Transliteration into Chinese characters

Transliteration into Chinese characters

Transliteration is known as "yinyi" (zh-ts|t=音譯|s=音译) in Chinese. While it is not uncommon to see foreign names left as they are in their original forms (for example, in Latin alphabet) in a Chinese text, it is a common practice to transliterate foreign proper nouns into Chinese characters.

When considering the transliteration of non-Chinese words into Chinese characters, one has to know the following facts:
*Chinese is written with monosyllabic logograms. Therefore, a word of three syllables is transliterated into at least three Chinese characters, in most cases three meaningful verbal units. [A few Chinese characters have been invented for purely phonetic purposes, or have come to be used in a purely phonetic way, and are thus devoid of any literal meaning.]
*The same foreign word can have many different transliterations, based on different dialects. Transliteration based on one particular dialect may not sound close to the original when pronounced with another dialect. The official pinyin, based on Mandarin, is used in this article.
*Even within the same dialect, there may be more than one transliteration for a word, as homophones abound in Chinese, when tones are disregarded. There are plenty of characters to choose from when transliterating a word. In other words, one can manipulate the transliteration to suit one's purpose.

ound, meaning and graph

A transliteration into Chinese characters is sometimes intended to reflect the meaning as well as the sound of the transliterated word. For example, the common ending —ва in a Russian female name is usually transliterated as 娃 (wā; "baby", "girl"), and the —в in a male name as 夫 (fū; "man"); Utopia is famously transliterated by Yan Fu as 烏托邦 (乌托邦 wūtuōbāng; " [a] fabricated country"); the name of the group Pantagruel is transliterated as 龐大固埃 (庞大固埃 pángdàgù'āi), as 龐大 means "gigantic" and 固 "solid". One of the Chinese translations of World wide web is 萬維網 (万维网 Wànwéi Wǎng), meaning "10,000-dimensional net (or web)".

Sometimes subjective feelings towards a thing is reflected in its transliteration. The Beatles is known in Taiwan and Hong Kong as 披頭四 (披头四 pītóusì; "mop-head four"), comparing the four-character idiom 披頭散髮 (披头散发 pītóu sànfǎ; "to wear hair dishevelled"). Esperanto was known as 愛斯不難讀 (爱斯不难读 àisībùnándú; " [we or I] love this [because it is] not difficult to read") when it was first introduced into China.

Fidelity to the sound of the original is often sacrificed in a non-technical context. In transliterating the names of people, companies, shops and brands, phonetic fidelity is not the overriding factor: anything goes, as long as the Chinese name is memorable, dignified or auspicious. In some cases the naming process can hardly be termed "transliteration". A common example is the Chinese names non-Chinese people adopt for themselves, which are not truly transliterated, but rather "adapted" from or "inspired" by the original. See, for instance, the Chinese names of the Hong Kong governors.

Sometimes characters are specially made for transliterated terms. For example, 茉莉 (mòlì) for jasmine (Sanskrit: malli), 袈裟 (jiāshā) for kesa (Sanskrit: kasāya) or most of the Chinese characters for chemical elements. Most of them are semantic-phonetic compounds.


Given that a word may be transliterated in accordance with meaning as well as sound, an "innocent" transliteration may be unwittingly interpreted as reflecting the meaning of the original. During the Qing Dynasty, some Chinese scholars were unhappy to find that China was located on a continent called 亞細亞 (亚细亚 yàxìyà), i.e. Asia, as 亞 means "secondary" and 細 "small", believing that the Europeans were deliberately belittling the East by such a naming. [Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書, "Guan Zhui Pian" (管錐編 "Limited Views"), Beijing: Chung Hwa Book Company, 1999 [1979] , vol.4, pp.1458-1462. Cf. Zhang Shaoqi 张绍麒, "Hanyu Liusu Ciyuan Yanjiu" (汉语流俗词源硏究 "A study of Chinese folk etymology"), Beijing: Yuwen Chubanshe, 2000.] It was not only the Chinese who were unhappy. The ancient Japanese, or the Wa people were upset by their name being represented by the character (also meaning "small, short, servile") by the Chinese, and substituted it with another character. [Cf. Michael Carr, "Wa 倭 Wa 和 Lexicography", "International Journal of Lexicography", 1992, 5(1):1-30.] . The modern African also accused the Chinese of racism, as Africa is written as (negative, wrong) in Chinese. [David Wright, "Translating Science: The Transmission of Western Chemistry into Late Imperial China, 1840-1900", Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2000, p.212.] Whether these accusations were justified remains a matter of controversy.

Owing to cultural difference and personal preference, whether a Chinese character has a negative meaning, and is thus inappropriate to be used for transliteration, can often be a subjective matter. The following phrases contain characters usually not used in today’s transliterations:

*Mozambique as 莫三鼻給 (莫三鼻给, mò sān bí gěi), with 鼻 meaning "nose" and 三鼻 "three noses". Today the country is more often transliterated as 莫桑比克 (mò sāng bǐ kè).
*Aberdeen, a common name for places and people, as 鴨巴甸 (yā bā diàn), with 鴨 (鸭) meaning duck. A place in Hong Kong having the same name, Aberdeen Harbour, was originally called 香港仔 (xiāng gǎng zǐ), meaning "Hong Kong minor". It is now the official name of that place, but 鴨巴甸 is still used in a colloquial way.
*A street in Macau is called "Avenida do Conselheiro Ferreira de Almeida", named after the official Ferreira de Almeida. Ferreira was transliterated as 肥利喇 (féi lì lǎ), as shown on the name of the street, with 肥 meaning "fat" (adj.).

