2.4 Transliteration of Foreign Place Names and Personal Names

The preceding two sections have discussed the writing of Han Chinese place name and personal names. This section deals with those place names and personal names originating in other languages, including those languages spoken by ethnic minorities inside China.

A small number of foreign names are translated into Putonghua according to meaning, or a combination of meaning and pronunciation; the great majority are transliterated, i.e. translated according to pronunciation. It is worthwhile to look at just how they are transliterated. In most modern Chinese literary publications, foreign names are transliterated into Chinese characters: Shakespeare becomes (Shāshìbǐyà), Paris becomes (Bālì) and Washington becomes (Huáshèngdùn). If just the Hanyu Pinyin of the transliterated characters is written out, in what is called "character notation," we are left with "Shāshìbǐyà", "Bālì," and "Huáshèngdùn." Character notation is deceptive, because although the transliterations are written out in Latin alphabet letters, they have no direct connection to their forms in the language of origin. Another disadvantage of transliterating according to characters is that variant transliterations of names arise; sometimes as many as four different transliterations of a foreign name will coexist. The name of the former U.S. president Ronald Reagan is transliterated (Lǐgēn) by some and (Léigēn) by others; the name of the English physicist Isaac Newton is transliterated (Niúdùn) by some and (Nàiduān) by others; the name of the French author Victor Hugo is sometimes rendered (Yǔgǔ) and sometimes (Xiāo'é). While it is usually possible to unify the character transliteration of the most famous personal and place names, there is simply no set method for dealing with names of little-known or newly famous persons or places. Unification is extremely difficult in these cases. Clearly, there are serious drawbacks to transliterating foreign names according to Chinese characters.

For writing foreign place names and personal names, Hanyu Pinyin orthography adopts the principle of following the original, that is, of taking the original romanization as the standard written form.

(This is the same principle of romanization used by the UN's Conference on Standardization of Place Names.) By this principle, any foreign name will have only one written form in Hanyu Pinyin: the romanization used in its language of origin. Foreign names may be divided into three types for consideration, according to their original written forms.

  1. Names originally written in the Latin Alphabet-English, French, and German names, for example.

    These are written just as they are in the language of origin. However, since many Latin-alphabet writing systems use various diacritical marks which do not exist in Hanyu Pinyin, we find it more practical to write names containing such diacriticals as they are rendered in English, thus:

    • Place Names
      • London (English)
      • Paris (French)
      • Madrid (Spanish)
      • Vienna (Austrian)
      • Ottawa (Canadian)
      • New York (American)
      • Berlin (German)
      • Roma (Italian)
      • Manila (Filipino)
      • Mexico (Mexican)
    • Personal names
      • Darwin (English)
      • Einstein (German)
      • Goethe (German)
      • Cervantes (Spanish)
      • Balzac (French)
      • Marx (German)
      • Dante (Italian)
      • Lincoln (American)
  2. Names originally written in alphabets other than the Latin alphabet--Russian, Japanese, Arabic, Tibetan, and Thai names, for example.

    These are written according to the standardized Latin alphabet transcriptions of their languages, thus:

    • Place names
      • Moskva (Russian)
      • Tokyo (Japanese)
      • Riyadh (Arabic)
      • Bangkok (Thai)
      • Urumqi (Uygur)
      • Leningrad (Russian)
      • Osaka (Japanese)
      • Pyongyang (Korean)
      • Lhasa (Tibetan)
      • Bayan Obo (Mongolian)
    • Personal names
      • Gogol (Russian)
      • Pushkin (Russian)
      • Suzuki (Japanese)
      • Muhammad (Arabic)
      • Hassan (Arabic)
      • Kim (Korean)
      • Pak (Korean)
      • Ulanhu (Mongolian)
      • Seypidin (Uygur)
      • Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme (Tibetan)

    Note: Transcriptions of place names and personal names of ethnic minorities in China are made according to Shǎoshù Mínzúyǔ Dìmíng Hànyǔ Pīnyīn Zìmǔ Yīnyì Zhuǎnxiěfǎ (Hanyu Pinyin Transliteration Method for Minority Language Place Names; Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Guójiā Cèhuì Zǒngjú and Zhōngguó Wénzì Gǎigé Wěiyuánhuì, 1976).

  3. Names which have been translated partially or wholly according to meaning and are thus Chinese in form.

    Most names of this type are early borrowings into Chinese. It is best simply to transcribe these according to Chinese characters, thus:

    • Continents (zhōu = continent):
      • Yàzhōu (Asia; sound + meaning translation);
      • Ōuzhōu (Europe; sound + meaning translation);
      • Fēizhōu (Africa; sound + meaning translation).
    • Countries (guó = country):
      • Méiguó (United States of America; sound + meaning translation);
      • Yīngguó (England; sound + meaning translation);
      • Fǎguó (France; sound + meaning translation);
      • Déguó (Germany (Deutschland); sound + meaning translation);
      • Sūlián (Soviet Union, lian is short for lianmeng = union; sound + meaning translation);
      • Tàiguó (Thailand; sound + meaning translation);
      • Rìběn (Japan; archaic transliteration).
    • Cities
      • Jiànqiáo (Cambridge; sound + meaning translation (qiáo = bridge));
      • Niújīn (Oxford; pure meaning translation (niú = ox, jīn = ford));
      • Fèichéng (Philadelphia; sound + meaning translation (chéng =city));
      • Jiùjīnshān (Chinese name for San Francisco; pure meaning construction (jiù = old, jīn = gold, shān = mountain));
      • Tánxiāngshān (Chinese name for Honolulu; pure meaning construction (tánxiāng = sandalwood, shān = mountain)).
    • Personal names
      • Shāwēng (Shakespeare; sound + meaning translation (wēng = old man)).

    These Chinese-form foreign names may be used interchangeably with their original-language equivalents: Tánxiāngshān and Honolulu, Shāwēng and Shakespeare.

    It may be seen that the most advantageous method for dealing with names of foreign origin is to follow the original and use the original form or its Latin-alphabet equivalent. Unfortunately, this method presents great difficulties to Chinese readers unfamiliar with foreign languages, particularly to elementary school students. Thus the principle of following the original can only be adopted into use gradually. For the present, there are certain accommodative methods that can be brought into use.

    It is entirely feasible to use the original forms of foreign names in academic writings of specialized nature. This method has already been used in Chinese publications, and has met with a favorable reception from readers. The Chinese translation of Morris Kline's four volume Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times (1972) uses this method.

    In ordinary publications, it is feasible to use the original form of foreign names and to add Chinese characters or character notations in parentheses, as:

    • Paris () or Paris (Bālí);
    • Dante () or Dante (Dàndīng);

    The opposite ordering may be more convenient for use in primary and secondary school textbooks and certain other publications:

    • () Paris or Bālí (Paris);
    • () Dante or Dàndīng (Dante).