Foreign Names and Words

This page deals with the problems that arise when you need to include a foreign word or name in your text.

Two cases are pretty easy. The first is when your language already has a translation, for example, the names Spain or Japan in English. Spain and Japan are English names for foreign countries, not foreign names.

The other easy case is the opposite: when there's no alternative to including the name in its language of origin. For example, if you want to go to the famous waterfalls on the Chinese-Vietnamese border, you're probably better off carrying a piece of paper with 板約 than trying to figure out whether to pronounce it Bản Giốc (Vietnamese), Báanjoek (Cantonese), Bǎnyuē (Chinese), or the equivalent in Pinghua or Zhuang.

But in between are many cases where we want to refer to Łódź or bruschetta in passing. These are both examples of false friends: Łódź is pronounced woodge, and the sch in bruschetta has an sk sound. Since Musa letters represent the same sound in every language, there are no false friends. However, if we simply write the word in Musa as it's written in its native language, we may encounter unfamiliar letters or a different gait. Nonetheless, people should still be able to read it correctly, and that makes it much easier to look up.

Another alternative is to write it in Musa as we pronounce it in our language. For example, the name 毛泽东 used to be transcribed as Mao Tse-Tung, using the Wade-Giles romanization. That does a pretty good job of getting an English speaker to pronounce the name in a recognizable way. Now, we tend to write it in the official pinyin romanization as Máo Zédōng, which doesn't. In Musa, we could write his name in Chinese as , or we could write the "English pronunciation" as  in Alphabet gait. The latter uses only English sounds and omits tones, but it's about as close as we can get within those constraints, and it fits easily in our mouths and on our pages.

But you should be clear about which you're doing! The worst thing you can do is mix up the two approaches, for example writing Mao's name as  (reading the pinyin as if it was English). In Japanese, we can call him ・ but not  (a Japanese reading of the Chinese characters).

For more discussion of the differences between translation, transcription, transliteration and romanization, visit this page.

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