On Your Name and My Name:
English Transliteration of Chinese Personal Names

Junlin Pan
Northern Illinois University
145E Founders Memorial Library
DeKalb, Illinois 60115
E-mail: C60JXP1@wpo.cso.niu.edu

Going abroad, one needs a foreign name, which may fall into one of three types: switch, substitute, and hybrid, all depending on personal preferences. A switch retains the original Chinese pronunciation. The second type is a substitute of one’s Chinese name with a foreign one. The replacement here, however, is hardly thorough, because surnames or family names are rarely superseded, unless one is married to a foreign husband and willingly takes his family name or last name. A hybrid has the characteristics of both a switch and a substitute. It is a Sino-foreign combination, which keeps the phonetic part of the original Chinese name and, at the same time, takes in some foreign component, such as Wei Clare Wang.

My name is a switch. Its transliteration follows the rules I learned years ago back in China: write the given name before the family name or separate them with a comma in otherwise order; leave no space or use a hyphen between the two syllables of the given name; and capitalize the first letters of the family name and the given name. Of course, the transliteration I used is the Pinyin system, which was developed in Mainland China in the 1950s. I was not aware that most Overseas Chinese from places other than Mainland China use the Wade Giles system instead until I came to the U.S. With the command of the name conventions presented above, I considered myself having a good knowledge of how to transliterate Chinese personal names. Quite unexpectedly, I realized later that there was still a lot I needed to learn and work for in the area of Chinese name transliteration.

In 1989, when filling out the I-20 Application Form for studying abroad, I came across a problem. The name entry included three elements: surname, first name, and middle name. I was not so sure about what to put for a middle name. Should it be the second word of my given name? With this question I asked a friend who was already studying in the U.S. He told me not to worry about it, since a Chinese name did not consist of a middle name at all. Although this provided a solution to my problem at the moment, it did not answer my question of what determined a middle name in American names. It remained unresolved until many years later when I had obtained academic degrees in the U.S. and was working in a university library. An American colleague of mine told me that a middle name could be a baptized name or in most cases the first name of one’s grandparents, parents, or relatives. It could consist of more than one word, too. For example, in the name of the 41st U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush, Herbert Walker is the middle name.

For all these years, I have cherished the name given by my parents and never thought of altering it. This is not easy to do in America. First of all, to retain my own last name, I have to confront offensive situations involved in various kinds of communication such as mails, telephone calls, and daily interpersonal exchanges. Whenever addressed by my husband’s last name, I either ignore it such as in cases of commercial mails or telephones calls, or make active corrections, explaining to the addresser that I’d rather not to be called by my husband’s name. Such practice does not curb the problem from recurrence. Correction is an everlasting effort, because we don’t live in a world where people stay put. It’s been my consolation to find some people holding similar views about the name convention in the Western world. One of my professors uses her last name and her husband’s last name together as her last name. A colleague of mine has kept her last name after marriage. These people, though not too many in the Western culture, are my allies. It is equally difficult and takes persistent efforts to keep one’s first name or given name. For all the years I have been in the U.S., a lot of Americans call me Julie when they first meet me. Some ask me to pronounce my name so that they can say it correctly. It’s been apparent that for them it is somewhat awkward and difficult to merge two [n] phonemes into Julie. I’m pleased to see, however, that such difficulties do not equate to impossibilities. After a rather difficult stage of pronunciation, my American classmates, professors, and colleagues are able to say my name rather accurately.

Many overseas Chinese have more or less thought about whether or not to have a foreign name, though their motives may vary. My husband is one of those who once hesitated at the crossroads. He works at a private company. Due to the nature of his responsibilities, he has to deal with a lot of external business communication, in which he suffers headaches hearing people address him “Mr. [lai]”, probably following the English rule that the vowel “i” should be pronounced the diphthong [ai] in an open syllable. Neither the English “lie” nor the Chinese “赖” (shameless) suggests a pleasant connotation. Therefore, he wanted to write his last name “Li” as “Lee”. Another motivation for him to have a foreign name is that the “召” in his first name contains the [zh] sound, which does not exist in English. Despite all their efforts, the best foreigners can achieve at the pronunciation is somewhere between [zh] and [r], which is not to be found in English, either. His name, when said by an American in the first name-surname sequence, would sound like “饶威赖” [rau wei lai]. Because of this, my husband mentioned many times at home that he needed an English name.

