East Asian Writing Systems

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How do CJV normally handle foreign names?
(with examples from Harry Potter)

If you want to write your name in Chinese or Japanese, try the following links page at Omniglot


In translation, there are several ways of rendering foreign names in any language. Probably the main ones are:

  1. Use of original name unchanged (in case of languages sharing a common written form). This can involve changes in pronunciation as the same written form may be pronounced quite differently. For example, 'Felipe' in Spanish used without change as 'Felipe' in English, or 青木 Aoki used without change in Chinese as 青木 Qīng-mù.
  2. Transliteration -- the phonetic rendering of the original name in a different script. For example, Russian Горбачев transliterated into English becomes 'Gorbachev'; Japanese 青木 (or to be more precise, the hiragana あおき) is transliterated into English 'Aoki'. Transliteration often yields only an approximate rendering of the pronunciation. (Indeed, in the case of the CJV languages, the more religiously they try to stick to the fine detail of the English pronunciation, the more unintelligible the pronunciation becomes to English speakers!)
  3. Translation -- rendering the meaning of the original name. For example, 'Rotbard' (German) translated into 'Redbeard' (English).

There are many other possible ways of dealing with foreign names. For instance, in European languages there is also a tradition of equating names between different languages. When referring to past kings of Spain, 'Felipe' is automatically converted to 'Philip' in English, German 'Karl' is converted to French 'Charles', etc. Names may be borrowed via another language as when the German place name 'Köln' is borrowed into English via its French name 'Cologne'. In cultures such as Chinese, foreigners may take Chinese names that are different from (although in many cases based on) their original name.

Below is a brief rundown on the way personal names are usually translated from English and other Western languages into the CJV languages. (Note: the following does not deal with the way that personal names from other CJV languages are treated, which is quite different from the way English or Western names are treated).


Broadly speaking, there are three methods of translating/transliterating Western names into Chinese:

1. Use of Chinese characters for their phonetic value (transliteration).

This is the most usual method. For instance, Scarlet O'Hara in 'Gone with the Wind' becomes 斯佳丽・奥哈拉 Sījiālì Aòhālā in one translation of the book. Ideally, the characters should have attractive meanings -- in this case, for instance, 佳 jiā means 'good' and 丽 means 'pretty'. However, many characters are used for their sounds only. 斯 , for instance, a rather archaic word meaning 'this', is conventionally used to represent the /s/ sound.

For many English names there is a traditional transliteration that is widely used: 'Peter' is 彼得 Bǐdé, 'George' is 乔治 Qiáozhì, etc. 'John' is normally rendered 约翰 Yuēhàn, which comes from the German word 'Johann'! (This site has a list of names in English with Chinese equivalents.) There is some variation in transliterations, partly coinciding with differences in Mainland and Taiwanese usage.

With rarer names new transliterations have to be created. This often results in different renditions. In many cases Taiwan, Hongkong, and Mainland China come up with quite different transliterations. There is a tendency for Mainland transliterations to stick to phonetic fidelity (every single sound must rendered in detail) whereas the Taiwanese tend to be more 'impressionistic'. To take an example from international politics a decade ago, the name 'Rumsfeld' is 拉姆斯菲尔德 Lāmǔsīfēi'ěrdé in Mainland newspapers and 倫斯斐 Lúnsīfēi in Taiwanese newspapers!

One disadvantage of faithful phonetic transliterations is that they can be quite long and may not be easily assimilated by Chinese readers.

2. Use of a real, Chinese-style name often reasonably similar to the original in pronunciation.

In real life, it's obligatory for foreigners residing in China to have a Chinese name. In novels, the use of Chinese-style names eases the burden of having to remember tens, maybe hundreds, of long foreign names.

Chinese names consist of the surname (family name) in first position, followed by a given name of one or two characters. (For more information on Chinese names, see Chinese Personal Names). Another translation of 'Gone with the Wind' gives Scarlet O'Hara a Chinese name: 郝思嘉 Hǎo Sījiā. The surname 郝 Hǎo corresponds to 'O'Hara'. Sījiā ('thought' + 'good') is an attempt to write 'Scarlet' in two characters. (There's an art to creating a Chinese name. If you're interested in giving yourself a real Chinese name, check out the Mandarin Tools site.)

3. Translation of the meaning. This is not common in real life, but can be found in literature, e.g., 'Cinderella' becomes 灰姑娘 Huī gūniang ('cinder/ash girl').

Harry Potter: In the Harry Potter books, the first approach (straightforward phonetic transliteration) is largely adopted.

In a few cases, names are translated semantically, such as Sirius Black, Moaning Myrtle, and the names of the four friends. In some exceptional cases, the Chinese translators come up with completely new names, such as the name for Peter Pettigrew (Mainland edition).

Since there is a lot of choice in transliterating names, it's not surprising that the Mainland and Taiwanese versions of Harry Potter often differ. However, the differences are less than might be expected. It's fairly obvious that the Mainland translator of Book 1 referred extensively to the Taiwanese version. For instance, the standard rendition of 'Harry' in China is 哈里 Hālǐ. Despite this, the Mainland translator follows the Taiwanese translator in using 哈利 Hālì. The differences between the two translations are greater in Books 2 and 3, where the Taiwanese version appeared later than the Mainland edition.


Foreign names in Japanese are usually transliterated into katakana (syllabic phonetic script).

