The Foreign Feel of a Chinese Transliteration

02 Jul 2013

Foreign words, like “Minnesota” or “Kobe Bryant” or “Carrefour” often get “translated” into Chinese in a way that uses the original sounds of the words and tries to represent those in Chinese (thus, using Chinese characters). This process is called transliteration, or sometimes transcription (音译, which breaks down character by character into “sound translation” in Chinese). Thus, the three examples above become “Mingnisuda” (明尼苏达), “Kebi Bulai’ente” (科比·布莱恩特), and “Jialefu” (家乐福) in Chinese.


These foreign names can be quite a pain for learners to remember, because the pronunciation is “off,” and they’re often quite long, plus the worst part: you have to remember all the tones for those “nonsense characters!”

But are they really nonsense characters? That depends. A carefully transliterated name will make some sort of sense in Chinese. This is almost always done with company and brand names, and is the case with Carrefour (家乐福) above; the three characters chosen mean “home,” “joy,” and “happiness,” respectively. For place names, though, the characters are a bit less lovingly selected. So Minnesota (明尼苏达) got: “bright,” “Buddhist nun,” “Suzhou,” “arrive.” Pretty random. Same goes for “Kobe Bryant” (科比·布莱恩特) in Chinese.

So a typical learner of Chinese wants to know: what’s my name in Chinese? And that’s where the tumble down the foreign name transliteration rabbit hole begins. You see, most English names already have standard translations in Chinese. So “John” is 约翰, “Mary” is 玛丽, “Richard” is 理查德, etc. Clearly, these are all transliterations; the sounds are approximated in Chinese, but not the meanings.

From the moment I first heard “约翰” (“John” in Chinese), I hated it. It didn’t sound like “John” at all! There wasn’t even a “zh” or a “j” sound in the whole name. (It does sound quite similar to “Johann,” though; I think I had early European missionaries to thank for the “standard” transliteration of my name.)

After examining the characters, there were two main things I didn’t like about 约翰:

1. The characters 约翰 didn’t make much sense (OK, they make a little sense, from a “Gospel of John” missionary perspective)
2. “Yuēhàn” just sounded weird to me, and unlike most Chinese names

These two features define most foreign names transliterated into Chinese. In fact, oftentimes the characters really are nonsensical; they’re chosen systematically from a fixed list of characters used in transliterations. This list even has its own Wikipedia page: Transcription into Chinese characters.

Looking over the list, I can’t help but feel that certain specific characters are more “foreign” (used especially often in foreigners’ names, and not so often in Chinese names), while others are more “Chinese” (equally likely to appear in Chinese names). For example, and are both common in Chinese names. and … not quite so much.

Thus, over time, as you hear more and more combinations of these “transliteration characters” (杰克, 汉克, 路易, etc.), you start to get a feel for when a “Chinese name” sounds foreign, especially compared to the growing list of authentic Chinese people’s names you’re compiling in your memory. In fact, a computer program could actually run through big long lists of transliterated foreign names and original Chinese names, and by comparing the character distributions in the two lists, assign “Chineseness” and “foreignness” values to each character, allowing for fairly accurate prediction of what “Chinese” names would sound the most foreign. You could probably increase accuracy by taking note of the position of the characters in a word, and certain repeated character sequences (like 斯坦).

But this is what your brain does unconsciously as you learn more and more names. This is how we develop a sense for when a Chinese name feels foreign.

The ironic part of all this for me personally is that after rejecting 约翰 as my Chinese name, I later settled on 潘吉. Both of those characters are in thetranscription table! (Ah, but 潘吉 is actually much more Chinese, even if a bit boring. So 潘吉 is my official Chinese name, although these days I usually just go by John.)

Rose's Revelation


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Do you know if there exist transcription tables for other languages to Chinese? Just for fun I sometimes chat with my Chinese girlfriend (whose Swedish is much better than my Chinese) on wechat in Swedish transcribed with 汉字。It is quite challenging (but fun!) to approximate all the sounds.

  2. I always found it odd/unsettling that… KFC doesn’t contain the character 鸡. There’s a joke in there somewhere, but most likely this is because KFC in China wanted to expand beyond chicken. From what locals have told me, Chinese rarely go for the standard ‘American food’ in either KFC or McDonalds.