His intention has not yet led to any outcome, because it is not easy even for the family to accept a new name. On one occasion at his suggestion, I took out the New English-Chinese Dictionary and turned to the Common British and American Names Appendix section, trying to find him a name with close pronunciation to his Chinese name. My daughter joined in with great joy. She did not need a dictionary at all, for she had plenty of names stored in her little head. Looking at Mr. Lie mischievously, she sang out a string of names at a high pitch, each followed by her lasting giggles. She was so amused that she fell into my arms with laughter, making a comic scene of such a serious matter. Later on, my husband confessed that it was embarrassing for him to have a new name all of a sudden, and he quite understood the little girl’s amusing attitude.

It is equally difficult to have a new name for oneself and for others. Although the motive is to make it easier for a new life circle, the result may be just the opposite for an old life circle. A few years ago a friend of mine relocated due to job change. We usually called her at home, but one day I needed to talk to her urgently and called her at the company. Unexpectedly, her colleague on the other end said there was no such a person by the name. After I tried all means in describing her looks, he finally realized who I was looking for. “I see, that must be Sara”, he said. So I found out she had an English name.

Sometimes new names come into being without your wishes. For example, my daughter’s name is very simple in format, surname plus a monosyllabic 阳. However, her name was derived into six different variants in the U.S. One time, an American wondered about the meaning of 阳. I told her that literally it meant “sunshine”. Since then, Sunshine became her most frequently used name, first among her friends in the neighborhood, and then at school. On and on, she was better known as Sunshine. Derived from this were Sunshine Li, Sunshine Yang Li, and Yang Sunshine Li on her school transcripts, Young Li on her piano certificate of merit following the English spelling convention, and Yang Lee on her plate of Achievement in Music. She was Li, Yang Yang in the photo published in the University of Arizona newspaper.

The last version came from my mentor professor who is a linguist and emphasizes the social function of personal addresses. One such example is that she requires her students to address her by Dr. or Professor prior to the conferment of their Ph.D. degree. A few years ago in one of her email notes she told me that I could call her by her first name. I replied that I was already used to calling her professor and would like to continue doing so. The Professor also holds firm views on the usage of proper nouns such as personal names. According to her, foreign students should stick to their names in their mother tongue rather than adapting an English name to go along with the American pronunciation tradition. She always followed my husband and me in calling my daughter Yang Yang, and thus thought that her official name must be Li Yang Yang, instead of Sunshine Li. As an American, she is very respectable and admirable for being protective of our original names. From her I sense the spirit of kindness and respect for others.

Although I highly honor the professor’s kindness and practice in respecting our original names, I do not intend by any means to belittle the practice of some fellow Chinese to have an English name. Actually, no matter how hard we try, it is impossible to retain our original names in a real sense. Once coded in Pinyin, what is left of a Chinese name is no more than just the pronunciation at the expense of the meaning due to the loss of tones and the pictographic characteristics of the language. Take my name Junlin, for example, the meanings of “beautiful” and “woods” contained in 俊 (jun) and 林 (lin) respectively are nowhere to be traced. When read by a foreigner, it is even more distorted beyond recognition. The characteristics of the Chinese language to express meaning via formal and tonal means are completely lost in the process of transliteration.

A few years ago, our library was to hire an associate dean. Following a general screening, the Search Committee selected two very competitive applicants including a Chinese for a campus interview. Since gender is not a required entry in job application in order to avoid discrimination in the U.S., some colleagues came to me and asked, out of curiosity, if I could determine whether the Chinese candidate was male or female. It is kind of hard, I told them, because there are a lot of homonyms in Chinese. Take “hong” in the second tone, for example, it could be 红 for a feminine name, or 宏 or 洪 for a masculine name. After hearing my explanations, the audience looked awed at the profoundness of the Chinese language.

