Ways and methods to translate Western names into Chinese names

In this article we would like to introduce the concept and difficulties of translating Western names into Chinese names which you can get carved in your individualized seal stone.

Firstly, we would like to introduce some basic concepts about Chinese names.

Why does the last name / family name stand first in Chinese language?

In Chinese culture, people traditionally have a very strong bond to their families and historically the affiliation with a family or a family clan is more important than the individual itself. Who you are in society is strongly related with your family background and the social status of your family. This has to do with the Confucian concept of putting the society and the family’s well being before the well being of the individual.

What are the options to conceive a Chinese name for a Westerner ?

A Chinese name is normally composed of two parts – the family name which comes first and the given name which should always have a nice meaning expressing the expectations and blessings from the parents for the bearer of the name.

Since despite its huge population there are only a limited amount of Chinese family names – often referred to as Lao Bai Xing (老白性) the ancient hundred family names – more emphasis is normally given on the first name (which in Chinese stands second).

There are usually two common ways for an English name to be converted into a Chinese name

The Phonetic Approach of choosing a Chinese name: 

In this approach, the pronunciation of a Chinese name should sound very similar to the pronunciation of the original Western name.

Advantage: it is easier for the name bearer to identify with his/her Chinese name due to the similar sounding pronunciation.

Disadvantage: when using this approach, Westerners are often given Chinese names that have odd or outdated meanings which is why we prefer the semantic approach. You can often see famous Western people – actors or sports stars – having tattoos with their Western name translated into Chinese names, but into names Chinese people make fun of.

When Chinese Americans who have been living abroad for many generations pick a Chinese name, even though they fluently speak Chinese, they might sometimes pick a name that would be unusual or strange in modern China since the Chinese language is constantly evolving. We want to avoid this!

The Semantic Approach of choosing a Chinese name:

In this approach, a Chinese name is chosen mainly by making sure the name is a name that does not sound odd but would be considered as real name a Chinese person would actually be using in contemporary language.

The name should at the same time evoke attributes related to the name bearer or attributes the name bearer can relate to, but at the same time have some phonetic similarity with the original Western name.

This is the approach we normally go for when we choose a Chinese name for you to be carved on your Chinese chop.

If you want to know more about this, we have a concrete example of choosing a Chinese name to be carved for one of our clients – Larry Butler.

Please feel free to contact us if you want to know more!