When looking at the Cyrillic alphabet, most Western readers see only a miscellany of bizarre symbols deprived of any meaning. However, the Cyrillic alphabet is something more than just a collection of odd characters; it is a complex alphabetical script used in many East  and South Slavic countries, as well as others. The history of the Cyrillic alphabet is fascinating, as is its diversity and role in translation.

The origins of Cyrillic alphabet

Let us start with the origins – the very name of the Cyrillic alphabet suggests that it partially owes its name to St Cyril, one of the missionaries who came to the Slavic lands in order to convert the pagans. During his mission, he and his brother, St Methodius, created an alphabet based on the Old Slavonic dialect,  which they then called “glagolitsa” (the Glagolitic script; from the Old Church Slavonic term “głagoł” meaning “word”). Its purpose was to facilitate communication with the Slavic people, which also entailed translating the Gospel from Greek to Slavic. The Glagolitic script served as the alphabet of liturgical language for many years. Its first recorded use comes from Bulgaria; found in Dobruja, an inscription of Tsar Peter I is considered to be the oldest  written record of the Cyrillic alphabet; its creation dates back to 943. The Glagolitic script was gradually replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet, supposedly created by one of the disciples of Sts Cyril and Methodius. Glagolitic went out of use mostly due to the fact that Cyrillic symbols were simpler, and the Glagolitic script partially consisted of sounds that disappeared from Slavic language with time. This reform took place in the 18th century in Russia, thanks to Peter the Great. At first, only the shapes of the letters were changed, but later major changes were instituted, due to the fact that the older version of the Cyrillic alphabet was used to write texts in Church Slavonic, which impeded the creation of new works.

Cyrillic alphabet in translation

Nowadays, the Cyrillic alphabet is a part of many Slavic languages, such as Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and others, and is called “grazhdanka” (Civil Script). In each of the countries where Cyrillic is used, the alphabet is characterized by a few changes, like the absence of some letters or a different pronunciation.

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The Cyrillic alphabet plays no role in oral interpretation, but in  written translation it benefits from the application of a specific keyboard utilized on a daily basis by the users of this alphabet. Even though the Cyrillic alphabet will not cause any major issues for a professional translator, beginners might encounter some difficulties with the letters which look the same as those from the Latin alphabet, but correspond to different sounds. However, despite the potential difficulties, the beauty and historical value of the Cyrillic alphabet is worth appreciating.

(translation: A.M.)

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