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Media newlight on 18 Nov 2009 08:06 pm

Obama left China with a new name

I was a bit surprised to learn that US embassy in China is working to ‘standardize the translation of common vocabulary in Chinese.’ They want White House to be translated as Bai Wu (白屋), instead of Bai Gong (白宫, meaning white palace), and Obama to be Oubama (欧巴马) instead of Aobama (奥巴马).

Well they are fighting a losing battle. Bai Gong has been commonly used to call the White House for many years (I doubt it has ever been called anything else). Bai Wu is plainly ridicules. I’m not sure whether this is political correctness or purely bureaucratic – in order for Chinese not to confuse President Obama with a monarch?

Washington Post also managed to read into the choice of Aobama and Oubama as a political gesture. Aobama is used in China mainland, while Oubama is used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. So Beijing’s insistence of using Aobama in the face of American ‘standardization’ must have some political undercurrent? It even suggests Ao (奥) in Chinese could mean ‘difficult to understand’, ‘abstruse’ and ‘obscure’, as if using Aobama is Beijing’s way of subtly demeaning Obama. I have to say this is fanciful over-reading. The simple fact is Aobama or Oubama doesn’t have much difference. Aobama, if you read aloud in Mandarin Chinese, sounds better, more masculine I would say, than Oubama. The character Ao itself, meanwhile, belongs to a pool of Chinese characters often used to translate foreign names, not associated with ‘difficult to understand’ etc. in such case.

Perhaps we shouldn’t dwell on Obama’s official Chinese name, because he’s in danger of acquiring an unflattering nickname there. A lot of English media reported in headline that in a Shanghai ‘town hall’ style meeting, Obama ‘attacked Chinese internet censorship’. No he didn’t ‘attack’ anything. Instead, he was trying to tip-toe around this sensitive issue in order to satisfy his domestic audiences, not to offend the Chinese authorities, and charm the Chinese internet population. A difficult task indeed.

Chinese internet users, the proud ‘netizens’ as they call themselves, were not amused. Often fierce and verbally inventive, they have started to call Obama ‘Xi Ni Ma’ (稀泥马), which can be roughly translated back to English as something like ‘muddling horse’. If you’re familiar with the story of ‘Cao Ni Ma’ (grass mud horse), you will know this plays on the similar spirit. ‘Ma’, the last syllable in Obama’s Chinese name, means ‘horse’ – nothing derogatory here, mind you. ‘Xi Ni’, though, is to describe the act of muddling through to make everyone pleased.

To be fair to Obama, nobody should expect him can somehow change China’s internet censorship by denouncing it publicly in China. Indeed part of exchange on that meeting itself was censored, so is his interview with Southern Weekly newspaper rumoured to be. I guess that is not the first thing in his mind when he touched down in Shanghai. He certainly has more pressing issues to talk about with the Chinese leaders. The result is that Obama bat off this censorship question relatively well but, (not) helped by the social network media, he may have to leave China with a nickname that I don’t think he’s too eager to keep.

36 Responses to “Obama left China with a new name”

  1. on 21 Nov 2009 at 04:43 1.George said …

    “A loosing battle”

    You have got to be kidding..

    Should governments around the world surrender and let the Chinese press decide how to label their institutions and leaders?

    The official translation for White House (白屋) means “white house” in Chinese. How is that ridiculous? Translating it as 白宫, which means “White Palace” is not only ridiculous, it misleads people about the nature of a Democratic system, where the head of state is a public servant, elected by the people, not a king in a palace.

    Maybe the English press should change the translation of 中南海 into the “New Forbidden City”

  2. on 25 Nov 2009 at 08:40 2.George said …

    Why is this an even issue? When China wanted to change the translation of 北京 was that less masculine that Peking? These are only phonetic transcriptions just like Mumbai instead of Bombay, or Myanmar instead of Burma, etc. If Hu Jintao was transcribed as Hoo Gene Tow surely the Chinese government would not stand by idly.

    If I understand your article correctly, we should still be saying Peking, Bombay, Burma, Mukden, Formosa, Ivory Coast in English..

    There are heaps of mistranslations, some insulting, floating around in the Chinese media so it is good to see countries like the Republic of Korea and the US of A finally take a position on this matters, trivial as they may be.

  3. on 26 Nov 2009 at 00:38 3.Konrad said …

    I see no reason why (Mainland) Chinese version of Obama should be Oubama instead of Aobama. Neither sound really close to English at all. Besides, it is almost a tradition to translate O- into Ao- in China. Name translation is already quite messy in Chinese now and a breach of customs would not definitely help.

