Inspired by Bob Dylan’s concerts in China, and by The Times printing a letter of mine today telling them that his name translates as “Bob Guides Correct Moral Principles”, I thought I’d take a look at how the Chinese interpret the often weird and wonderful names of rock bands into Mandarin.
When the name is more-or-less meaningless in English, for example if it’s just a personal or place name, it can transliterate pretty well. Bon Jovi becomes Bang Qiaofei (literally “Nation Tall Fly”, a meaningless combination of characters), Fleetwood Mac is Foliwu Maike (“Buddha Profit Five Wheat Overcome”), and Van Halen is Fan Hailun (“Model Sea Ethics”).
Other attempts at transliteration though can fail if there’s any subtext to be lost: the apparently psychedelic “Pink Floyd”, based on the first names of two blues musicians, becomes the rather pointless Pingke Fuluoyide, whose constituent characters don’t mean anything coherent and even fail to get across the idea of “pink”. Lynyrd Skynyrd, a sarcastic Southern-states tribute to a PE teacher called Leonard Skinner, are known in China as Linna Shijinna, which seems a bit of a waste of a good puerile joke. The Bee Gees, who take their name from the initials of “Brothers Gibb”, are just called Bijisi, which rather robs them of the sole reason for knowing anything about their oeuvre...
...which brings me on to an important observation: because Mandarin doesn’t have any word for “the”, (or any plural suffixes for that matter), the standard way of naming a group in English - The XXX(s) - just doesn’t evoke the same feelings. The Smiths was a perfectly chosen name that summed up the anonymity and pointlessness of life in Manchester in the early 1980s (or at any time, for that matter). But in Chinese they become simply Shimisi (though this sounds much closer to “Smiths” than the romanisation would imply). But Shimisi just doesn’t ring even the tiniest of cultural bells in Chinese. It would be better to have called them “Mr Wu”.
Other bands whose names evoke something quite concrete by their use of the definite article “the” also feel a bit aimless. Take The Eagles, The Cure, The Police or The Clash, whose names are translated very directly into Mandarin (as Laoying, Zhiliao, Jingcha and Chongji respectively) but have quite a different feel when thought of as decontextualised dictionary entries that don’t specify them as nouns or verbs, singular or plural, capitalised or not - eagle, cure, police, clash. Worse, since Mandarin lacks the structure to directly translate our “The XXX(s)” format, it’s normal practice to add the words hechangtuan (“chorus”) or yuedui (“orchestra”) after band names to make it clear what we’re talking about. This gives even the most countercultural of musicians a very middle-of-the-road air: consider The Stooges (Choujue Hechangtuan), which in Chinese means nothing more rebellious than “Clown Chorus”!
Some attempts at interpretation fail quite badly. There are many groups whose Mandarin names are lost in translation, but my favourites are: Led Zeppelin (the bland “Qibolin Airship” ignores the implication of heavy metal); Radiohead becomes “Commandant of the Radio Station”; Def Leppard’s spelling mistakes and loudness are emasculated to Weibao (“Mighty Leopard”); and Pearl Jam, with its referencing of “jam” as a style of music, becomes the bizarrely literal Zhenzhu Guojiang, or “Fruit Preserve Made From Pearls”.
Some groups do cross the language boundary quite well, nevertheless, if their names have enough substance in English to translate directly without losing anything: Foreigner are known as Waiguoren, Deep Purple as Shenzi, Iron Maiden Tie Niangzi, Motorhead Motuotou, Queen Huanghou, The Beach Boys Haitan Nanhai, Guns N Roses Qiang Yu Meigui, and The Sex Pistols Xing Shouqiang, all of them equally meaningful to a Chinese speaker.
Some even gain a certain je ne sais quoi in Mandarin: Rage Against The Machine translates as “Launch a Punitive Expedition Against the System”, The Grateful Dead becomes “The Splendour/Flower of Death”, while Nirvana, which is after all a Buddhist concept, are known as Niepan, an ancient transliteration of the Sanskrit term nirvan.
The most famous group of all, the Beatles, are called Pitou Si in Mandarin, which is not only a transliteration of the sound but also cleverly means “The Four With The Unkempt Hair”. Finally, and amusingly, Madonna is known as Maidangna, which not only manages to miss the cultural reference to the Mother of Jesus but also is only a hair’s breadth away from the Chinese name for McDonalds, Maidanglao.