Yáng Méi told me this story just today. Unfortunately it needs a little explanation, but hey, you’re here to learn, right?
So, she has a Japanese student who had a friend visiting him. His friend is called Laurence. When Yáng Méi went over last week to teach her student, he introduced Laurence to her. However, in an attempt to make it easier (and, I suppose, more polite), he transliterated Laurence’s name into Chinese and introduced him as that.
At this point I should note that names transliterated into Chinese – unlike some brand names as discussed in this post – are done purely phonetically. That is to say, they use syllables that exist in Chinese to approximate the English sound as closely as possible, but they’re not supposed to mean anything in Chinese.
So, for example, my name, David, is rendered as “dà wèi” (大卫). It’s as close as they can get. If you take the words at face value, they mean “big guard”, but that’s just because those are the closest words in Chinese. A few more examples – Tom is “tāng mǔ” (汤姆 – “soup mother”), Roger is “luō jié” (罗杰 – “talkative hero”), and Sam is “shān mǔ” (山姆 – “mountain mother”).
Some names work quite well in Chinese because they fit the sounds that Mandarin already has – my sister’s name, for example – Camilla – comes out “kǎ mǐ lā” (卡米拉 – “card metre pull”). The Chinese phonemes are quite close to the original ones, so it actually sounds recognisable in Chinese.
A good example of a name not working particularly well is in an episode of An Idiot Abroad, in which our erstwhile dumbass hero Karl Pilkington tells a Chinese man his name so he can write it in Chinese calligraphy for him. The Chinese guy can only pronounce it as “kar”, because that’s the closest sound Chinese has (Mandarin in general has a habit of avoiding final consonants, which is one of the main reasons why it evolved into a tonal language). Karl Pilkington gets really frustrated because he’s an ignorant fuckwit who doesn’t understand that different languages use different phonetic systems, and it’s actually really difficult for a native Chinese speaker to say his name properly.
Another thing to note is that because of the tonal system in Chinese, what would sound like similar words in English (or indeed, Japanese) are actually completely different words to Mandarin speakers. For example, “tāng” (first tone – 汤) means “soup”. But “táng” (second tone – 糖) means “sugar”. Then “tǎng” (third tone – 躺) means “lie down”. And then “tàng” (fourth tone – 烫) means “hot”. In non-tonal languages like English and Japanese, they sound like the same word, because our ears are geared towards detecting only the word itself, not how it is said.
Anyway, back to the story – Laurence is “láolúnsī” (劳伦斯 – “work relationship present”). However, Yáng Méi’s student, whether due to bad Mandarin pronunciation or because he was told the wrong transliteration, boldly introduced his friend: “Yáng Méi, this is Lǎorénsǐ”.
Lǎorénsǐ (老人死) literally means “old dead man”. Of course Yáng Méi thought this was really odd, because to her, “lǎorénsǐ” and “láolúnsī” are completely different words. It took her about 30 seconds of awkward silence before she realised that his name was Laurence, and her student had attempted to introduce him using his Chinese name.
So… bit of a long post for a pretty lame payoff, but hey. At least you learned some Mandarin, right?