Chinese translations that seem to make no sense but actually do

For years and years I wondered why the heck would Switzerland be translated in to Rui-shi (瑞士)…

It’s only a few days ago that it dawned on me, that thing is supposed to be read in Taigi or Cantonese…

Taigi: Suī-sū 瑞士
Cantonese: seoi6-si6 瑞士
Mando: Ruì-shì 瑞士

The same goes for Sweden 瑞典 as well. Compare to the usage when transcribing Venezuela 委內瑞拉, the seems the person who made that transcription spoke Mandarin.

So the person that popularized this transcription of Swiss had to be either a Min speaker or an Yue speaker, or at least someone who spoke a language closer to Middle Chinese.

How did Middle Chinese /s/ turn in to Modern Chinese /ɻ/ in the first place? Perhaps it was a case of /t/ to /ts/ to /j/ and split to /s/ and /ɻ/?

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It made sense to me when I noticed that Nigeria is (in one spelling) 尼日利亞. If you take the pinyin r as /ʐ/ rather than /ɻ/, it’s no stretch to see it as /ʒ/, from which it’s no stretch to see it as /ʃ/, and we all know how /ʃ/ and /s/ get confused. :slight_smile:

There’s definitely a /dz/ → /ʐ/ thing going on in 日’s case.

I think 尼日利亞 is obviously the older transcription, and it probably came from Holo or Cantonese, as Nî-jit-lī-à in Taigi, with j representing /dz/, definitely come closer to the original pronunciation of Nigeria.

In Taiwan, that transcription has since been replaced by 奈及利亞, which is obviously a Mandarin transcription.

That occurred to me some time back. I tried to explain my theory to a local gentleman in a bar once and he refuted it quite strongly, lol.

Are there other s-/r- characters?

The other explanation is that the pronunciations are Mandarin pronunciations. One of the earlier interactions that involved Chinese drawing atlases of the world involved Portugueese Italians and Mandarin speakers. Mandarin pronounciations have shifted since then, and its haphazard depending on the speaker reporting the name and the ear of the person writing it down.


I have often wondered where the word for greece comes from, xila? 希腊

One of my favorite examples of this is 約翰 for John, which doesn’t make sense until you realize it’s a transliteration of Johan.


Transliteration of Hellas, the name for Ancient Greece.


That currently makes more sense in Minnan as well.

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Before I’ve had a couple of classmates named Jesus, I had no idea why that is translated to 耶穌 as well. In Latin, 耶穌 is a even better fit, than how it sounds in Spanish. 穌 has the meaning of revival, so who ever translated Jesus into 耶穌 did a really brilliant job.

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Why is it 加拿大 rather than 咖拿大?

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Good one: 加 is pronounced as “ga” in Minnan and I’m sure Cantonese as well. 新加坡 is another example.


Also explains why 金門 and 基隆 are written as “Kinmen” and “Keelung”

I think there are other threads about this, but anyway, jinmen would have previously been kinmen in mandarin but there was a pronounciation shift much like the great vowel shift in english, but minnan and cantonese did not do the same shift. plus these letter distinctions are blurry and are not chinese anyway.

try substituting l for n and see if anyone bats an eyelid.

Much as some Shakespeare still rhymes in regional accents but not always in standard British English

Here you go.


I have one that I can’t figure out… there’s gotta be a reason…

Why is Russia translated to 俄羅斯? For Russia, just the characters 羅斯 seem to do the job. 俄 seems completely random and unnecessary. If they want to make it 3 characters, 羅斯亞 would do. Or go back the earlier forms such as 羅剎 seems to do the job perfectly.

Maybe someone who speaks Russian could help.

It’s derived from the Middle Mongolian term for Russia: Orus.


This report might answer.


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Nice way to remind the Russians of their past I guess…

Even though it’s nice to know that 俄羅斯 came from the Mongolian term Orus, it still doesn’t explain why the Mongolians added the O. The answer given in the article is that there is no Mongolian word that started with R, so when dealing with those loan words, Mongolians added an O to make it conform to their phonology.


匈牙利 , although don’t know what could be done better