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The last name of the detective Sherlock Holmes is translated as "福尔摩斯"(Fuermosi) in Chinese, which seems to be strange, since the Chinese pronunciation is nowhere close to the English one, beginning with the "F" sound instead of the "H" sound. Since the word "福" doesn't vary significantly in pronunciation across dialects, it probably is not a dialectal issue.

Furthermore, the "ho" phoneme is definitely present in Chinese, and translating it as "侯尔摩斯" would be significantly closer in pronunciation to the original.

Is there a reason this strange translation was carried out in the first place, and was furthermore maintained over the years?

I was myself confused by this translation, when I saw the book in a Chinese library and could not initially place any detective story starting with "Four" or the equivalent, and only realised the true translation after browsing through the book.

  • Japanese with ホームズ Hoomuzu seems more accurate – user6065 May 22 '16 at 0:52
  • @user6065 In Japanese, there is no "fo" syllable, only "ho", so the situation is not comparable. – Drunken Master May 22 '16 at 19:07
  • in fact what prompted some users to look at Japanese (wondering about any connection with Japanese transliteration) is that there is "fu" instead of "hu" – user6065 May 22 '16 at 23:19
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The term "福爾摩斯" was used in newspapers as a detective example (中國亦有福爾摩斯), as early as 1905.

香港華字日報, 1905-10-25

Title: 香港華字日報, 1905-10-25 = The Chinese Mail
Bib ID: NPTCM19051025
Publisher: 香港 : 香港華字日報有限公司
Date Created/Published: 1905-10-25
Page: 7th

newspaper

An article talked about this topic:

福爾摩斯譯名及其他

i edited this answer, with sound files of "福", in min nan (閩南話) and cantonese (廣東話). one may compare these with the 1st syllable of english pronunciation of "holmes", have fun 😼

in min nan (閩南話), according to 教育部臺灣閩南語常用詞辭典:

福 hok mp3 file

in cantonese (廣東話), according to 漢語多功能字庫, using sydney lau scheme:

福 fuk1 mp3 file

  • 1
    @stan, how can you download the gif file, i tried so long, with various browser and OS; would you tell me, please :) – 水巷孑蠻 May 23 '16 at 7:43
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    Any browser with development tools on any OS could work. Since the transferred data are dealt with in Flash, it's not easy to find the url in the source code. However, all traffic is recorded by the "Network" tool of the browser, even if the data are encrypted. So, as one large pic should take over several hundred KB or several MB in the traffic, we can easily find them. – Stan May 23 '16 at 9:33
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Min dialects pronounce 福 as "hok", hence the spelling Hokkien (also spelled Fujian as per Mandarin pronunciation). The translation of Holmes as 福尔摩斯 is neither inaccurate nor ignorant. It has to do with which language/dialect the translator speaks, and in this case, a Min dialect, as pointed out by another user. When a name catches on, it becomes the one people will use. The historical fact that one Chinese dialect was chosen as "standard" Mandarin 國語 does not invalidate other dialects, nor does it render transliteration of names according to those dialects inaccurate. Another example would be the name Hong Kong, which is pronounced "Xiang Gang" in Mandarin. But I am sure the name Hong Kong will stay, and it would be a bit silly to say that the transliteration "Hong Kong" is inaccurate.

Adding some references here:

https://www.quora.com/Why-was-Sherlock-Holmes-translated-to-F%C3%BA%C4%9Brm%C3%B3s%C4%AB-in-Chinese

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    The translation was not related to the different pronunciation of 福. Don't mislead. – Frank Joe May 24 '16 at 2:55
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    @FrankJoe What is it related to, according to your research? – monalisa May 24 '16 at 14:10
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    The first two translators are not Hoklo people. This is a good guess but doesn't make sense. The answer is that there is no answer. – Frank Joe May 24 '16 at 18:12
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    @monalisa, the info on quota is, well, misleading. as early as 1905, the term "福爾摩斯" was used in newspapers, which was 3 years earlier than quora's answer, that 林紓's translation, in 1908. – 水巷孑蠻 May 25 '16 at 3:34
  • Comments deleted. Feel free to disagree with each other, but don't forget respect, please. Thank you for your cooperation. – Alenanno Jun 2 '16 at 20:41
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"福尔摩斯" is not accurate for the pronunciation. That's right. But this is decided by the first two translators for the book in 1902, Ding Huang and Zaixin Zhang. They translated Sherlock Holmes to "休洛克福而摩司", which is really similar to "福尔摩斯". In 1903, "福尔摩斯" was used in a new translated version by Wenming Press. But the reason behind this is untrackable anymore.

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Transliterations from/to Chinese belong to the realm of fuzziness. It is no more different than ignorant English-speaking people pronouncing Beijing as Beizhing (as if they had a speech impediment, unable to say "jingle bells"). Or people saying Mukden, Canton and what have you not.

Some Western names have been transliterated by sound, oftentimes using Cantonese, since trade was carried out in southern China for a long time. That is why Sweden is called 瑞典 in Chinese (Seuihdin in Cantonese, Ruidian in Mandarin).

Furthermore, Chinese names for foreign things are often translitterated with a fixed set of morphemes, 福 being one of them, in order to make such names neutral.

One could imagine a translator pondering a suitable transliteration for Holmes, stumbling over hou-er-mo-si as a first estimation, only to realize that 猴儿 means monkey.

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    @March Ho What about the Fujianese origin of the translator Lin Shu? That would account for the F~H shift. zh.wikipedia.org/zh-cn/… (see the note right at the top of the page) – Drunken Master May 22 '16 at 5:26
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    From some article: 比如著名“福尔摩斯”就是林纾首创,其实正确的音译应该是“荷尔摩斯”(Holmes),因福州方言声母h和f不分,这个错译就这样流传了下来。 – user3306356 May 22 '16 at 9:50

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