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Aobama or Oubama?


US President Barack’s Obama first visit to China (15-18 Nov. 2009) was marked by difficult talks on trade and climate change, but another thorny issue emerged: how to write “Obama” in Mandarin.

obamaWhile the Chinese have written “Aobama” since the US President first emerged on the political scene, US officials have wanted “Oubama” to be the new standard transcription, as the characters more closely match the English pronunciation.

The 2008 Olympic Games held in Beijing may have influenced the Chinese on the spelling issue, as the character “ao” – which means “mysterious” or “secret” – is also used in the expression for the Games, “Aolinpike”.

On the lead up to Obama’s 4-day visit to China, the US embassy began using the phonetically correct transliteration “Oubama” on its web site, as was already used in Cantonese Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong. “Oubama is the official US government translation. We are trying to ensure consistency,” embassy spokeswoman Susan Stevenson told AFP news agency.

But on the Chinese foreign ministry website, the US president is still “Aobama”, and Chinese media point out that enforcing a change of the transcription at this point may be a tough task for the White House. Point taken.

As for the president’s first name, Chinese media have already adopted “Balake” 巴拉克 (bālākè) and “Beilake”贝拉克 (bèilākè),, “L” being pronounced as “R”.

Official transliterations of names are decided not by the foreign ministry, but by the Xinhua News Agency which issues an official manual on translation and transliteration of people’s names.

So how should Barack Obama’s name be transliterated?

According to Guo Jiading (current vice-president of the Translators Association of China, former director of the foreign ministry’s translation office, Obama’s full name, Barack Hussein Obama, should be pronounced bə’rɑ:k hu:’seɪn oʊ’bɑ:mə. If he were to transliterate it, he would render it as bèilākè hóusàiyīn àobāmǎ (贝拉克·侯赛因·奥巴马). “Xinhua is right. There’s no problem there,” Guo said.

Obama isn’t the only celebrity to have more than one Chinese transliteration. Bill Gates is entered into Xinhua’s database as 威廉·盖茨 (wēilián gàicí, “William Gates”), but the version everyone is used to, 比尔·盖茨 (bǐěr gàicí), has not gone away.

Meanwhile, back to social networking. Facetious Chinese bloggers have coined a couple of entirely new alternatives: “Maobama” or “Obamao” – combinations of Obama and Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. Look out for these on Twitter!

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