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Nomina

weather: partly cloudy
outside: 12.3°C
mood: contemplative
Sometime last year, I logged in to mess around with a Javascript thing-or-other like I'm apt to do in the evening. I saw an e-mail come in and I was about to ignore it because it was from Orkut and that means, it's most likely spam.


It was from a boy in Bombay, India. He asked me to translate his name into Chinese.

I really don't like translating foreign names into Chinese. I can understand the interest, it's a novelty to people. But I feel like a side show at a circus.

I especially dislike transliterations of English names to Chinese. They are disparate characters cobbled together, whether they fit or not, into a soulless, meaningless mass, devoid of any warmth and humanity. And I hate passing them freely about like cheap plastic toys that come in your breakfast cereal. I'm cheapening my culture and my language. That's what it feels like. I feel heavy and disrespectful and there's a sense of betrayal to ... something. I'm not sure what. [Edit: Betrayal to my own sensibilities? Betrayal to my sense of what is right and proper.]

Names are important things. Choosing a name is not a trivial task and is something that is bestowed on us by a superior like a parent, elder family member, a teacher or a mentor — someone who knows you well or has the right to give you a name.

But Avi, the Indian boy, really wanted a Chinese name. And he was looking to me for help. Somehow, he singled me out when he could have easily found loads of other people. He didn't know any Chinese people. He wasn't taking Chinese classes, so he didn't have a Chinese teacher. He truly didn't know anyone else closer to him than an internet stranger who could do this. I had asked. It was mostly for interest's sake for the moment, but he wanted something he could put on a business card in the future, be able to explain to others the meaning of the characters and their significance.

We got talking. If I'm going to help someone with their name, I won't do it without at least knowing basic things about them, who they are and what they do. Through our conversations, I could see a sincerity, diligence and intelligence that I find very much lacking in today's youth. I find it lacking in people in general, actually, not just the young.

He told me that when he was born, his grandmother called him "raja" ("king" in Hindi) and it's become his nickname in his family. I had to smile at that. It's such a Universally Grandmother thing to do. =)

He told me about his Indian name. It refers to, Shiva, one of the trinity in Hindu mythology, who is indestructible, but who is also the God of Destruction, Art and Kindness.

I decided on:

王藝堅 (wáng yì jiān; wong ngai-keen in Cantonese)

  • as in 國王 (guó wáng) sovereign, king. It's one of the most common Chinese surnames.

  • as in 藝術 (yì shù) art, skill, craft, conforming to good taste.

  • as in 堅強 (jiān qiáng) strong, firm, staunch, strength.
藝堅 also sounds very similar to 意見 (yì jiàn) meaning idea, view, opinion, suggestion, sometimes objection and complaint... which I think is important to have.

Usually, when we name our children, we try to choose simpler characters so that they have an easier time learning to print their names in school. In that sense, the second character "yì" is very difficult to learn because it has a lot of strokes. But I took a chance because I've seen that character in other peoples' names and it's fine. It also says that I have confidence in his intelligence, that he's up to the challenge, he can learn it.

I wish you all the best, Avi. =)

Tags:


Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
razorw
Apr. 21st, 2005 06:44 am (UTC)
Interesting .. I had a friend pose the same question to me, but I dare not do what you just did. Picking a name is hard. I can't even imagine thinking of what names to pick for children. =P

But I do admire your choice. --Ray
axiem
Apr. 21st, 2005 04:03 pm (UTC)
I'll admit that sometime during my 2nd year of Japanese, I decided to come up with kanji for my name, so I spent (quite a bit of) time paging through characters and readings and such, and eventually came up with stuff.

Of course, my last name's kanji are so complicated that I can't remember them, so I always write that in katakana. But my first name I've taken to writing on stuff I turn in (because 木守 is so much faster to write than キース...)

Then again, I do have katakana versions of my name. And realistically, if I were to ever go to Japan, I would use all katakana over there.

