Translating Social Change
  Volume 2, No. 2 
April 1998

Michael Walker

Michael Walker is a writer, cultural theorist, visual artist, and poet. He lives in San Francisco, California. Walker is perhaps best known to the academic and biomedical communities for his work on the reformation of Mongolia's health care system, and has also authored a number of journal articles on various aspects of Mongolian technological and legal reform. His other areas of research interest include HIV/AIDS education and prevention, geography and navigation, feminist themes in literature, and how the arts and sciences interact in various cultural settings. With regard to languages, his interests include: English, Spanish, Chinese, Mongolian, Russian, Hebrew, Hurrain, Arabic, and Persian. His personal interests include: soccer, running, hockey, cooking, and music. Mike can be reached at:


Survey Results
  Translator Profiles
No Regrets
by Diane Di Biasio
  Translating Social Change
Translation and Transliteration of the Mongolian Language
by Michael C. Walker
  Art & Entertainment
A Proposed Set of Subtitling Standards
by Dr. Fotios Karamitroglou
 Translator Education
Including Technical and Academic Writing in Translation Curricula
by Dr. Tibor Koltay
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XI
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
Finding a Handle on Physics
by Ben Teague
Diesel Engines: A Brief Overview
by Charles Heidenberg
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Events
Letters to the Editor
Call for Papers

Translation Journal
       Social Change


Translation and Transliteration of the Mongolian Language
Following Political and Social Changes

by Michael C. Walker

The governmental reformations of Mongolia during the past decade have necessitated both the extensive transliteration of the Mongolian language from one writing system to another and the translation of a diverse multitude of documents into foreign languages. This situation presented a golden opportunity to examine what happens when an entire nation is required to radically modify its domestic use of language while also changing its linguistic representation on the international scene. In this article, I approach the situation of Mongolia as a case study, an example of how translation mandated by political and social changes presents both unique problems and rare opportunities for the translator.

Time for Change: the Situation of Mongolia in 1990
Mongolia had been isolated from nearly all influence other than that of the Soviet Union for over seventy years. After the 1990 disintegration of the U.S.S.R., Mongolia began to chart a more democratic course for itself and started to seek out the assistance of Western nations. The Soviets had supported the Mongolian civil infrastructure throughout their tenure of influence in the nation, and had left many marks of Russian culture on Mongolian society. Perhaps most noticeable of such influences was that the Soviets changed the written form of the Mongolian language from its traditional script system to a Cyrillic alphabet based on Russian. From 1944—when the U.S.S.R. introduced the Cyrillic alphabet to Mongolia—to the reformations of 1990, Cyrillic Mongolian was the national standard for all official state documents and was taught in the nation’s schools and colleges.
    In 1990, with the split from Soviet Union and political reforms within the Mongolian government there came a strong disdain for anything connected with the Soviets or Russian culture. Seizing on this sentiment, the country’s new leaders pushed for the abolishment of Cyrillic Mongolian and moved towards restoring the traditional script to standard usage. Aside from political and patriotic motivations, little rational reason could be found for a rapid return to the script format as the traditional script was supported by hardly any technology manufactured after 1945. Most Mongolian computers, printing presses, typewriters, and the like were products of Russian or East German manufacture, and no piece of equipment with a mechanical means of rendering Cyrillic could be easily converted to the traditional script.
    The restoration of the traditional script brought forth a bevy of immediate problems, not the least of which was the transliteration of thousands of essential documents into this script from Cyrillic. Additionally, decisions had to be made as to how words that had entered the Mongolian language from other languages during the Russian tenure would be represented in the script. For the most part, foreign business-people who had learned Mongolian for the purpose of commerce knew only the Cyrillic Mongolian and only a virtual handful of literary scholars outside of Mongolia itself were well-versed in the script.


