Chinese transliteration: something strange may happen


Hi, everybody! Sebastián here

Many time has passed since I wrote here about different language material schools. However, I felt that today is a good day to write something, and just one week before a job I have where I will be translating a Chinese cheerleading team, this theme brought my attention up.



Chinese, as many of you know, is a Sino-Tibetan language, where Indo-European logic does not rule anyway. This is very important, as Chinese grammar is easy, but syntaxis is not so. I have been experiencing some issue about this topic, because for me things are getting harder if I don’t have the experience having a true exposure with this language, which has faded since I went to China for Chinese Bridge Competition. One of the crucial differences is how phonology works.


In almost every language, toponyms and international names are suited up really well. Let’s have a glance in Japanese; though imperfect, names are written with one special alphabet called Katakana, so here it’s easy to spot on a foreign word and you can guess on the meaning (by the way, when I tackled Japanese, I was extremely surprised with the huge amount of English loanwords in this language). While this can be an advantage for a beginner polyglot, for me it makes me sad that such a beautiful language has such many loanwords. In Korean this becomes harder. Even if Hangeul has “the most perfect syllabarium” according to the King Sejong, sometimes it’s hard to spot on a foreign word, such as name, but you still have a vague idea of the meaning. However, you must be naïve to think that with only this knowledge and a nice meaning of this syllabarium, that would be enough. Why I am saying so? Because Korean from South Korea and from North Korea differs from each other, even in loanwords. As both parties have had many influences, so are this kind of words: for example, North Korean variant uses loanwords from Russian, while South Korean uses mainly loanwords from English, especially American variant. But even so, the pronunciation can somehow be mimicked. So…

How does Chinese phonology work?


Chinese has a stock of 405 possible syllables (abovementioned in this image) to speak in and fitting foreign words such as names, toponymes and family names is indeed a hard work. Yes, this is a tonal language, there are four/five tones, and this 405 potential syllables are combined with tones to make different words. If we put on some math, it turns out that there may be 1620 possible syllables. So, this also affects how foreign words are built in Chinese. As Chinese has no special writting for foreign words like Japanese, or a versatil one like Korean, it has no other choice but to fit in an approximate way that this can be pronounced. This does not apply to country names near from Chinese story, with an actual meaning:

Japan 日本 Rìběn (literally “The root of the Sun”)

Korea 韩国 Hánguǒ (literally “The country of the Korean people”)

Vietnam 越南 Yuènán (literally “Far South”)

and of course

China 中国 Zhōngguó (literally “The central Country”).

Other countries’ names have to undergo this transformation, with nonsense/curious meaning. Let’s have a look to this map:


Nonsense, right? If you put on the pronunciation, it becomes clearer:

Spain. 西班牙 Xībānyá Look: “España”

Italy: 意大利 Yìdàlì

Poland: 波兰 Bōlán

Bosnia: 波斯尼亚 Bōsìnìyà

Some country names are put with the character 国 (meaning: country) attached with a first character brought by the actual meaning. This three countries are

France 法国 Fǎguó (the first syllable from “français”, Fǎ 法)

Germany: 德国 Déguó (the first syllable from “Deutsch”, dé 德)

United Kingdom: 英国 Yīngguó (the first syllable from “English”, Yīng 英)

The notable exceptions are:

Iceland: 冰岛 Bīngdǎo (it means “Island of Ice”)

Belarus: 白俄罗斯 Bái’éluósī (let’s remember that in Russian, the name of this country Беларусь, means “White Russia”, where the character 白, means White, and there is happily a coincidence in pronunciation)


For names the thing becomes even more curious. We have some features. In Chinese the names for people are normally composed by two or three characters (even four, as this happens with Japanese people), whence the first one is the family name, and the last ones, the given name. Unless you have gotten a Chinese names based on a calque of your personal name or name received based on your personality, hobbies or skills (in my case, I invented my name: 高乐敢, Gāo Lègǎn, as I’m a tall guy, I tend to be happy the main time, and I dare do anything without hesitation), your full name frequently requires more than three syllables. How do Chinese separates the names? They use a huge dot: •  Let’s look at this example:

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin: 弗拉基米尔• 弗拉基米罗维奇• 普京 Fúlājīmĭr Fúlājīmĭluòwéijī Pùjīng.

Now, I’m gonna focus on the family names of the Presidential candidates for the White Candidates:

Democratic party: Clinton 克林顿 Kèlìndùn (gram forest pause)


Republican party: Trump 川普 Chuānpù (river general)


Can you imagine a Trump commanding a river? Well, he actually did it.


Well, that’s it. I promise not to abandon this blog for a long time.

See you!