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Transcription into Chinese characters

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Transcription into Chinese characters

Front cover of the official transcription guide, Names of the World's Peoples: A Comprehensive Dictionary of Names in Roman-Chinese.
Traditional Chinese 音譯
Simplified Chinese 音译
Literal meaning sound translation
Traditional Chinese 譯名
Simplified Chinese 译名
Literal meaning translated name

Transcription into Chinese refers to the use of traditional or simplified characters to communicate the sound of terms and names foreign to Chinese. (Communicating the meaning of such words is translation into Chinese.) Since, in both mainland China and Taiwan, Hanyu Pinyin is now used to transcribe Chinese into a modified Latin alphabet and since English classes are now standard in most secondary schools, it is increasingly common to see foreign names and terms left in their original form in Chinese texts. However, for mass media and marketing within China and for non-European languages, particularly those of the Chinese minorities, transcription into characters remains very common.

Despite the importance of Cantonese and other southern coastal dialects of Chinese to foreign contact during the 19th century (as seen, for instance, in the number of Cantonese loanwords in English), the northern capital dialect has been formally sanctioned within the country for centuries. This status continued under the Republic, which retained the importance of the "National Language" (國語Guóyǔ) despite moving its capital to Nanking, Chungking, and Taipei, none of which natively spoke it. Similarly, "Standard Chinese" (普通话Pǔtōnghuà) has been mandatory for most media and education throughout the People's Republic of China since 1956.[1][2] Except for a handful of traditional exceptions, modern transcription therefore uses the standardized Mandarin pronunciations exclusively.

Official standards

Modern Standard Chinese consists of less than 500 syllables, so homophones abound and most foreign words have multiple possible transcriptions. This is particularly true since Chinese is written as monosyllabic logograms, and consonant clusters foreign to Chinese must be broken into their constituent sounds (or omitted), despite being thought of as a single unit in their original language. Since there are so many characters to choose from when transcribing a word, a translator can manipulate the transcription to add additional meaning.

In the People's Republic of China, the process has been standardized by the Proper Names and Translation Service of the Xinhua News Agency. Xinhua publishes an official reference guide, the Names of the World's Peoples: a Comprehensive Dictionary of Names in Roman-Chinese (世界人名翻译大辞典, Shìjiè Rénmíng Fānyì Dà Cídiǎn), which controls most transcription for official media and publication in mainland China. As the name implies, the work consists of a dictionary of common names. It also includes transcription tables for names and terms which are not included. The English table is reproduced below; those for a number of other languages are available at the Chinese WorldHeritage.

The Basic Laws of the Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative Regions provide that "Chinese" will be the official languages of those territories, in addition to English and Portuguese, respectively, leaving ambiguous the relative preference for Mandarin and Cantonese. In practice, transcriptions based on both Cantonese and Mandarin pronunciations have been used.

In Singapore, transcription standards are established by the Translation Standardisation Committee for the Chinese Media.

Internationally, foreign ministries or other competent government agencies may set the official standards for Chinese transcriptions as well.


Transcription of foreign terms may date to the earliest surviving written records in China, the Shang oracle bones. As the Huaxia spread from their initial settlements near the confluence of the Wei and Yellow rivers, they were surrounded on all sides by other peoples. The Chinese characters developed to describe them may have originally transcribed local names, such as the proposed connection between the original "Eastern Yi" people (東夷) and an Austroasiatic word for "sea".[3] However, the tendency within China was to fit new groups into the existing structure, so that, for example, "Yi" eventually became a word for any "barbarian" and the name "Yue" ( & ), originally applied to a people northwest of the Shang,[4] was later applied to a people south of the Yangtze and then to many cultures as far south as Vietnam. Interaction with the states of Chu, Wu, and Yue during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods of the later Zhou brings the first certain evidence of transcription: most famously, the word jiāng (), originally krong,[5] derives from the Austroasiatic word for "river".[6]

Besides proper names, a small number of loanwords also found their way into Chinese during the Han Dynasty after Zhang Qian's exploration of the Western Regions.[7] The Western Han also saw Liu Xiang's transcription and translation of the "Song of the Yue Boatman" in his Garden of Stories. Some scholars have tried to use it to reconstruct an original version of the otherwise unrecorded language of the Yangtze's Yue people before their incorporation into the Han.[8]