The Mongolian word for “reading” (pronounced oonshigch) spelled with Cyrillic letters (top) and traditional Mongolian script (right)

Mongolian Script

The Mongolian Language
Mongolian is an Altaic language, belonging to the Mongoloid branch of this generic family of languages, which also includes a variety of middle-Asian languages, among them Turkic and Tungusic languages as well as other Mongoloid tongues. As with most languages spoken over a large geographical area where poor communication and isolation is the norm, Mongolian can be easily sub-divided into a number of regional dialects. Unlike Russian—where the spoken language is rather uniform despite the enormous geographical area over which the language is spoken—Mongolian does differ considerably from one geographical region to another.
    The traditional Mongolian script form of writing which has been resurrected from a half-century of disuse is unique among the world’s writing systems. It is one of the world’s last remaining vertical script-form writing systems, being written from the top left corner of a page in vertical columns downwards, as opposed to being written on a horizontal plane from left to right or right to left. The script used in contemporary Mongolia is a modified version of one that was in popular use before the 1940s; the roots of this script can be traced back to ancient Uighur writing systems that were adopted by the Mongols per a directive of their legendary leader Genghis Khan over eight hundred years ago.
    The Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet is very similar to that utilized for modern Russian, with the exception that it contains two additional characters to produce the “ö” and “ü” vowel sounds of Mongolian, which are representative of the female variants of the long “o” and “u” sounds in the language. Modern Mongolian makes use of a total of fourteen discreet vowels; seven short vowels sounds and seven long. Therefore, the complexity of these vowels necessitated the inclusion of characters beyond the scope of standard Russian Cyrillic and causes similar problems in efforts to transliterate Mongolian into English or other Indo-European languages making use of the Latin alphabet. Slavic languages—such as Czech—dependent on a modified version of the Latin alphabet make matters of transliteration a bit easier as they include a variety of accent marks which can be utilized to express the subtleties of the Mongolian language. Mongolian grammar is not extremely complicated but follows a subject-object-predicate structure that can be confusing to English-speakers who are learning the language, unless they have prior experience with other languages that make use of similar structure, such as Turkish.

Transliteration and Translation: Overview
Although the idea of reverting to the traditional script has been popular in Mongolia since 1990, it was not until 1994 that legislation with that outcome went into effect. Even then, the actual process of returning to the traditional script has been gradual in its execution. The new national constitution and other important state documents were recorded in both the traditional script and in Cyrillic. Most governmental documents of significant import in the foreseeable future will receive such treatment.
    At the advice of officials at the Ministry of Trade and Commerce, the process of transliteration was accompanied by the translation of these laws into a variety of foreign languages. Such a concept was only logical, as at the time considerable effort was undertaken to transliterate not only the new laws but those already on the books from the Communist regime which were to be retained by the new government. Russian, English, and German were the three languages to which every major legal document would be translated and many such documents applicable to foreign trade and investments were also translated to Kazakh, Uzbek, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, French, Italian, and Czech.  

From Cyrillic to Traditional Script
Before actual translation from Mongolian to other languages could begin, some decisions had to made regarding what would be considered “standard” written Mongolian. Such was essential to the production of viable translations of law and trade documents. Many governmental departments were reluctant to consider the business of translation until an official version of the “new” script was announced. Aware of the imminent need for accurate translations, the committee responsible for standardizing the written script quickly outlined a comprehensive system for the script’s structure and the transliteration from Cyrillic Mongolian. Unfortunately, this process was a bit too expeditious and many factors germane to the use of the script in everyday applications were overlooked, including any provision whatsoever for modern engineering and scientific terminology.
    Another grave error was the failure of the organizing committee to contact scholars outside of Mongolia for their assistance in the transliteration. Such outside cooperation would have been especially helpful in the adaptation of the new script for use on computer platforms. This was not due to a total lack of communication between outside scholars and the Mongolian government but more an underestimation of the difficulty involved in adapting the script to computerized environments. The primary problem at hand was the unique vertical orientation of the traditional script which prevented it from subscribing to the ASCII standard of character representation as many other non-Latin languages do. Thus, the matter of creating a computerized form of Mongolian script would prove to be a major obstacle in the overall preparation of the transliterated language.

