Ou, bummer! Now we have a real dispute between China and U.S.
The U.S. embassy is trying to standardize the way “Obama” is transliterated in Mandarin Chinese. Instead of the widely used “奥巴马”, which is read as àobāmǎ as in “Australia”, the U.S. officials prefer “欧巴马” because it has a phonically closer ōubāmǎ pronunciation.
Additionally, the Obama administration is apparently troubled by the fact that the Chinese have always called the White House “白宫”, which literally means White Palace. As reported by the Washington Post:
But the Obama administration was having none of that, reminding their Chinese hosts that the United States has no palaces, and insisting on using in official statements the term “Bai Wu” [白屋], literally “White House.”
In short, my feeling is that this world would be a better place if we keep geopolitical disputes confined to such topics.
That said, I support the contention that “欧巴马” is a relatively straightforward and proper Mandarin Chinese name for Obama. (Bruce Humes says, however, that the “奥巴马” transliteration is in fact quite accurate in Cantonese.) Nevertheless, a point made by a Chinese foreign ministry official in the Washington Post article is worth considering. “欧巴马” is likely to remind people of the imported Japanese term “欧巴桑”, which is widely understood in Taiwan and Hong Kong and is increasingly used in mainland China as well. “欧巴桑” (Obaasan), which simply means a mid-aged or elder woman in Japanese, has morphed into a negative term in the Chinese usage as “三八型的老妇女” (an aged, rude and gossiping woman).
[Update] I found two comments giving support to the disputed “奥巴马” transliteration. These two are reproduced below.
ZH at Danwei made the point that transliterating the leading “O” as “奥” is consistent with the historical approach, which is rooted in the influence by Cantonese on such practices.
This is a very interesting article, but it omits discussion of a very important factor in Chinese name transliteration, namely dialectal pronunciation. Many of the conventions of transliteration derive from Cantonese, because historically it was Cantonese-speakers who had the most contact with Westerners. The foreign syllable “o”, as in Olympics, was rendered with the closely matching Cantonese syllable OU, written 奧. When that written character is pronounced by Mandarin speakers, however, it comes out as ào. That’s why “olympics”, translated via Cantonese, is [奥林匹克] àolínpǐkè in Mandarin today.
Even though new transliterations are usually created directly by Mandarin speakers today, certain correspondences established in the late 19th and early 20th century via Cantonese remain standard and feel natural to Chinese speakers. So even though we might think that the Mandarin syllable ōu matches the first syllable of Obama better, Chinese speakers are used to the correspondence of Mandarin ào to English “o”.
Beverlyhong111 at Washington Post examined how the two transliteration options affect the proper tones in reading “Obama”.
From a linguistic point of view, the tussle over Aobama vs Aobama involves more than transliteration. It is the interplay between tone and stress of the two different chosen words. In this particular case the American transliteration of President Oubama is definitely more in tune with proper Mandarin pronunciation and American English. The reason being, in Oubama, [OU] is in the high level tone, the amplitude is less strong than that [AO] which receives a high falling tone, thus receiving stronger amplitude than the other.
Therefore, Oubama, accords more with the American pronunciation where the word stress is placed on the second syllable: Au-ba’-ma rather than Ao’ba-ma which would render incorrect American English.
As far as transliteration goes, should we also do something about the Chinese term for the U.S.? In China, the U.S. is “美国”, which literally means “beautiful country” and is sounded as měiguó. (The Japanese, on the other hand, calls the U.S. “米国”, which is “rice country”.) However, a phonically accurate transliteration probably will give you “阿国” ā’guó, which means nothing, or “鹅国” é’guó, which means “goose country”.
Going back to the issue of “White House”, yes, the Chinese character “宫” usually means “palace”. Therefore, “白宫” literally means “White Palace”. However, that’s perhaps a bit overly sensitive reading of the term. “宫”, as its shape apparently suggests, was originally synonymous with “house”, the preferred term by the U.S. administration. As explained in 《说文解字》, one of the earliest Chinese dictionary from around 100 AC, “宫, 室也” (宫 is just a building with room inside). It was after the 秦 qín and 汉 hàn dynasties when “宫” started denoting residences of royalties. In recent history, the meaning of “宫” is again generalized to mean a large building or structure. For example, 迷宫 (mystery palace) means maze or labyrinth, while 少年宫 (youth palace) is what youth activity center is called. “宫” is now increasingly taken to mean “mansion”, which I think fits the so-called “White House” much better. So, how about it? Let’s standardize the English term for Obama’s current residence as “White Mansion”.
[CORRECTION] An mistake mixing up “屋” (house) and “室” (room) was corrected in the paragraph above.
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