By Jennifer 8. Lee | June 26, 2007
Frank Phillips of The Boston Globe has a piece discussing the seemingly awkward translations of candidates names into Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) as required by law. According to the article, Mitt Romney could be read as Sticky or Uncooked Rice, Fred Thompson as Virtue Soup, and Tom Menino as Rainbow farmer — or worse.
The problem, Secretary of State William F. Galvin says, is that there is no actual translation of the names. The Chinese translate English names phonetically, by finding characters that most closely match the sound of each syllable in the name. There are many different characters that could be used to capture that sound and many different meanings for each character, creating the possibility that the Chinese voters could read something quite other than “Romney” or “Thompson” when they read the ballot.
According to the translators whom Galvin consulted, Menino’s name could be read as Imbecile in Chinese. Or Sun Moon Rainbow Farmer. Or, in the worst case scenario for the mayor, Barbarian Mud No Mind of His Own.
So my thoughts — I can understand the Secretary of State’s concerns, but I really have to question which translators he has been consulting with. He underestimates the literacy of the Chinese. First of all, these candidates names are used all over Chinese newspapers, which in general coalesce over standard transliterations — even Thomas Menino. Someone in The World Journal has written about the mayor of Boston. (He’s the mayor of Boston). For example Clinton has been a very standard Bi Er * Ke Lin Dun (æ¯”å°”Â·å…‹æž—é¡¿) for 15+ years. (To be sure, he had a long time to coalesce). Chinese voters are probably more literate and bigger newspaper-readers than your average American voter since they have fewer choices to get their news from. But they will generally recognize the candidates’ names if they are paying attention. To be sure, Barack, Obama, Mitt and Romney are not as common to translate as Bill or Hillary or George Bush or another Chinese favorite Bill Gates. But speaking as someone who reads Chinese, I can also say that when you see these English names in transliterations your mind “turns the meaning off” because almost immediately you know it’s not defined to have meaning because it’s a nonsensical string of characters. (Basically I have learned that if I see three characters in a row that strike me as strange, it’s almost always a translation of an American company.) You don’t sit there and think “Oh Romney, that sticky rice man!”
Though, one important concern is actually the differences in Cantonese and Chinese pronouncations. The predominance of Cantonese-as-first-contact is one of the reasons why translations in Mandarin sound only vaguely like their English counter parts. McDonalds (Mai Dang Lao), Sprite (Xue Bi), and Sweden (Rui Dian) are three examples where they sound a lot closer in Cantonese.
All that being said, some of the greatest transliterations are ones that play well in both languages. The ones that jump to mind are Coca Cola (å¯å£å¯ä¹), which is “happiness in the mouth” and Boeing (æ³¢éŸ³), which is “wave sound.”
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