A Note About Transliteration

Transliteration can be as complex a subject as translation.  Whereas translation involves the attempt to faithfully reproduce the original meaning of a document in a different language, transliteration is an attempt to represent the same phonemes, or sound constructs, as represented by a language's written form, using the written form of a different language.  Chinese languages use an abstracted set of pictographs to represent its vocabulary, and transliterating Chinese language words into the English language alphabet can be challenging.

Over the years, a few different systems of transliteration of Chinese languages to English have arisen.  An older scholarly method, known as the Wade-Giles method, has been in use for years.  This method gives us the spelling "Tao Te Ching" for the title of the book at the center of this website's ponderings.  The Wade-Giles method is one of the two most widely used transliterative methodologies in use in the Western hemisphere for the Chinese languages.  The other is the Pinyin method, which is newer, perhaps more accessible to the layperson, and endorsed by the government of the People's Republic of China.

Pinyin's transliterative notations require less knowledge of the system to more closely approximate the correct sounds for the average American reader.  For instance, the title of the Tao Te Ching would be spelled Dao De Jing, or Daodejing, in Pinyin.  Once one begins to get more involved with use of the languages, however, and more precision is needed, Pinyin seems inexact and clumsy to many linguists, which is why the switch from using the Wade-Giles method to Pinyin in the academic community has not been wholesale.  In addition to this, especially within certain subject areas, there is a substantial body of work that has already been published using the Wade-Giles method, leading to confusion as there are now two versions of each of a number of scholarly works that use vastly different spellings for the same terms.

I, for one, prefer the Wade-Giles method, at least for the rare bit of use I make of transliterated terms.  As such, you'll see Wade-Giles spellings here.  Some things to keep in mind with Wade-Giles transliterations and pronunciation follow:

T: The T character in Wade-Giles transliteration is not pronounced the same as it usually is in English.  It is an unaspirated T sound, meaning that no air is forced through the mouth with the pronunciation.  This leads to a sound that to the untrained ear can sound more like a D than a T, with the exception that it is unvoiced and the tongue is very slightly placed further forward against the palate in the mouth.  By "unvoiced", I mean that the vocal cords are not made to vibrate to produce any noise when this sound is made.

CH: The CH character in Wade-Giles, like the T character, is unaspirated.  This can make it sound to the untrained ear more like a J than a CH, as such letters are pronounced in English, with the exception that it would be more like a J that is unvoiced and, as with the Wade-Giles T, the tongue is generally placed further forward against the palate.

T': With the addition of an apostrophe, the T' character is an aspirated version of the T character in Wade-Giles transliteration, so that it sounds more like an English language T character.

CH': As with the Wade-Giles T' character, this is an aspirated version of the CH character.