To the Chinese media, is Obama “aobama” or “oubama”?

US President Barack Obama will make his first visit to China from November 15-18. To mark the occasion, he’s changing his name.

“Obama” is transliterated in the Chinese press as 奥巴马 (àobāmǎ), but a promotional poster distributed yesterday by the US Embassy uses 欧巴马 (ōubāmǎ). Today’s Mirror ran a detailed look into the situation:

A Mirror reporter learned from the US Embassy that the use of ōubāmǎ was due to the fact that the transliteration was closer to the English pronunciation than àobāmǎ, which has long been used in the Chinese media.

But on the Embassy’s official website, the reporter found that both versions were used in press releases.

But according to Susan Stevenson, press spokesperson for the US Embassy, the US government was standardizing the Chinese translation of the president’s name to clear up the current confusion between the two transliterations, and from now on it would use ōubāmǎ exclusively.

The Xinhua News Agency keeps an archive of transliterations, and the Mirror confirmed that, like media organizations across the mainland and in Hong Kong, Xinhua has always rendered Obama as àobāmǎ. But a former polling station volunteer told the newspaper that on Chinese versions of last year’s presidential ballot in New York, Obama’s name was transliterated as ōubāmǎ.

There are competing Chinese transliterations of “Barack” too, 巴拉克 (bālākè) and 贝拉克 (bèilākè), as the Mirror presents in a somewhat confusing introduction:

Searching for the two versions, this reporter discovered that there is no consensus, even in authoritative media outlets like Xinhua. As is well-known, President Obama has the same name as his father, and “Barack” comes from Swahili, the largest local language in Kenya* and means “blessing from God.”

Because the name comes from a local African language, it can be spelled in English as either “Barack” or “Barak.” Therefore, both transliterations are possible.

So how should Barack Obama’s name be transliterated?

A Mirror reporter spoke to noted ambassador and translator Guo Jiading (current vice-president of the Translators Association of China, former director of the foreign ministry’s translation office, and a translator who worked with Zhou Enlai and Dengxiaoping). Guo said that Obama’s full name, Barack Hussein Obama, should be pronounced bə’rɑ:k hu:’seɪn oʊ’bɑ:mə. If he were to transliterate it, he would render it as bèilākè hóusàiyīn àobāmǎ (贝拉克·侯赛因·奥巴马). “Xinhua is right. There’s no problem there,” Guo said.


Rectification of names

The article goes on to discuss how transliterations are decided upon, and under what circumstances they may be changed:

Guo Jiading said that according to standard practice, a name transliteration that has been in use for a while cannot be casually changed; unless Xinhua changes its rendering, the Foreign Ministry will not agree to switch àobāmǎ for ōubāmǎ. He said that the transliteration of Kissinger’s name was incorrect — it ought to be 基辛杰 (jīxīnjié) instead of 基辛格 (jīxīngé), but once the mistake was made, it continued to be used.

A Mr. Pan of the English Office in the Translation and Interpretation Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the translation of names of foreign heads of state is not done by the Ministry; rather, they look to the standard Handbook of Translations of English Names, and do not make arbitrary translations or changes.

From Xinhua’s general editorial office this morning, this reporter learned that in general, translation of the names of foreign leaders is done by the name translation office of Reference News. When contacted, that office said that they take particular care in translating the names of foreign leaders, and for such an important individual as the US president, the chances are very small of any changes being made once a translation is decided upon.

Yet an employee of the Xinhua Multimedia Database said that if there were a need, Xinhua’s general editorial office could issue a notice that would implement the change. The individual said that the principle of “reporting first” meant that many people have multiple translations for their names.

For example, Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, is entered into Xinhua’s database as 威廉·盖茨 (wēilián gàicí, “William Gates”), but the version everyone is used to, 比尔·盖茨 (bǐěr gàicí), has not gone away.

A sidebar offers an interesting comparison of the way that names of famous political leaders are transliterated across greater China, from Obama to Bush to JFK to Che Guevara.

Guo Jiading explained that the multiple translations for foreign words are a result of different approaches to translation among the mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, particularly in names.

The mainland’s approach is to translate according to English syllables and preserve a distinction between Chinese and foreign, so that people can tell at a glance that someone is a foreigner. For example, 基辛格 (Kissinger) is immediately recognizable as a foreigner, but the Taiwan rendering, 季辛吉 (jìxīnjí), does not make clear whether he is Chinese or foreign. Most Hong Kong and Taiwan renderings of foreign names use Chinese surnames.

The translations also reflect different customs across the three regions. For the name of former US president Clinton (克林顿 kèlíndùn), Taiwan uses the surname 柯 (kē), perhaps because they think that 克 is awkward or doesn’t resemble a Chinese surname.

Note: The article calls Swahili a fangyan 方言, the same word used to describe local “dialects” of Chinese.

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