How do you translate names into a language that doesn’t have an alphabet? Words are easier – they have a meaning – but names are little more than sounds.
It’s a problem that the Chinese, with their character-based language, have faced for centuries. The only way to render a foreign name is to break it down into syllables and find similar-sounding Chinese words.
It’s not a perfect system and the results sometimes bear little resemblance to the foreign original. Often they add unintended meaning to the name in question.
Yet the method can also produce very apt translations, ones that seem to capture the very nature of the person. Take the official translation of the surname of the new American president, for example: Te Lang Pu. It can be translated as ‘extraordinary, bright and popular’ – a description that the man himself would probably accept – although others might prefer its secondary meaning of ‘unusual, loud and common’.
Then there is the issue of his first name, Donald, which is translated Tang Na De. The first syllable Tang means ‘exaggerative and boastful’.
One almost feels as if Xinhua, the state news agency responsible for coming up with the formal Chinese versions of foreign names, may have studied the new president before crafting his appellation. But in reality, the translations of Donald and Trump were both decided much earlier, when Xinhua started to produce its first dictionary of foreign names. Today it translates dozens of new names every day, choosing from a palate of 500 “neutral” sounding characters. “The translated foreign names have to be serious, plain, causing no unnecessary imagination,” say Li Xuejun, head of Xinhua’s translation department.
In recent weeks he has been especially busy trying to find Chinese equivalents for the new cast of characters in Washington. There’s Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson (Di Le Sen), Treasury secretary designate Steven Mnuchin (Mu Nu Qin) and Interior secretary nominee Ryan Zinke (Jin Ke).
Xinhua’s Li warns against trying to find meaning in translated foreign names, however, saying “it is different from Chinese parents giving names to their children”. Perhaps that’s just as well. According to Daoist astrologers, Trump’s Chinese name contains too much “fire” and the choice of “Te” as the first character means that he might make “extreme” decisions.
“It is almost never used in a real Chinese name,” says Chen Yifeng, a Beijing-based geomancer, of the character in question. He prefers the non-official version of Trump’s name, Chuan Pu, because the first character can mean “river” – a reference that would help cool the more combustible elements in The Donald’s astrological chart.
Others have also preferred Chuan Pu because it sounds closer to the original, and before the election it was heard as often as Te Lang Pu. But Chuan Pu also has its drawbacks. Literally it translates as “Chinese spoken with a Sichuan accent” but netizens quickly changed it to the funnier Chuang Po, meaning ‘broken bed’ (WiC293).
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