The Ironic Meanings Of "Donald" Vs. "Hillary" In Chinese -- "Offensive" Vs. "Hope"

(COMBO)This combination of pictures created on November 04, 2016 shows
US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in
(COMBO)This combination of pictures created on November 04, 2016 shows US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Sanford, Florida, on November 1, 2016 and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in Wilmington, Ohio on November 4, 2016. With less than one week to go until election day, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were barnstorming battleground states. / AFP / JEWEL SAMAD AND MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD,MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Translating, or trans-adapting a foreign name into Chinese poses unique challenges tied to the structure of the Chinese language. Unlike almost all other languages in the world, written Chinese is non-alphabetic, and is composed exclusively of pictographs (commonly referred to as 'characters') which, when learned, need to be memorized one-by-one for their written structures, associated meanings, and spoken, mono-syllabic pronunciations. Furthermore, many individual characters with a single pronunciation can convey a wide range of disparate meanings -- either as individual characters, or in combination with other characters when forming multi-syllabic words. Unlike in alphabet-based languages where names can be quite easily read and pronounced without any regard for, or understanding of, the name's etymology and current meaning, each Chinese character in a given name always simultaneously conveys both an inherent pronunciation, and one or more meanings for each syllable within the name, and for the name as a whole.

When rendering a non-Chinese name into Chinese, a successful translation often requires a delicate 'balancing act' that includes choosing characters whose pronunciations maintain some observable vestige of the foreign name's phonetics while, at the same time, conveying an 'auspicious' or 'good' meaning. At the very least, a name translated into Chinese should not allow for any possible 'negative' or 'strange' interpretation of meaning. While this approach should guide the translation of any individual's name in Chinese, it is all the more crucial for famous people's names -- people whose personas and behavior are widely and constantly scrutinized and reported.

Which brings us to "Donald" and "Hillary" in Chinese.

The name, "Donald," has a standard translation in Chinese -- 唐纳德 (pronounced "Tang Na De") that is largely derived from the phonetics of the English name. Say it fast, and it will start to approximate the sound of of the name "Donald." On the surface, the meaning of each of the characters in this Chinese name is also not only not controversial, but can be interpreted as quite positive. The first character 唐 (pronounced "Tang") is #26 on a list of China's 100 most ubiquitous surnames. It is also the name of the China's most revered dynasty -- the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) - a key period when China was at the zenith of it's power and cultural influence in Asia. The subsequent two characters of the name can similarly reflect good meanings. The second character 纳 ("Na") has a variety of definitions including "receive," "admit," or "accept." The third character 德 ("De") most often references "virtue," "moral character," or "kindness."

Nevertheless, given the heightened global attention to, and media controversies surrounding "The Donald," one can't help but acknowledge the other ironic meanings that these very same characters can convey in Chinese.

The first character 唐 ("Tang") in the name "Donald" can also mean "offensive," "rude," or "brusque," as used in the bi-syllabic adjective, 唐突 ("Tang Tu"). The second character 纳 ("Na") is the first syllable in the Chinese translation for the infamous political party name, "Nazi" (纳粹). And, the third character, in addition to its meaning of "virtue," is also the first character for the word "Germany" or "German" (德国)。To be sure, the construct of the standard Chinese translation of the name "Donald" pre-dated, by far, the rise of Donald Trump. -- which, for some voters, would only make such underlying alternate meanings of the name's Chinese characters that much more "retrospectively prescient."

Of course, one must note that despite the above standard translation of "Donald" in Chinese, Chinese media rarely references Donald Trump using this translation for "Donald" (唐纳德). Rather, in China, and in Chinese language media outside of Asia, he is often referred to as 川普 ("Chuan Pu"), and a few other Chinese translated nicknames reflecting the phonetics of the surname, "Trump." Yet, even the characters of these widely used names do not offer any positive semantic references. To the contrary, as reported by Louise Liu, in a September 27, 2016 online post on the website, Business Insider, titled "These Are The Nicknames That Chinese People Gave to Donald Trump," the most ubiquitous names for Donald Trump that are used in Chinese media were created when Trump first announced his candidacy, and "all sound funny with a disrespectful tone in Mandarin, mostly because, at the time, they (the Chinese) believed Trump was just a joke and had no chance of winning the White House." The most widely-used name, 川普(Chuan Pu), while adhering to the phonetics of "Trump," means "Mandarin with a Sichuan (provincial) accent" -- a term often used to mock Chinese from China's Sichuan province who cannot speak standard Mandarin -- in other words, someone who speaks poorly. Per the Business Insider report, another less widely-used nickname for "Trump" is 床破 (Chuang Po) -- a bi-syllabic phrase which means "Breaking Bed," and is both a very strange and awkward semantic construct in Chinese. Neither of these nicknames pass muster as well adapted Chinese names with positive meanings.

By contrast, the standard Chinese translation for "Hillary" which is widely used by Chinese media both in and outside of China -- 希拉里 (Xi La Li) -- is unequivocally imbued with positive meaning. The first character 希 (Xi) means "Hope," with only the possible alternate meanings of "rare," "scarce," or "uncommon." The second character, 拉 (La) most commonly means "to pull," but can also mean "draw in," "win over," or "canvass." The third character, 里 (Li) means "inside." Taken has a whole, the Chinese name for Hillary means "Hope pulled (or drawn in) inside," with no obvious, alternate negative interpretations.

Non-Chinese often believe that Chinese culture and perspective is imbued with wisdom and far-reaching vision. Time will now tell whether the winner of the US election will live up to the possible meanings of his or her Chinese name.