Foreign names in Chinese

I admit my Chinese is lousy so maybe I just don’t understand the situation, but is it really necessary for the Chinese language to have such ridiculous translations for the names of foreigners?

Although many non-Chinese have difficulty pronouncing the names of people from other countries, at least we try to pronounce them the way the persons would pronounce their own names and, as a result, we usually recognize the names of important people. But, because the Chinese translations can be so perverse, Taiwanese/Chinese seem to suffer from a distinct disadvantage of not recognizing the most basic names of foreigners.

I know the problem arises because they translate names into different characters whereas we do not, but couldn’t they often be translated into something more phonetically similar to the actual name?

Quite often, no. Trouble is, some sounds cannot be properly replicated. “Br,” “Pr,” “St” …etc, simply don’t exist. So, it always sounds a bit clumsy. What about names that end in “sh” (i.e., Bush) or “th” or whatever. Impossible to get a totally satisfactory rendering.

Asian are like that MT. Proud of the culture heritage. Won’t adopt other’s language or culture. Besides it’s really not easy for people who has spoken asian languages their entire lifes to pronounce foreign names, therefore foreign names were acculturated into target languages. In Japan, if you’re not japanese you will never guess makudonarudo really means Mac Donald hence

[quote=“ax”]Asian are like that MT. Proud of the culture heritage. Won’t adopt other’s language or culture.
what are you talking about? it has nothing to do with cultural heritage. there simply isn’t a way to translate some names (like wally/walter, mandy, christine…etc.) reasonably. different languages have different phonetic sounds and the gap between mandarin and english is pretty big.

it is the same way with translating chinese names to english. a lot of chinese people don’t translate their names because it would sound horrible (or be mangled by anyone trying to say it). instead of having a rather messed up form of their names in english, they will choose a totally brand new english sounding name.

Took me a while to figure why Mitsubishi starts with “San” … :wink:

I would prefer not to translate names. Just pronounce it according to the original language - or at least try.
Would be really weird if we would call Jose from Spain Joseph (English) or Josef (German) instead. Well, translate Chinese names into your mother tongue - I am sure it would cause some great laughs …

And those Chinese names of (western) actors/actresses give me a hard time, too, can’t chat with locals who don’t know the English names while I cannot recognize the Chinese “version”.

Names are names and should not be changed or translated.

But Rascal, how then would the Chinese write western names without using the alphabet and don’t you think it would be a little arrogant for us to demand its use?

I do have the feeling that Chinese in general are proud of the cultural heritage, the subtlety of chinese language and will never trade it with any others. If you think you are not or the chinese you know are not like that, I might be wrong.


IYBF: sure we have no right to demand that Chinese speakers refrain from translating names, but think about the trouble it causes them. As a native-English speaker I can recognize the names of famous people from France, Germany, Africa and Japan, but many Chinese speakers cannot. That is why if they wish to translate, at least they should translate into something phonetically similar to the actual name. . . if possible.

One day in the distant future, when everyone speaks the English we know, there will be no nuance, and therefore no misunderstanding, and no need for the Sinofication of Western names or the Romanization of Chinese names, or any other bloody name for that matter.

Although that Babel screwup did make for an interesting history, a blander, safer world is far more to my liking.

Further ramblings into the sparse woods of my thoughts have encountered this thought:

Why is that, although the Chinese say “huh” instead of excuse me and "ni yao she ma?’ instead of “May I help you?”, they are still considered more polite than say Americans for example?


You can’t blame CJK peoples for translating names to their own tongues. They have to do so for ease of communication between themselves. Of course, I can see the drawbacks that your mentioned wherein they cannot recognize the original names, but they don’t need to or have to. They communicate to eachother perfectly without having to refer to the original names. The only pain is for foreigner to understand who are they talking about.
I read a book in Japanese that give someone a shortcut into Foreign names in Japanese. Once you recognize these names, your perception about CJK people will change. They know a lot about Western cultures, history, names, books, songs, but they know it all in Chinese, Japanese or Korean.

I watched Xiangsheng the other day…
and Herman Hesse which translates to [he man he sai] were punned as [he man wa se]…

[wa se] in taiwanese is an interjection…


My name pronounced the way we Danes do it??? I have been trying to learn my wife to pronounce it properly. I have now waited nearly 8 years… And am in for a very long wait.

Ignorant westerners have trouble with perfectly good Chinese names as well.


I’m with you Alzheimer in senses, sensitivities, and sensibilities… :blush:


This is a message for Mr. He’s wife: Call him Holgeeee. I know a couple of Germans by the name of Holger and they really don’t like being called Holgeeee. I wonder if the Danes have the same aversion?


Mother Teresa: you bring up a good point and unique post! Thanks.

But it’s a lingo problem and not easily solved. The Japanese have solved it somewhat by inventing their hiragana and katakana alphabets for foreign words, especially foreign loan words, so that CUP becomes Kuh-pu and BED becomes bed-doh and BASEBALL becomes BAY-SU-BA-RU.

The Japanese cannot do that with their real kanji characters, but they can do it with the katakana stuff. And names also:

Tom Cruise becomes TO MU KA RU ZU. Not bad!

TOM HANKS becomes To mu Ha N KU SU

But since Mandarain doesn’t have a katakana yet, someone here in Taiwan should develop one. Any idea how to begin? I’d love to see some samples.

And in South Korea, how do they pronounce foreign words and names? I dunno.

It’s true, MT, here I often have a hard time knowing when people are talking about Beethoven or Mozart or Van Gogh or Picasso or Herman Meville or William Faulkner or Garcia Marquez or Versace or Louis Vuitton or Yves St. Laurent… true enuf!

But as others have said above, this is their world, their language.Who are we to interfere? The world doesn’t revolve around US!

Who does it revolve around? SMILE


stop your attempt at reinventing the wheel. Taiwanese already have a phonetic system. What katakana is. Sure japanese can be complicated enough by introducing two sets of phonetic scripting and kanji combined. Chinese phonetic is called zhuyinfuhao which I is still use today by to write sounds that does not have a character. Try the "biang! " which is usually scripted as

Great post, MT!

I speak Mandarin on the job every day, and I can’t for the life of me remember transliterated names. I can only remember things like Ah Tang for Tom Cruise and Mao Wang for Elvis Presley.

Nobody needs to change for me, but it does seem like a crutch.


Please don’t try to think of a solution to this problem. I love trying to Chinesisize English words. It is one of my greatest joys in Taiwan life. I used to do crosswords, now I do this. I love talking to people and saying things like, “you think Shu Qi is hot? What about Mo-ni-ka Bei-lu-qi?” and “Po-li Shu-er is a much bigger dork than Andy Leung, what are you se-mu-ke-ing?” 90% of the time you get a blank look, but occasionally, Jackpot Baby!!! I would prefer if someone made a board game of it, much like scrabble. I also like the way some words are not set in stone like 'cheese". Sometimes it’s “Ji-shi” and sometimes it’s “chi-se”