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Easy as ABC

Today we are going to toss around two words you can use to impress your friends, provided you can find a way to wedge them into the conversation. The words are “Transliteration” and “Romanization.” If you are a novice at this sort of thing, that’s all you really need to know. Just remark, “The weather lately has reminded me of transliteration” and then walk off while they’re still scratching their heads.

However, what we are talking about is a little thing that causes librarians, and Book Fair managers, to go prematurely grey. Transliteration is taking something that is written in one alphabet or script—Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese—and putting it in another alphabet or script. Romanization, sometimes called Latinization, is more specific, since that means taking that thing from another land and turning it into its equivalent in what we call the Roman alphabet, which is what you’re reading right now. (Provided you haven’t had Google turn it into Russian or something.)

We in the west have long been fighting sbout the proper way to do this. Ivan Turgenev, for example, was Ivan Turgenieff a hundred years ago, while there were a good half dozen ways to spell Tschaikowsky besides that one, which I learned in school. Apparently you are at liberty to transliterate his first name as Piotr or Peter or anything else which seems reasonable.

More recently, we have dealt in our various way with that holiday involving the menorah. Hannukkah is the spelling I learned, but I recognize at least six variations, because I know plenty of people who prefer to start it with a C, and because I am never very confident when dealing with words that have double letters. (Someone explained to me this year that he preferred “Channukah” because alphebntically it comes before Christmas, when it usually occurs. I pointed out that Hannukkah puts it alphabetically after Halloween, which is when it occurs, too. AND the conversation kind of went downhill from there.)

Now, it matters little at the Book Fair whether we spell it Turgenev or Turgenieff, because his place in the Literature section is not going to change thereby. But I believe I have mentioned that we are benefiting this year from a massive collection of Asian material. And the romanization of Chinese words has been changed, with no understanding of the needs of librarians and/or Book Fair managers.

A classic of Chinese literature is a novel call The Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin. I always check the copyright page for the Library of Congress Cataloguing In Publication information, to make sure I know which name is the last name. And the Library of Congress, bless their conservative souls (they didn’t change their subject heading “Aeroplane” to “Air plane” until the 1960s or so) tell me that officially this author’s name is Ts’ao Hsueh-ch’in. And, by gummibears, some of the earlier editions of this book, given to us by the same donor, have the name Tsao Hsueh-Chin on the title page (couldn’t afford the apostrophes in 1933, I suppose.)

You see where this leaves us. Copies of this novel published AFTER the new rules were instituted need to go under C, since the author’s last name is Cao, while the older copies will be in T, since they were written by Tsao. If we make an ordinary Western mistake, and alphabetize the author under the second name, we switch the problem, since the new editions will go under X and the old ones under H.

This is all just by way of explanation, see. Now you understand why, when you come to me in July and ask “Where can I find a copy of The Dream of the Red Chamber”, I will reply, “In Literature. Doesn’t this weather remind you of transliteration?” before I turn and run.

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