The expansion of Buddhism within China during the later Han and Three Kingdoms period required the transcription of a great many Sanskrit and Pali terms. According to the Song-era scholar Zhou Dunyi,[9] the monk and translator Xuanzang (of Journey to the West fame) handed down guidelines of "Five Kinds of Words Not to Translate" (t 五種不翻, s 五种不翻). He directed that transcription should be used instead of translation when the words are:

  1. Arcane, such as incantations
  2. Polysemous
  3. Not found in China
  4. Traditionally transcribed, not translated
  5. Lofty and subtle, which a translation might devalue or obscure

These ancient transcription into Chinese characters provide clues to the reconstruction of Middle Chinese. In historical Chinese phonology, this information is called duiyin (t 對音, s 对音, lit. "corresponding sounds"); in Western Sinology, Baron Alexander von Staël-Holstein was the first to emphasize its importance in reconstructing the sounds of Middle Chinese. The transcriptions made during the Tang Dynasty are particularly valuable, as the then-popular Tantra sect required its mantras to be rendered very carefully into Chinese characters, since they were thought to lose their efficacy if their exact sounds were not properly uttered.

The History of Liao contains a list of Khitan words phonetically transcribed with Chinese characters. The History of Jin contains a list of Jurchen words phonetically transcribed with Chinese characters. In the History of Yuan, Mongol names were phonetically transcribed in Chinese characters.

In the Ming dynasty, the Chinese government's Bureau of Translators (四夷馆, Siyi Guan) and the Bureau of Interpreters (会同馆, Huitong Guan) published bilingual dictionaries/vocabularies of foreign languages like the Bureau of Translators' multilingual dictionary (华夷译语, Hua-Yi yiyu, 'Sino-Barbarian Dictionary'), using Chinese characters to phonetically transcribe the words of the foreign langauges such as Jurchen Korean, Japanese, Ryukyuan, Mongolian, Old Uyghur, Vietnamese, Cham, Dai, Thai, Burmese, Khmer Persian, Tibetan, Malay, Javanese, Acehnese, and Sanskrit.

During the Qing dynasty some bilingual Chinese-Manchu dictionaries had the Manchu words phonetically transcribed with Chinese characters. The book 御製增訂清文鑑 ("Imperially-Published Revised and Enlarged mirror of Qing") in Manchu and Chinese, used both Manchu script to transcribe Chinese words and Chinese characters to transcribe Manchu words with fanqie.[10]

During the late 19th century, when Western ideas and products flooded China, transcriptions mushroomed. They include not only transcriptions of proper nouns but also those of common nouns for new products.[11][12] The influence was particularly marked in dialects near the major ports, like Shanghainese. Many of these phonemic loans proved to be fads, however, and popular usage and linguistic reformers subsequently favored calques or neologisms in their place.

Sound and meaning

A transcription into Chinese characters sometimes reflects the meaning as well as the sound of the transcribed word. For example, Belarus (lit. "White Russia") is transcribed in Chinese as 白俄罗斯 (Bái'èluósī), with preserving the meaning of the original name. Similarly, the common ending -va in Russian female surnames is usually transcribed as (), meaning "baby" or "girl", and the corresponding masculine suffix —[o]v is rendered as (), meaning "man". In literary translations, Utopia was famously transcribed by Yan Fu as 烏托邦 or 乌托邦 (Wūtuōbāng, "fabricated country") and Pantagruel was written as 龐大固埃 or 庞大固埃 (Pángdàgù'āi), from 龐大 or 庞大 ("gigantic") and ("solid", "hefty"). More recently, one translation of World Wide Web is 萬維網 or 万维网 (Wànwéi Wǎng), meaning "myriad-dimensional net". Sometimes the transcription reflects chengyu or other Chinese sayings and idioms. For example, the Beatles are known in Taiwan and Hong Kong as 披頭四 (披头四, Pītóusì), "the mop-head four", reflecting the chengyu 披頭散髮 or 披头散发 (pītóu sànfǎ) concerning disheveled hair. They can also reflect subjective opinions or advertising. Esperanto, now known as "the international language" (世界語 or 世界语, Shìjièyǔ), was first introduced to China as 愛斯不難讀 or 爱斯不难读 (Àisībùnándú), meaning "[We] love this [because it's] not difficult to read".

