Hanzification of Olympic Names

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 .

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?

16 Replies to “Hanzification of Olympic Names”

  1. We use characters with Pinyin similar to the name, in most cases, for example, Bush is 布什Bu4shi2. Interestingly, native Chinese gradually learn to vaguesly tell from which part of the world or with what cultural background he or she he or she comes just by hearing the names being tranlated. (Not accuate though)
    As to which characters to be used, it is all arbitary at the very beginning, but in the end some are habitually used and become preferred thereafter.

  2. Tom,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m wondering exactly HOW it’s arbitrarily assigned at the beginning. How decides? Is it a process? Can I myself be the first one to pick some hanzi for a name that’s never been hanzified and then everyone will use MY version?

  3. Tom, when you say Chinese native speakers can tell from where in the world people come by their name, can you give some examples?

    I’m guessing it’s like Icelandic names ending in “son” or “dottir” (I guess that would be something like and 都特). Thing is though, there seems to be a limited number of characters used for transliteration (, , etc), so I would have thought foreign names all end up looking similar?

  4. My pet peeve is city names. Sometimes, for fun, when talking with Chinese speakers, I’ll mention Peking, Shanghai (with a flat A) and Canton. If I get so much as a raised eyebrow, I ask them why they say “niu yue” instead of New York when they’re speaking Chinese, or “san fan shi” instead of San Francisco, and so on. They have their own names for our cities, so why shouldn’t we have our own names for theirs?

    When I’m teaching English to Chinese students, I always say Chinese names in the fourth tone. This accomplishes two things, I think. First, it gets them used to hearing the names the way most westerners will say them, and second, it gets me used to those “Who is this idiot” stares.

    I think the pronunciation of pinyin letters may vary from place to place, especially the vowels. In Guangxi, for example, “A” sounds like the English “I”, or “ai”.

  5. I looked all over my house and couldn’t find it. I swear I saw it in my son’s 1st grade textbook (he goes to a public primary school). I’ll try calling his teacher tomorrow. I asked some kids in my class today (I run an English school) and *one* of them said they had heard of what I was talking about and learned about it in their Chinese composition class.

    There are actually two things. One is something you can find in the back of any Chinese dictionary, but it’s pre-pinyin (and therefore not really expressible in pinyin). The roman letters are given “names” in zhuyin fuhao (the Taiwanese bopomofo system [well, Taiwanese because they still use it]). The thing I’m sure I saw in a textbook was a pinyinized approximation of this.

    But that’s not what newscasters are using when they pronounce English (etc) initials.

    The reporters use a pinyinized system which I’ve never seen written down, but I’ll try to give you here from memory based on what I hear over the radio and from people spelling things to each other. Bear in mind that there is some variation in what people say.

    ei, bi, xi, di, yi, aifu, ji, eiqu, ai, zhei, kei, ailu, aimu, en, ou, pi, qiu, a, aisi, ti, you, wei, dabuliu, aikesi, wai, zei

    I also hear people say kiu (or kiur) for q, but that’s not standard pinyin. Also aichi for h.

    Hope that helps a bit. : )

  6. Go to a place where they do those name seals for tourists. They should have a book for transliteration of names etc, at least the japanese used to have one.

  7. I’ve been wondering about this myself. If I read someone like 菲尔普斯 in Chinese I can tell from the context who they are talking about. However if I wanted to translate a name like Phelps into Chinese for the first time, how do I know which Chinese characters to use?!

    When used to form bullet point lists like the English:

    I’ve seen the Chinese use:

    However this isn’t very useful for transliteration of names.

    Translated names often have the same characters so there must be some standard for transliterating. Maybe we can decipher it from examples. It’s not going to depend on single letters tho, like a character for the alphabet letter ‘l’ etc. It’s a combination of English letters that relate to a Chinese character. For example if the English name contains the letter span ‘lan’ then the Chinese is .

    lan/land ->
    b -> (blair:布莱尔,bush=布什,brad=布拉德—)
    s ->
    r/er/el/le ->
    t ->
    ma ->
    k ->
    a ->
    an ->
    na ->
    ph ->
    he ->
    gl ->
    la ->
    d ->

    Just have to make a list like this for every possible syllable in the English language! (every combination of 1-3 English letters)

  8. Anon,

    Thanks for the little list of hanzified English syllables. That’s EXACTLY what I’m talking about in Question 1. That’s got to be written down somewhere because it seems to be consistently used. Why should we go to all the trouble when it’s already been done? Now…if we only knew how to find it.


    Great off-the-cuff rendering of the English alphabet in pinyin. That’s EXACTLY what I’m talking about in Question 2. But, again, that’s got to be written down somewhere too, right? How do we get our hands on these things?


    All I mean is: as long as we’re saying “China” (and not “Zhongguo”) when we speak English, then don’t they get to say “Niuyue” instead of “New York” when they’re speaking Chinese?

  9. I just posted an article on Chinglish, and in the article I reveal something interesting I found that answer’s Albert’s question #1 (how Chinese transliterate foreign names). The item in question is in the second part of the article, but I’m sure you’ll all like to read the whole article. I posted it on Beijing Sounds.


  10. Albert says that Chinese is the only language refuses to use Alphabets.

    First, it is not the case of only. There is a language in 丽江、云南 called Dongba language which uses a more pictographic character system.
    Second, the Chinese language does refuse to use an alphabetal system completely. Instead, it employs them as an affiliation to its own system, which is known as Pinyin, thanks to which we Chinese today can not only keep pace with the modern world but remain closely connected to our ancestors. I have been reading a book named 山海经 directly, which was written at least 3000 thousand years ago by our ancestors.
    Generally speaking, Chiness characters and Dongba characters don’t refuse to use alphabets for the sake of refusal but because they feel and have proved it UNNECESSARY TO DO SO.

  11. Wouldn’t my name, Benjamin, be Hanzi-fied as “Bianjiamin” (I am not familiar with tone numbers/marks, yet; the “a” in “Bian” is pronounced like the English short “e” sound corresponding to the first syllable of my name; in most cases the Pinyin “e” is actually pronounced like the schwa sound, “uh”)?

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