Recently I was handed an article on the difficulties in Boston of recording various presidential candidates’ names on Chinese ballots. The problem is laid out fairly enough in the article. Basically, all (or nearly all) characters used in Chinese have an attached meaning or set of meanings. This means that when rendering a non-Sinitic name in Chinese, one necessarily presents a string of meanings along with a string of sounds. The result is the sort of thing described in the article: “Barack Obama could be read as ‘Oh Bus Horse.’” No actual Chinese is given, but I expect that the possibility being referred to is 哦巴马 o ba ma.
This would actually not be my first choice in transcribing (I won’t mention the annoying confusion with “translation” exhibited by the article in question) Obama’s name. The first character is pronounced as a short open [o], rather than the [ou] that is actually in his name. And it seems that, although 哦巴马 has some very limited use, “Obama” is commonly written 欧巴马 (ou ba ma; Mainland, Taiwan) or 奧巴馬 (ao ba ma; Hong Kong). The Mainland version seems closest to me; the Hong Kong initial ao is mysterious: maybe it’s just convention to use that character, or maybe in Cantonese it has a different enough pronunciation that it makes sense. So why refer to the minority choice in the article? It seems that the meanings of the other variants are just as amusing: the Mainland character ou has basically been bleached of its native meaning, and mostly just stands for ‘Europe’. The HK variant means ‘mysterious’ or ‘back corner (of a house)’.*
And how about the rest of the name? The article says that The ma part does mean ‘horse’, and that’s spot on. Use of ‘horse’ to stand for ma-type sounds is standard. I’ve never seen ‘mother’, ‘hemp’, ’scold’, ‘[question particle]‘ or any others used. (FYI, the name for Malaysia is 马来西亚 ‘horse-come-west-asia/inferior’). But I’m dubious about translating ba as ‘bus’. It certainly is in the word for bus, namely 巴士 (ba shi) but whether the ba part alone can mean ‘bus’ I’m not sure about.
A curious omission is Sen. Clinton, whose family name is 克林顿 (ke lin dun), overcome-forest-pause. Of course, the ke part is almost always used for foreign names, except perhaps in 克服 ‘overcome’. At least, that’s my impression from reading what Chinese news publications I can understand. I’d be curious to know how native speakers react to seeing the character, e.g., if they expect a foreign name in its vicinity if they see it.
One of the most ridiculous transliterations described is that of current Boston mayor Thomas Menino, whose name could apparently mean “Sun-Moon-Rainbow-Farmer”, “Imbecile” or “Barbarian-Mud-No-Mind-of-His-Own”. Whoa. I don’t even see how the first two versions could exist, since his full name should need at least six characters, and (1) no characters that I’m aware of with meanings “sun” and “moon” have anything like the right pronunciation, and (2) “imbecile” is an unlikely interpretation for an (essentially) random string of six characters. The last option seems more likely for Menino: it probably starts 蒙泥 meng ni, with meng somehow meaning ‘barbarian’ instead of being an abbreviation for ‘Mongolia(n)’. But, again, this would buck the general trend: the mayor is usually referred to as 马尼诺 ma ni nuo ‘horse-nun-promise’ or 梅尼诺 mei ni nuo ‘plum-nun-promise’.
One has to wonder how much of an issue it is. When someone is reading about a candidate, how much do the characters used to represent the name affect judgment? I suppose when you’re a presidential candidate, or a Secretary of State, you probably don’t want to take any risks. The most realistic suggestion reported in the article is for the candidates themselves to suggest how their names should be written down, perhaps taking their cue from what popular Chinese publications are doing. And, I would add, having their names down in Roman letters as well.
*Sometimes I wonder of decisions about which characters to use are motivated by how their pronunciation would end up in pinyin. Using 哦巴马 (the nonstandard variant) gets you _o ba ma_ in pinyin. I’ve seen some other examples like this, where the closest similarity to English (or whatever other language) is not in pronunciation but in pinyin/Roman spelling. But at the moment I can’t recall any of the particular cases.