Via the firstname.lastname@example.org listserv, two articles in which American journalists write lazily about Chinese in ill-considered English. The issue at stake: whether or not Massachussetts should provide ballots on which candidates’ names are rendered phonetically into Chinese characters. (Everybody seems to agree that voting instructions, at least, should be provided in Chinese.)
First, excerpts. The AP says:
BOSTON – Chinese Americans complained Monday that Secretary of State William Galvin’s opposition to using Chinese phonetic translations of candidate names on election ballots ignores precedent elsewhere in the country, as well as similar translations every day in Chinese newspapers.
Galvin, who is the state’s chief election officer, complained last month that such translations are subject to interpretation and could result in “Mitt Romney,” the Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor, being read as “Sticky Rice” on the ballot.
Mitt Romney == Sticky Rice? That’s craaaaaazy! I wonder if anyone else will find that too hilarious not to repeat. USA Today?
Boston’s 2008 presidential primary ballot could read like a bad Chinese menu.
There might be “Sticky Rice” in column A, “Virtue Soup” in column B and, in column C, “Upset Stomach.”
Those could be choices facing some voters if the names of Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and Hillary Rodham Clinton were converted into Chinese characters, according to Massachusetts’ top election official. And that gives Secretary of State William Galvin heartburn.
On Tuesday, Galvin filed a challenge in federal court to a Justice Department agreement requiring that ballots be fully translated to protect the rights of Chinese-speaking voters.
Galvin says Chinese — which uses characters, not letters; has sounds with several meanings; and is spoken in several dialects — will create ballot chaos.
Those inscrutable Chinese, with their morphosyllabic writing system, and their dialects, and their menus with funny-sounding dishes! It’s almost as if their lack of a phonetic script has forced them to use clumsy alternatives!
Both the AP and the USA Today articles describe the Chinese versions of candidates’ names as “translations,” which is flat-out wrong. They are transliterations; that is, they are simple conversions of the sounds of the candidates’ names into a written form. There is no translation of “Fred” into Chinese, because it’s not a word, it’s a name. Ditto for “Thompson” (though I suppose maybe one could translate it by analysing it as “Tom’s Son” — but then you’re still stuck transliterating “Tom,” which is usually done as 汤姆 tangmu). When you get your girlfriend Jessica’s name tattooed on your arm in Chinese? You’re getting a transliteration, not a translation.
So then that raises the question of what symbols are being used for transliteration. I’ve written about this a couple of times before, albeit in the context of company and product names. There are already standard transliterations for most English personal names. Thompson and Romney might still have a chance at choosing transliterated names that they as non Chinese-speakers find more appealing, but Ms. Clinton is S.O.L.; people have been writing about her in Chinese for the past 15 years, and old habits die hard. Are the transliterations really that bad?
A cursory glance suggests not. Xinhua transliterates “Mitt Romney” as 米特·罗姆尼 Mǐtè·Luómǔní. (There may be a different transliteration used in news sources with primarily non Mandarin-speaking readerships.) Every single character used in that name is one used commonly for transliterating foreign words, so even a Chinese newspaper reader who had never heard of Romney would be able to tell at a glance that these five characters are not intended to be read as meaningful. (The dot in the middle, used to separate first and last names, provides a further clue.) But for the sake of argument, a literal translation of these characters would be rice – exceptional [archaic word for snare/common surname] – mother – [meaningless character used only for transliterations and the word for Buddhist nuns]. Show me one thinking person who can get ‘Sticky Rice’ (糯米 nuòmǐ) out of that and I will eat my copy of the 辞海 Cihai dictionary.
The same holds true for the other candidates — the stuff about “virtue soup” and “upset stomach” is pure fabrication based on cherry-picking one or two characters, discarding everything without potential humor value, and interpreting them in ways that no actual speaker of the language would. No Chinese person reading a name like 莎士比亚 would think that it meant “herb-scholar-compete-second-rate,” any more than an English speaker reading ‘Shakespeare’ would interpret it as a badly-spelled command to wave a pointy stick around.
Of course, the characters used in a transliteration can make a difference, and malicious transliterations aren’t unheard of. The uber-scholar Qian Zhongshu famously transliterated T.S. Eliot’s surname as 爱利恶德, which, unlike the candidate names above, does have a coherent meaning when read in Chinese — one that might fairly be interpreted as “Loves profit and despises virtue.” (The standard transliteration of his name is now 艾略特, a purely meaningless phonetic approximation.)
Then there are positive transliterations — like the US Korean War leaflets that encouraged Chinese soldiers who wanted to stop fighting but couldn’t bear the shame of crying 投降 *I surrender!” to instead shout out 爱责仁德 “love, duty, humanity, virtue!” — four perfectly admirable things that happen to be pronounced ài zé rén dé.
That said, Galvin’s objection, at least as quoted here — that transliterated names could lead to misunderstandings and “ballot chaos” (which incidentally sounds like the name of a really boring video game) — is simply untrue, and the journalists who wrote the articles linked to above are guilty of lazy thinking, bad journalism, and the same kind of ignorant exoticist bias that leads people to keep writing about how the Eskimos have two million words for snow.
I also think the Chinese Americans’ contention — that someone who has passed the US citizenship exam and is engaged enough to follow candidates will be somehow unable to resolve Xīlālǐ · Luódémǔ·Kèlíndùn to Hilary Rodham Clinton — is pretty dumb, though perhaps not impossible. After all, the briefest glance at the English-language China blogosphere will reveal people whose deep-seated political convictions remain unsullied by actual knowledge.
A plague on both their houses.
The title of this post? Well, I thought it would only be fair to “translate” (in USA Today’s parlance) my feelings on this whole thing: 搜思土皮德 Sōu Sītǔpídé.