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So I've been watching a lot of international news in chinese. I find that I have problems putting things in context because there are a whole lot of names of people and places which I don't know the Chinese transliteration for. I can remember country names and places and famous people to a certain extent but I can only memorize so much - plus there's a continous amount of new people on the news from congressmens to rockstars to murder suspects etc.

Sometimes I'm able to guess (eg. obama's chinese name sound similar, spain not so much) but it's not always immediately obviously.

Is there some sort of official method of translate names/ places into chinese? Is there some sort of easy way to reverse back to English?

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If you figure this out, tell me how! So far as I can tell, transliteration is wildly inconsistent, and there aren't any exact rules (although there are a few competing authorities on the transliterations in the news perhaps?) –  Stumpy Joe Pete Sep 19 '13 at 1:22
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See this, this, this and this if it helps. –  Question Overflow Sep 19 '13 at 2:56
    
It reminds me a real story: one professor in the department of history of Tsinghua University had translated Chiang Kai-shek into 常凯申. See, such mistakes can be made even by a professor of history! –  Stan Sep 19 '13 at 6:34

2 Answers 2

Names of persons

This answer explains that there are semi-official, conventional methods of transliterating foreign names to Chinese, and sometimes they are not the closest to the English pronunciation, even for English names. According to this answer, transliterations are sometimes done for different Chinese "dialects" - e.g. Mandarin or Cantonese - and, confusingly, sometimes they get mixed up, e.g. a Cantonese transliteration is pronounced using Mandarin, yielding an even more inaccurate pronunciation. For example, Taxi was transliterated using Cantonese as 的士 (Dīksíh) which is pronounced in Mandarin as di1 shi4.

Names of places

For place names, transliteration often uses the native pronunciation of the place name. This may not be obvious, but English transliterations are sometimes inaccurate too, for various reasons. For example, this question asks why Germany was translated as 德国 (de2 guo2) (the answer is the German name for Germany - Deutschland). Same goes for your example of Spain - 西班牙 (xi1 ban1 ya2) - España. For a truly confusing example, see how Japan's English and Japanese names have the same origin, but are so dissimilar: Nihon (Japanese) - Cipangu (Marco Polo, from Wu Chinese) - Jepang (Old Malay) - Giapan (via Portuguese) - Japan (English).

So in conclusion, there are reasons for the transliterations, it's not completely random, but it's very hard to learn because it's quite complex, so it may be easier to remember by rote.

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+1 for mentioning regional variances. –  deutschZuid Sep 24 '13 at 21:53

I am Chinese and I cannot do the reverse translation either except for the common and the established ones...

Some names may have multiple translations in Chinese from different languages, and usually modern names are translated from their original language instead of English. For instance, Putin is 普京 in Chinese, but staring at this translation, unless you know the palatalization phenomenon in Russian, you'll be tempted to think that it could be Puking instead of Putin. And it is possibly hopeless to see from the Chinese translation that the final consonant is -n instead of -ng. I do not know why it isn't translated as 普金 (cf. 普希金 for Pushkin).

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