Given that a word may be transcribed in accordance with meaning as well as sound, an "innocent" transcription may be unwittingly interpreted as reflecting the meaning of the original. During the Qing Dynasty, some Chinese scholars were unhappy to find 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.[13] The ancient Japanese, or the Wa people were upset by their name being represented by the character 倭 ("small, short, servile") by the Chinese, and replaced it with 和 ("peace, harmony").[14] Modern Africans have accused the Chinese of racism, as "Africa" is written as 非洲 ("negative, wrong continent") in Chinese.[15] Whether these accusations were justified is controversial.

Cultural differences and personal preference about negative meaning is subjective. However, some translations are generally held to be inappropriate and are usually not used in today’s transcriptions:

  • Mozambique as 莫三鼻給 (莫三鼻给, Mòsānbígěi), with 鼻 meaning "nose" and 三鼻 "three noses". Today the country is more often transcribed as 莫桑比克 (Mòsāngbǐkè).
  • Aberdeen is a common name for places and people, rendered as 鴨巴甸 (Yābādiàn), with 鴨 (鸭) meaning duck. However a place in Hong Kong, Aberdeen Harbour, was originally called 香港仔 (Xiānggǎngzǐ), meaning "Hong Kong minor"; that is now the official name, but 鴨巴甸 is still used colloquially. Moreover, today the place is more often transcribed as 阿伯丁 (Ābódīng).
  • A street in Macau is called Avenida do Conselheiro Ferreira de Almeida, after the official Ferreira de Almeida. Ferreira was transcribed as 肥利喇 (Féilìlǎ), as shown on the name of the street, with 肥 meaning "fat" (adj.).
  • A street in Macau is called Avenida de Demetrio Cinatti. It has been transcribed as 爹美刁施拿地大馬路, with 刁 meaning cunning or wicked.

Some transcriptions are meant to have, or happen to have, positive connotations:

  • United Kingdom is called 英國/英国 Yīngguó, literally "hero country". The first character, 英, is abbreviated from 英吉利 Yīngjílì, the early Chinese transcription of "English", but subsequently applied to the UK after it was formed from the union of England and Scotland.
  • Germany is abbreviated as 德國/德国 Déguó, literally "moral country". The first character, 德, is abbreviated from 德意志 Déyìzhì (the Chinese transcription of "Deutsch", the German word for "German").
  • United States of America is abbreviated 美國/美国 Měiguó, literally "beautiful country". It is abbreviated from 美利堅合眾國 Meǐlìjiān Hézhòngguó, 美利堅 is an early phonetic transcription of "America".
  • 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".
  • Firenze as 翡冷翠 Fěilěngcuì (by the poet Xu Zhimo), 翡翠 meaning "jadeite" and 冷 "cold". Today the city is usually known as 佛羅倫薩/佛罗伦萨 Fóluólúnsà or 佛羅倫斯 Fóluólúnsī, transcriptions based on the Anglo-French Florence rather than the endonym.
  • Fontainebleau as 楓丹白露/枫丹白露, meaning "red maple (and) white dew".
  • Yosemite as 優山美地/优山美地 Yōushānměidì (also 優仙美地/优仙美地 Yōuxiānměidì, 優聖美地/优圣美地 Yōushèngměidì, 優詩美地/优诗美地 Yōushīměidì, or 優勝美地/优胜美地 Yōushèngměidì), meaning "elegant mountain / excellent and holy / elegant poem / superior (and) beautiful land".
  • Champagne as 香檳 (香槟, xiāng bīn) meaning "fragrant areca"
  • WorldHeritage is 維基百科/维基百科 Wéijī Bǎikē, it means "Wiki Encyclopedia". The Chinese transcription of "Wiki" is composed of two characters: 維/维, whose ancient sense refers to 'ropes or webs connecting objects', and alludes to the 'Internet'; and 基, meaning 'foundations'. The name can be interpreted as 'the encyclopedia that connects the fundamental knowledge of humanity'.