    • I’m pretty sure there are good reasons for it, maybe marketing reasons, and maybe not. I see this a fair amount, though, where a Chinese company or brand seems to intentionally not go for the obvious characters. Seems kind of counter-intuitive, in a culture that tends to explain its own jokes.

  3. Graham Bond Says: July 3, 2013 at 12:27 am

    Can I be the first to issue congratulations on a most excellent piece of visual drollery. The Chinese language corner of the comedy market is niche-to-non-existent but, John, your Titanic imagination may have just cracked it. Nice work.

  4. Kevin 凯文 Says: July 3, 2013 at 2:42 am

    Did you ever come across 乔恩 as a transliteration for John? That was the first one I learned, and I was surprised to see 约翰 as well.

    Personally I’m stuck with 凯文, which, besides sounding a bit “ABC”, is the go-to name for Calvin and Kelvin, as well as Kevin. At least some people on 人人 have it as their real name.

    Great article!

    • No… I’ve seen 江 used, though.

      凯文 is a good example of an interesting transliteration. Walks the line between foreign-sounding and Chinese-sounding, and covers quite a few western names!

  5. How did you go about getting a Chinese name, John? Did you make it yourself or did a friend/teacher give it to you?

    • Hmmm, that’s kind of a long story. I’ve been meaning to write it up.

      Long story short: I started with 潘 to represent “Pasden” and then added 吉 later after some deliberation.

      • It would be interesting to hear the full story sometime. I’ve always thought it was odd that so many Chinese and Koreans feel compelled to get English names, so it’s always nice to hear a different perspective and see how and why foreigners take on different names when learning languages.

        I’ve had friends give me Chinese and Korean names which I used for a while, but I have a stronger attachment to my real name, so they’ve have fallen out of use.

  6. I always suspected the common transliteration characters were deliberately chosen to be meaningless so there wouldn’t be unintentional meaning or embarrassment.

  7. 郝先生 Says: July 3, 2013 at 11:20 pm

    One of the challenging things to learn about transliterations for those who have friends and are exposed to writing on both sides of the Straits is that the “standard” transliterations often differ, as when Sydney, Australia is called 悉尼 on the mainland and 雪梨 in Taiwan. When Hong Kong and Cantonese-influenced transliterations are brought into the mix this can add another level of difficulty.

  8. The first time I remember thinking about this stuff was during the 2008 Olympics, when my friends (who are great guys) would laugh at the way the announcers said ‘迈克尔-菲尔普斯’ … eh.. Once I started reading NBA Gamecaps in Chinese… I would see these EVERYWHERE (obviously). There’s really no way around it, right? For example, if two Chinese people were talking about a famous foreigner (eg. Brad Pitt), there’s no way they’re going to ‘put on’ an American accent for a few seconds, then go back to Chinese.

    So which is more natural? Transliteration or not?

    • To me the most “natural” way to do it is just to approximate the foreign pronunciation in your own language, kind of like we Americans do when we pronounce names in Spanish. (It can come across as pretentious if you insist on pronouncing a Spanish name “the Spanish way” with a proper accent.)

      One might argue that this is what Chinese people are doing when using transliterations for foreign names, but I don’t think so. I think most modern Chinese people are capable of much closer approximations of foreign names than the phonology of Mandarin Chinese allows them to write out in characters.

  9. […] It seems to me that the Chinese aren’t too crazy about these transliterations either. When they can, they’ll do things like use the Chinese word 苹果 (“apple”) for the American company “Apple” rather than resorting to transliteration. But for foreigners’ names, foreign country names, foreign company names, foreign brand names, and foreign product names, you do get stuck with an awful lot of transliterations into Chinese. […]

  10. When I got my Chinese name, I was given three routes.

    1) The transliterated Chinese sounding name like you mentioned 馬太

    2) The original meaning of my name from the root language source which was then directly translated into its natural Chinese equivalent (Matthew means Gift in Hebrew so 礼物.)

    3) A Chinese name that reflected who I was (my personality, etc.) and sounded naturally Chinese. This name was chosen by my Chinese friends and Chinese business colleagues.

    Ultimately, I chose number 3.

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