Translating Names

July 31st, 2012

 

My friend often tells me the story of his trip to Taiwan; he spent months attempting to learn at least some basic Mandarin in order to be able to do simple things like order food or ask directions. He was very proud of his efforts, and would often break out phrases while out with friends, sounding very convincing. But then he went on the trip, and every time he started speaking Mandarin to a native, they would stop him and ask him, in English, if he was American, and then continue the conversation in English.

 

It was frustrating for him. Westerners have a reputation, I know, of either not bothering to learn other languages when they travel, assuming that everyone speaks English to some extent, and of having terrible pronunciation as well. It’s true that English pronunciation is quite different from many other languages, and I have heard some fairly awful accents in my time. This sometimes explains my friend’s other complaint: The phenomena of the ‘English Name’.

 

Every person in Taiwan he befriended, when asked their name, told him they would give him their English Name, which was a westernized approximation of their Chinese name. This was because most Westerners could not pronounce their real name accurately, and the English Name made things easier for everyone involved. Even when my friend tried to insist he would make every sincere effort to pronounce their ‘real’ name correctly, they refused, usually with a good-natured laugh. It was just too much trouble to give him a lesson in pronunciation!

 

My friend thought this assumption was rude, but I pointed out that the translation of names is a sticky subject. Back when Roman and Greek were the dominant languages of the world, names were routinely altered to fit the strict ending requirements of those languages (Romanized, in other words). This also reflected the role that Roman culture played in the world; other languages were not given much respect. In a way this is still reflected in the way English dominates the world – while it might be considered a sign of politeness or respect to leave someone’s name unaltered in writing, it is often considered a simple practicality to westernize foreign names when dealing with English-speaking folks, especially Americans.

 

The fact that this is a fairly standard practice made my friend feel a little better about the subject – at least he wasn’t unique in his experiences.

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