I recently saw a reddit post complaining that Chuseok (Korean Mid-autumn festival) was getting “whitewashed” since it was commonly referred to as Korean Thanksgiving, I replied the true cause was probably a Korean culture thing. This got me thinking about the translation of Chinese and its impact on the lastingness of Chinese culture.
My theory is that the frequent usage of the technique of literal translation used for Chinese names has had a very positive impact on Chinese culture around the world throughout history. Some caveats, I’ve only looked at translations into English but I suspect the translations of Chinese into other languages possess the same literal translation trend. Most of my sources for English translations come from English Wikipedia which could have its own biases.
Specifically, I found this behaviour is strongly exhibited in the names of four cultural aspects: Literature, Festivals, Food, Attractions. I will briefly list some examples common in the west, which are undoubted cherry-picked, but the main argument still stands. This trend is much more meaningful if you compare the relative frequency of this with respect to other Asian cultures (e.g., Japanese, Korean, India) which are also found on English Wikipedia.
Chinese literature: *Classic of Changes, Analects, The Art of War,* *Romance of the Three Kingdoms*, *Journey to the West.*
Chinese festivals: Spring Festival, Lantern Festival, Tomb-Sweeping day, Dragon Boat Festival, Ghost Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, Double Ninth Festival.
Chinese food: red braised pork belly, twice cooked pork, century egg, Peking duck, tea egg, stir-fried tomato and scrambled eggs, Buddha’s delight, potsticker, mooncake, Hot pot, Bird’s nest soup, shark fin soup, white cut chicken, buddha jumps over the wall, Crossing-the-bridge noodles. Try thinking of dishes with literal names from other Asian countries.
China attractions: Great Wall of China, Forbidden City, Terracotta Army, Summer Palace, The Bund, Temple of Heaven, West lake, Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. Compare this to the names of attractions in other Asian countries.
Several advantages of literal translations:
1. More meaningful
2. Easy to understand/memorize e.g., Ghost festival vs Obon (Japanese)
3. Easy to pronounce/spell e.g., Mid-autumn festival vs Chuseok
Disadvantage of literal translations:
1. More translations needed for different languages (e.g., French, Spanish, German)
From the pros and cons I came up with, I think overall literal translations are still worth it. Since the meaning and its cultural connotations are tied to the English name, I suspect these elements strengthen Chinese culture in many aspects in the west. Consider the original example, a Korean person might have to explain to an American Chuseok is like the Korean Thanksgiving, while a Chinese person just has to say the name Mid-autumn festival.
Although the Chinese language is quite special due to the semantic and the non-phonetic nature of hanzi, I think this alone cannot explain the relative frequency of the literal translation of names. I think it is clear the translators (early Sinologist and later translators) greatly revered Chinese culture. Just look at the names: *Analects,* Spring Festival, Ghost Festival, Hot pot, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, West lake. I am certain there exist non-Chinese cultures that possess the same concepts but their English translations were probably based on phonetics. These literal translations are powerful because they associate English words and concepts directly to Chinese culture.
Without sounding like a cultural supremacist, I think it is fair to say some of the listed examples of Chinese literature and festivals due to their historical significance deserves names from literal translations, but for the latter two categories (i.e., food and attractions) this is more difficult to justify. For example hot pot, sushi, bibimbap, these three famous dishes can all have literal translations, but only the Chinese use it for their common name. Likewise, literal translations can easily be used for the common English name of attractions, e.g., “Temple of the Golden Pavilion” instead of the name Kinkaku-ji or the funnier name “Kinkaku-ji temple”.
I am not sure why names in other languages aren’t translated literally more frequently in English. I am interested to hear if anyone has more insights into this phenomenon or regarding the translation of Chinese names in other languages. Being Chinese I am very grateful the translators choose literal translations of names and I hope future translations can continue using this technique.
**TL;DR:** Chinese names are frequently translated to English literally, much more relative to other Asian languages. I believe this technique has many advantages and has greatly benefitted Chinese culture in the west. I am very thankful the translators used this method and I hope more Chinese names can be translated literally in the future. I am still puzzled why Chinese names are translated literally more frequently into English (and presumably other languages) relative to other languages and want to hear your input.
**Edit:** literal translation may not be the most accurate terminology, roughly speaking I mean to draw a distinction between semantic based translation and phonetic based translation. I suspect the main reason why Chinese translations had a lot more semantic based translation is due to the early difficulty in the romanization of Chinese.