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To the Chinese media, is Obama "aobama" or "oubama"?

US President Barack Obama will make his first visit to China from November 15-18. To mark the occasion, he's changing his name.

"Obama" is transliterated in the Chinese press as 奥巴马 (àobāmǎ), but a promotional poster distributed yesterday by the US Embassy uses 欧巴马 (ōubāmǎ). Today's Mirror ran a detailed look into the situation:

A Mirror reporter learned from the US Embassy that the use of ōubāmǎ was due to the fact that the transliteration was closer to the English pronunciation than àobāmǎ, which has long been used in the Chinese media.

But on the Embassy's official website, the reporter found that both versions were used in press releases.

But according to Susan Stevenson, press spokesperson for the US Embassy, the US government was standardizing the Chinese translation of the president's name to clear up the current confusion between the two transliterations, and from now on it would use ōubāmǎ exclusively.

The Xinhua News Agency keeps an archive of transliterations, and the Mirror confirmed that, like media organizations across the mainland and in Hong Kong, Xinhua has always rendered Obama as àobāmǎ. But a former polling station volunteer told the newspaper that on Chinese versions of last year's presidential ballot in New York, Obama's name was transliterated as ōubāmǎ.

There are competing Chinese transliterations of "Barack" too, 巴拉克 (bālākè) and 贝拉克 (bèilākè), as the Mirror presents in a somewhat confusing introduction:

Searching for the two versions, this reporter discovered that there is no consensus, even in authoritative media outlets like Xinhua. As is well-known, President Obama has the same name as his father, and "Barack" comes from Swahili, the largest local language in Kenya* and means "blessing from God."

Because the name comes from a local African language, it can be spelled in English as either "Barack" or "Barak." Therefore, both transliterations are possible.

So how should Barack Obama's name be transliterated?

A Mirror reporter spoke to noted ambassador and translator Guo Jiading (current vice-president of the Translators Association of China, former director of the foreign ministry's translation office, and a translator who worked with Zhou Enlai and Dengxiaoping). Guo said that Obama's full name, Barack Hussein Obama, should be pronounced bə'rɑ:k hu:'seɪn oʊ'bɑ:mə. If he were to transliterate it, he would render it as bèilākè hóusàiyīn àobāmǎ (贝拉克·侯赛因·奥巴马). "Xinhua is right. There's no problem there," Guo said.

Rectification of names

The article goes on to discuss how transliterations are decided upon, and under what circumstances they may be changed:

Guo Jiading said that according to standard practice, a name transliteration that has been in use for a while cannot be casually changed; unless Xinhua changes its rendering, the Foreign Ministry will not agree to switch àobāmǎ for ōubāmǎ. He said that the transliteration of Kissinger's name was incorrect — it ought to be 基辛杰 (jīxīnjié) instead of 基辛格 (jīxīngé), but once the mistake was made, it continued to be used.

A Mr. Pan of the English Office in the Translation and Interpretation Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the translation of names of foreign heads of state is not done by the Ministry; rather, they look to the standard Handbook of Translations of English Names, and do not make arbitrary translations or changes.

From Xinhua's general editorial office this morning, this reporter learned that in general, translation of the names of foreign leaders is done by the name translation office of Reference News. When contacted, that office said that they take particular care in translating the names of foreign leaders, and for such an important individual as the US president, the chances are very small of any changes being made once a translation is decided upon.

Yet an employee of the Xinhua Multimedia Database said that if there were a need, Xinhua's general editorial office could issue a notice that would implement the change. The individual said that the principle of "reporting first" meant that many people have multiple translations for their names.

For example, Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, is entered into Xinhua's database as 威廉·盖茨 (wēilián gàicí, "William Gates"), but the version everyone is used to, 比尔·盖茨 (bǐěr gàicí), has not gone away.

A sidebar offers an interesting comparison of the way that names of famous political leaders are transliterated across greater China, from Obama to Bush to JFK to Che Guevara.

Guo Jiading explained that the multiple translations for foreign words are a result of different approaches to translation among the mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, particularly in names.

