Office of Director of National Intelligence

Standardize the Transliteration of Foreign Names into English

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The recent Washington Post story on “Top Secret America” has brought many of the inefficiencies involved in the intelligence community to the attention of the public. In order to address at least one aspect of the problem, my idea is to standardize the transliteration of foreign names so that the same Arabic/Chinese/Hebrew etc. name will be put into English letters with the same spelling.


As it is now, each agency (or even each individual office in an agency) has their own way of spelling foreign names. This makes it unnecessarily difficult to search for information on a particular person on intelligence sharing networks, such as NCTC. For example, is it Usama bin Laden, Usama bin Ladan, Osama bin Ladan or Osama bin Laden (among others)? His is one of the easiest ones, many other names have a much wider array of combinations. The differences in transliteration make it hard to know if you have found all relevant information and if you may actually be looking at information for two different people entirely.


Across government, the differences waste a lot of time and make the potential for information to be overlooked greater. It is possible that standardizing the transliteration of foreign names would allow an analyst to find that last piece of information that stops a dangerous terrorism attempt – potentially saving not only a lot of money that would have been lost in the resulting investigation and harm to the U.S. economy, but also people’s lives.


No one would have to dictate the spelling of each name, but rather agree upon a standard English letter combination for each foreign character or combination of characters. While there are often a number of legitimate methods for transliteration of various foreign languages, it makes no sense that the USG cannot pick one in the name of consistency and ease of information sharing.


3 votes
Idea No. 11645