The Transliteration Election

Americans may not know it, but the presidential election does get covered in the Chinese press. It makes sense when you think about it, since the American president holds considerable influence over China and the rest of the world, so the Chinese media (which is, in many cases, an extension of the government), actively scrutinizes the main candidates.

But whenever the Chinese media covers American politics, there’s an important decision to make, and it’s how to transliterate the names of various political figures. President Bush, for instance, sees his name transliterated as 布什 (Bushi) or semi-derisively as 小布什 (Xiao Bushi, “Little Bush”), since his father is Lao Bushi (老布什, “Old Bush”). This transliteration is limited somewhat by the rigid structure of Chinese. While an American who knows no Chinese can be taught to understand the name “Hu Jintao,” it’s difficult for non-English speaking Chinese to understand foreign names unless they are rendered using Chinese initial and final sounds.

During this election cycle, the main candidates* have had their transliterated names mentioned repeatedly on the air and in print. Hillary was already famous in China because her husband was loved by the Chinese, but the others have new names and new transliterations. Let’s take a look at how the names of the frontrunners are commonly rendered in Chinese:

  • Hillary Clinton: 希拉里 (Xilali — sounds like She·la·lee)
  • Barack Obama: 奥巴马 (Aobama — sounds like Au·bah·muh)
  • John McCain: 麦肯 (Maiken — sounds like My·kin)
  • Mitt Romney: 罗姆尼 (Luomuni — sounds like Low·moo·nee)

Let’s also throw in the also-rans:

  • Rudy Giuliani: 朱利安尼 (Zhulianni — sounds like Jew·lee·ahn·nee)
  • John Edwards: 爱德华兹 (Edwards — sounds like Ay·duh·wah·zuh)

Now, let’s review these transliterations, one by one. Just like in America, Hillary is usually referred to her by first name instead of her last name. First, we should note that “Hi–” is a sound Chinese doesn’t do well. For instance, Hillary’s name begins with the same sound as the transliteration for Hitler (希特勒, Xitele), and a few of my students have mashed her name and his together — something which would no doubt amuse the “Hitlery”-bashers on the right.

Obama, in contrast, has a name that sounds unusual even in Chinese, since the character used in his name transliteration aren’t often used together. Unlike his name in English, Chinese speakers often draw out the vowel sounds in his Chinese name, making it more distinct. The closest sounds to Obama’s name may be the Chinese transliterations of Osama bin Laden and BMW — Aosama (奥萨马) and Baoma (宝马), respectively. It’s not bad to be compared to a BMW, and as for sounding like Bin Laden, I’m ready to cut Chinese some slack for any mistakes they might make.

McCain, the Republican front-runner, has a Chinese name that sounds similar enough to his real name, but this transliteration could still give him problems, since, to Chinese ears, Maiken sounds like the names for McDonald’s (麦当劳, Maidanglao) and KFC (肯得其, Kendeqi) put together. In China, the beginnings of words may be combined as shorthand; hence 美国 (Meiguo, America) and 欧洲 (Ouzhou, Europe) are often combined as 欧美 (Oumei) to mean “the West.” While McCain’s transliteration might be a fitting representation of America’s contribution to global culture, being called President McKFC doesn’t seem all that … presidential.

Romney’s name transliteration sounds a bit like someone saying Romney with a bad cold. When drunk. I have nothing more to add.

As for the two former candidates, though he’s already dropped out of the race, Giuliani had about the most direct transliteration, with both the sounds and the syllables well-represented. Edwards’ Chinese name, on the other hand, is a mess — it has an extra syllable and the wrong sounds, thanks to Chinese problems with r and blends like dw and rd. Finally, both names are a mouthful to say, and Chinese newsreaders may feel like they’ve dodged a bullet since Giuliani and Edwards left the race.

The overall winner of the transliteration election is Barack Obama. Why? The transliteration is good and has few negative connotations besides the obvious one pointed out above. While the rhythm of his name changes a bit in Chinese, it remains euphonious. The best reason for the win is that Obama’s name is just fun to say in Chinese. It’s not enough to make me vote for him,** but it’s enough to make me smile.

* Sorry, Ron Paul gets no love in the Chinese press.

** The Obama campaign can breathe easy because I’ve decided not to vote for his opponents, either.