Issues in Translation  
Due to the complications in preparing a means of using the new script on computers, the only option for many translation projects requiring the handling of massive amounts of text would be translation from existing Cyrillic documents, for which there was ample computer support. The translators involved were familiar enough with the newer legal documents to produce from their Cyrillic texts quality versions of these documents in other languages. Older Cyrillic documents such as technical trade and transportation regulations presented more of a challenge as these had not yet been transliterated into the traditional script and thus there was no way of knowing how their technical terminology would be rendered in the script version. The main concern here was that the translations could well be faithful to the Cyrillic source documents while disagreeing with the script versions that would replace the Cyrillic texts in the years to come. Such an occurrence would not be totally unprecedented as one translator involved recalled similar problems with translating documents from Russian into Dari due to inconsistencies in technical terminology within the written Afghan language.
    One interesting project entailed the review of new and existing Mongolian aviation laws. This research was to be published in trade journals in English. Therefore, most of those who were interested in this work would never have the opportunity to read the Mongolian versions of the laws and were depending on the English-language review to convey all essential details. Cyrillic versions of these laws served as the primary references but were cross-checked with script versions when possible, as a group of researchers were proactively transliterating the same laws into the script. Something that soon became essential to producing accurate briefs of these laws in English was having as many people as possible who were fluent in both English and Mongolian review our work for the sake of readability, whether these reviewers had any specific expertise pertinent to aviation law or not. Too often, in the quest to produce a comprehensive translation of a legal document, readability is compromised, a grave if honest mistake considering that in many instances the people who will require the translated documents may not be experts themselves and therefore require as simple a document as possible. When dealing with a review of legalistic material (as opposed to a direct translation of the law itself) it is important to remember that an array of professionals may need to consult the reviews and for many it will serve as their only introduction to the law itself.
    Another substantial factor to consider in translation from a language such as Mongolian which is undergoing serious revision itself is the matter of previous translations of similar material. With Mongolian, many of the documents being translated had never before been translated into English or other Indo-European languages (except Russian and in some cases German). Therefore, when Russian translations existed they were diligently consulted as a means of evaluating readability and any areas where something might be lost in the translation. In many cases, such efforts were not in vain as serious discrepancies between the Mongolian and Russian versions of the same text could be detected and a working knowledge of these errors saved considerable anguish in preparing English-language translations.
    A variety of medical and health care-related documents were translated to English at the request of Drs. Ivan Rostolov and Monika Cherinowski, two surgeons involved in research on Mongolia’s health-care system. Out of all the Mongolian documents to be translated, these medical papers were among the most challenging. Specifically, many of these documents were printed forms that included both pre-printed information and information written on to the forms by hospital staff. Some of the written information was in Cyrillic Mongolian and some was in Russian, with the two being quite easy to confuse upon a casual glance. Occasionally, a single form would include both Mongolian and Russian; one even included German!
    In the case of these medical documents, computers came to the rescue in the end. An effective means of sorting the source material by language had to be accomplished before any further action could be taken and to this end the computer software program Adobe Pagemaker (Adobe Systems; San Jose, CA) was utilized to create comprehensive page layouts of the forms, with each type of form having its own layout template. Thereby, information could be entered into the computer in any sequence and all the translator had to do was select the appropriate form template and the program would place the data into the correct fields. Furthermore, as this software is designed for desktop publishing applications, it supports an extensive range of graphic functions. One of these is the option of placing type in various colors, which was used to separate Cyrillic Mongolian from Russian. When the English translation of a document was produced, it would “mirror” the original document in its colored type, signifying what portions of the text were translated from Mongolian and what originated from Russian. Of course, the final documents were in standard black-and-white print, but the option of quickly opening an English translation file and immediately knowing the source language of each paragraph was invaluable.

Several important lessons can be learned from Mongolia’s situation, both in terms of translating from a lesser-known language and regarding the complications involved due to the transliteration of the Mongolian language from Cyrillic to the traditional script. Most translated documents are expected to remain accurate for long periods of time and should correspond to their source documents in the native language. In an instance where the source language is being transliterated to a new written form, translation into other languages must take into consideration the subtleties of change incurred via the transliteration process as real issues in the longevity of the translated documents. By establishing a system of careful organization—as was achieved through the use of a computerized environment—many mistakes can be avoided. Like complex mathematical equations, complicated, multi-stage translations often benefit from being broken down into smaller portions. Such was certainly the case in Mongolia.

  © Copyright Translation Journal and the Author 1997
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