    Bai Gong means that the White House is not some every normal ordinary white house but it is THE White House. We do not have articles or capitalisation systems in the Chinese language, so could you English speakers please be a little more considerate and allow us to make some variations? Besides, I do not see how living in a “palace” affects any notions on democracy. What’s more, “gong” does not necessarily translate into “palace”. Also, we have expressions like the House of Windsor in English. You can always relate “house” to a king or a prince or anything that’s not elected.

  4. on 26 Nov 2009 at 08:10 4.Pete said …

    Well, yes Konrad, you may use whatever translations you want for your own purposes, but would you be equally happy if English speakers felt that Hu Jintao was not a good translation. And Zhongnanhai is definitely not a customary English way of translating the residence of China’s leader.

    The question is Who Decides? (pun not intended)

    I submit that China should adapt to the modern age and recognize that individual countries know best how to translate their own names.

  5. on 26 Nov 2009 at 08:36 5.Cai nong said …

    Saw this on douban
    Come to discuss Obama/Aobama/Oubama with us

    We Chinese know best aobama is the only correct way and nobody should challenge it. using oubama would confuse the chinese people – we have a tradition of making sure that foreigners names use special characters to distinguish them from Chinese.

    This is only understandable by Chinese what we call
    夏夷之别, 正名 or separating the ethnic groups by giving correct names.

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  9. on 29 May 2010 at 19:12 9.suki said …

    The Americans are not as worldwise therefore only the Chinese media can choose the name of their president in Chinese, and the name of his residence.

    For English, which is a much easier language, it would be insulting if Americans told China how to spell their names and would arouse strong anti American sentiment due to the history of bullying at the hands of Western imperialist. Therefore, it is best to leave it to the Chinese people to choose the names of all US Presidents and avoid meddling in the internal affairs of China.

    Just let the MFA with its superb linguistic team manage all language issues and the matter will rest.

    To do otherwise would create chaos and might even lead other countries to think that they could choose their own Chinese names, like the South Koreans did with their hue and cry over the name of Seoul, which is Hancheng

  10. on 13 Jul 2010 at 06:09 10.pepitone said …

    Chairman Hoo Gene Tow will probably visit Washington and when that happens we should raise a hue and cry if they dare to offend the feelings of the American people by changing his name to Hu. Translating his title as “President” is also plainly ridiculous.

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  12. on 17 Feb 2011 at 23:46 12.Hsiao Khim said …

    I saw a video with Obama and Hue in front of the White House last month and it was clearly called the 白屋 (bak ok) in Mandarin. In Malaysia for example, we decide on what to call our names in foreign languages, including English and Chinese so why should the Americans let a foreign power decide for them. Looks like this is just another case of Han chauvinism or Chinese – government induced nationalism. I remember that there was a big fuss about Korean names a few years ago, when some Chinese officials got the idea into their heads that they were in a better position to decide on what to call Seoul in Chinese. Any self-respecting government should understand this – kowtowing to the Chinese, or for that matter any outside power is not advisable.

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  14. on 23 Apr 2011 at 09:55 14.Tomas Park said …

    Obama did not leave China with a new name, the Communist media tried to change his name, as they do with other names, such as Seoul, the capital of Korea.
    But self-respecting governments know this so from time to time issue polite reminders about sovereignty, mutual respect, and other principles that China claims to support. The USG surely is not working to “standardize” the Chinese vocabulary. It is probably doing what other governments do – translating the names of its leaders as it sees fit. Would you say that the PRC is trying to “standardize” English vocabulary when it translates their president’s name as Hu Jintao? Of course not. And neither was the ROK government when it politely reminded the Chinese that the name of its capital was not “hancheng”. And to use your words, American audiences were “not amused”. They respect the decisions of China and other countries. Hopefully one day, the Chinese will mature to that level.

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  16. on 06 Jun 2011 at 10:49 16.Tomas Ma said …

    Sounds like there is more to this, check out this twit apparently from a usg spokesperson


    RT @RichardBuangan Can’t believe our translator used the term 白屋when referring to the White House → “BaiWu” = White Room

  17. on 22 Jun 2011 at 06:09 17.tony ma said …

    Americans are soo naive. Only Chinese people can decide what to call Obama in their language. Anglos should not interfere. China has a special group in the New China News Agency and they decided that he is AOBAMA. That sounds natural to the Chinese people. Americans cannot change the will of 1.3 billion people and they should be careful because they are mostly monolingual and have a very short history of only a couple of hundred years and do not understand the fine nuances of Chinese culture based on 5.000 years of glorious civilization.

    The US Embassy in China is a shameful disgrace and whoever is playing games trying to tell the Chinese people how to speak their language should be removed. THey need to hire a Chinese person, or at least an ABC who understands the culture and will check with the local authorities before translating the names of any future PResident.

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