Transliteration into katakana is done according to unwritten but fairly clear rules. The main problem in representing foreign words is the fact that Japanese mostly consists of simple, open syllables. A short but phonetically complex foreign name may thus require a string of syllables in Japanese, e.g., 'McDonald' becomes マクドナルド Makudonarudo, 'Rumsfeld' becomes ラムズフェルド Ramuzuferudo, 'Scarlett O'Hara' becomes スカーレット・オハラ Sukāretto Ohara.

For English it should be kept in mind that the transliteration is normally based on British English. The 'r' in 'part' (パート paato) or at the end of 'potter' (ポッター pottaa) disappears. The 'o' in 'pot' is rounded and short, shortness being indicated by a doubling of the consonant (ポット potto). For Americans it might be tempting to render 'pot' as パート paato and 'Potter' as パトル patoru, reflecting American pronunciation, but this is not the usual practice in Japanese.

There are also many little conventions and customs in transliteration which have grown up over the years, a knowledge of which is needed to predict the correct Japanese form. For instance, 'Granger' is グレンジャー Gurenjaa rather than the expected グレインジャー Gureinjaa. In an attempt to recreate the short 'a' sound, 'Scabbers' is スキャバーズ Skyabaazu rather than スカバーズ Sukabaazu. In other cases, the pronunciation follows the spelling of English rather than the pronunciation, e.g., the name 'Graham', traditionally rendered グラハム Gurahamu.

Aside from English, different conventions exist for different languages. There are special rules for French names based on French pronunciation, special rules for German names, etc.

To represent foreign sounds that are not found in Japanese, a number of special katakana combinations have been created. For a list, see Katakana combinations used for representing foreign sounds.

Because of these rigid conventions, inspired or creative renditions of foreign names are few and far between. My favourite creative translation is from 'Lord of the Rings', where 'Gollum' is rendered ゴクリ Gokuri, the sound of gulping in Japanese. This was abandoned in the subtitles of the movie version in favour of boring old ゴラム Goramu.

Harry Potter: Not surprisingly, no creativity is to be found in the translation/transliteration of names in Harry Potter. Virtually all names conform to the standard rules of transliteration. However, there is some inconsistency in the rendering of names that look Latin, with a mixture of English-style readings and Latin-style readings even within the same name (see Remus Lupin, Cornelius Fudge).


In Vietnamese, which uses the Roman alphabet, there are two ways of representing foreign names:

1. 'Vietnamisation'. The traditional method, actually a rather special case of transliteration that involves the conversion of a name in the Latin alphabet into Vietnamese spelling so as to show the pronunciation in Vietnamese terms. For example, 'Scarlett O'Hara' becomes Xcarlét Âuherơ in one Vietnamese version of 'Gone With The Wind', conforming to the Vietnamese rules of spelling and pronunciation. There is often some variability in the way names are rendered. 'Saddam Hussein' may be , , or , depending on the writer -- and the same writer may even be inconsistent in his/her usage.

This method of transliteration takes into account the fact that the Vietnamese phonetic system is quite different from those of European languages. Although Vietnamese syllables can end in consonants (unlike, for the most part, Japanese), the range of consonants that can end a syllable is limited. Vietnamese also has few consonant clusters. As a result, consonant clusters in foreign names must be either broken up or simplified by omitting some sounds.

This method thus has the advantage of indicating foreign names in terms that Vietnamese readers find easy to understand and pronounce.

2. The second method is to use the original spelling unchanged. This is becoming more and more common in the Vietnamese news media. Saddam Hussein, for instance, is most commonly known as in Vietnamese. This method is international in inspiration but does require at least a rudimentary knowledge of English and its pronunciation.

The choice of method depends on the writer, the publisher, the context, and tradition. In the field of book publishing, for instance, modern British and American authors are more likely to keep the English spelling; classic French and Russian authors, for whom there is already an established tradition of literary translation, are more likely to appear in Vietnamised spelling. See this page of examples, photographed in a Saigon bookshop.

Harry Potter: The Vietnamese translation of Harry Potter follows the modern method of using the original spelling. However, to help readers who are not up to reading English names, the translator gives the suggested Vietnamese pronunciation in footnotes -- constantly in the earlier books, sporadically by Book Four.

While this is undoubtedly a step towards the internationalisation of Vietnamese, the transliterations given in the footnotes leave something to be desired. For instance, the pronunciation of 'Filch' is given as and 'Marge' as . One can only be concerned about the future education of Vietnamese children learning their first words in English via Harry Potter!

Many European translators of Harry Potter feel free to creatively substitute more suitable or interesting names in their own languages, something which rarely occurs in the CJV translations. For instance, Neville Longbottom is translated as Marcel Lubbermans in Dutch, Neville Londubat in French, Neville Paciock in Italian, Nilus Langballe in Norwegian, and Neville Velerit in Slovenian. By contrast, the CJV translators all adhere closely to 'Neville Longbottom', transliterated phonetically. This means sticking exactly to the English form, including the order of names, i.e., given name first, family name last -- the opposite of the order in the CJV languages.

There are only a few exceptions to this generalisation, usually when the original English name has a specific meaning (like 'Nearly Headless Nick', 'Fluffy', 'Myrtle', or 'Sprout'). In such cases the Chinese and Vietnamese translators occasionally opt for a literal translation of the meaning.

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