I guess it doesn't bother me so much when a student of a language does it. But I do find it somewhat bothersome when people do it just because "it looks cool".
d2leddy
Apr. 21st, 2005 04:06 pm (UTC)
. . . But I feel like a side show at a circus.

Probably because that is what you are being turned into, and you detect that.

I especially dislike transliterations of English names to Chinese. They are disparate characters cobbled together, whether they fit or not, into a soulless, meaningless mass, devoid of any warmth and humanity. And I hate

So it fells like you are pedaling a feeling catering to someone else's patronizing notion of "authentic culture"?

passing them freely about like cheap plastic toys that come in your breakfast cereal. I'm cheapening my culture and my language. That's what it feels like. I'm heavy and disrespectful and there's a sense of betrayal to ... something. I'm not sure what.

With the exception of Avi's request, I humbly encourage you to follow your instincts on this, especially when these gratuitous requests come from Modern Westerners. Especially power-majority, caucasian Modern Westerners. While I can be accused of racism here, I'm going to say this anyway (and then explain why I am saying it): while cultural mining is not limited to caucasian Westerners, we do seem to have the market cornered. As much as is possible, we should not be indulged because it's exploitive and patronizing and 1) it diminishes and profoundly disrespects the mined, 2) it embarasses everyone, even the miners who are too daft to see it, 3) it encourages additional bad behavior, 4) functions as a "quick-fix" for people who think they suffer from "too much civilization", thus inhibiting real change, enabling the status quo, and finally 5) these behaviors turns us into something very ugly.

I write this because it makes me feel a little better. I have first hand experience as a cultural minor :) I asked a friend--a good friend--to answer some (invasive) questions about his culture. At a certain point, he refused to answer. I did not understand and actually had the audacity to feel slighted to have been denied information. I made a *big* deal out of it (read "made a fool of self") and finally appealed to my academic advisor--a folklorist--for support. She listened dispassionately, and then in an even toned, regular speaking voice that did not betray her annoyance, hauled me up by the collar hard. We had a very unpleasant discussion about white males in particular and being in the cat-bird seat, the nature of certain kinds of questions, how we tend to construe cultural items according to our own worldview and stereotypes rather than allowing those items to speak for themselves, voyeurism, cultural mining, and the unpleasant fact that not all avenues of inquiry are open. She held up a mirror and I glimped something ugly. To me, these things are so subtle--I just had no idea. I sat there and wept and as kind a person as she is, she did not extend comfort (read "did not let me off the hook"). Although I apologized to my friend with a full explanation, I've never really gotten over it. So, while I'm not asking anyone for forgiveness or anything like that because god knows these things are so subtle I probably still do it and have no clue--these things seem to reincarnate themselves in ever more subtle forms--it does make me feel a little better to point out when we're cultural mining.
bride
Apr. 22nd, 2005 03:33 am (UTC)
So it fells like you are pedaling a feeling catering to someone else's patronizing notion of "authentic culture"?

Very much so. One of chop suey, fortune cookies, take-out boxes, blue lanterns and pink brocade.

these things are so subtle I probably still do it and have no clue

For all I know, I could be guilty of it myself.
nicosian
Apr. 21st, 2005 06:50 pm (UTC)
I hated having to make up german and gaelic variants of my name, I have never seen the purpose asking for translation of a russian name to chinese. It's silly.

Mind you, I feel wierd wearing shirts with characters on it, because I'm afraid it says something embarrasing. ( i wasn't thinking when I bought the two shirts in question)
htenywg
Aug. 18th, 2007 09:46 am (UTC)
Hi, I came via the comment you left on . While I admire the way you decided to translate Avi's name and think it was a pretty effective method of doing so, I'd just like to highlight the point that 艺 (yi4) is a word made rather feminine by the 草字头。
bride
Aug. 18th, 2007 04:35 pm (UTC)
Interesting... maybe I thought it was okay for a guy because I know a few guys with that character in their name. Maybe theirs was a different character and I mistook it for 藝 because of the way it's pronounce.

I could be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time =)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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