Sanskrit Transliteration: Sabio’s system


Indian Sacred Texts are written in Sanskrit which uses the devanagari script.  General public translations of these books use transliterations which obscure correct or even tolerably-correct pronunciation of the original Sanskrit.  They obscure even the way modern Hindi speakers would pronounce these words when talking about their scriptures.

However, there are two main scholarly transliteration systems which preserve the correct pronunciations: the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (iast) and the Harvard Kyoto (kyoto).  Kyoto uses capital letter and adds a few odd letters (z and G) to its transliteration system, and so is ugly and hard to read.

I prefer the IAST.  And though some may consider the diacritics of IAST as cumbersome, they may be largely ignored and still be close-enough to the original.  But even with that, I see two problems with IAST:

(1) IAST uses the letter “c” to represent the “ch” sound and the letter “ch” to represent its aspirated version.  To avoid this, the transliteration system I will use (SES) in my glossary and occasionally in my texts will use a “ch” and a “chh” for these sounds (see the chart).

(2) Sanskrit has three “sibilants” — s’s.  Two of these are very close to each other and sound like “sh” though IAST only uses s’s with diacritics to differentiate between them. So I added h’s to those two s’s to make them easier to read while keeping the diacritics.

Sanskrit DiacriticsCommon books (as in “Jaya”) avoid the capitals in Kyoto and keep the “ch” and the “sh” (as my system also does) but they do not use diacritics thus losing many sounds.

So, SES (my transliteration system: Sabio’s Easy Sanskrit) is easier to read and still preserves subtle sounds if the reader wishes to know them.  But I suggest that due to difficulty of pronunciations, the reader ignore all diacritics except the long marks over the vowels which are probably the most important pronunciation issues.

Remember, an “h” in IAST and SES just means to aspirate — to add breath to the sound. And retroflex (symbolized by a dot below a letter) means the tongue is in the back of the throat when pronounced.





Filed under Philosophy & Religion

5 responses to “Sanskrit Transliteration: Sabio’s system

  1. My Other Feet

    @Sabio — do you read Sanskrit? You’re certainly familiar with South Asian languages, given your posts on Hindi and Sanskrit. The reason I ask, I’m working on some translations of Sanskrit texts, and I wonder if you’re doing any similar work. It’d be useful to build a network of potential proof-readers and folks with similar interests.

  2. @ my other feet,
    No, I don’t read Sanskrit. As you seem to know, at one time I could speak a fair amount of Hindi and Urdu (Hindustani) — having lived between both Pakistan and India for 2 years. BUT, I see enough transliterated Sanskrit in what I read to have opinions about transliteration, given my linguistic knowledge. So sorry, I won’t be a proof reader. Hope you put up a website some day.

  3. My Other Feet

    @sabio — I agree, there’s often a lack of attention to detail in the popular use of Sanskrit: it’s reassuring to see writers working to correct this outside academia. Depending on publishers’ interests in these translations, they’ll either become available as books, or I’ll put them online for others’ use.

  4. @ my other feet,
    But meanwhile, don’t you have a blog for other ideas?
    Which university do you work for?
    Which transliteration system is your favorite? Or are you confined to IAST?
    Which Sanskrit texts are you working on, and why?

  5. My Other Feet

    @Sabio Lantz — I do have a blog it’s

    Given that I’m interested in financial independence and early retirement, I keep professionally identifying details off the blog for now. Although I do work for a university, it’s not as a teacher or researcher. My academic training is part of a former life, so to speak, which isn’t completely dead — does that make me a zombie? What I do for my day job pays the bills, although it’s not what I plan to do when I no longer need to exchange as much time for money as I do currently. If it’s important to know more about my day job, drop me an email through the contact page of my blog, and we can talk via email.

    I use the Harvard-Kyoto transliteration system in working with texts as a pragmatic necessity because the best dictionary I’ve found uses that transliteration system in its online edition, but if I’m typing a transliteration that won’t be used by somebody’s database, I prefer to use the IAST because I find it easier to read — I like the diacritical marks better than the mixed capitals and lowercase. In the end, it’s a matter of what works for a given application.

    As for translations, I was working on a translation of the Yoga Sutras, but in my work with that text, I read David White’s excellent “biography” about the Y.S. and I started to feel like I was translating a text that has been over-burdened with conflicting translations in the last century, so I stopped. There are perfectly acceptable translations of that text in contemporary English. Now, I’m working on one of the Yoga Upanishads that hasn’t seen as much attention.

    What took you to India and Pakistan for two years? What were your most memorable experiences?

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