Via the 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 not like CSGO, that you can play with Csgo Boosting online) — 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.

Comments (28)


    Well done.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 1:32 pm #
  2. maxiewawa wrote::

    Nice one!
    This is a little weird, but on-topic.
    Every time I read your surname I think of the Japanese word お金, written in Romaji as O-Kane, meaning money.
    It’s been bothering me for a while now, and I’ve been waiting for an opportune moment to bring it up.
    This article on how people’s names can mean something else in a different language seemed like just the right time.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 3:49 pm #
  3. Yeah — I’d thought about using that as a Chinese surname, actually, but ended up deciding that I don’t really want a Chinese name.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 5:31 pm #
  4. Jason wrote::


    ps. I love learning Chinese transliterations of foreign celebrity’s names. I mean, Bier Gaizi? (I’m not sure of the characters…) That’s just funny.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 6:02 pm #
  5. John wrote::

    Haha… funny how much thought you put into this.

    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.

    I hate to do this, but I suppose I count as a thinking person…

    If you take only his last name, “Romney,” and transliterate it using teo characters rather than three, you might conceivably use 罗米. If you speak one of those dialects that doesn’t differentiate well between the /n/ and /l/ initials and also disregards the tones of standard Mandarin, you could confuse 罗米 with 糯米.


    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 8:44 pm #
  6. Actually I wrote this in about 15 minutes on my lunch break — no real thought, just ranting.

    If you take only his last name, “Romney,” and transliterate it using teo characters rather than three, you might conceivably use 罗米….

    Inadmissible! Garvin’s complaint is that Romney as transliterated (I don’t know what transliteration they’re using, but I assume it’ll be something like Xinhua’s) “means” ‘Sticky Rice.’ The issue in Garvin’s mind, if one can call it that, is that the actual literal meaning of the characters used will be “Sticky Rice” or something close to it, and while transliterating “Romney” as 罗米 isn’t impossible, I don ‘t think anybody would misread it as 糯米.

    You’ll have to try harder than that!

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 10:19 pm #
  7. zhwj wrote::

    To be fair to Galvin, when this was reported back at the end of June, the line was sticky or uncooked rice.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 10:40 pm #
  8. Derek wrote::


    Small world. I read this article in the USA Today at lunch the other day and was infuriated. You should have seen the little diagram box they had with the characters in chinese written – it was as if they were written by a 5 year old. This was in a NATIONALLY published newspaper.

    Also, do you read Ezra Pound?

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 9:45 am #
  9. Yeah, I read Pound despite myself. I was actually thinking of mentioning him in the context of ‘unnatural and bizarre interpretations of Chinese by people who can’t speak it’ (his “translation” of the Analects is priceless), but decided that I’d gone on enough already.

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 9:55 am #
  10. Brendan wrote::

    Great stuff.

    Saturday, July 14, 2007 at 2:29 am #
  11. Jeff wrote::

    Awesome post! What a ridiculous argument Galvin makes.

    The other day I found an online ebook called ‘Transpacific Displacement’ that devotes an entire chapter to Ezra Pound, it seems like an interesting book and gives him a fair shake:

    Saturday, July 14, 2007 at 9:44 am #
  12. Matt wrote::

    I think one really has to hand it to the politicians on this one. Chances are that most of these Chinese Americans who need the transliterated equivalents are reading locally-distributed Chinese-language newspapers which have already gotten their readers accustomed to one transliteration or another. It wouldn’t be too taxing for the pols to hire a part-time assistant to figure out where their constituents are reading positively oriented Chinese-language press about them and then make note of how their name is being transliterated.

    Saturday, July 14, 2007 at 11:25 am #
  13. juhuacha wrote::

    part of me wants someone to justify the sticky rice “translation” as I would love to see you eat your 辞海 Cihai dictionary

    Monday, July 16, 2007 at 3:14 pm #
  14. My offer stands: justify “Sticky Rice” or “Upset Stomach” and I will tear the pages of the 辞海 out, soak them in chili oil and vinegar, and choke down lexicology stew with a piquant garnish of shame.

    Monday, July 16, 2007 at 3:19 pm #
  15. Doron wrote::


    I have been looking for your contact details here on your blog but couldnt find any.

    can you drop me an email?

    Thanks and all the best,


    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 2:25 pm #
  16. N. Perkins wrote::

    Mr. O’Kane,
    My brother told me to google transliteration and Galvin and read up on the issue as I have not been following it very closely. I must say your article held me and was very well articulated and fun and easy to read, especially for the few of us out here that know nothing about transliteration. By the time I had finished reading your comments all the thoughts I had on this particular issue were not near as polluted. I look forward to future compositions.
    N. Perkins

    Thursday, July 26, 2007 at 7:55 am #
  17. musafiremes wrote::

    I’m puzzled. Why would “someone who has passed the US citizenship exam and is engaged enough to follow candidates” not be able to recognize the English names Mitt Romney and Hillary Rodham Clinton on their ballots and would want Chinese transliterations instead?

