Transliteration of names into and out of Greek
Greek has its own writing system. By writing system, I mean alphabet, script. The Greek alphabet is neither Roman, nor Sanskrit, nor Cyrillic, nor Arabic. It’s just Greek. If you think it looks like Cyrillic, it's because Cyrillic came from the Greek alphabet.
The fact that Greek uses a different script, creates challenges when translating names. To be technically correct, when it comes to names, the term to use is transliteration rather than translation.
Transliteration is the transfer of letters from the alphabet of one language to the alphabet of another. So transliteration transfers letters across borders and cultures, rather than words or meaning. To give you an example, the Greek name Ελένη is transliterated as Eleni. If you wanted to translate it into English, then that’d probably be Helen.
Deciding how to treat names is tricky but it all depends on the job at hand. If I’m translating a legal document from Greek into English, then the names have to be transliterated faithfully and accurately. Ideally, they need to match the way the individual’s name appears in Roman letters on their passport or ID. I mention Roman letters instead of Latin because Latin is a language and Roman is its writing system. Transliteration from Greek letters into Roman is also known as romanisation.
When it comes to Greek names, ELOT (the Greek Organisation for Standardisation) has established ELOT 743, a code in accordance with ISO 843. This is a system that facilitates the consistent romanisation of Greek names. It is used by the Greek passport agency and government and it is publicly accessible on http://www.passport.gov.gr/elot-743.html. It tells us exactly which Greek letter corresponds to which Roman letter.
When it comes to transliterating names from Roman script into Greek, there is no code to follow. Therefore, one name can be transliterated in various different ways without any of the ways being the right way or the wrong way.
If we take the name Mary, for example, that can be transliterated into Greek as Μέρυ, Μαίρυ, Μέρι or Μέρη. Although the first two outcomes would be the most common, all variations say the same name: Mary.
Speaking of sound, one way to approach transliteration into Greek is by attempting to reflect the way the name sounds rather than how it looks. Take for instance Worcester which is pronounced Wooster /ˈwʊstə/. This would be transliterated into Greek as Γούστερ rather than Γόρσεστερ. In this case, transliteration transfers sounds rather than letters.
In a nutshell, the important things to remember are:
1) there is a standard code for transliterating from Greek into Roman letters.
2) transliteration from Roman into Greek letters is ungoverned and therefore, many different outcomes are acceptable.
3) if you have a Greek name, don’t ask your translator to translate it. Meaning, if your name is Μαρία (Maria) don’t ask your translator to write your name is Mary. If you want your name to be Mary, then you need to follow the appropriate process in place for officially changing your name (deed poll).
4) when it comes to certified legal translations, transliteration is of paramount importance. A translator is legally obliged to translate faithfully and accurately. This means that asking the translator to translate your name as Helen when you know it is Eleni, you are perhaps unknowingly requesting a criminal offence and you're taking the translator down with you.
Remember: always ask the help of a specialist!
Vasiliki is a translator, interpreter, transcreator, blogger, consultant and director of Greek to Me Translations Ltd. She works with English and Greek and specialises in legal, creative, and psychometrics. She is a Chartered Linguist, member of CIoL, ITI and PEM and she is registered with the Greek Consulate as a certified translator and interpreter. She holds a BA in English and Masters in Business Translation and Interpreting. She is a Steering Group Member of the CIOL Translating Division and CIOL Business, Professions and Government Division. She is an Associate Lecturer in Legal Translation at London Metropolitan University, a public speaker and writer for industry magazines. Her mission is to help you achieve your goals through the power of words. You can follow her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.