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If I understand correctly, Cantonese sounds very different from Mandarin, despite being written in the same way (omitting some small differences, which are irrelevant for the question).

If it is the case, how can foreign words be transliterated into Chinese on a phonetic basis, so that both Cantonese and Mandarin would read them similarly?

For example, suppose there is a Western company "Blablawabla" and I am writing Chinese text, where this company is referred to. Is it the case, that I would have to choose different representations for "Blablawabla", depending on whether the text will be read by Mandarin or Cantonese speakers? Or are there some "standard" characters that are pronounced very similarly in Mandarin and Cantonese and I have to be aware of them when transliterating? Or am I misunderstanding the idea completely?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

You're right, most foreign words are transliterated differently in Mandarin and in Cantonese. Sometimes there are even different standards in different Mandarin speaking regions. It's an interesting idea to use characters that have similar pronunciations in both dialects to unify the transliteration but it's not what has already happened.

A few examples of different transliteration in Mandarin and Cantonese:

  • Beckham: 贝克汉(姆) (Mandarin: Bèikèhàn[mú]), 碧咸 (Cantonese: Bīkhàahm)
  • Hollywood: 好莱坞 (Mandarin: Hǎoláiwù), 荷里活 (Cantonese: Hòhléihwuht)
  • Titanic: 泰坦尼克 (Mandarin: Tàitǎnníkè), 铁达尼 (Cantonese: Titdaahtnèih)

The standards used by mainland China to transliterate English names into Mandarin can be found here:

I was unable to find a good reference for its Cantonese counterpart though.

Related reading:

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Note also that in some cases, like company names [eg 迪士尼 Disney, pronounced dik6 si6 nei4], the Mandarin transliteration is used in Canto. Which makes the words barely recognizable. Plenty of HK street names with Mandarin transliterations too. –  dda Jan 2 '13 at 16:08
    
@dda. Yes indeed. Consider 道琼斯 (Dow Jones), which is dou6 king4 si1 in Cantonese. –  jogloran Feb 2 at 11:57

May be irrelevant but there are many western companies that do not need to transliterate their names in Hong Kong such as Dior or Revlon. In standard everyday conversation and even in newspapers, their English names are used to reference their products and not the transliterated name. In fact, I think many people in HK would do a double take if you referenced 迪奥 instead of just "Dior"

News Article Sample Links

REVLON

Dior

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This is an interesting topics. I will throw in my 2 cents too :D

Company Names

Many big companies hire PR/Advertising firm to conduct research to create localized name or brand name. Though many times they will end up with phonetic translation, some will get nice semi-phonetic, some of them get lucky with phonetic and poetic.

Famous Semi-Phonetic

Coca-Cola 可口可樂 / 可口可乐

可口 Taste Good / Delicious
可樂 可以快樂 / 可以帶來快樂 Can Be Happy / Can Bring Happiness

It is a very good semi-phonetic name for a drink.

Marlboro 萬寶路 / 万宝路

萬寶 Thousands of treasures
路   Road

Road to thousands of treasures. Who wouldn't want it?!

Famous Poetic

Revlon 露華濃 / 露华浓

The origin is a very famous poem 清平調(poem) by 李白 Li Bai

雲想衣裳花想容 春風拂檻 露華濃 若非羣玉山頭見 會向瑤臺月下逢

云想衣裳花想容 春风拂槛 露华浓 若非群玉山头见 会向瑶台月下逢

The poem is often used to praise the beauty of ladies. Perfect fit for cosmetic!

PS: It is too difficult for me to translate 清平調, I will provide 2 links here (1)(2).

Pure Phonetic

Too many, but I will give this one example

Dior 迪奥

This is a pure phonetic translation. If you reverse the order, it becomes 奥迪, which is Audi (the car manufacture).

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奥迪/迪奥 reminds me of 拉菲 (Lafite, the famous wine/winery) / 菲拉格幕 (Ferragamo). –  dda Jan 3 '13 at 9:47

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