The Art of Transliteration in Chinese: People Names (I)


“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).

transliteration of a name (音譯 jam1 jik6 sound translation), in contrast, is a transfer of sounds across scripts. For instance, 毛澤東 is a name completely foreign to English-speaking cultures; hence, to represent the foreign name in an English context like this article, one would say Mao Zedong, so that readers of the alphabet can recognise and approximately pronounce the name. Transliteration seldom happens between languages that use the same script: even though the Polish name Agnieszka looks slightly foreign to English speakers, we wouldn’t transliterate it to Agnyeshka, because it uses basically the same script.

When Westerners like, say, Theresa May receive their Chinese names, usually to fit the purposes of Chinese-speaking media or daily discussion, we do the exact opposite of the Mao Zedong case: we take the sounds, and try to represent it as closely as possible within our sound systems.

Problem with sound systems

As mentioned above, differences in sound systems in different languages pose an intrinsic limitation in transliteration of names: the sounds are bound to be distorted in some way. Russian, a language that lacks the H and R sounds in English, renders Hillary Clinton as Хиллари Клинтон, substituting those sounds with the guttural ‘ch’ and rolling R instead. And obviously, tonal names like Mao Zedong lose all their tones in English.

And in Chinese languages, languages based on syllables with limited combinations of consonants, the situation is amplified. The degree of distortion depends on the variety of Chinese.

Take the classic example of David Beckham: the surname consists principally of six sounds, b-e-k-h-a-m.

In Cantonese, we call him 碧咸 bik1 haam4, using two syllables. Even though we use an unreleased stop (i.e. it sounds like you eat the ‘k’), the two characters retain the original consonants pretty well. Besides, even though we can pronounce bek1, our character-based writing system has no character for that, so we have to resort to bik1.

What about Mandarin? Since this language has relatively limited options for finals (end of syllables), they call him 貝克漢姆 bèi kè hàn mǔ instead. You notice that they use four characters instead. That’s because Mandarin lacks the k and m finals in syllables, and in order not to lose these sounds, they have to use extra syllables to supplement them. At the same time, extra vowels are necessitated because of the extra syllables.

The takeaway: when transliterating a foreign name into Chinese, regardless of which variety, expect it to sound totally different. And that’s not even taking tones into question.

Length of the name

As Veritasium once pointed out, Chinese languages have a higher information density than (generally speaking) European languages, i.e. one Chinese syllable contains on average ‘more meaning’ than one English syllable. That’s why we aren’t used to long words, especially ones longer than 4 syllables, which rarely ever show up. And that includes names.

In the Beckham example, you might notice that in some cases, transliterating foreign names into Chinese may end up producing more syllables. It’s even more noticeable for names with many consonants put together, since we only have one beginning and one ending consonant per syllable.

Let’s take it to the extreme and take a look at Russian surnames.

These names are notorious for the abundance of consonants (along with other Slavic names). The actor Stanislavski, for instance, often shows up in our jokes. While he has a four-syllable name, after inserting all the necessary extra syllables, the Chinese version becomes 史坦尼斯拉夫斯基 si2 taan2 nei4 si1 laai1 fu1 si1 gei1, with a whopping syllable count more than double the original! The same happens to other famous figures (though to a lesser extent) like Shostakovich 蕭斯達高維契 siu1 si1 daat6 gou1 wai4 kai3 and Velazquez 委拉斯蓋茲 wai2 laai1 si1 koi3 ci4

While most of the time when talking about these people, we use the full transliteration, if a Westerner with such a long transliterated name happens to wish to integrate into Chinese communities, it might be shortened instead, to better fit the 3-syllable system we’re most used to. The governors of Hong Kong during the colonial period are the prime examples: the last in line, Chris Patten, is known as 彭定康 paang4 ding6 hong1, turning Patten into paang4 ding6 and shortening Chris(topher) into one single syllable hong1.

Of course, other modifications also take place that move parts of the names around in other to fit the usual structure of a Chinese name, but that’s to be discussed in the next post in the series.