Sunday update: Oddball Chinese versions of Western names

I mentioned earlier that I had a hard time asking people in Shanghai where the gigantic Carrefour store might be, because — silly me! — I hadn’t guessed that the name would be phoneticized into Mandarin as jia le fu. Once I finally saw the Chinese characters I realized how they should be pronounced, but by that time I was standing in front of the store.

In his interesting blog from Kunming, American Matt Schiavenza discusses the general phenomenon of phoneticized names — and offers one hypothesis for why names in Mandarin bear so little resemblance to the Western term they supposedly represent. Many big Western companies, he points out, came to Hong Kong before they came to mainland China. There they were given Chinese names that, as pronounced in Cantonese, made some sense. McDonald’s, for instance, is known by the characters 麦当劳. In Hong Kong’s Cantonese, that would be pronounced mak dong lo. Not bad! But when the same characters are used in Beijing or Shanghai, they are read in Mandarin as mai dang lao, which brings us back to the Carrefour / jialefu predicament. Similarly, as this site points out, the characters for Pizza Hut are pronounced pi sang hak in Cantonese, where they were first applied — but bi sheng ke in Mandarin.

Here endeth the Sunday updates.