February 6, 2011

Proper name translation: semantic or phonetic

In researching a subject in history of Chongqing, I came across various English translations of the name of a building, "白公馆" in Chinese, e.g. "Bai Mansion", "Baigong Guan", "Baigongguan", "White Residence", "White House".[note] The interesting part is the translation of "白". Should it be phonetically "Bai" or semantically "White"? The answer is, It depends on the origin of the name. According to Baidu, this building was named after its owner Bai Ju (surname Bai). So the correct translation must be phonetic. "Bai Mansion" may be the best, although "Baigongguan" serves well as the name of a place. I don't suppose Mr. Bai, the owner, called it "白公馆" with intention of using a pun. But if he had done so, our translation would be impossible, or you pick one you like.

This reminds me of the translation of "Rice University", a reputable college in Texas. In the late 1980's, people in China referred to it as either "莱斯大学" or "稻米大学". But since the school was named after a person, as was known to all later, only the translation "莱斯大学" survived.

[note] If you need to see who uses which term, use these keywords to search on Google (quotation marks matter; example for "Bai Mansion"):
"白公馆" "重庆" "bai mansion"
chongqing "bai mansion"
chungking "bai mansion"


Anonymous at May 16, 2011 at 4:26 AM said...

noteworthy in that regard the official translation of the White House in Washington has come under attack in Communist China. Sounds like they want to change it to "white palace" because a "house" is not befitting of a President, as in this posting by a Chinese Embassy spokeman during Hu Jin-tao's state visit. Neither semantic nor phonetic - its all politics

Yong Huang at May 16, 2011 at 10:48 AM said...

Thanks for bringing that debate to my attention. Traditionally, Chinese translations of foreign proper names are generally auspicious if possible, e.g. America as "美国" (beautiful country), California as "加里[利]福利亚" where "福利" means fortune and profit. I don't know who initially translated "White House" to Chinese. The well-intentioned translator apparently would rather call it "白宫" (white palace, literally) than "白房" (white house). And "白宫" is what the billion Chinese say today. I've never heard of "白屋" (white room, but less commonly or in ancient Chinese, white house) as referring to the White House. Maybe among Malaysian Chinese? Anyway, there's nothing political here. If auspiciousness is inappropriate, the American government may suggest to the Chinese counterpart, the Protocol Department perhaps, a better translation.

If what you're saying is that the Chinese want the Americans to rename "White House" to something else, that's absolutely absurd. And I don't believe that's any translator's intention. By the way, the page you showed me is about a US Embassy spokesman in Beijing, not a Chinese Embassy spokesman in the US (or anywhere).

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