Chinese to English translation and transliteration of Chinese names

One of the biggest pitfalls of Chinese to English translation is the rendering of a Chinese person’s name into English. Due to the sensitivities of the person whose name is being translated, this is one of the easiest places for a translator to commit a faux-pas and find his or her organization criticized for the quality of the translation. For this reason, special care and extra time in research is necessary when dealing with the translation of Chinese names into English.

It goes without saying that the first step, if possible, is to ask the client or the person whose name is being translated directly. Failing that, regardless of what region of the world they come from, check online to see if there is an accepted way that the name is being translated.

Here are a set of general guidelines for translating or transliterating a Chinese person’s name into English:

Transliteration of Chinese names in China

Chinese to English translation of the names of persons from Mainland China are the easiest as they follow a very standard set of rules. They rarely use an English first name in printed form, even if they adopt one for informal use. The transliteration follows the pinyin system which can be looked up in any good Chinese-English dictionary from mainland China. The names never use tone marks. When the person has more than one first name, the two first names never have a space between them and the family name (which always comes first) is never capitalized, for example:

邓小平 Deng Xiaoping
温家宝 Wen Jiabao
江泽民 Jiang Zemin

Exceptions to the rule in mainland China occur with historical individuals including anyone born before 1900. A famous example is:
Sun Yat-sen – 孫逸仙
Some famous individuals in Chinese history are now written in modern Pinyin, while others have kept the original Wade-Giles spelling. The context, the age of the document and the origin (where written) all play a role in deciding what transliteration method to use. As a general rule, translation of documents written in China before 1949, written in Taiwan at any time, or written outside of Greater China by a Taiwanese expert should be rendered in Wades-Giles, while the translation of documents written in China or by an academic or known person associated with the People’s Republic after 1949 regardless of their location should adopt the modern Pinyin transliteration.

Transliteration of the name becomes vastly more complicated when one leaves mainland China, as, outside of the region, there are no set standards.

Transliteration of Chinese names in Taiwan

In Taiwan, the vast majority of Taiwanese today romanize their names in Mandarin pronunciation using Wades-Giles or a similar system, which can be easily distinguished from the Hanyu Pinyin used for romanization in Mainland China and Singapore by the lack of the use of “q”, “zh”, and “x”, by the use of “hs” and by the inclusion of hyphens between the two parts of the first name. Unlike Mainland China, romanization of names in Taiwan is not standardized and one can often find idiosyncratic variants such as Lee or Soong, among others. Last name comes first followed by the first names. A hyphen separates the two first names, and the second first name is never capitalized.  The rendering of the names for two of Taiwan’s last six presidents serve as good examples:

蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen
馬英九 Ma Ying-jeou
陳水扁 Chen Shui-bian
李登輝 Lee Teng-hui
蔣經國 Chiang Ching-kuo
嚴家淦 Yen Chia-kan

However, there are Taiwanese individuals who use English first names, and when this is done, it is necessary to use their English first name in translation, rather than a transliteration of the Chinese. In such a case, the first name comes first, as in English.

謝長廷 Frank Hsieh

When translating a very formal, government or academic document, and one encounters the name of an individual with an English first name, then it is more usual to include both the English and Chinese first names, with the English name coming before the surname and the Chinese first name following the surname:

謝長廷 Frank Hsieh Chang-ting

For any well-known individual, a search online will answer the question. For lesser known people, if you don’t have access to their business card, you would do best to call their office and ask in order to avoid a mistake. When no other avenue is available, as a last resort you can use the Wades-Giles transliteration of the name, without use of the apostrophes or diacritical marks.

Never use the mainland China pinyin transliteration for a Taiwanese person’s name. This would be considered a major translation error.

Double-character Chinese surnames

There are a handful of common and a long list of less frequently encountered double-character or double-syllable Chinese surnames. Care must be taken not to think of the second character as being part of the first name rather than part of a double character Chinese surname, especially when the individual has a single character first name.

Using the transliteration standard common in mainland China, the most common six are:

Zhuge (诸葛), Ouyang (欧阳), Shangguan (上官), Situ (司徒 in Cantonese: Szeto), Sima (司马) and Sikong (司空).

Less frequently found however, still among the top 500 Chinese surnames are:

Mosi (万俟), Xiahou (夏侯), Wenren (聞人), Dongfang (東方), Helian (赫連), Huangfu (皇甫), Weichi (尉遲), Gongyang (公羊), Dantai (澹台), Gongye (公冶), Zongzheng (宗政), Puyang (濮陽), Chunyu (淳于), Danyu (單于), Taishu (太叔), Shentu (申屠), Gongsun (公孫), Zhongsun (仲孫), Xuanyuan (軒轅), Linghu (令狐), Zhongli (鐘-離), Yuwen (宇文), Zhangsun (長孫), Murong (暮容), Xianyu (鮮于), Luqiu (閭丘), Jiguan (亓官), Sikou (司寇), Xiangli (相里), Dugu (獨孤), Zhuansun (顓孫), Duanmu (端木), Wuma (巫馬), Gongxi (公西), Qidiao (漆雕), Yuezheng (樂正), Rangsi (壤駟), Gongliang (公良), Tuoba (拓跋), Jiagu (夾谷), Zaifu (宰父), Guliang (谷梁), Duangan (段干), Baili (百里), Dongguo (東郭), Nanmen (南門), Huyan (呼延), Ziche (子車), Yangshe (羊舌), Weisheng (微生), Liangqiu (梁丘), Zuoqiu (左丘), Dongmen (東門), Ximen (西門), Zhongchang (仲長), Gaotang (高堂), Diwu (第五), Nangong (南宮).

