Donald Trump has two most commonly used different names in Chinese: Tèlǎngpǔ (特朗普) and Chuānpǔ (川普). Both names have been used by Chinese mainstream media and netizens for years.
In the Chinese translation of Donald Trump’s autobiography The Art of the Deal (1987), the ‘Tèlǎngpǔ’ transliteration is used, whereas the translation of the George Ross book Trump-Style Negotiations (2008) uses ‘Chuānpǔ’ as the Chinese name for Trump.
Now that Trump as the US president is making headlines every day, more people are wondering why Trump has two Chinese names, and which one is the correct name to use. There are even discussions about the topic on Chinese social media.
Why are non-Chinese names translated?
Why are non-Chinese names actually translated into Chinese at all? With English and Chinese being such vastly different languages with entirely different phonetics and script, the majority of Chinese people will find it hard to pronounce a foreign name that is written in English/alphabet.
Writing an English name in Chinese characters does not just help Chinese speakers to pronounce it, it also makes it easier to remember. Most Chinese names usually consist of 2 or 3 characters; the first character being the surname, and the last character(s) being the given name. Writing a foreign name in 2 or 3 Chinese characters makes it easier for most Chinese speakers to grasp it.
Translating a name to better adapt to the culture in which it is used does not only happen with English names in China; you often see the same happening with Chinese names in foreign countries.
In that case, the first character (surname) is moved to the back, and the given name changed into an English one. Alibaba’s Ma Yun, for example, has become globally known as ‘Jack Ma.’ Film star Zhao Wei is called ‘Vicky Zhao’, and the popular actress Lin Yun is known as ‘Jelly Lin.’
The right way to translate a foreign name in Chinese
There are multiple ways to translate an English name to Chinese. Most commonly, a name is translated into Chinese characters that are phonetically similar to the English name, without necessarily being very meaningful. The transliteration of ‘Hillary’ (Clinton), for example, is ‘Xīlālǐ’ (希拉里).
Another option is to choose a name purely based on meaning rather than phonetics. One example is Elvis Presley, who is called ‘Cat King’ (Māo Wáng 猫王) in Chinese for his nickname “The Hillbilly Cat.”
The best option when translating a foreign name into Chinese, however, is to make sure it stays close to its original pronunciation while also using elegant characters. In other words; it is nice when a name’s translation makes sense both phonetically and semantically. Marilyn Monroe’s last name in Chinese is Mènglù (梦露), for example, which sounds like ‘Monroe’ and has the characters for ‘Dream Dew’ – a perfect transliteration for such a dreamy actress.
Even when the characters used for a foreign name in Chinese are not necessarily intended to convey a certain meaning, it is important that they do not have any negative connotations. Nobody wants a character in their name associated with divorce, disease or death – it is believed to bring bad luck.
Another thing is that it is good for foreign names in Chinese to maintain a ‘foreign flavor’ to it, to make it clear that the name is actually a transliteration. To give an example raised in this Nikkei article: President Reagan’s name is generally translated as Lǐgēn 里根 in Chinese – the characters being somewhat uncommon for a Chinese name.
The same name could also be written with the characters 李根, very common for a Chinese name, but then it would be difficult to know whether a media report is talking about Reagan the President or just a local Chinese person by the same name. Transliterations of foreign names, therefore, are often easily recognizable as foreign names on purpose.
Trump, Tèlǎngpǔ, and Chuānpǔ
In the case of Trump, his Chinese names are mainly chosen for phonetic reasons, with different sources using different characters.
The Chinese-language Nikkei newspaper dedicated an article to the matter of Trump’s various Chinese names, saying that although it may all seem trivial, it is actually quite confusing and unpractical for president Trump to have more than one name in Chinese.
The Chinese media in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and most overseas Chinese－language media, refer to Trump as ‘Chuānpǔ’ (川普). According to the World Journal, the biggest Chinese-language newspaper in the US, it is the only proper way to translate this name.
Then why, World Journal wonders, do most media from mainland China refer to him as ‘Te-rum-p’ (Tèlǎngpǔ)? Is it because Chinese state media simply do not know how ‘Trump’ is properly pronounced?
Not necessarily. The author of the Nikkei notes that while most Taiwanese, Hong Kong and Chinese-language American media use ‘Chuānpǔ’, most Chinese state media and Chinese-language UK media (such as BBC) all use ‘Tèlǎngpǔ.’
This relates to the fact that Chinese translations of foreign names try to stay as close as possible to the pronunciation of a name in its original language. It is also the reason why the name of the city ‘Paris’ is pronounced ‘Bālí’ (巴黎) in Mandarin Chinese, staying close to the French pronunciation, and ‘Amsterdam’ being ‘Āmǔsītèdān’ (阿姆斯特丹), which follows the city’s Dutch pronunciation.
While all Chinese media are actually correct in their transliteration of the name Trump, they stick to different ways of pronunciation. The ‘Tèlǎngpǔ’ 特朗普 translation stays closer to the British pronunciation of his name, while Chuānpǔ 川普 follows the American way of saying this name.
Although Chinese state media have followed the ‘BBC translation’ of the name, it would probably be better to stay close to the American pronunciation and stick to the Chuānpǔ 川普 translation. After all, Trump is American. The Nikkei author notes that if it would be about the Prime Minister of Britain, the Chinese translation would have to stay closer to the British pronunciation.
Chuángpù and Chuángpò?
On Chinese social media, President Trump even has more than two names. There are also netizens referring to him as 床鋪, 闯破 or 床破 (Chuángpù/Chuángpò); these are all transliterations that contain strange or negative characters, making the name unrefined and harsh-sounding on purpose to make the name ‘Trump’ look and sound bad.
Although there have been online discussions on the right transliteration for the name Trump, it is unlikely that there will be one official Chinese name for the US President in the near future. Many netizens simply use both versions of his name in one post to avoid confusion.
“Who cares if it is Tèlǎngpǔ or Chuānpǔ anyway?” one netizen says: “In this day and age, we all know who it is we are talking about.”
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