Nov 16

Ou, bummer! Now we have a real dispute between China and U.S.

Written by DJ on Monday, November 16th, 2009 at 7:52 pm
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President Obama is currently visiting China and the very first dispute is shaping up between China and U.S., namely, what his name is and where he lives.

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 “” 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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13 Responses to “Ou, bummer! Now we have a real dispute between China and U.S.”

  1. dewang Says:

    Interesting article, DJ. I am envious of your ability to command both langugages.

    CCTV-9 Coverage

    CNN’s World News clip of Obama’s speech in Shanghai on YouTube

    CCTV-9 gets Shanghai resident views on Obama’s visit

    CNN’s report on the Obama speech/townhall meeting in Shanghai

    I have to comment about this particular CNN report though – going to Internet cafes showing teenagers playing video games to insinuate Chinese people are not watching the speech – “free” press at its best, folks! I kept wondering how they came up with this “angle.”

  2. BMY Says:

    or we call 长城 ” the long wall ” instead of ” the Great Wall”

    奔驰车 sounds much better than 平治车 or 本兹车(or even 本子车) if we just grab the name of “Benz” car .

    Translation is a art.

  3. Wukailong Says:

    Great post! Interesting topic and something that shows the growing importance of the Chinese language. I agree with the points made above. 白屋 sounds like a small shack painted white, certainly not something like the White House.

    I wonder if somebody bothered to write down the rules of Chinese transliteration? There certainly are informal rules, even though these are not spelled out.

    @dewang: Looking at the news feeds this morning, it seems that the main focus of Western media outlets was Obama’s statements on human rights, based only on a couple of lines of what he said, whereas the Chinese media stressed (at least in the beginning) that the US doesn’t want to contain China. Sometimes I wonder if the news media is just trying to console their viewers.

  4. Uln Says:

    I think people have been looking too much into this Obama translation, it is the kind of phenomenon that happens when all the journalists want to speak about something (come on Obama is in China!) but they don’t really have anything to speak about yet and they look desperately for subjects of debate.

    The most probable explanation for the 欧 is that the translator of the White House is Taiwanese, or else that he saw the 2 versions and thought the 欧 sounded more similar to the original, which is undoubtedly true in mandarin. No big deal.

    I have my own theories. Note that we have 欧洲, 欧盟, and 欧美, you might have noticed that the character 欧, apart from being a family name, has 99% of the time the meaning of “Europe”. It is clearly an attempt to conquer Europe by surprise and become king of the European Union.

  5. DJ Says:

    Oh, come on, guys. Did no one get the joke I planted in the title of the post? 😉

  6. Berlin Says:

    That is a very smart title!

    I too, think that this is no big deal. Just a little technicality. I am sure China will be happy to call whatever name the US embassy decided for the President. While other talks may be too serious, this one is a little relief.

  7. pug_ster Says:

    Although Obama is a great orator, he lacks any substance in his town hall meeting speech. Although Hu and Obama shake hands and look like bosom buddies in camera, deep down there are alot of issues that would keep China and the US from being true allies: from Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, US in the Korean DMZ, and the war on Afghanistan. The problem is that the US still wants to be the global hegemony but they are finding out that they are lacking the political and economical power to enforce it. The day when the US stops being a global hegemony and focus on its own internal problems, we will start having some peace in the world.

  8. S.K. Cheung Says:

    In Cantonese, ““奥巴马” is much closer to how Obama is actually said in English than the other version. If fact, rather than use the word for “horse”, i think using the word for “father’s mother” or “sesame” as the third syllable would be even closer still. But since Mandarin is the official language, probably makes sense to go with the other version.

    I agree with WKL. The White House is not just any white house. Using the word for palace gives it the appropriate gravitas.

    Translation is certainly an art. Sometimes you need it to be as literal as possible. Other times you need it to grasp the required essence. And knowing when to err towards one side or the other is part of that art form.

  9. hohhot Says:

    if Americans are insistent enough about this, Chinese media probably will switch from 奥巴马 to 欧巴马. Another similar example is Chinese name for Seoul, S. Korea’s capital, 汉城. 汉城(Han City) had been used for probably over 100 years before it was replaced by 首尔, at S.Korea’s request. But it makes you wonder how long it will go on like this before Chinese will ask English speaking world to change their way to call China, “Zhongguo(middle country)” is a more appropriete term than “China” , a term early Europeans first learnt from Sankrit(i could be wrong about this) referring to the ancient state Chin(秦 221BC-201BC)

  10. Nimrod Says:

    Transliteration of Western phonemes into Chinese preserves tradition not just for its own sake but for the fact that regular correspondence makes the whole enterprise easier to handle. It’s the same reason why 16-th century spelling rules of English stay put even though they are no longer phonetically productive.

    Also you have to consider other dialects. While Mandarin is the official language, it is really the odd one out for purposes of giving an accurate transliteration for its lack of sound variety. Cantonese or other southern dialects are much more adept and so keying to them makes a lot more sense, any tradition aside. I also take issue with the prosidic advantages of aobama vs. oubama as argued by Beverlyhong111. I think it’s the opposite. Considering sandhi, aobama still gives a minor stress on ba, while oubama doesn’t give any stress on ba at all.

  11. Yi Pusan Says:

    It is time for the PRC officials to learn to respect the choices of other sovereign governments regarding translations of their names. Others respected the PRC choices for Beijing, Deng Xiaoping, etc, so why is it so hard for the PRC. They are acting as if they are the sole custodians of the Chinese (Han) language.
    And why would the USG let a Taiwanese translator choose the name for White House? That would be silly. Certainly, the decisions are made by USG officials, just as ROK officials choose Chinese translations for Seoul and other ROK specific terms.

    The PRC constantly talks about reciprocity, mutual respect, etc. They are a young country compared to the USA but it is time for them to demonstrate that they are mature enough to respect others and realize that Chinese is an international language, also an official language in Singapore, and used in Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan and many other places.

  12. Tan OM Says:

    Actually “China” was only a geographical expression for thousands of year, not the name of a country/state.
    When Sun Yatsen and his followers overthrew the TaTsing (manchu) Empire and established Chunghwa Min Kuo they decided to call it “China” in English. This was a decision made by the founders of the new country, not by the American or UK public. If the current country known as China in English wants to change its English name most responsible media will respect that. Unlike the PRC media which does not even respect the translations of names of heads of state of other countries.

    This should not even be an issue, and would not be in most other parts of the world, but the PRC somehow thinks it is special and has a right to dictate to others how to do things, including how to write the names of their leaders.

    What would they say if we called Hu Hoo and his residence choong nan lake?

  13. r v Says:

    Tan OM,

    It’s the US officials who want to change the Chinese version of Obama’s name, PRC is hardly refusing or dictating the change. A Chinese foreign ministry official in the Washington Post article merely made a point about the NEW choice has some possible negative phonetic connotations. It’s up to the US to decide whether they want to live with it or not.

    If US officials want Obama’s new Chinese version of his name to remind the Chinese public of a “三八型的老妇女”, they can go for it. I have no doubt that the Chinese government will respect their wishes. But obviously, it would make Obama look more like a foreign tourist who happened to pick a really bad Chinese name. (Of course, it wouldn’t be the 1st time.) Frankly, if a Chinese official pointed that out in public, it’s a courtesy to the US government to avoid a potential public embarrassment.

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