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I understand that 英国 has a phonetic origin, Yīng guó is rather close to England. However I would like to know if it is possible to find out who coined that translation, and if there is more to it than phonetic similitude.

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In the article 论国名与国号 it is mentioned that 英国 stems from 英格兰.

On Wikipedia they mention that it comes from 英吉利 (English) and 英格兰 (England):

The written form of Yīngguó in Chinese is made up of two characters: 英国. The first 英 (yīng) as an adjective means "outstanding" and "fine", and as a noun means "flower"; the second is 国 (guó) which means "country", "state" or "kingdom". Originally the adjective word was written as 英吉利 Yīngjílì as an approximation of the adjective word English, and is still used to mean English in the Chinese word for the English Channel 英吉利海峡 Yīng jí lì hǎi xiá. The noun word was written as 英格兰 Ying ge lan for the noun England, also 苏格兰 Su ge lan for Scotland, 爱尔兰 Ai er lan for Ireland and 威尔士 Wei er shi for Wales. Also in history books Great Britain is written 大不列颠 da bu lie dian, from 大 (Great) and the sounds of the words 不列颠 similar to the sound interpretation.

I couldn't find any older (and better) references explaining the origin of 英.

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It's just a literal translation by pronunciation as you mentioned. There are plenty of examples of this nature in Chinese. 法国 (France), 德国 (Deutschland), and 露国 (Россия) - rather archaic representation of 俄罗斯 (Russia). –  deutschZuid May 29 '12 at 22:12

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