As I watch the starting line up for Michael Phelps’ next race, my two thoughts are:
1. Maybe the Chinese commentators are right. Maybe he is an alien (wàixīngrén 外星人), and that’s why he swims so fast (he does have slightly webbed toes I’m told).
2. What a lot of work someone went to, translating ALL these people’s names into hanzi characters (there are over 10,000 athletes at the Beijing games).
As the only major world language that refuses to use an alphabet, Chinese requires that every single foreign proper noun (names of people, countries, films, etc.) be crammed into one or more hanzi characters.
Sometimes they try to translate the meaning of the original name. I’ve heard from ever so many Chinese how proud they are of the translation of “Gone with the Wind” into a single character in Chinese: piāo 飘.
But most often, and this is certainly the case for these Olympics, names of people get pseudo-transliterated into Chinese based on the sound of the original name. Phelps is pronounced: “fēi ěr pǔ sī” and the characters that go along with that are supposedly 菲尔普斯. (For the record, I don’t think that sounds very much like “Phelps”).
So, here’s what I want to know:
1. What’s the process for choosing the characters? The countries have all been done for a long time, but you’ve got to imagine a bunch of people’s names came up for this session of the Olympics that no one had ever hanzified before (Hungarians, for example). There’s got to be some governmental bureau dedicated solely to this sort of thing, right? Anyone know how it’s done?
2. What about single letters? Is there a standard “pinyin” way of saying English letters? Some are obvious, like “A” is pronounced “ei1″ in pinyin. But what about other letters that don’t easily fit into the pinyin system? Like CJ Bruton. His Chinese name is “CJ·布鲁顿.” What’s the pinyin for THAT? Xī Jiē Bùlǔdùn?
They (whoever THEY are) didn’t hanzi-fy the “CJ” part of his name. That means they’re just going to pronounce it like “see jay” (in English), right? (Like CCTV, they alwasy say something that sounds like, “see see tee way.”) Well, if they can learn to pronounce the “C” and “J” without having a hanzi-character holding their hand, why do they hanzify everything else? What are the pinyin-izations for the 26 letters of the alphabet? They’ve got to be codified somewhere, right? I think they’re all first tone. Anyone?
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