.

Tibetans have used a variety of their own scripts to record and transmit their own language since at least the seventh century. However, obviously few people outside of their own culture will ever learn those scripts, and thus it is necessary when dealing with Tibetan language terms outside of Tibetan culture to represent Tibetan words with other scripts. This is true whenever a non-Tibetan language publication needs to refer to the name of a Tibetan person, a Tibetan region is mapped with Tibetan place names, any publication refers to a Tibetan passage or technical term, and so forth. Unfortunately, because of the conservatism of Tibetan orthography, transliteration - which represents the spelling of the words in a non-Tibetan script such as Roman script - is not sufficient by itself, since the ordinary non-Tibetan reader would have no idea how to actually pronounce the transliterated word. Thus it is necessary to also have a distinct transcription system that systematically represents the phonetics, or sounds, of Tibetan words. Thus we must deal with two distinct challenges:

  • How does one write a Tibetan term in another script in such a way that its original Tibetan spelling can be easily and unambiguously discerned, a scholarly necessity?
  • How does one write a Tibetan in another script in such a way that the original sound of Tibetan speech, whether originally oral speech, or the pronunciation of written Tibetan passages, can be easily approximated, a necessity if anyone other than scholars will be able to pronounce and hence remember Tibetan names and other terms?

There have been many systematic systems of transliteration for Tibetan in Roman script proposed over the years, but the most popular by far has been the Wylie system. However, the standard Wylie system has several limitations, and also is not comprehensive. THL has thus created the external link: THL Extended Wylie Transliteration of Tibetan, which has become the mostly widely accepted "extended Wylie" system.

There have been fewer attempts to create transcription systems for rendering the sound of Tibetan words, and none of them have emerged as a global standard. As a result, translations, scholarship, and other international writings on Tibet phonetically represent Tibetan place names, personal names, and terms in a bewildering variety of forms. This entails that readers are unable to correlate references across various texts, much less get reliable search results across different authors' works. Unfortunately, the more scientific systems for transcription for Tibetan are not widely used, both because they involved special diacritic marks and because they are too difficult to apply for most people. THL has thus created the external link: THL Simplified Phonetics Transcription of Tibetan to provide an easy to use, though simplified, transcription system for use with Tibetan. It is also concordant with Wylie and generally consonant with the most widespread practices found in contemporary publications. It should be noted that this system is based upon Central Tibetan, which is slowly emerging as a standard form of spoken Tibetan. Unfortunately, this means that using it for place names and personal names will not reflect local pronunciations in other dialects. There is simply no easy solution to this problem.

Provided for unrestricted use by the external link: Tibetan and Himalayan Library