    Sunday, July 29, 2007 at 4:34 am #
  18. LT wrote::

    I also had a similar reaction when I read those news articles. It reminded me how incapable Americans (South of the state of Canada) are of truly comprehending multiple languages.

    Now someone go get rid of Shrub, oh I mean Leaf, sorry confused, I mean Bush.

    Friday, August 3, 2007 at 9:08 pm #
  19. Lu wrote::

    “My offer stands: justify “Sticky Rice” or “Upset Stomach” and I will tear the pages of the 辞海 out, soak them in chili oil and vinegar, and choke down lexicology stew with a piquant garnish of shame.”
    Did you leave out ‘Virtue Soup’ on purpose? Because I just realised I can justify that one.

    Transliterations are from the Liberty Times, because that was the first source that I thought of. I.e., these are actually used transliterations for Fred and Thompson.

    Fred: 弗烈德
    Thompson: 湯普森, 湯姆遜
    Fred Thompson: 弗烈[[德 湯]]普森
    There’s your virtue soup. Let us know how the Cihai tastes!

    Monday, August 6, 2007 at 9:09 pm #
  20. No deal, Lu — that punctuation mark saves the day, keeping ‘弗烈德’ from ‘湯普森,’ and me from having to follow through on eating the Cihai. Good try, though!

    Monday, August 13, 2007 at 1:35 pm #
  21. Lu wrote::

    Incidentally, I just realised that 湯姆孫 would be the best transl(iter)ation of Thompson: it’s close enough in sound, and meaning ‘Tom’s grandson’ it’s only one generation off in meaning.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007 at 4:01 pm #
  22. 长舟丫 wrote::

    Wow! You continue to rock, and I’m delighted to hear about the literary/translation blog. Bookmarked!

    Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 7:03 am #
  23. Vladimir wrote::

    Well, a citizenship test is far from being the only way to become a citizen — you can be born to American nationals abroad and emigrate to the U.S. at an adult age, you can marry a U.S. citizen, or you can even be bestowed with an honorary citizenship for exceptional achievements.

    As far as the wisdom of letting people who cannot resolve Kèlíndùn into Clinton vote in an election: I remember one time I was listening to Chinese Radio New York, and there happened to be a program teaching listeners some basic politics-related English phrases. Two consecutive phrases were: “In America there are many political parties.” followed by: “The Republican party is a very old party.”

    Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 1:47 pm #
  24. Jon wrote::

    First off, thanks for sharing! I couldnt believe the USA Today article. In my opinion they are taking shots at the Chinese culture, but you have a responsible description, that it is written “lazily.” Politicians in my town actually advertise themselves to the Chinese communities under their OWN made-up Chinese names.

    Saturday, August 25, 2007 at 7:28 am #
  25. Baimor wrote::

    Hi Brendan,
    this blog entry reminds of different translations between mainland and HK.
    Eg, PricewaterhouseCoopers is called in 普华永道 in mainland China while in HK it’s translated as 罗兵咸。
    now you see how different it is.. Can’t savor the HK version translation really.

    I find this case applies to all: if you’re not actually in the cultural/social/political/economic environment, you can find it hard to appreciate its unique design/rules,etc. So that’s why i don’t criticize things easily, being an outsider.

    You should’ve been back from Macau. Good luck to you.

    Thursday, October 4, 2007 at 7:48 pm #
  26. Paul King wrote::

    Well, Hong Kong transliterations often differ from mainland ones because of the vast difference in pronunciation between Cantonese and mandarin (of course there mayalso be cultural factors). E.g. Hollywood is 好莱坞 on the mainland but 荷里活 in HK. Sometimes it’s very funny to read a HK transliteration in mandarin, for instance, 阿诺舒华辛力加. Guess who that is? Arnold Schwarzenegger!

    Monday, October 29, 2007 at 9:09 am #
  27. chubb wrote::

    Though it’s a bit late for joining the conversation, here and elsewhere you seem to downplay the meanings inherent in characters – though i read it a while ago, the one that springs to mind is Nokia in that 渣打银行 post.

    Now i realise there exist such things as 单纯字 and 合成字 (right? i’m not a linguist) so some characters can’t stand alone and retain meaning. But Chinese personal names indicate that meanings – and at the very least, senses of meaning – are present regardless of how meaningful it would be if treated as a sentence.

    Of course few people will read “Promise-base-Asia” as a statement, “we promise to base in Asia”, but the meanings of the characters are without doubt present. But Chinese people clearly pay great attention to the characters that make up names. Would people named 陈基诺 be considered to have a meaningless name?

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 12:56 am #
  28. Ray Girvan wrote::

    Re the “Love. Duty. Humanity. Virtue” = “I surrender” – this comes from Paul MA Linebarger (aka Cordwainer Smith – see
    Interesting to see it confirmed; I’ve only previously seen it in an anthology preface without the transliteration explained. It seemed to work in Mandarin, but not knowing the language, I didn’t fully trust my attempt at dictionary translation.

    Friday, June 13, 2008 at 7:50 am #

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