Words of Foreign Origin as Used in Chinese

Usually, when a word of foreign origin (called “gairaigo” in Japanese) is incorporated into another language, an easily pronounceable version is decided upon based on how the word sounds in its original language. Writing such words may not be a problem if the language employs phonograms (Japanese, etc.) but how does it work in the case of ideogram-driven languages like Chinese?

For example, three different types of characters are used in written Japanese, each with a different purpose. For example, katakana are used for the transcription of foreign words and for onomatopoeias. Kanji, which are Chinese ideograms, are not ordinarily used for foreign loans. On the other hand, since kanji are the only characters in use in China, it is only natural that they are used for all words, whether of foreign origin or onomatopoeia. Seeing them used this way can often seem strange to people like the Japanese, who have knowledge of kanji.

In this issue, through a variety of examples, we will take a look at the Chinese way of writing words of foreign origin.

Even Words of Foreign Origin Are Written in Kanji in Chinese

You might remember that in the previous column, I wrote that “all foreigners in China have their names written using kanji”. Although this seems perfectly normal for Japanese names, which are also written in Chinese characters, these ideograms must also be used for the names of people from countries that do not use kanji. Let’s illustrate this point with a few famous names.

[English] [Japanese] [SC]*1 [TC]*2 [Chinese pronunciation]*3
Clinton kurinton 克林顿 柯林頓 kè lín dùn /
kē lín dùn
Putin Puuchin 普京 普京 pǔjīng
Michael Jackson maikeru jakuson 迈克尔・杰克逊 麥可・
mài kè ĕr jié kè xùn / mài kě jié kè sēn

This rule is not limited to names but applies to all foreign words used in Chinese. Most languages of the world use phonograms, therefore how are these words expressed in written Chinese, which only uses ideograms?

Actually, there are many transcription methods. For the names displayed above, the Chinese characters are chosen based on how they sound rather than what they mean, their meaning being completely ignored. Other examples of such phonetic loans are “chocolate / qiǎo kè lì (巧克力)” and “sofa / shā fā (沙发)”.

On the other hand, some transcriptions are chosen without taking pronunciation into account whatsoever and by focusing solely on translating the meaning from the source language (semantic loans). How exactly is this achieved? To clarify this notion, let’s have a look at a few examples of this in English words and phrases that find their origin in the Chinese language.

You probably wouldn’t have a single clue to the meaning of “hǎo jiǔ bu jiàn (好久不见)” if you heard it spoken in Chinese, but these four ideograms literally mean “long time no see,” which has become an established expression in English. In the same way, the Chinese words “diū liǎn (丢脸)” and “xǐ nǎo (洗脑)” are used in English respectively as “lose face” and “brainwashing”. The Chinese original expressions sound nothing like their English counterparts, since it is the meaning of each of the kanji that was translated and adopted into the English language.

The situation is quite similar for foreign words used in Chinese in that they can be transcriptions based on pronunciation in the source language, and translations based on the meaning in the source language (phonetic loans, translated loans, semantic loans and hybrid). Let’s take a look at a few more examples.

Representative examples

Company names, etc.

[English] [Japanese] [SC] [TC] [Chinese pronunciation]
Microsoft maikurosohuto 微软 微軟 wēi ruǎn
Softbank sohutobanku 软银 軟銀 ruǎn yín
Oracle orakuru 甲骨文 甲骨文 jiǎ gǔ wén
General Motors jenerarumootaazu 通用汽车公司 通用汽車公司 tōng yòng qì chē gōng sī
Canon kyanon 佳能 佳能 jiā néng
Warner waanaa 华纳 華納 huá nà
Macintosh makkintosshu 麦金塔 麥金塔 mài jīn tǎ


[English] [Japanese] [SC] [TC] [Chinese pronunciation]
Washington washinton 华盛顿 華盛頓 huá shèng dùn
Singapore shingapooru 新加坡 新加坡 xīn jiā pō
Canada kanada 加拿大 加拿大 jiā ná dà
Italy itaria 意大利 義大利 yì dà lì


[English] [Japanese] [SC] [TC] [Chinese pronunciation]
Tokyo Midtown tookyoo middo taun 东京
dōng jīng zhōng chéng
Tokyo Skytree tookyoo sukai tsurii 东京
dōng jīng qíng kōng tǎ
Eiffel Tower ehhueru too 埃菲尔铁塔 艾菲爾鐵塔 ài fēi ĕr tiĕ tǎ

If you look at these examples, you can notice that in Japanese, words of foreign origin directly become phonetic loans from the original language. No effort is put into creating a uniquely Japanese proper noun, even for names that originated in Japan (salaryman, etc.). On the other hand, in China, borrowed words are turned into ideograms through hybrid methods, such as phonetic and semantic loans as well as literal translation.

Katakana vs. Kanji: Which is Easier to Understand?

In conclusion, let’s take a look at the same foreign words as used in Chinese (as translated loans) and Japanese (as phonetic loans). With knowledge of kanji, Japanese people can probably understand many of the meanings of the Chinese examples written below. In fact, many people feel that the meaning of loan words is easier to understand if they are depicted as translated loans rather than through the Japanese practice of phonetic loans.

How are words of foreign origin used in your language? Are the following words translated into your language or used as is based on their English pronunciation?

[English] [Japanese] [SC] [TC] [Chinese pronunciation]
solution soryuushon 解决方案 解決方案 jiě jué fāng àn
collaboration koraboreeshon 合作 合作 hé zuò
real time riaru taimu 即时 即時 jí shí
Internship intaanshippu 实习 實習 shí xí
concept konseputo 理念 概念 lǐ niàn / gài niàn
fashion show huasshonshoo 时装秀*4 時裝表演 shí zhuǎng xiǜ / shí zhuāng biǎo yǎn
renewal rinyuuaru 刷新 更新 shuā xīn / gēngxīn
speech contest supiichi kontesuto 演讲比赛 演講比賽 yǎn jiǎng bǐ saì
fan huan
mobility mobiritii 移动性 移動性 yí dòng xìng
marketing maaketingu 市场战略 市場戰略 shì chǎng zhàn lüè
prototype purototaipu 原型 原型 yuán xíng
presentation purezenteeshon 发表 發表 fā biǎo
hazard map hazaado mappu 防灾地图 防災地圖 fáng zāi dì tú
archive aakaibu 保存记录 資料庫 bǎo cún jì lù /
zī liào kù
analyst anarisuto 分析家 分析者 fēn xī jiā /
fēn xī zhě
simulation shimyureeshon 模拟实验 模擬實驗 mó nǐ shí yàn
skill sukiru 技能 技能 jì néng

If, through these examples, you have managed to grasp the transcription process of foreign words into Chinese, then this column has achieved its goal. If you have found this topic to be of interest, there are websites and books available which go deeper into the subject and provide more theoretical and/or technical explanations. Why not have a look?

*1 SC: Simplified Chinese is used in mainland China and Singapore.
*2 TC: Traditional Chinese is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and many Chinatowns around the world.
*3 Only one reading is displayed when the pronunciation is the same in SC and TC.
*4 ”秀" is a phonetic loan of the word “show”

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