Thursday, March 30, 2006

Transliteration

I noticed this bit from an article about international adoption:
Qiu Meng Fogarty, 13, prefers her Chinese name (pronounced cho mung) to Cecilia, her English name.
I've always wondered about this: If you're transliterating a Chinese word into English, it's not as if you can maintain the same spelling (as you might with words adopted from French, such as "colonel"). Chinese doesn't have the Roman alphabet. You have to choose some English letters that represent the sounds heard in Chinese. So why on earth would you come up with "Qiu Meng" as the English representation of the sounds "cho mung"? I vaguely remember that there is a standard transliteration system that requires these sorts of bizarre outcomes, but why would anyone use it?

8 Comments:

Blogger dave said...

I don't know about Chinese but in Japanese the system of "romanji" is used. At first, it didn't make sense to me either why something pronouced "ohio gozaimas" is spelled "O-haiyo goziamasu". That was until I started speaking it to a japanses person and realized that when they said it veeery slowly, they included the supposedly silent sounds.

Omosiroi desu nee...

P.S. That means it's very interesting, and its not pronounced at all like its spelled... ;-)

8:05 AM  
Blogger Kirk said...

"Qiu Meng" is written in Pinyin, the official PRC romanization system. Pinyin is not intended, first and foremost, for the non-Chinese speaking audience. Rather, it is intended to help Chinese speakers have a consistent and sensible (to them) way to render Chinese sounds in a phonetic alphabet.

An older, Western-devised, system (Wade Giles) would have rendered the name "Ch'iu Meng"

11:46 AM  
Blogger Dr. Weevil said...

I once discussed this with a Chinese fellow employee named Qi. She got very tired of being called 'Kwee' when it's actually pronounced 'Chee'. Here's why the transliteration is so odd:

Some languages distinguish two sounds where others hear only one. For instance, English considers L and R very different sounds, but Chinese and Japanese people have trouble hearing those sounds because their languages do not distinguish between them.

Similarly, as I have read and been told, Chinese has two different CH sounds, two different SH sounds, and (I think) two different ZH sounds (like the S in 'pleasure'), all of which are significant: a word with one of the CH sounds will have a different meaning if you use the other CH sound. My fellow employee tried to explain the difference between the two CH sounds, but I could not hear it at all: they sounded exactly the same to me.

Anyway, the modern transliteration avoids special accents and apostrophes, and instead uses the spare English letters that are not otherwise needed for Chinese. Q and X are unnecessary, since you can always use KW and KS to express the same (English) sounds. As I recall -- it's been a while and I'm no expert -- the two CH sounds are spelled CH and Q, the two SH sounds are spelled SH and X, and the two ZH sounds are spelled ZH and J. That's why Xiao sounds like Shiow and Qi sounds like Chee and Jo sounds like Zho.

Apologies to those who know more if some of my details are a bit off. The main point is true.

11:33 AM  
Blogger anglolatina said...

All fine and good, but how does "Qiu Meng" become "Cecilia"? As a teacher of English to foreigners - mostly young people whose parents wish them to go to university in England - I am often confronted with names I can't pronounce, and unlike, for example, Korean students, whose double-barrelled names are not only practically identical to one another, but also almost impossible for me to keep in the long-term compartment of my memory, and who are not happy unless you pronouce their names correctly, Chinese students generally jump at the opportunity of being called something else entirely, like Nancy, Sherry or Wendy. I wonder how that leap happens.

4:45 AM  
Blogger Qiu Meng Fogarty said...

CORRECTED VERION: (if you accept this reply please use this one)

Hello Everyone,
I just read this blog. Maybe I can clear up a few things. Qiu Meng is pronounced Cho-Mung. My adopted parents did not pick Qiu Meng. At the orphanage, they named me. Qiu Meng means Autumn Dream. The characters in Chinese are translated to Qiu Meng. The name Qiu Meng was the official name on my documents. In 1992, to adopt a child the child must have an English name. My mother was filling out my adoption forms in China while my father was in Japan (later he came over to China to help adopt me). My mom picked Cecilia after Saint Cecilia because she knew my dad liked Saint Cecilia. I use Qiu Meng because my parents thought Autumn Dream was a beautiful Chinese name and it was my first name. Cecilia is only used for American documents because it is my OFFICIAL name and Qiu Meng is my OFFICIAL middle name. My mom said that I could change my OFFICIAL name to Qiu Meng when I am older. My friends, Hope Goodrich, Celena Kopinski and others use their English names that their parents had to give them when they were adopted but they also have hard pronounce Chinese names, which mean things like Golden Frost and Wind in the Mountains. I think that it is very interesting that names are the way they are but I do not think it is fair that this blog is on my NAME (which I have little authority over at the age THIRTEEN) and not on more important issues such as the actual article. The article and my Chinese heritage is why I am in the New York Times. Not the fact that my name is hard to pronounce or fully comprehend. I saw this blog and I immediately felt very hurt that the public is judging my name in a very harsh way (I repeat I am only 13 and I should mention I do surf the web all the time). I am only wasting my time to explain because I feel that I have to stick up for other Chinese adopted children who feel hurt by other people who judge from the outside instead of the inside. If you want to do something more productive start making a difference or joining a group that can- don't waste you’re time criticizing me (as a stressed out teenager, I already have enough critics from myself and others).

8:55 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Hello Qiu Meng!

I'm sorry if this caused you any offense. I certainly had no such intent! I'm happy for your adoption, and you should know that I myself have adopted two children (one from Haiti). I don't intend to judge or denigrate your name in any way. The only reason for my post was that the New York Times story reminded me that I've always wondered how Chinese-to-English transliteration works.

10:10 PM  
Blogger Qiu Meng Fogarty said...

Sorry for my other post. It was a bit extreme. As my mom said, "I would have toned it down or put lesss detail in it". :)

3:09 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

No problem! I understand. It probably feels a bit weird to see people on the Internet discussing you or your family.

9:22 PM  

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