Since sound translation or transliteration is the focal concern here, shall we, in speculating phonetic rules, take into consideration phonetic characteristics of both the source and target languages? For example, English has names such as Lee and Young, which are very close to the sounds of Chinese 李 and 阳, which in Pinyin are read by foreigners as 来 [lai] and 言 [jæn]. However, this is a very complicated issue, which may lead to a big reformation of the Chinese Pinyin system. Moreover, in the above discussion we look at only the English language. If Pinyin is to be reformed based on the principle of source-target language congruent characteristics, we will need to look at other languages as well. Are there similar cases of Chinese personal names in other languages? It is incredible just to imagine what congruencies could be achieved from world natural languages.

So far our discussion presents only conflicts existing between source-target languages in sound translation. In daily life, we may come across conflicts within the Chinese phonetic systems. For example, almost everybody has experienced the difficulty in finding Chinese books in an American library. Phonetic systems applied in the U.S. to catalog Chinese materials are rather chaotic. Different phonetic systems coexist in the same library databases. In the periodicals collection at Northern Illinois University Libraries, for example, some Chinese titles are in Wade-Giles: e.g. 历史月刊 (Li Shih Yhuen K’an); some are in literal translation: e.g. 中国青年 (Chinese Youth); and some are in Pinyin: e.g. 新体育 (Xin Ti Yu). Since this collection follows an alphabetical arrangement, of titles starting with 中, 中华儿女 (Chung-Hua Erh Nu) is on C shelf, but 中国高等教育 (Zhongguo Gaodeng Jiaoyu) is on Z shelf. The most efficient approach to find Chinese periodicals may be to walk through all aisles and write down the titles one is interested in for future use. Though laborious, this approach could be beneficial in the long run.

However, one has to be assisted by the book catalog in locating titles in the book collections, which are dozens or hundreds of times more than periodicals in number and follow the Library of Congress Call Number system in arrangement. One day, a Chinese student came to me for help. He wanted to read some Jin Yong in order to relax from the final examinations. After receiving zero result from an author search with Jin Yong in Pinyin, I tried Chin Yung in Wade-Giles and received a long list of titles. In the same catalog, however, many other Chinese titles such as 中国百科年鉴 are yet cataloged in Pinyin. Similar chaotic situation with Chinese materials can be observed in American libraries of different sizes.

Wade-Giles and Pinyin are the most popular Chinese phonetic systems in use at the present time. The former enjoys a much longer history, and used to be applied in library systems, international organizations and the media in the world. Its dominant status, however, has been greatly challenged in the past two or three decades due to the rapid development and the rise of status of Mainland China internationally. In 1977, at the Third International Conference on Place- Name Standardization, the United Nations officially adopted the Pinyin system. In August 1982, the International Standardization Organization stipulated that Pinyin be the international standard for documentation and translation of Chinese. More and more foreign libraries have started to convert from Wade-Giles to Pinyin. A hot topic discussed for years has been if American libraries should continue using Wade-Giles or convert to Pinyin. In 1980, the American Library of Congress announced its decision to convert to Pinyin. At the present, although the date for completing the database conversion is indefinite, partly due to some technical problems in operation (word division is one of such problems), the decision to convert from Wade-Giles to Pinyin is definite and unquestionable.

Everyone, who has a desire to search for Chinese materials in a library, will undoubtedly hope to see an early ending of the chaotic situation with Chinese phonetic systems. Our hope, however, does not necessarily result in what we do to help with the situation. Otherwise, the chaotic phenomena will not prevail in our names. Let’s have overseas Chinese from places such as Mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere write their names in English. What we are going to get will be no less chaotic than observed in Chinese book titles in a library database. In order to obtain a unified phonetic system, we must first reach a consensus of rules that everybody will follow. The first step in doing this is to write our names according to the rules we all agree upon.

My husband no longer attempts to change Li to Lee. At my inquiry, he said that their long-term customers are already used to calling him Li. Being as simple and without the awkward [zh] as it is, this addressing is not a bad option at all. Of course, there are always incoming phone calls asking for Mr. Lie or 饶威赖. Correction takes persistence and patience.

Author’s Notes:
The Chinese version of this article was first published in Hua Xia Wen Zhai (available at http://archives.cnd.org/HXWK/author/PAN-Junlin/cm9901e-5.gb.html), and then was collected into the book Away from Home (2000, Beijing: China Industry-Commerce Joint Publishing House, pp. 228-235). This translation version bears minor revisions.
Copyright © 2003 Junlin Pan.
Submitted to CLIEJ on 6 October 2003.