Transliteration of Chinese names in Hong Kong

Most, but not all, Hong Kong individuals have an English first name, and, with the exception of government documents, the English name is the one to use in translation. Similar to the rules for Taiwan above, try to determine the English name via an online search, by asking the translation client or by calling the person’s office. If the person does not go by an English first name, or no determination can be made, translation follows the English rules for transliteration of Cantonese in Hong Kong. Exceptions abound, so, attempt to determine the person’s accepted method for transliteration before following the standard. When using the Cantonese transliteration of the Chinese name, last name comes first, following by the first name. The two first names are separated by a space, are usually not hyphenated, with the second half of the first name capitalized. To see the level of variation, note the accepted transliteration of these famous Hongkongers who chose not to have an English first name:

All three names capitalized – no hyphens:

歐偉倫 Au Wai Lun (born 1971)
郭家明 Kwok Ka Ming (born 1949)
李健和 Lee Kin Wo (born 1967)
張錦青 Cheung Kam Ching (born 1963)
周佳榮 Chow Kai Wing (born 1947)
胡國雄 Wu Kwok Hung (born 1949)

Family name and first half of first name capitalized, hyphen between the first half and second half of the first name, second half is not capitalized:

董建華 Tung Chee-hwa (born 1937)
董兆榮 Tung Chao-yung (born 1912)
狄志遠 Tik Chi-yuen
董兆榮 Tung Chao-yung (born 1912)
鍾士元 Chung Sze-yuen (born 1917)
李嘉誠 Li Ka-shing (born 1928)
梁國雄 Leung Kwok-hung (born 1956)
王家衛 Wong Kar-wai (born 1958)
黃仁龍 Wong Yan-lung (born 1963)
黃金寶 Wong Kam-po (born 1973)
袁國勇 Yuen Kwok-yung

Here is an example of an exception. The transliteration of Hong Kong industrialist, tycoon, billionaire and philanthropist, Chen Din Hwa (陳廷驊) is a hybrid of mainland China Mandarin pronunciation and Hong Kong Cantonese transliteration as he was born in Ningbo. 陳 is Chan in Cantonese. Other exceptions to the rule are:

錢似鶯 Chin Chi Yung
關信基 Kuan Hsin-chi

Transliteration of Chinese names in Macau

In Macau, Chinese names are usually transliterated based on Portuguese orthography.

Chinese names in Southeast Asia

Chinese in Southeast Asia and other older diaspora communities are likely to romanize in their own dialect, such as “吳” becoming Ng in Cantonese, while the same character would be Wu in Mandarin. Romanization based on the Cantonese, Min Nan (a.k.a. Hokkien) and Hakka dialects is the most prevalent. Ethnic Chinese in Vietnam romanize their names according to Vietnamese pronunciation using the Vietnamese alphabet or quoc ngu, making them almost indistinguishable from Vietnamese names. In Singapore, individuals, or their parents, are free to choose to romanize their Chinese names in Mandarin, in any Chinese dialect, or in any other form as deemed fit. In general, however, the romanized name in dialect and in Mandarin (in pinyin) are both depicted on the person’s national registration identity card (NRIC), unless the bearer chooses to drop either of them.

Chinese from diaspora communities in Malaysia and Singapore can also be identified by the inclusion of spaces in their first names such as Tan Cheng Lock, however, as in Hong Kong, exceptions abound, for example, in Malaysia 楊永強 Yeoh Eng-kiong.

An example of a Chinese surname with many English variants

The number of the possible variations in the transliteration of a surname can be evidenced in this list of famous people for the pinyin-spelled Ouyang surname:

· Ouyang Ziyuan (欧阳自远), chief scientist of China’s lunar exploration program and an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences
· Ouyang Xiu (simplified Chinese: 欧阳修; traditional Chinese: 歐陽修), Chinese statesman, historian, essayist and poet of the Song Dynasty
· Ouyang Xun (simplified Chinese: 欧阳询; traditional Chinese: 歐陽詢), Confucian scholar and calligrapher of the early Tang Dynasty
· P. K. Ojong, co-founder of Indonesian newspaper Kompas
· Michael T. Owyang, Ph.D., economist and Research Officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
· Chung Owyang, M.D., Professor, Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan
· Jin Au-Yeung (traditional Chinese: 歐陽靖; simplified Chinese: 欧阳靖), Hip Hop Artist
· Bobby Au-Yeung (歐陽震華), Hong Kong actor
· Byron Au Yong, Chinese-American composer and musician
· J.H. Au-Yong, mobile communications researcher
· Ouyang Yongle, researcher in Chinese constitutional law
· Sharon Owyang, film producer and book author
· Lucille Ouyang, assistant director of many major movie titles
· Juliet Ouyoung, costume designer
· Darryl O’Young, Canadian-born Hong Kong racing driver
· Gui Rong Ou Yang (欧阳贵荣), Founder of
· Eric Owyoung, lead musician for the rock alternative band Future of Forestry (formerly known as Something Like Silas)