Lossless Transliterations: Namaste and Mahabharata

Transliteration Answer


Above is the answer to the transliteration problem in the previous post. The language was Hindi – a north Indian language and a descendent of Sanskrit.

This is post is part of my Readers-Guide to Jaya: an illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is written in Sanskrit which uses the devanagari script.

And when translating a text, sometimes you want to use words directly without translating, like karma, dharma, yoga and proper nouns. It is then that you must decide what transliteration system to use — the conversion of one script to another.

If the two languages have the exact same sounds (which does not exist), then there is little challenge. But for sounds that don’t exist, the transliteration must either:

(1) make complex rules for how to pronounce letters. Consider the Chinese word for etheric energy — Qi or Chi. Where the first sound is produced in the back of the mouth.

(2) or make a new symbol using diacritics, apostrophes, ligatures or just new symbols with rules on how to pronounce them. Consider the word the Muslim holy book: Koran or Qur’an — where the glottal stop (not an English sound) is signaled with an apostrophe.

Lossless Transliteration

If a transliteration system romanizations allows you to know the original language’ original script, that system is caused “Lossless Transliteration. But such transliterations are usually only used to technical academic transliterations. Most readers want a simple roman/latin letter transliteration — but such a system can lead to pronunciation errors. But should a reader really care if they are pronouncing a foreign language incorrectly when they are just reading for information or enjoyment.

A, AA or Ā ?

Sanskrit has a huge number of sounds different from English. The International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) (click here) is a lossless transliteration and loaded with diacritics. Several of my books use this system, but Jaya, uses none. For the most part, whether you retroflex or aspirate a consonant or use nasalizations won’t make a big deal in the pronunciation, but there is one loss of pronunciation that bothers me — the “A”.

In our transliteration example above, look at the word “pata”.

Depending on the translation system, this word is transliterated as either pata, paata or pāta. The later is my favorite, but the former is by far the most common. But the former causes mistakes in pronunciation.

This is because, using IPA:

— the first “a” in pata is really an ə as in Am. English: strut, Tina, bust
— while the second “a” is really ɑ as in Am. English: father, bother

But since the latin alphabet does not have an ə, the letter “a” is used for both.
Using a long mark for the first a in pāta makes a lossless transliteration for the A. Let’s use two more examples.


Yoga is now a huge American fad and with it has come a rise in the Hindi greeting of “namaste”. See the ngram below to see the rise in popularity of this word.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 8.21.09 AM

“Namaste” is used in Yoga studios all over the country with most yoga teachers and students address each other with “namaste”. “Namaste” simply means “I bow to you” but you’ll hear yoga teachers put a lofty spin on it saying it means “I bow to the God in you”. Having spend years in India, “namaste” and many more with folks from India, I am very use to the correct way of pronouncing “namaste”, so when I hear it pronounced incorrectly especially with some sort of sanctimonious tone, my spine shivers.

Without long marks, the transliteration of “namaste” can be pronounced four different ways. This diagram below shows the correct one, but the namaste American usually mispronounce is nāmāste. Argh.


Mahabharata vs. MahābhārataScreen Shot 2016-01-24 at 8.30.54 AM

Finally, Pattanaik give us a stripped down transliteration of Sanskrit terms.  I wish he had left at least the long mark over the a’s when needed.  So much is lost even in the simple word “Mahābhārata“.  To the right, you can see how the popularity writing on the Mahābhārata using the proper transliteration has risen.

But I have not offered you a comparison or a scale and thus deceived you about the importance of this “correct” transliteration.  Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 8.31.24 AMActually, as this ngram to the right shows, Mahabharata is the usual way of writing this word.  The academic way of writing Mahābhārata may be thriving but it is almost nonexistent when compared to all the books published.

So alas, I too will usually use the popular unmarked transliterations except as I build glossaries for the reader’s guide to Jaya.  In those glossaries, I will be putting in the long marks.


Note: Check out the diagram at this bottom of this post for web-popularity of Hindu Scriptures.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

2 responses to “Lossless Transliterations: Namaste and Mahabharata

  1. rautakyy

    In transliteration, it may even be the case, that the original meaning of the word is lost. For example, in Russian the word for a trainstation is – roughly transliterated – “vagsal”. It comes from the English name Vauxhall, wich was the name of the company, that was building the original railway system to russia in the 19th century. This is an extreme, but at the same time rather everyday example. When such a grand “misrepresentation” happens so easily in such a common issue, one can only imagine how the meaning of ancient scriptures, like the Mahabharata, (or Mahãbhãrata, if you please) may have changed through generations of ever changing language, not to speak of those ancient texts that have been translated to completely different languages? I expect, most of such changes in transliteration to be much more subtle, but in time the “evolution” of text may have come to issues with the content, even if the copyists and traslators were sincerely trying to keep and hold on to the original content of the text…

  2. @ rautakyy,
    Well, we have to be careful to differentiate “transliterate” vs. “translate”. Your example of the Russian word for train is fascinating.
    Yes, translation errors compound issues, and non-lossless transliterations can be a big problem is some ways too. And certainly bias and more fit in. See my diagram here for more.

    And if you are interested, see my post here discussing other translation issues that I have noticed as I read both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Sometimes reading outside your tradition helps you to see your own tradition more clearly.

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