This week, I received the strangest of emails from a remote connection in China. Perceiving that her childhood English nickname “little Panda” wasn’t conducive to professional success, she wrote to me asking for — get this — some name suggestions. Requesting only that the names were “special,” she allowed me free reign to choose as I saw fit. I was stunned and more than a little overwhelmed.
After all, what’s in a name? To what extent does it shape our self-image, influence how people perceive us, or even determine who we are? Certainly, there is a difference between naming a child Parth and naming him Bjorn – but what about between Fred and George? My mother is fond of telling me that if she’d had her way, I would have been named Dennis. It seems to me the strangest of thoughts: being a Dennis would have put me at the front of alphabetic lines in kindergarten, forced me to confront peers with the same name, and saved me from the wealth of Gilmore girl references that have colored my time at Yale. And these are just the most superficial observations.
Yet, naming a child is only a fraction as difficult as naming a full grown adult. How exactly does one go about doing it? Surely it must involve some complicated calculation that weighs personal attributes, national sympathies, future aspirations, and the like. One would want to avoid naming the up and coming CCP politician Candy or dubbing the rebellious punk rocker Wilhelmina, for example. The responsibility is tremendous.
Nevertheless, mid-life renamings happen every day. As disparate cultures deepen their interactions, it becomes as necessary to translate personal names as it is to adapt the monikers of international organizations. Searching the web, one can even find numerous websites that will do the job for you. Their accuracy of their ‘direct equivalents’ is dubious.
Efforts to translate English names into Chinese have produced some fascinating results. Take for example Michael Jordan, which is rendered Maikeer Qiaodan, or Bill Gates, which comes out of the wash as Bier Gai Ci. There is actually a very interesting political dynamic behind the whole enterprise – deciding a standard Chinese translation takes a heated battle between news agencies, the government, and even the American embassy. Up for debate right now? If Aobama is going to triumph in the ongoing struggle against Oubama.
In response to the recent query, I sent a guarded response, explaining my basic understanding of translating a Chinese name into English and providing a personalized example. I made sure to explain that the choice must be her own. After all, a name is more important than we realize; choosing one is an enormous task. No wonder Yale’s language departments use random name generators.