On the other hand, the following transliterations are meant to, or happen to, have positive connotations:

*America is abbreviated as 美國 (美国, měi gúo) from 亞美利堅合眾國, meaning "beautiful country"
*Athens as 雅典 (Yădiăn), literally "elegant" and "classical";
*Champs-Élysées as 香榭麗舍 (香榭丽舍, Xiāngxièlìshè), meaning "fragrant pavilion (and) beautiful house";
*Coca-cola as 可口可樂 (可口可乐), 可口 meaning "delicious" and 可樂 "pleasing, satisfactory";
*Firenze as 翡冷翠 (by the poet Xu Zhimo), 翡翠 meaning "jadeite" and 冷 "cold". Note that today the city is usually known as 佛羅倫斯 (佛罗伦萨), a transliteration based on the English Florence, or the Latin "Florentia";
*Fontainebleau as 楓丹白露 (枫丹白露), meaning "red maple (and) white dew";
*Ithaca as 綺色佳, literally "gorgeous color wonderful";
*Revlon as 露華濃, literally as "revealing bright spring dew", excerpted from Li Bai's "A Song of Pure Happiness" (清平調);
*Yosemite as 優山美地 (also 優仙美地, 優聖美地, 優詩美地, or 優勝美地), meaning "elegant mountain (and) beautiful land".
*Munich, German: München, the capital of Bavaria/Germany (derived fr. "Munichen" lit.: "(at the) monks") as 慕尼黑 Mùníhēi meaning "esteem - nun - black", accidentally (?) referring to the "Münchner Kindl", the city coat of arms of Munich showing kind of child-like monk dressed in black.


Transliteration appeared early in ancient Chinese texts as the Han people interacted with foreign peoples, such as Xiongnu. Besides proper names, a small number of loanwords in their transliterated forms found their way into Chinese during the Han Dynasty after Zhang Qian's exploration of the Western Regions. [Cf. Shi Youwei 史有为, "Hanyu Wailaici" (汉语外来词 "Loanwords in Chinese"), Beijing: Commercial Press, 2000.]

Transliterations of the ethnic minorities' languages can also be found in ancient texts. A complete transliterated text of a Zhuang song can be found in Liu Xiang's "Shuoyuan" (說苑/说苑 "Garden of stories") of the Western Han Dynasty. The Chinese version of the song, known as "Yueren Ge" (越人歌 "Song of the Yue [boat] man"), was also provided in the work. Some scholars have tried to reconstruct the original text. [Cf. Zhengzhang Shangfang 郑张尚芳, "Decipherment of Yue-Ren-Ge (Song of the Yue Boatman)", "Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale", 1991(20):159-168.]

The classics of Buddhism began to be translated into Chinese during the late Han Dynasty. Many of the Sanskrit terms were then transliterated and became part of the Chinese language. According to the Song Dynasty scholar Zhou Dunyi (周敦義/周敦义), [In his [ "Fanyi Minyi Xu"] (翻譯名義序/翻译名义序 "Preface to the "Explanation of Buddhist terms").] the famous monk and translator Xuanzang had his "Wuzhong Bu Fan" (五種不翻/五种不翻 "Five don't translate"), suggesting that Sanskrit terms should be transliterated instead of being translated when they are:
*arcane, such as incantations
*not found in China
*traditionally transliterated, not translated
*lofty and subtle, which a translation might devalue and obscure

These ancient transliteration into Chinese characters provide clues to the reconstruction of Middle Chinese. In historical Chinese phonology, this kind of information is called "duiyin" (對音/对音 "corresponding sounds"), with Baron Alexander von Staël-Holstein being the first scholar to emphasize its importance in reconstructing ancient Chinese. The transliterations made during the Tang Dynasty are particularly valuable as linguistic data, as the Tantra sect was then popular, with the mantras, an important Tantra practice, rendered very carefully into Chinese characters by the monk-translators. The spells, it was believed, would lose their power when their sounds were not accurately uttered.

During the late 19th century, when Western ideas and products flooded into China, transliterations mushroomed. They include not only transliterations of proper nouns, but also those of common nouns, i.e. "phonemic loans". [Cf. Federico Masini, "The Formation of Modern Chinese Lexicon and its Evolution Toward a National Language: The Period from 1840 to 1898", Berkeley: Journal of Chinese Linguistics Monograph Series No. 6, 1993, §2.2.2.; Michael Lackner, Iwo Amelung and Joachim Kurtz (ed.s), "New Terms for New Ideas: Western Knowledge and Lexical Change in Late Imperial China", Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2001.] Most of them proved fads, though. After that period of time, people tend to favor loan translations.

In modern Japanese, foreign terms are transliterated into katakana. Some terms still appear in kanji, though, an example being 俱楽部 (クラブ "together happy part"=club). Some of these were absorbed into Chinese during the late 19th and early 20th century. For more about the use of Chinese characters to represent Japanese native words and foreign words, see "ateji".

Official Guide

In People's Republic of China, the current official guide for the transliteration of people's names is the "Names of the world's peoples: a comprehensive dictionary of names in Roman-Chinese" (世界人名翻译大辞典), compiled by the Proper Names and Translation Service, the Xinhua News Agency. See the transliteration tables for a number of languages provided by the work. Most of the official transliterations are based on Mandarin, the official language. A few of the official transliterations are not based on Mandarin, as they had been absorbed into Chinese long before Mandarin was established as the official language.

Cantonese media use a different (and loose) transliteration system based on Cantonese.

In Singapore, the Translation Standardisation Committee for the Chinese Media is responsible for the transliteration standard.

See also

* Romanization of Chinese


ee also

*List of Chinese exonyms for places in Russia

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