Books about Chinese history in English should translate Chinese names in a better way


They are translated into pinyin:

王洪文 --> Wang Hongwen

张春桥 --> Zhang Chunqiao

The Problem

For people unfamiliar with these names, it's really hard to keep track of who is who. The sounds don't mean things in English, so they can't be easily remembered or distinguished from each other.

A solution!

Translate the names symbolically! Instead of "Wang" translate "King". This works for a lot of names and gives the mind something to hold onto in the middle of some random (in English) sounds. It wouldn't work for every name, but it would add some sonic contrast that would make it way easier.

Which of these representations of names do you have a better chance to remember anything about, a month after reading a book on Chinese history? Which one would be easy to match up identity with personal characteristics and actions?

Zhang Chunqiao ---- 张春桥 ---- Zhang Spring Bridge

Wang Hongwen ---- 王洪文 ---- King Flood Culture

If I saw a reference to "Mr. King Flood Culture" 200 pages later in a book, there would be at least a chance I'd realize it was the same guy.


This has the additional benefit of being more distinct than normal Chinese -> Pinyin name translations.


There should be an attempt to standardize the way this would be done, and sometimes non-primary meanings of characters could be chosen to make it sound better.

The cost

Would be that people reading stories would remember unreal names for things - but the benefit would be that they would actually be able to understand & keep track of the relationships between historical and political figures, and the huge number of committee chairs, generals, authors, artists etc. that play in Chinese history.

What we'd be giving up also isn't actually the real Chinese name of the person, anyway. Pinyin isn't based on English sounds, so the pronunciations that readers come up for those blocks of letters don't sound at all like the real name. It doesn't have tones, either, making it not real Chinese. Also, part of the beauty of the real name is in the characters - that's lost, too.

For almost all names, if you took a non-Chinese english speaker and had her read pinyin names from history to real Chinese speakers, the Chinese speaker would not be able to figure out who they were talking about, anyway. The supposed knowledge about names that non-Chinese speakers have is actually pretty worthless in China. Try having a visitor from home pronounce "Deng Xiaoping" to a Chinese bus driver - the guy will never be able to understand what she means.

Without tones, and with the wrong pronunciation, the pinyin names we use are almost useless, anyway.

So we'd really only lose a very blurry, meaningless string of English letters, and replace it with something that at least is memorable, and possibly even catches some of the charm of real Chinese names.

Think about it in reverse

Imagine if in discussing Chinese communist government history, we never translated the names of committees - just used their pinyin versions. It's more "honest" to the true sound of Chinese. Would that be better?

It would mean that the average reader would be lost in a mass of incomprehensible blocks of letters, and would glaze over. They'd just rely on the author to preface every mention of a committee by a small explanation of which one it was again. Not using descriptive (or at least english-meaningful) committee names just makes a big class of stories incomprehensible to amateur readers.

That is the situation we are with with names right now. Would authors even attempt to tell a complex story of the interplay between 12 members of a committee? No matter how important the story, authors are less likely to do it in english because they know the reader won't be able to follow the names. No matter how much characterization the author does, it won't stick, so the author will need to introduce character actions with little descriptions, like "The old general Wang talked to the new father Zhang", or "committee chairman Yang rushed back from his home in Sichuan".

What's Important

We don't insist interested readers about Chinese history learn pinyin names of committees - we help them understand history by giving them unique names.

Chinese history has some amazing stories, and it's also really important for people to understand things that have happened - perhaps more important than it is for them to have seen (and completely mispronounced) a pinyin representation of a Chinese name.