What’s your Chinese nickname? With one in five humans on the planet residing in China, and an economy that has just passed Japan as #2, it might not be so long before you have your own Sino-moniker. Since I don’t do much business in China, I’ve yet to pick out a transliteration for Translation Guy (although I think I’m going to do it as soon as I finish writing this blog, now that I think of it).
But whatever it may be, it won’t sound anything like Translation Guy. What a mouthful that must be in Chinese. That kind of tongue-twisting makes exact transliteration in Chinese, and vice versa, self-defeating.
In most languages, transliteration― transcribing the sound of the original word (often a proper name) into a foreign script―is pretty uninteresting, although there’s always the hope that, once written in the local script, it will read as something funny in the target language, but that happens all too rarely. Since Chinese is written with ideograms, the right character choice can make or break a reputation, so it’s a creative challenge for our Chinese linguists to come up with the right characters that will approximate the original pronunciation and create some nice associations to boot.
So while China’s rise hasn’t meant any rise in Chinese nicknames in the West, it has led many Chinese to pick English nicknames to provide a mental handle for non-Chinese speakers, since those four Chinese tones are a show-stopper for many non-Chinese ears.
I’ve never seen this nickname thing in languages with a high concordance, such as say English or Spanish. With your Spanish-speaking friends, the difference between Carlos and Chuck is pretty fine, and becomes a matter of personal preference and may change in the course of a single encounter. But the same is not true when East meets West. Chuck means “zipper” in Japanese (I had a pal who found that out the hard way) and God knows what in Chinese.
Thai, who speak with five tones, are big on English nicknames too. According to the NYT, Thai nicknames have gone the way of the water buffalo, much to the consternation of Thai language purists. New nicknames are all inspired by English-dominated global culture.
And as you’ll see when you watch Su Fei Lowenberg’s interviews on Sexy Beijing, there seems to be more at work than just work in the choice of English nicknames. While some may call these name changes “translation fail,” the whimsy and playful spirit behind the names gives them a wonderful integrity. That kind of language play is usually done among friends struggling with a second language, but parody and bad puns are the due and right of any language student, and probably useful in helping us to acquire the language skills required for more serious business.
Su Fei, aka Anna Sophie, does great bilingual interviews and Sexy Beijing is full of great conversations with the kinds of candid characters who fill the streets of China’s cities. As a New Yorker, I love street theater, in the sense of those little dramatic sidewalk encounters when strangers and neighbors tease, joke and horse around. I’ve looked on mutely in China, wishing I could join in, and it’s great to have a chance through Su Fei to finally get the joke.