Monthly Archives: June 2007

Translating English Names into Chinese

Several U.S. presidential candidates are facing a crisis in translation. No, they aren’t asking Germans to join them in eating a local pastry, a la JFK. They are facing the prospect of having their names translated into Mandarin in ways that they aren’t likely to be happy with. According to a June 26, 2007 article from the Associated Press entitled “Candidates’ names are tough in Chinese,” Mitt Romney may end up with a Chinese moniker that means “sticky rice” or “uncooked rice.” Barack Obama might be sinicized into “Oh Bus Horse.” (Click here for the link to the full article).

I typically frown on the way English names are translated into Mandarin. Unlike the way foreign names are translated into Chinese, Chinese parents give their children names that have meaning. For example, a popular man’s name among the Chinese is “Jun Xiung,” which roughly translates to “handsome and brave.”

The preferred method of translation for Western names is to choose Chinese characters that rhyme with the English name. Under this method, my last name, Black, would sound like this “Bu Lai Ke.”Roughly translated, my transliterated surname means “cloth come guest.” In order words, laughable gibberish.

I’ve been through several Chinese names over the years. Until I chose a name that actually had some meaning in Chinese, the various versions of my names always elicited laughter among the Chinese.

If America’s presidential candidates want to avoid having names that turn them into laughingstocks among Chinese speakers, they’ll hire an expert to give them an official Chinese name that won’t elicit chuckles from Chinese audiences.

I hereby volunteer my services, free of charge. I’ll give any candidate who requests it a Chinese name that means something, and that won’t make Chinese people laugh.

I only ask that if the candidate I help is elected, I get a tax break in 2009.


Filed under Culture, Language