Egyptian transliteration: will it survive the digital era, or will it be replaced by Manuel de Codage?

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Hieroglyphs, with their transliteration and Manuel de Codage
Hieroglyphs, with their transliteration and Manuel de Codage
This is a question which has popped into my head recently, possibly as a result of the problems I had with transliteration fonts on my last typesetting project.


With the ever-increasing presence of digital media such as ebooks and the Internet, and with the inevitable growth of older publications being digitised, the ability to properly render transliteration and other specialist fonts will become more of an issue in Egyptology.


The PDF format, of course, allows you to publish an exact digital version of a print publication, and is still used widely in the academic world. This is due to the simplicity of being able to save an already-typed and formatted paper directly from Word, which can then be uploaded to a website or emailed out.


Within the commercial publishing world, however, PDFs aren’t as widely used; it’s the EPUB format (with the ‘reflowable‘ text) that dominates the ebook market. Unfortunately, embedding specialist fonts in ebooks with current technology can still be problematic (you could consider exporting your transliteration as an image instead of live text, but that isn’t always going to be ideal).


A major downside to PDFs to consider is that they create much larger files than the EPUB format and, because of their fixed format (i.e. the text flow doesn’t adjust to the size of the screen), they can be tricky to read on smaller screens.


You also don’t have the luxury of a PDF-like format on social networking, forums and email (well, you can use PDFs in some places, such as Facebook groups and email, but to do this for lively and ongoing discussions would be incredibly cumbersome and impractical).


So, the Elastoplast that has been adopted over the last few years to render transliteration online is to use Manuel de Codage.


If you don’t know much about transliteration and Manuel de Codage, please keep reading to find out more. If you do, scroll on down to the Transliteration vs. Manuel de Codage section.


What is transliteration?

For those of you who are new to the subject, when translating hieroglyphs, we don’t translate them directly. Instead, it’s a two-step process, first converting the hieroglyphs into Roman script, known as transliteration, then translating (for a fuller definition of transliteration, read the Wikipedia entry here):


The hieroglyphs and transliteration for the name Amenhotep


Transliteration systems vary depending on which language you’re translating – have a look at the first image in this post to see the full list of Egyptian transliteration symbols (you can click on the picture to pop-up a larger version).


The problem we have in today’s ‘digital age’ is that the Egyptian transliteration system uses a number of letters that aren’t standard in our alphabet:


Transliteration signs that aren't on a keyboard


Of course, you can get around some of these:


  • Underlining h, t and d (if the circumstances allow)
  • Using the number 3 for the aleph
  • Using an apostrophe for the ayin


However, this isn’t ideal as you’re still three symbols short of a full pack. (And using apostrophes and threes could potentially cause some confusion.)


To work with transliteration, you need a specialist font. You can get them for free on the Internet, but it does mean that you need your readers to download and install the font before they can see the transliteration (as I have seen on some older websites), or you need the facilities to be able to embed fonts in your web page.


This is where Manuel de Codage steps in …


What is Manuel de Codage?

Manuel de Codage (MdC) was developed in 1984 as a way to represent hieroglyphic texts on computers using just letters and symbols available on a standard keyboard (back then, for those of you too young to remember, computers were largely text-based).


In its entirety, the MdC system is designed to enable Egyptologists to represent texts completely and faithfully on screen, including how glyphs sit together in groups and being able to specify individual glyphs using their Gardiner sign-list code.


To be honest though, with developments in hieroglyph fonts and the ability to save work as PDFs, I really don’t know if anyone uses MdC for this purpose any more. Anyone can set hieroglyphs with relative ease these days using editors such as JSesh, The Signwriter and Vector Office (you can find them all in my web directory). If you do still use MdC to this extent, I’d really like to know – please leave a comment.


From what I can see, MdC is used these days at a more basic level to replace specialist signs with those available on a keyboard when online:


Specialist transliteration signs and their MdC equivalents


So, to write the transliteration for Amenhotep, you’d type jmn-Htp.


Transliteration vs. Manuel de Codage


The text reads "An offering which the king gives (to) Osiris, lord of Djedu, great god, lord of Abydos".


Have a look at the image above; it’s the beginning of an offering formula (BM EA 558, borrowed from Collier and Manley’s How to read Egyptian hieroglyphs) with both traditional transliteration and MdC.


The disadvantages to MdC that jump out at me are that it:

  • looks less elegant and much more clunky than transliteration, with the upper-case letters scattered all over the place
  • precludes you from capitalising proper nouns, as some people prefer to do
  • only deals with transliteration and doesn’t help if you need to include other scripts, such as Coptic


However, it does:


  • take away the need for specialist fonts, thus speeding up your typing time and removing the worry of additional font licensing
  • provide consistency across platforms – books, social networking, journals, forums etc
  • solve the problem of fonts always not embedding well in ebooks


What do you think?

What I’d really like to know is how you, my lovely readers, think this will play out.


Will Manuel de Codage, because of its simplicity, become the norm? Or will ebook and Internet technology catch up and allow us to use traditional transliteration across digital platforms?


Think how much we’ve advanced digitally since MdC’s birth in 1984, or even just in the last five years. Of the increasing ease with which we can embed fonts on websites (though I still wouldn’t want to try to convince Facebook to make transliteration available …!). And the ever-advancing technology for fixed-layout EPUBs may well be the bridge we need between PDF and EPUB.


Personally, I’d be inclined to think, considering the pace at which things are moving, that MdC will be just a temporary fix to tide us over until technology catches up with our need to use transliteration online.


But that’s just my opinion. What’s yours? Please cast your vote in the poll below, and if you have any other thoughts on the matter, please leave a comment.


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6 Comments on "Egyptian transliteration: will it survive the digital era, or will it be replaced by Manuel de Codage?"

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Nick da Costa
I am plainly late to this discussion. I believe the transliteration issue could have been solved long ago and could – potentially – be easily solved easily now. In my view (heresy warning) transliteration is more of a hindrance to understanding and translating hieroglyphs than a help. Every book acknowledges that nobody knows how ancient Egyptian sounds, yet insists on this artificial overlay within the first few pages to distinguish between characters. After all, the original hieroglyphs distinguish themselves clearly…by being different! So any translation that – say – sits underneath could just use ‘a’ for the Egyptian Vulture AND… Read more »

[…] each glyph from the glyphs panel. When using the Transliteration typeface, because it uses the Manuel de Codage equivalents on the keyboard, it’s really very quick to type […]


Don’t all modern computers include unicode fonts with all the characters you need for transliteration? You just use a custom keyboard or the character viewer provided by the os to input them.