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

13 responses to “Translating English Names into Chinese

  1. J.G.H.Bartholomew

    A general piece advice for people who want to translate their names: Chinese surnames are generally only one character long (i.e. one syllable).

    My surname is Bartholomew. The official translation for this is 巴多羅買 (trad.) or 巴多罗买 (simpl.) (Ba Duo Lo Mai, approximately translates as Clinging-Many-Net-Buy). However, I have simply adopted 白 (Bai in Mandarin or Ba in Cantonese, meaning White)- much more straightforward.

    My advice is to take he first syllable or part-syllable of your surname, and leave it at that.

  2. truettblack

    JGH, you are right, and I realize I failed to mention this explicitly in my article, though I think I implied it.

    Anyway, good work and thanks for the comment.

  3. Imy Rigau

    Please, I need heilp to translate my name and last name to Chinese mandarin…


  4. Nicolas Hunt

    我现在学习中文所以我的老师给我一个中文名字。他叫 我 “倪书” 也许我学习很
    多可是我说了中文名字对别的中国人他们都笑我了。 明年我想去中国到学习中文于

  5. truettblack

    Imy, if you want a surname that begins with the same sound (r) as your own surname, let me give suggest two surnames you can choose from:

    任 (ren4)


    睿 (rui4)

    The first one is more common than the second, but the second probably sounds a bit more like your surname.

    Have fun.

  6. truettblack


    I understand. Your name is a bit weird, and you’ll probably get a lot of laughs from Chinese people when you’re in China with a name like that. I wonder what your teacher was thinking.

    You need to decide first if you’d like to stick with two or go for three characters. It is not uncommon in China to have only two characters in your your name.

    I’d definitely change my surname to 何 (he2) if I were you. This is a normal, quite common surname in greater China, and it matches the sound of your English surname.

    As for the other one or two characters, choosing a name is such a personal thing, I think you out to work through it a bit yourself. Why don’t you think about some options and then ask a Chinese friend? If you won’t have anyone to ask, let me know and I’ll give you my professional opinion.

    • Edwin Xiao

      From a Taiwanese point of view, it is not really such an serious thing to have a rather rare surname, if it’s meaningful enough (or if it’s officially existent). So in the case of Mr. Nicolas, I think a surname as “杭” would do as nicely as 何; maybe even better because it somehow fits the pronunciation as well. And literally it also means the province of Hangzhou. I have known a Dr. whose surname is 杭. But as the first name, I haven’t yet figured how to translate it without being a bit ludicrous… So if you really need some decent meaning in your Chinese name, well, you’d probably need a English-Chinese dictionary…

    • ally yau

      i suggest nicolas= 倪康乐 nin2 kang1 le4

  7. Yosef ben-Elianah

    Thank you for posting so many interesting articles!

    My teacher wrote out my name as 约瑟夫•本•艾连昂 (Yuesefu ben Ailianang, for those who don’t read characters…yet). We shortened this to 艾约瑟 (Ai Yuese). Since you were surprised by the choice of the teacher of one of the above posters, I thought I might check here as well.

    Looking forward to the next post!

    • truettblack

      Thanks for the shout.

      Your teacher has chosen to transliterate your name. That is fine, but your name is not anything like a real Chinese name. Famous figures in the world of Sinology are pretty much split between transliterated and authentic names. The choice of which way to go is yours.

  8. Llyn Kidner-Williams

    I am soon to marry a Chinese gentleman and would love to be able to use my name transliterated into Chinese for the ceremony. Please help. Thank you so very much.

    Lynne Kidner-Williams

  9. Paul MORRIS

    Paul MORRIS

    I tried locally, and was given Philip MORRIS as a direct translation. I dont want to sound like a cigarette, so any suggestions very welcome!!!


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