The mainland's approach is to translate according to English syllables and preserve a distinction between Chinese and foreign, so that people can tell at a glance that someone is a foreigner. For example, 基辛格 (Kissinger) is immediately recognizable as a foreigner, but the Taiwan rendering, 季辛吉 (jìxīnjí), does not make clear whether he is Chinese or foreign. Most Hong Kong and Taiwan renderings of foreign names use Chinese surnames.

The translations also reflect different customs across the three regions. For the name of former US president Clinton (克林顿 kèlíndùn), Taiwan uses the surname 柯 (kē), perhaps because they think that 克 is awkward or doesn't resemble a Chinese surname.

Note: The article calls Swahili a fangyan 方言, the same word used to describe local "dialects" of Chinese.

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There are currently 21 Comments for To the Chinese media, is Obama "aobama" or "oubama"?.

Comments on To the Chinese media, is Obama "aobama" or "oubama"?

i say tomato, you say xi hong shi.
you say oubama, i say 奥巴驴!

It seems the best way to avoid problems is to already have a Chinese name, like Kevin Rudd.

Does Hu Jintao have an English name?

I can see it now: "no, no, please Barack - call me Nigel"

The ōubāmǎ one is actually the transliteration used in Taiwan.

As long as Obama does not go to Taiwan, he will remain 奥巴马。欧巴马 is mainly used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. All mainland Chinese media call him 奥巴马。

I once wrote a post on this confusion of "one country two characters", if interested:


This is a very interesting article, but it omits discussion of a very important factor in Chinese name transliteration, namely dialectal pronunciation. Many of the conventions of transliteration derive from Cantonese, because historically it was Cantonese-speakers who had the most contact with Westerners. The foreign syllable "o", as in Olympics, was rendered with the closely matching Cantonese syllable OU, written 奧. When that written character is pronounced by Mandarin speakers, however, it comes out as ào. That's why "olympics", translated via Cantonese, is àolínpǐkè in Mandarin today.

Even though new transliterations are usually created directly by Mandarin speakers today, certain correspondences established in the late 19th and early 20th century via Cantonese remain standard and feel natural to Chinese speakers. So even though we might think that the Mandarin syllable ōu matches the first syllable of Obama better, Chinese speakers are used to the correspondence of Mandarin ào to English "o".

AFAIK, oubama 歐巴馬 is the transliteration used in the Taiwanese media.

'The article calls Swahili a fangyan 方言, the same word used to describe local "dialects" of Chinese.'

Actually they use this word for local languages unrelated to Chinese as well like the Tai languages in Guangxi, and Yao and Miao. I've seen English speakers use "dialect" for African languages too, and I think the implication is (in English and Chinese) that the writer or speaker somehow perceives them as of less worth than the European or Chinese "languages".

As for Obama, Hell will freeze over before Xinhua accepts anything invented in Taiwan or HK as a standard. They're still trying to teach people to say 計算機 for computer when ordinary people have said 電腦 for years.

Both the literal meaning and connotations of Chinese "fāngyán" (方言) and English "dialect" are different, even though the two terms are usually considered equivalent when translating. "Fāngyán" literally means "regional speech" (or, if you prefer a fancier, term, "topolect"), and has been used with this meaning for at least 2000 years since Yáng Xióng wrote his famous book of that name. As such, the term is applied equally to regional forms of Chinese and to regional forms of non-Chinese languages. Generally speaking, the term does not have the kind of pejorative sense of "non-standard" that the term "dialect" carries for many speakers of English.

In more technical linguistic usage, English "dialect" refers to a speech form that is mutually intelligible with another speech form, i.e. not a distinct language. In Chinese, however, mutual intelligibility is not a criterion for labeling something a "fāngyán".

Thus the reference in Chinese to Swahili as a "fāngyán = regional speech" of Kenya is perfectly reasonable, and it neatly sidesteps the language vs. dialect issue. I don't think it's meant to be denigrating at all.

"the term does not have the kind of pejorative sense of "non-standard" that the term "dialect" carries for many speakers of English."

