Transcription vs. transliteration vs. translation in cartography

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In this post, I wanted to do something that I thought would be fairly simple, viz., address the question of the "rectification" of Russian place names in areas proximate to populations speaking Sinitic languages.  This sort of rectification is also a hot topic where Russia borders on Ukraine.  There, however, the task is simpler, because Russian and Ukrainian are both written in Cyrillic, whereas, in the Russo-Sinitic case, the former is written in the phonetic Cyrillic alphabet, while the latter is written in morphosyllabic Sinoglyphs, a completely different type of writing system.

Everywhere we encounter references to the transliteration of Chinese characters into alphabetic scripts (or vice versa), whereas I maintain that cannot be done because the Sinitic writing system doesn't have any letters that can be transferred over into the letters of an alphabetic script.  Consequently, when talking about the conversion of Sinoglyphic writing to alphabetic scripts, I always speak of it as transcription.

Technically, transliteration is concerned primarily with accurately representing the graphemes of another script, whilst transcription is concerned primarily with representing its phonemes.


The matter at hand has to do with China's Ministry of Natural Resources (Zìrán zīyuán bù 自然资源部) issuing a list of eight locations on the Russia side of the border for which on maps, along with the commonly used transcription of the Russian name, the traditional Chinese names should appear. For example, Blagovéshchensk's transcription in characters is Bùlāgēwéishēnsīkè 布拉戈維申斯克, but its traditional Chinese name Hǎilánpào 海蘭泡 should also appear.

This has led to lots of online chatter about the intention, though some netizens also pointed out that it merely codifies an existing practice.

Ministry of Natural Resources announcement:

The eight locations are:

Stanovoy Range

Some such border towns have very interesting names.  For instance, the Russian town of Kyakhta during Qing rule of Mongolia was called Mǎimài chéng 买卖城 (lit., "City of Buying and Selling"; "Trade Town"), in Mongolian Худалдаачин.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Ross Darrell Feingold]


  1. AntC said,

    February 24, 2023 @ 11:22 pm

    Thank you Victor. Are you aware of attempts to "rectify" the Synoglyphing of placenames in non-MSM speaking regions? (Or I suppose I should say 'formerly non-MSM speaking', since PRC is imposing MSM everywhere.)

    Specifically, I remember from living in Hong Kong, plenty of place names were represented using non-standard glyphs, to capture the Cantonese (or Hakka) pronunciation/meaning.

    This 'Change in name' wp comment on HK place-names makes no sense to me. "misinterpretation by mandarins"? "replace of disgusting meanings"? I rather thought quirky usages in place-names was a feature, not a bug(?)

  2. Tom Dawkes said,

    February 25, 2023 @ 9:09 am

    Not a place name, but it's interesting that 'Putin' in the previous post is transcribed with 普欽, Pinyin Pǔqīn, which gives a better approximation of the palatalised t than does the English spelling.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2023 @ 9:27 am

    @Tom Dawkes

    I'm so pleased that you noticed that: Putin vs. Pǔqīn.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2023 @ 12:30 pm

    Anyone who is interested in the topic of this post will also be interested in Mark Swofford's "Turkey, Türkiye, and Chinese characters", Pinyin News (2/25/23).

    It ties together this LL post with one from the end of last year, "No more 'turkey'" (12/21/22).

  5. David Marjanović said,

    February 25, 2023 @ 2:03 pm

    lit., "City of Buying and Selling"; "Trade Town"

    Copenhagen. :-)

  6. Chester Draws said,

    February 25, 2023 @ 3:03 pm

    Interesting that you have Copenhagen, not København.

    It is a name that appears on English maps, rather than its transliterated name.

    What the Chinese are doing is what the English have done for years — prefer historical names over the current phonetic one.

  7. Not a naive speaker said,

    February 25, 2023 @ 3:16 pm

    @Tom Dawkes
    … 'Putin' … which gives a better approximation of the palatalised t than does the English spelling.

    The Hungarians do it likewise: Vlagyimir Vlagyimirovics Putyin

  8. David Marjanović said,

    February 26, 2023 @ 9:06 am

    Interesting that you have Copenhagen, not København.

    It is a name that appears on English maps, rather than its transliterated name.

    Yes, but it also uses a (Low German) "enclosure, town" word, while the Danish original has "port".

    (The historical-linguistic reason for this is that they were already pronounced the same in Danish in the late Middle Ages.)

  9. Thomas Rees said,

    February 27, 2023 @ 8:24 pm

    When I was a teenager I was struck by the Sinitic exonyms for places in California: 旧金山 for San Francisco (弗朗西斯科圣) or the Japanese 羅府 (らふ) for Los Angeles (Los Ángeles in Spanish). How many of these are there in the Western hemisphere?

  10. Taylor, Philip said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 1:30 pm

    Google Translate freaks out with the penultimate string (Iらふ), telling me that it translates (into English) as "Rafu Rifu Rifu Rifu Rifu Rofu Rofu Rofu Rofu Rofu Rofu Rofu" !

  11. Philip Anderson said,

    March 6, 2023 @ 4:44 pm

    @Philip Taylor

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