In Japanese, there's a set of 48 characters called katakana that is often used for transliterating words of European origin. (This is a slight simplification - katakana is used for other purposes as well, and there's some European words that don't use katakana)

Is there a subset of characters in Chinese (especially traditional Chinese, as I'm planning to go to Taiwan) that's used for transliterating words of European origin?

  • I believe there are several "standard" sets of characters to be used for transliterating from various languages into Chinese. There's more than one because different languages have different sounds and none of them map very directly onto Chinese sounds. But not all transliterations use these, especially for proper nouns, trademarks, etc. Also I don't know when they date from so there could be words from before the current set of "standard" transliteration tables too. I further believe most of these "standard" characters are rare outside transliterations. Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 12:06
  • By the way, why are you specifying traditional characters? Are you only interested in Taiwan or only interested in older Chinese usage before simplification in the '50s-'60s? I guess you might actually be interested in words of this sort that went on to be borrowed into Japanese too? Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 12:09
  • @hippietrail European words were transliterated into Chinese, and then borrowed from Chinese by Japanese?
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 21:45
  • Nowadays transliteration is rare unless in medicine names, and the names do use certain characters, it seems. At the peak time of transliteration in early 20th century, there were no constraints on the characters to be used.
    – user58955
    Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 22:49
  • @AndrewGrimm: I assume at least some must have. That might be a good question to ask either on linguistics.SE or japanese.SE (-: Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 1:50

4 Answers 4


Yes, there are preferred characters used in transliteration. But in Chinese the case is a little bit complicated than in Japanese.

In Japanese, Katakana is part of the phonetic system of the language (although in written, those characters can be used with Kenji).

In Chinese the phonetic system and the writing system are completely separated except in rare case where there is no character available for certain sound (In mainland China, the character with closest sound will be used, in Taiwan, zhuyin symbols will be used).

Because in most cases the loanword will be translated to characters and characters have meanings, translating European loanword to Chinese is a combination of transliteration and translation. This means besides the phonetic accuracy, there are other rules applicable.

For example:

In names, characters with positive meanings are preferred.

When you encounter consonant r, most of the time it would be replaced by consonant l.

When you are translating for a woman's name, characters with 艹 or has meanings associated to female, flower are preferred.

In certain field there are additional rules applicable, for example, Chemistry, Medicine.

There are also translations that have been done in the past but do not follow current rules. E.g. Smith in Adam Smith is translated as 斯密 instead 史密斯 which are commonly used in today's translation.

With those being said, unfortunately I don't have any rulebook or codes. Those are just generally speaking. I believe there are corresponding guidelines designed by authorities, but I didn't find any on the internet.

So a practical way to do that is check the wikipedia page of a word or a word has similar pronunciation and change the language to Chinese.


There're no such character set like Japanese katakana.
kana is a kind of phonography, but in Chinese only select similarly pronounced Hanzi(汉字) to transliterate loanword. Such as 沙发(sofa).

Of course there're some commonly used idiom for special English pronunciation.


Pretty much what @songyuanyao said, though, you will find some words in the dictionary that are marked (or defined I guess I should say) as "used in transliteration" like:哌、吖、叭...etc etc


There should be a list somewhere, as I imagine some linguist would have done research about it. It would be very long though. I don't believe there is an official one.

Some characters that are commonly used in transliterations, off the top of my head: 布, 斯, 爾, 尼, 拉, 克, 阿, 格, 雷, 卡, 達.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.