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How do you write foreign or English names in Chinese?

Writing Chinese namesIf you’re on this site and reading this, you probably don’t need me to tell you that Chinese has no alphabet, but the writing system is instead made up of thousands of different characters.

Each individual character has its own pronunciation, and corresponds to one syllable, if you are reading aloud.

Chinese works in a different way to Japanese, because Japanese has two sets of syllabaries (almost like alphabets) in addition to individual characters, and one of the syllabaries, Katakana, is used to write foreign names, or words brought over from foreign languages.

So if there is no ‘alphabet’, then how do you write foreign personal names, place names or company names in Chinese?

Let me explain.

In Chinese, you have to use Chinese characters that have specific sounds to represent the sound of the foreign names you are writing.

So how do you know which characters to use? Can you just choose any characters that sound similar?

The simple answer is no, you can’t. There are specific characters that have been designated to ‘transliterate’ foreign names. They all have meanings of their own, and are used in other contexts as well, but they have been chosen and ‘borrowed’ for their sounds.

If you’re interested, you can find a complete list of all the characters used in transcriptions here, but it’s generally best to just learn their sounds as you come across them.

For example, if the name you want to write contains the sound ‘ba’, you would use the character 巴, not other characters that might have the same sound, such as 吧 or 把. Sometimes, there are a couple of different characters that can be used for a specific sound.

In some cases, the sounds in the foreign name might not exist in Chinese, which means you have to produce the closest equivalent you can, and these equivalents can sometimes sound pretty strange, (you might not even understand them if you hear them),

For example Will Smith is (威尔·史密斯 wēi ěr shǐmìsī), which barely sounds anything like Will Smith, but it’s about the best you can do!

My name (Chris Parker) put into Chinese is 克里斯·帕克 (kèlǐsī pàkè). The ‘r’ sound is changed to an ‘l’, but the surname sounds pretty much the same! That little dot in the middle is normally used between two names, to separate one name from another or the forename from the surname.

Most well-known people and personalities have established names in Chinese, as well as most countries and place names, so you can simply look them up, you don’t have to come up with the name yourself.

One good way to find names of famous people in Chinese is to search for their name on Wikipedia in English, then find the different languages on the left hand side and click on 中文. In general, you’ll find the Chinese transliteration of the name at the top, right next to the English name.

Usually, the same characters are used for names in areas that use simplified Chinese and areas that use traditional Chinese characters, but sometimes different areas might have different established names that they use in specific cases. For example, Obama is always called 奥巴马 Àobāmǎ in mainland China, but in Taiwan 歐巴馬 (Ōubāmǎ) is used.

The problem with ‘transliterating’ foreign names into Chinese is that they can often sound very unnatural, and not like a native Chinese name. It’s alright for names of places and countries, and even for celebrities, but many people and companies choose to adopt a Chinese name when they are in Chinese speaking areas.

I’ve written about how companies and brands choose Chinese names in detail in this article.

Choosing a Chinese nameYou might also consider picking a Chinese name for yourself, to use with Chinese friends or contacts, or even to put on your business card if you’re doing business with China.

Choosing a Chinese name for yourself is no easy task, and there are many cultural and linguistic aspects to consider. I’ll have to save that for another post.

But for now, if you want to see how your name would be ‘translated’ into Chinese, try searching for your name in Chinese online, or simply type it into Google Translate, and then choose Chinese (Simplified) or Chinese (Traditional) as the target language. That usually works, but be sure to get a Chinese speaker to verify it for you, so you don’t end up learning the wrong thing!

And if you can’t find how to put your name into Chinese, just leave a comment and I’ll help you out!