The Foreign Feel of a Chinese Transliteration

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.

jieke

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

Shanghai had no Grid Plan

Shanghai: not being a grid

Shanghai: not being a grid

I saw this Speed Levitch video in which he rails against the grid plan of New York City, and I couldn’t help but think of my adopted home of Shanghai. Here’s a quote from the video below:

“Let’s just blow up the grid plan, and rewrite the streets to be much more a self-portraiture of our personal struggles, rather than some real estate broker’s wet dream from 1807. We’re forced to walk in these right angles… I mean, doesn’t she find this infuriating?”

Strong is good

Here’s another one for the Chinese pun file:

浓好

So the name of the sugar is 浓好, a play on the expression 侬好, the Shanghainese version of 你好, or “hello” in Mandarin. 浓好 (the name of the sugar) literally means “strong is good,” where “strong” is the “strong coffee” kind of “strong.”

The character-savvy among you (who understand the necessity of radicals) will also notice that and share the phonetic element , and that in this case the person radical in and the water radical in carry meaning.

On the sugar packet we can also see it is from the “Hello Milk Tea Series.” It does make me wonder what else is in the series…

Handwritten Chinese Numbers: Alternative Arabic Numerals

I mentioned before in my post “Chinese Numbers: Where 4 Meets 6” that I’d have a longer post on this topic. This is it (although not quite as long as I was hoping). Again, I don’t mean the Chinese character numbers (、etc.); I’m talking about the numbers we call Arabic numerals. In China, they can occasionally be written pretty differently from what foreigners are used to, and present serious potential for confusion and misunderstandings.

4 and 6

This is the issue I mentioned before, and illustrated with this image:

6-4

I actually had a hard time finding really good examples of this “in the wild,” but here’s a fairly representative example:

figures

Here are some more “normal” 4s:

IMG_1346

9

This one is the easiest to document, and by far the least recognizable to Westerners, in my opinion. How do you even describe it? Kind of like a cross between a “P” and a “q”? Spot the 9s!

IMG_1289

IMG_1293

IMG_1422

This last one is interesting:

IMG_1711

You’ll notice the same hand that wrote the wacky 9 also wrote 早餐 as the non-standard 早歺 (that’s a second round simplification character).

5

Sometimes it looks like a backwards Z, and other times it looks like a weird curvy thing with a line through it. In an un-5-like way!

IMG_1294

IMG_1296

One more…

As a bonus, here’s an 8 that looks like a 6:

IMG_1569

Sooo…?

Consider this post a little heads up. If you’re suddenly in a situation in China where you have to be reading numbers, running into these forms can be a little bewildering.

Also, I’ve been trying to collect representative examples for months, and this is all I’ve come up with. (And three of them came from ChinesePod co-host Dilu. Yes, the food-related ones were all me.) If anyone could share additional examples that I’m allowed to post, please email them to me, or link to them in the comments, and I’ll add them here as an update.

Other comments are, of course, also welcome!

Privacy: a great conversation topic

yinsi

This whole PRISM debacle has freaked out and enraged a good section of the American population, and with good reason. But if you try talking about the issue with a Chinese citizen, some very interesting themes may emerge.

Here’s an imagined dialog to illustrate the point:

American: Did you hear about this whole PRISM thing going on in the U.S.?

Chinese: No, what is it?

American: The U.S. government seems to have made a deal with a bunch of major internet companies to get all kinds of supposedly “private” information on all kinds of people.

Chinese: And?

American: Well, it was kept secret until recently, when the truth was revealed.

Chinese: But this was actually surprising to the American people?

American: Well yeah! We have a right to privacy.

Chinese: Sounds like Americans and Chinese have pretty similar rights to privacy.

American: Whoa, whoa… not the same thing! We have rule of law, we have democratically elected leaders, and we can actually speak out against this thing and effect change!

Chinese: Yeah, good luck with that.

So the Chinese person above was depicted as overly cynical for dramatic effect, but seriously, you should have a conversation with your Chinese friends about the topic of privacy (隐私). It’s not just a political issue; it’s also a cultural issue, and it’s really interesting to hear the views of young Chinese people on privacy. I talked with some friends about some of the issues in the article Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’, and it provided a great starting point for this complex topic.

