In European languages we use letters which tend not to have meaning, just sound. In Chinese, names are derived from Chinese characters, each of which has a meaning. So translating someone’s name into Chinese can be tricky – even if you try to be neutral or positive Chinese characters can be read many ways.
The new President’s official Chinese name is “Te Lang Pu”. It doesn’t look much like “Trump” written down, but it’s closer when spoken. Te Lang Pu can translate as “extraordinary, bright and popular”, which President Trump would probably appreciate. However, as each Chinese character can be read in a variety of ways Te Lang Pu can also be read as “unusual, loud and common,” which might be closer to his opponents’ views.
The Chinese state-run Xinhua News Agency has a department just to translate foreign names, to try to avoid causing offence. The translators employed there have to translate dozens of foreign names every day, and their main aim is to achieve a good phonetic match. They start with a set of about 500 pre-selected Chinese characters which have been chosen as both recognisable and inoffensive. This helps, but the translators still have to use other characters to render some names, which is where problems can arise.
With potentially sensitive names the Chinese Foreign Ministry has to approve the proposed translation. The department has been even busier than usual following the US Presidential election and the appointment of a new team around President Trump.
New Secretary of State Rex Tillerson translates as “Di Le Sen”, which translates to “stem, coerce, dark,” and President Trump’s Counselor Kellyanne Conway translates as “Kang Wei”, meaning “healthy, leather hide”. Hmmm…. Probably not translations that the recipients would choose themselves!
Hong Kong and Taiwan picked a different translation for Trump; “Chuan Pu” (pronounced Chwan-poo), where “Chuan” means river. It doesn’t begin with a T, but as it’s 2 syllables rather than 3 it actually sounds closer to Trump. However, even Chuan Pu has drawbacks. It also means Chinese spoken with a Sichuan accent. And there is already an unflattering derivative – Chuang Po, or “broken bed”.
With phonetic matching and avoiding offensive meanings, those Chinese name translators at Xinhua News Agency certainly have their work cut out!