Transliteration schemes - minimizing ambiguity

sibal at sibal at
Tue Dec 17 20:41:25 UTC 1996

This is an issue I would like to raise with respect to 
designing transliteration schemes. I have very recently
joined this list, so if this is a thread that has been
covered before do let me know.

I would suspect that most transliteration schemes often
use sequences of (7-bit) ASCII characters to represent a 
character in the native language. In general, this could 
lead to ambiguities of representation if the sequence of
ASCII characters can be broken into subsequences of
ASCII characters - where each subsequence is also a
representation of a character in the native language.

More generally, ambiguities result if any substring 
in a word of transliterated text can be generated
from more than one sequence of characters in the 
native language.

Ambiguities are most problematic for the reader, but
can also strain machine reverse transliterators, making the code
bulky and slow. Indeed, it is the latter problem, that got
me thinking on this issue...

In ITRANS (a transliteration scheme for Indian languages 
devised by Avinash Chopde), for example, such confusions 
are often resolved by introducing explicit break characters. 

While transliteration schemes are driven by other objectives,
such as phonetic goodness of fit, there are still several
degrees of freedom, and choices are made, but in what looks
like a heuristic fashion. For example, Velthuis' scheme, 
ITRANS, and GTRANS (transliteration schemes for Indian Languages)
all appear to have a tacit objective of minimizing ambiguities.

My question is whether this objective can be formalized to yield
a solid design technique? Mathematical machinery (perhaps using 
abstract algebra), could be used to find the best transliteration
scheme (or at least provide hints and suggest properties of a good
transliteration scheme). Degrees of freedom in representing a 
character, classes of policies, etc.,  can be engineered into 
the model as constraints, and the best scheme(s) that minimizes 
or eliminates ambiguities could be found.

Such an approach could also yield all possible ambiguities for a
given transliteration scheme succinctly, which could be used as
as a sanity check before it is formally standardized. It could 
also provide a "correctness proof" of the transliteration scheme; 
i.e., make sure that all ambiguities are "taken care of".

If there is any such work out there, I would like to know about
it. We are planning on designing a generalized transliteration
tool in Java/script for Indian languages, that accepts multiple 
transliteration schemes and reverse transliterates them to ISCII -
a character encoding standard for Indian language documents.
[These are further used to "automatically" generate glyph codes
for various fonts, so they can be viewed in their native script.]
Since many folks have their own schemes, a utility that takes
an ISCII document and transliterates it back to a user-specified
transliteration scheme s/he is comfortable with, will also aid a 
community of users that use different transliteration standards. 
(The nice thing about stds is that there are so many of them :-)
Designing such tools is greatly simplified if transliteration 
schemes are not "ambiguous".

Of course, it is possible that this formal approach to designing
transliteration schemes doesnt get one very far. Perhaps the 
problem is too unstructured to make it amenable to any sort of 
useful analysis, or the fruits of labor are few... 
I dont know yet... does anyone out there?


Sandeep Sibal
AT&T Laboratories
Phone: (908) 949-6277
Email: sibal at

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