Valuing Vocabulary

My daughter is now one and a half years old, and while she can’t say much yet, I know that little brain of hers is hard at work acquiring language.

One thing that’s become really obvious lately is how much she values the words she already knows. Every morning, as soon as she can, it’s all “Mommy! Mommy, Mommy…” and “Daddy! Daddy, Daddy….” It’s not just that she’s happy to see us in the morning; I’ve come to realize that she’s still slightly uncertain of her mastery of her earliest words (she still occasionally fumbles with the words she knows). She wants to use these words as much as possible because she worked hard to learn them, and doesn’t want to forget them.

And I couldn’t help but wonder: how much do we learners really value the words we learn? I mean, we value them enough to “learn” them in the first place, but do we value them enough to put in the ongoing effort to keep them? When we learn words that we know are useful, do we make damn sure that we use them right away, repeatedly, so that we never let them go?

Granted, not every vocabulary word is going to be as crucial to us as the words “Mommy” and “Daddy” are to a baby. But still, with applying a fraction of that earnestness would go a long way. I’m finding myself grateful for this new daily reminder I have.

Hopelessly Doomed Scooter Ride in China

This video is too amusing to just let it go by… This guy on his scooter is so comically bad that it almost feels engineered. Like it’s meant to be some kind of allegory or something. Anyway:

Here’s the 4.5 MB animated GIF version (blown up 2X):

[Sorry, had to remove the GIF... it was getting too much traffic, and it's a fairly large file!]

This GIF had the title “humanity is powerless to stop him from riding his scooter” (人类已经无法阻止他骑摩托车了) on the Chinese site it was posted to.

And a great comment from YouTube:

my computer must be muted… i don’t hear any benny hill music

On the other hand, if you’ve ever been afraid to ride a scooter on the streets of China, this video might actually give you some hope…

Eating Insects and Animals in China

I recently read the article Five reasons we should all be eating insects.

(I think I would totally eat insects if any of them were as delicious as shrimp, the grasshoppers of the ocean. Alas, I’ve tried eating various types of bugs in China, and they’re just not that tasty. Or… maybe they take quite a bit of getting used to?)

Anyway, reading the article, two China-related thoughts jumped out at me:

1. China should be eating more insects

With this massive population and the multitude of food safety issues, it makes sense, right? And look at the abundance of edible insects in China (especially compared to the U.S.)!

edible-insect-species

2. What would China’s “percentage of animal edible” figures be?

efficiencies-of-production

I know that the U.S. and China have very different thoughts on “percentage of animal edible” for all kinds of animals, including poultry, pork, beef, and lamb. So which numbers are these, and what are the differences between the numbers of the U.S. and China?

The Chinese have never been squeamish eaters, and as long as the cooking methods themselves were Chinese, I can imagine a China where people eat insects in larger quantities.

Interview by Furio

Furio of the Sapore di Cina blog recently interviewed me about the Chinese Grammar Wiki and AllSet Learning in general. He had some great questions, and I really like how the interview turned out. Check it out: Interview with John Pasden, the founder of Sinosplice and AllSet Learning [also in Italian, in Spanish].

The interview includes a number of questions I’m frequently asked these days by foreigners in China. Here’s an example from the interview:

You are married with a Chinese girl, have a daughter and opened a company in China. Do you ever think about going back to U.S.?

Of course. I’d be lying if I said I never think about it. I think about it not because I’m tired of China and want to go back, but rather because I suspect there may come a time when it just really doesn’t make any kind of sense for me (and my family) to stay. Ecological, economic, or political disasters could definitely befall China. You can’t be a responsible parent if you haven’t at least thought about a plan B.

That said, I don’t have plans to leave China anytime soon. I’m still having a great time here, loving the experience of building my own company, and sincerely hope that I can be here for quite a while.

Read the full interview.

More “more”

Photo by @biesnecker:

多 + 50%

The original character is, of course, (“more”).

(Specifically, “50% more more.”)

Page 10 of 171« First...89101112...203040...Last »
Sinosplice and all material found herein © 2002-2014, John Pasden. All rights reserved.
Sinosplice is happily hosted by WebFaction. Design by Dao By Design