“What’s my name in Chinese?”
I cringe a little whenever I hear this question, because it comes up so often. To Westerners, Chinese is probably the epitome of an exotic language: it sounds sing-songy and weird and looks completely incomprehensible. But all I could answer to this question is, “what’s your name in Russian then?” That would probably just be the original name with an accent, which is basically the case in Chinese. Still, we see that many Westerners do end up getting a Chinese name (漢名 hon3 meng2 Han name) that sounds almost completely different. How do they do it?
Transliteration and Translation
There are several important concepts and factors relating to how Westerners have their Chinese names. Firstly, we transliterate, not translate. Translation of a name, in a daily sense as I would put it, involves more of a transfer of meaning (意譯 ji3 jik6 meaning translation), like how we say ‘Jacob means Supplanter in Hebrew’. But we never call Jacob ‘Supplanter’; Jacob is just Jacob, or rather, יַעֲקֹב with an anglicised pronunciation. A more common example comes from European first names based on saints: ‘Katarzyna’ would be a translation of ‘Catherine’, since strictly speaking, they are names native to different cultures with the same meaning (in this case, reference to the original Catherine).