joye the obscured (dustthouart) wrote in linguaphiles,
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To the Chinese media, is Obama "aobama" or "oubama"?

A fascinating article in Danwei.
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)... "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.
Danwei quotes from a Chinese news article:
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.

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.


As a student of Mandarin and native speaker of American English, I find this particularly fascinating, particularly the reasoning of the quoted tranlator Guo Jiading. In Standard Mandarin, the IPA for /ao/ is ɑʊ̯; the IPA for /ou/ is oʊ. Why does he then say he would render oʊ'bɑ:mə as /aobama/? It really makes no sense to me. To me, it's like hearing someone say "Two plus two is four. Therefore, Xinhua is right to write the answer as five. There's no problem there."

Are there other transliteration conventions in languages you study that make no sense to you?

Then again, how much of transliteration is making it sound like the original pronunciation, and how much is making it sound like a word in the receiving language?
Tags: chinese, mandarin, transliteration
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