Foreign companies are able to choose representations of their names which serve advertising purposes:

  • Coca-Cola as 可口可樂/可口可乐 Kěkǒu Kělè, meaning "delicious (and) fun"
  • Revlon as 露華濃/露华浓, literally "revealing bright spring dew", excerpted from Li Bai's A Song of Pure Happiness (清平調).
  • Sheraton hotels as 喜來登/喜来登 Xǐláidēng, "love to visit"
  • Best Buy as 百思買/百思买 Bǎisīmǎi, "buy (after) thinking a hundred times"
  • Subway restaurants as 賽百味/赛百味 Sàibǎiwèi, "competing (with) a hundred tastes"
  • IKEA as 宜家 Yíjiā, "suitable/proper for a home"
  • Costco as 好市多 Hǎoshìduō, "market of many great things"

Regional differences

Mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia use simplified characters in its transcriptions, while Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau typically uses traditional characters. In addition, official names sometimes differ from one authority to another. For example, Taiwan transcribe the "New" in New Zealand (紐西蘭, Niǔxīlán) where mainland China translates it (新西兰, Xīnxīlán, lit. "New Xilan").

In general, mainland China tends to preserve the original pronunciation of names while Taiwan often transcribes them according to the English pronunciation. For example, the Russian president Putin is known as Pǔjīng (普京) in mainland sources after the native Russian pronunciation putʲɪn, whereas the name is rendered as Pǔdīng (普丁) in Taipei. Hong Kong and Macau, meanwhile, formerly transcribed names using their Cantonese pronunciations, although that practice has become less common following their handovers. Chinese transcriptions are now frequently cribbed from the mainland, even if the local pronunciation then becomes more remote from the original. For example, Cantonese sources copy the mainland transcription 普京, despite its local pronunciation being the rather infelicitous Pou2-ging1.

Regional transcriptions into Chinese
Mainland China HK Macau Taiwan Singapore Malaysia
Hitler 希特勒(Xītèlè) 希特拉(Hei1-dak6-laai1) 希特勒(Xītèlè) 希特勒(Xītèlè)
Clinton 克林顿(Kèlíndùn) 克林頓(Haak1-lam4-deon6) 柯林頓(Kēlíndùn) 克林顿(Kèlíndùn)
Bush 布什(Bùshí) 布殊(Bou3-syu4) 布希(Bùxī) 布什(Bùshí)
Obama 奥巴马(Àobāmǎ) 奧巴馬(Ou3-baa1-maa5) 歐巴馬(Ōubāmǎ) 奥巴马(Àobāmǎ)
San Francisco 旧金山(Jiùjīnshān) 三藩市(Saam1 Faan4 Si5) 舊金山(Jiùjīnshān) 旧金山(Jiùjīnshān)
Sydney 悉尼(Xīní) 悉尼(Sik1-nei4) 雪梨(Xuělí) 悉尼(Xīní)

Transcription table

The table below is the English-into-Chinese transcription table from Xinhua's Names of the World's Peoples. This table uses the International Phonetic Alphabet for English vowels and consonants. The usage notes and pinyin version can be seen .
Transcription from English (IPA) into Chinese
- b p d t g k v w f z /
ts s /
ð /
ʒ ʃ ʤ h m n l r* j ɡʷ
- 夫 / 弗 斯 / 丝
ɑː, æ, ʌ 巴 / 芭 瓦 / 娃 法 / 娃 萨 / 莎 沙 / 莎 马 / 玛 纳 / 娜 亚 / 娅
e, 特 / 泰 赫 / 黑 雷 /蕾
ɜː, ə 纳 / 娜
, ɪ, j 西 尼 / 妮 利 / 莉 里 / 丽
ɒ/ ɔː, , o, əʊ 奥 / 欧 罗 / 萝
, ʊ
juː, 比 / 尤 皮 / 尤 迪 / 尤 蒂 / 尤 维 / 尤 威 / 尤 菲 / 尤
代 / 戴 怀 瓜 / 伊 怀
æn, ʌn, an, æŋ
ɑːn, aʊn, ʌŋ, ɔːn, ɒn, ɒŋ
en, , ɜːn, ən, əŋ 古 / 恩
ɪn, iːn, ɪən, jən 林 / 琳 古 / 因
ɪŋ 古 / 英
uːn, ʊn, oʊn
ʊŋ 翁 / 宏


Translating names

The characters now employed in standardized transcription are often deliberately meaningless, so that their phonetic use is apparent. Therefore, in many cases, the Chinese names non-Chinese people adopt for themselves are not those that are phonetically equivalent but are instead "adapted" from or "inspired" by (i.e., translations of) the original. See, for instance, the Chinese names of the Hong Kong governors.

