I first became aware of the enormous language gap in China three weeks into my first year, when I taught English at a public high school in northern Jiangsu.  One afternoon, feeling slightly homesick, I hopped into a taxi with a simple mission: to go to McDonalds.  Being completely unable to speak Chinese at that point, I was fairly confident that the word “McDonalds” would be international enough for my driver to understand.

Alas, when I said the magic word, he gave me a blank stare and shook his head. I then proceeded to draw the golden arches on a piece of paper, hoping my driver would at least recognize an international symbol. No luck. We drove around in circles for awhile until at last I spotted the restaurant and frantically directed him toward it.

He misunderstood me, of course, because McDonalds isn’t called McDonalds in Chinese: it’s “MaiDangLao”. Had I known this at the time and could pronounce it properly, my driver would have taken me there without any delay.

In China, all foreign proper names are rendered into Chinese characters and spoken with Chinese syllables. This creates confusion not only for the beginning student but also for amateur translators, who will pore over dictionaries for ages only to realize that the three-character phrase they can’t find is actually the name of a 17th century Dutch painter. The Chinese language, composed of words put together in logical patterns, is clumsy in transliteration. Knowing that “KFC” is 肯德基 (willing virtue base) doesn’t produce much insight into the intricacies of Mandarin.

In addition to creating problems for foreigners in China, the total absence of foreign sounds in the Chinese language hinders beginning students of English.  All teachers know that English pronunciation, particularly among beginning students, can be wretched in China. Wouldn’t it be easier for Chinese learners of English (and other languages) if certain international words were left alone?

China is far from the only country wishing to maintain the purity of its language. Continental Europeans chafe at the intrusion of English words into their language, such as “leader” and “record” in the case of Italian. Yet would Mandarin be threatened if the Chinese left terms such as “McDonalds” or “George W. Bush” intact? For those of us reasonably comfortable in both languages, I doubt this change would make much of a difference. But it would certainly make it easier for beginning students of English to master their pronunciation, and for the odd homesick Westerner to make his way to McDonalds.

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About Matt

Matt spent six years in China, mainly based in the beautiful spring city of Kunming. During that time he worked in consulting, journalism as well as English teaching. Matt studied Chinese for 2+ years and loved exploring the mountains of Yunnan by mountain bike). He now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University.

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  1. Matt,
    While I understand that many countries want to preserve the purity of their language, chief among them, France & French, I don’t think that’s the only purpose in this situation.

    English names get transliterated into Chinese so that they have meaning in Chinese. Transliterating names into Chinese gives companies (or brands) a fantastic opportunity to create and convey whatever image they want as they enter the Chinese market. Transliterating names is also a form of localization, ie adapting to and integrating into the local culture, so as to be better received in this intensely nationalistic country.

    Furthermore, I believe names are transliterated so that a Chinese person who has never studied English can still recognize and interact with the name, which hence means a bigger market for those products.

    I guess that means foreigners will just have to become familiar with Chinese before they get here. You can brush up on your Chinese transliterations here: http://snurl.com/2ky2i

  2. Although I agree that the transliteration is more often than not an obstacle to communication (how many more times will I have to hear “Schwarzeneger” strung together in all its many-charactered-beauty before I recognize it on the first try?), it can also occasionally be a helpful clue-in about how to pronounce the name of whatever. Helpful for someone (like me) somewhat ignorant about how to pronounce, say, the names of small islands in Greece. Sort of along the same lines, I agree with Toffler that the practice makes the non-Chinese world more accessible to Chinese-only speakers too.

  3. I will be extremely happy if when they put things in English, put it in English, not something something Lu (Road), and not “Bei” when it is dollar, and whatever they use for “Bank”.

  4. What’s also interesting/confusing [delete as appropriate] as hell is new celebrity name transliterations, say actors and sports stars. As far as I’m aware there’s no “standard” behind the transliterations, it’s just whichever news source picks up the name/story first creates the transliteration. Of course, this often means two or more sources create different transliterations and so the same person has more than one name in Chinese. I know there are examples… but I’m too lazy to track them down 🙂

  5. A couple of years back I had a problem when getting married in China. The officials did not want to even hear about putting my name (as it appears in the passport) in the marriage certificate. They wanted to transliterate it into Chinese. After a week of confrontations, they finally agreed to put my transliterated name and my passport name in parenthesis. Ever since, I believe that they should follow the standard similar to the one in South China Morning Post – transliterated name and original name in parenthesis.

  6. It works both ways — I wish western newspapers and other print media would put Chinese names in parentheses. When they report about a Chinese person, they just give the name in Mandarin pinyin without tone marks (e.g. Hu Jintao). If the person’s at all obscure, it’s next to impossible to look that person up and find any information in Mandarin, because there’s no way to know what the original characters of his or her name were.

  7. Pingback: How to travel to EU when passport name different than other documents? | Travel News Articles Vedios Pictures

  8. I don’t think it would be possible to keep the English pronunciation of English proper nouns in Chinese, as Chinese is a syllabic language, and is written as so. The closest you could get for “McDonald’s” would be something like ‘mi-ke-dan-na-de-si’, which might be even more confusing.

    If the name was just written in English, wouldn’t that make it even more difficult for the Chinese to become familiar with the name? They would have to have at least some knowledge of the English alphabet in order to sound it out at all…

    Hm..just my thoughts on the matter.

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