A taste of our own Chinese medicine

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Chris Herbert writes:  

In one episode the Chinese Mandarin names were given for England, America, France etc and Mr Fry waxed lyrical about their meaning.

I was always told that the names were simply based on phonetics and were how the Chinese interpreted the sounds to match Chinese usage and inflections.

The same can be said for translating Christian names into Chinese - the pretty sounding explanations are added later.

An elf replies...

Yes, Chris, you're quite right.  In Mandarin, someone from the USA is known as a meiguroren, which means lovely country person, but really the word was just chosen because it sounds a bit like American.  Similary, the word for the English, Yingguoren, may mean hero country person, but it doesn't mean that Chinese people regard the English as coming from a heroic country.  Perhaps we should've been a little more clear on the fact.

With around 40,000 characters, and because a single spoken syllable can be translated in about 20 different ways, transliterating new words into the language can be something of a challenge, especially for companies selling their wares in the country's ever-growing economy.  Most famously, Coca-Cola had difficulty making its name make sense in the language, eventually going for K'o K'ou K'o LĂȘ which literally means "allowing your mouth to rejoice" but it was not before some shop-keepers had gone with other slightly less salubrious translations such as "female horse fastened with wax" and even "bite the wax tadpole."  Nice.

Shame we didn't make this whole interesting subject clear on the show.  Perhaps it's appropriate that the Mandarin for "sorry" can be written: "Dui Bu QI"

Sources:

http://www.snopes.com/cokelore/tadpole.asp
Mandarin Dictionary

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1 Comment

On the BBC webpage - Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Nerhu, not Gandhi.
Ted

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This page contains a single entry by eggshaped published on February 6, 2011 10:56 PM.

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