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I have noticed that most Chinese translation of English names sounds really inaccurate and weird.

For example, the common translation of person's name "Robert Wilson" is "罗伯特·威尔逊", which is not similar to the English pronunciation at all, "若波特·维欧森" could be a better one.

So who came up with those common name translations in the first place? And why do they sound so unlike their English pronunciation?

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Actually they are following a traditional convention. To be frank I don't know how those conventions were originally invented but as a Chinese, I have to admit that it's very hard to understand those kind of names. I'd rather they use the original English form, at least for some movies' subtitles. –  Aw Qirui Guo Oct 7 '12 at 2:21
    
Many such translations are translated by people speaking a southern dialect instead of mandarin in the early days. As an extreme example, Holmes is translated as 福尔摩斯 and you may wonder why Ho- becomes fu. This is because the translator spoke a dialect in Fujian province which lacks f sound (trait of Old Chinese), and 福 is pronounced as huk in that dialect. –  user58955 Sep 19 '13 at 3:53
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3 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

So who came up with those common name translations at first place?

Those common name translations are known as 音译 or transcription.

In Chinese, transcription is known as yīnyì (simplified Chinese: 音译; traditional Chinese: 音譯) or yìmíng (simplified Chinese: 译名; traditional Chinese: 譯名). While it is common to see foreign names left in their original forms (for example, in the Latin alphabet) in a Chinese text, it is also common to transcribe foreign proper nouns into Chinese characters.

Homophones abound in Mandarin Chinese, so most English words have multiple possible transcriptions. Since there are many characters to choose from when transcribing a word, a translator can manipulate the transcription to add additional meaning. The official reference guide for transcription is Names of the World's Peoples (世界人名翻译大辞典), published by the Xinhua News Agency.

Chinese is written with monosyllabic logograms which may not correspond to the syllables in the foreign words. For example, a word of three syllables will be transcribed into at least three Chinese characters, in most cases three meaningful verbal units. Transcriptions into other Chinese dialects such as Cantonese will differ from Mandarin transcriptions, since transcription based on one dialect may not sound close to the original when pronounced with another dialect.

Names can be transcribed differently between the official transcription standards used within each of the different Chinese speaking regions. For example, US President Barack Obama's surname is rendered:

欧巴马 / 歐巴馬 Ōubāmǎ (Official translation)
奥巴马 / 奧巴馬 Àobāmǎ (used mostly in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia and Singapore)

When transliterating foreign names whose pronunciation does not correlate to the spelling (especially in Russian names), Mainland China tends to preserve the original pronunciation, while Taiwan tends to transcribe along the spelling. For example, Putin, the former Russian president, is called 普京 (pujing)in Mainland China and 普廷 (puting)in Taiwan. In this case, when t meets i, its pronunciation will become .

Source: Wikipedia

And why do they sound not similar to their English pronunciation?

The IPA pronunciation of "Robert Wilson" is /ˈrɒbərt ˈwɪlsən/

Referring to the English-into-Chinese transcription table from the semi-official Names of the World's Peoples (世界人名翻译大辞典), compiled by the Proper Names and Translation Service of the Xinhua News Agency:

/ˈrɒbərt ˈwɪlsən/ is transcribed as "罗伯特·威尔森 (森 not 逊)"

The person who came up with the original transcription may not be able to follow the pronunciation close enough resulting in some Chinese words sounding quite different from the original pronunciation. But since it has already become a standard, people tend to follow it and not come up with new things.

Notice also in the table that 若,维,欧,波 have already been used elsewhere, so changing one will affect the other.

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thank you very much –  Howard Oct 6 '12 at 23:03
    
A couple other points: 1. Sometimes transcriptions follow historical precedents (which might not be very good). For instance, 约翰 = John (which presumably was targeting some non-English language pronunciation). 2. The transcriptions are not particularly regular or consistent. One syllable will be transcribed one way in this word, and another way in another. Also, as pointed out above, sometimes Taiwan and Mainland transcriptions differ. –  Stumpy Joe Pete Oct 7 '12 at 0:21
    
@StumpyJoePete In fact, some dialect has "yo" for "约" like Shaanxi dialect. This translation may be from the ancient time, because Middle Chinese (see Wikipedia) pronounces 约 as "yo", "yuo", "you" or similar. (sorry, I can't remember it clearly) –  Mike Manilone Oct 13 '12 at 12:19
    
@MikeManilone That's interesting. What I was saying though, was that presumably they were targeting the German pronunciation. Because in English, John has a [dʒ] and not a [j], so "yue" and "yo" all sound bad. –  Stumpy Joe Pete Oct 14 '12 at 4:39
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Actually it use some words that don't have meaning in Chinese to translate the name. It's similar to the original name but inaccurate for some reasons.

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They are similar to the pronunciation in English, actually... 若 is often used for a girl's name.

A few rules... (hope more to add):

  • Use "l" more, except something almost the same as "er"
  • "son" is translated into "逊"

Some translations come from Japanese. The first rule is likely from Japanese because Japanese doesn't have "r" but "l".

And, pronunciation of Chinese may be changed. A number of translations sound weird today.

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"because Japanese doesn't have "r" but "l"" I'd say the opposite... Chinese has the L while Japanese has R. –  Alenanno Oct 6 '12 at 15:16
    
Perhaps you mean Japanese "r" is pronounced as "l". –  Question Overflow Oct 6 '12 at 15:53
    
Neither statement is correct. The Japanese <r> is a flap, and the only comparable thing in an English dialect is the alveolar tap in rapid speech for some speakers in butter. –  jogloran Oct 8 '12 at 1:11
    
Do you have an example of a translation coming from Japanese? –  dainichi Feb 21 '13 at 9:05
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