Yan Fu was the most influential Chinese translator of the nineteenth century. A graduate of the Royal Naval College (of Greenwich in London), he was responsible for introducing a host of words and concepts that were new to imperial China.
When Yan translated landmark works such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution, he had to deal with terminology which he was the first to render into Chinese. In the course of creating this new vocabulary, Yan laid down three principles: faithfulness to the original text, communication of the ideas, and literary elegance.
On the whole, less attention was given by translators like Yan to place names. In many cases foreign cities were simply given Chinese names that sounded similar to their English pronunciation. Therefore London was (and is) translated as Lun dun. Other names carry a more literal meaning of the English words they’re comprised of. Oxford, for one, is known as Niu jin, which mean “ox” and “ford” in Chinese. Cambridge is a mix of both approaches. In Chinese it is Jian qiao, with the first character evolving from a Cantonese pronunciation that sounds like ‘Cam’ while the latter character means ‘bridge’.
One wonders what Yan would make of tourism agency VisitBritain’s latest translation campaign.
As part of the “GREAT names for GREAT Britain” initiative, it has invited netizens to come up with better Chinese names for 101 of Britain’s most loved attractions and foods.
People made their suggestions through social media, and the names with most votes won prizes – plus the chance to have the names recognised officially in Britain.
The British media, however, doesn’t seem too impressed by some of the Chinese translations on offer.
“The long march to the Big White Streaker: British landmarks get a cultural revolution,” reported the Independent, referring to the Chinese suggestion for the Cerne Abbas Giant, a gigantic (and naked) figure cut into a chalk hillside in Dorset.
Gettting the most Chinese votes – over 15,000, in fact – was the Welsh village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (the longest name in Europe) which was redesignated in Mandarin as “Healthy lung village”.
The winner said he came up with the suggestion because the locals always manage to say the name in one breath. Next most popular was London’s Savile Row, famous for bespoke tailoring, which is now known in Mandarin as “Custom-made for the richest man street”.
In Scotland, a new Chinese name for the Highland Games was the “Strongman skirt party”.
And how about Scotland’s national dish, haggis? It has been given a practical makeover in Chinese, and forthwith will be known by Mandarin-speakers as “Made of sheep’s stomach but smells good”.
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