When learning country/place names or reading about non-Chinese people in the media I see the same characters used for similar phonemes (see these celebrities). What rule or list do the writers follow when 'coining' a hiterto untranslated name into Chinese?
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The following are standards for transliterating foreign names into Mandarin Chinese. There are a lot of exceptions due to historical reasons but new names are mostly following these standards:
Above are for names. I don't think there are rules/standards for any proper noun. As the other answer suggested, sometimes the translation is semantic, mixed semantic/phonetic or something else. Even for phonetic transliteration, people may choose characters to represent subject feelings or style over the one specified by the standard. In the past there were also incidences that one proper noun had multiple translations and eventually one defeated the others.
No list. It would be easy to make a list because it would be all characters (point 3). In general I think these are the rules:
I just mean x character has been used before, lets use it again because folks already know about it. Really just based off 2 and 3 below.
The frequency/stroke count of the character.
I feel like Starbucks is an interesting example, a phono-semantic one too.
The last two characters are the most interesting because they have no meaning and are used because of their sound and frequency/stroke count.
The desire to represent one's style.
I've never heard about a law that saws parents cannot use x character to name their children. I think such censorship would cause a revolution before youku got shutdown. So following this point theoretically any character is up for grabs.