New characters

Very rarely, characters are specially made for the transcribed terms. This was formerly more common: by adding the appropriate semantic radical, existing characters could be used to give a sense of the sound of the new word. , for instance, was formed out of (the water radical) + , which at the time had the sound value khong,[5] to approximate the Yue name *Krong. Similarly, the addition of (the grass radical) produced 茉莉 (mòlì) to translate the Sanskrit name for jasmine (malli) and (clothes) was added to other characters to permit 袈裟 (formerly, kiāshā), the Chinese version of Sanskrit kasaya. Such phono-semantic compounds make up the majority of Chinese characters, but new ones coined to communicate foreign words only infrequently reach common use today. Notable exceptions are the Chinese characters for chemical elements, which mostly consist of combining pre-existing characters with the appropriate radicals, such as for gasses.

See also


  1. ^ Lam S.L., Agnes. Language Education in China: Policy and Experience from 1949, p. 39. Hong Kong Univ. Press (Hong Kong), 2005.
  2. ^ Guo Zhenzhi. Mapping Media in China: Region, Province, and Locality. "Dialects and Local Media: The Cases of Kunming and Yunnan TV", p. 49. Accessed 6 November 2013.
  3. ^ Schuessler, Axel. ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, p. 563. University of Hawaii Press, 2007.
  4. ^ Meacham, William (1996). "Defining the Hundred Yue". Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association 15: 93–100. 
  5. ^ a b Baxter, Wm. H. & Sagart, Laurent. Baxter–Sagart Old Chinese Reconstruction PDF (1.93 MB), p. 56. 2011. Accessed 12 August 2013.
  6. ^ Brindley, Erica. "Barbarians or Not? Ethnicity and Changing Conceptions of the Ancient Yue (Viet) Peoples, ca. 400–50 BC", pp. 6 ff. Asia Major, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2003). Accessed 7 November 2013.
  7. ^ 史有为 [Shi Youwei]. 《汉语外来词》 ["Hànyǔ Wàiláicí", "Chinese Loanwords"]. Commercial Press (Beijing), 2000. (Chinese)
  8. ^ Zhengzhang Shangfang. "Decipherment of Yue-Ren-Ge (Song of the Yue Boatman)". Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale, Vol. 20, pp. 159–168. 1991.
  9. ^ 周敦頤 [Zhou Dunyi]. ,《翻譯名義序》 ["Fānyì Míngyì Xù", "Preface to the 'Explanation of Buddhist terms'"]. Accessed 6 November 2013. (Chinese)
  10. ^ Yong, Heming; Peng, Jing (2008). Chinese Lexicography : A History from 1046 BC to AD 1911: A History from 1046 BC to AD 1911. Oxford University Press. p. 397.  
  11. ^ Masini, Federico. "The Formation of Modern Chinese Lexicon and its Evolution Toward a National Language: The Period from 1840 to 1898". Journal of Chinese Linguistics Monograph Series (Berkeley), No. 6, 1993, §2.2.2.
  12. ^ Lackner, Michael & al. New Terms for New Ideas: Western Knowledge and Lexical Change in Late Imperial China. Brill (Leiden), 2001.
  13. ^ Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書, Guan Zhui Bian (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.
  14. ^ Cf. Michael Carr, "Wa 倭 Wa 和 Lexicography", International Journal of Lexicography, 1992, 5(1):1-30.
  15. ^ David Wright, Translating Science: The Transmission of Western Chemistry into Late Imperial China, 1840-1900, Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2000, p.212.
  •  This article incorporates text from The Chinese recorder and missionary journal, Volume 3, a publication from 1871 now in the public domain in the United States.
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