That's true of non-specialist use, I should have added that the pejorative term was confined to non-linguists. In English technical use "dialect" is a great equaliser meaning "any variation of a language shared by a group" including any state-sponsored standard such as Putonghua/Guoyu. Chinese doesn't have any term corresponding to this, 語言變體 (yuyan bianti) seems to come the closest, but I don't think non-specialists would use or even understand that term, but I've never tried it out on any passers by, so I don't know for sure.

How about 呕霸骂?

Swahili is not a "fangyan-regional speech". Rather, it is a "yuyan-literary language", with written as well as spoken forms, and is one of the official national languages of Kenya (the other being English).

欧巴马, hmmm, any relation to 欧巴桑?

no idea why he abandon a perfectly normal and standard looking foreigner's name into something that's so easy to make fun of.

奥 is standard in translating foreign sounds and names, think "Olympics". Granted it doesn't sound as close as 欧, but there is kind of a convention people follow for non-chinese words.

What about 沃巴马 Wo Ba Ma?

Keep in mind that when possible, transliteration of names takes characters with "good" assocations, rather than random (neutral/bad) characters that preserve phonetic accuracy. Hence Viagra = WEI GE, "great brother", rather than WEI YA JIA LA, which seems less marketable.
OU is traditionally used for "Euro-". OUYUAN = euro currency, OUZHOU = Europe.
AO is already used for the first sound of Olympics, Ao lin pi ke. Though OU is phonetically closer, I'd think that AO for Olympics is a better sell than OU for European, esp. for the name of the first African-American POTUS!


Aren't these just phonetic transcriptions?
What is a "standard foreigner name" ?

Would any self-respecting country really leave it to a local news agency to translate the name of its national leader?

This seems an absolute no-brainer - or am I off my rocker???

Names published by one country are automatically accepted in other countries. right or wrong?

Isn't that why we have translations like Hatoyama,Medvedev, or even Hu in English?

Just imagine if those countries left the decision to Fox News?

Hsinhua's obstinate refusal to recognize a world leader by his official name is not only disrespectful and will only make it harder to tell Who's Hu.

I've always thought Kobe Bryant's name should be translated as "扣比" instead of 科比.
扣比 literally means "slam dunk competition" in Chinese basketball terms while 科比 actually means "science contest".
At least they didn't use "口鼻" (Mouth Nose), which is what my computer selects from pinyin when I type "koubi".

My Chinese friend in Orlando worked as a calligrapher at the former "Splendid China" theme park where his job was to translate guest's names into Chinese characters. He once told me of an amusing dilemma when one day he was asked to come up with a translation for a lady named "Debbie Nima". He finally decided to only translate her first name, 德比, and omit her surname altogether because he didn't like the sound of "Ni De Bi" or "Ni Ma De Bi".

The Chinese need to learn to respect other governments - It is not for them to tell foreign leaders how to spell/write their names. If the US Government decides it is OUBAMA then it is official, just like Hu Jintao became official when the PRC govt decided on that English translation.

As an American in Asia I am proud that our Shanghai consulate finally stood up and said enough to Chinese fiddling with our names. The Chinese used to use insulting words for Hawaii, strange names for San Francisco, and changed the names of nearly every US leader. And for unknown reasons, our government swallowed its pride and accepted the mangling of our leaders names. Hopefully we learned from the Koreans, who just said NO and convinced the Chinese to call Seoul by its rightful name. LEt us see how this plays out and if our diplomats have the backbone to stand up to what is likely to be a counter attack from conservative sinocentric factions.

Are you guys actually suggesting that the United States of America let a foreign government dictate how to write the name of the President of the United States?

What are you smoking? I thought this was a serious site but this posting is ridiculous.

Should we start calling the PRC leader Hutchinton because it sounds better in English??

I am sure that even ordinary Chinese people realize that it is not for their government decide on what to call foreign leaders.

This is not only insulting to the USA but insults the intelligence of the Chinese people.

Happy 4th of July


What is the primary source for a leader's name. Is it the government of the country or is it the foreign journalists? Usually the country decides - at least I know in France that is what we do. Maybe to America, where most people only know English, other languages do not matter so they just leave it to the locals to choose their President's name. But normally it should not be up to the reporters to pick and choose.

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