Foreign names into native tongues: How to transfer sound between languages – transliteration, phonological translation, nativization, and implications for translation theory

Wen-Chao Chris Li

The transfer of sound from one language into another is not a uniform process, but rather, takes different forms depending on the orthographies and phonological properties of source and target languages, the less common of which involve processes significantly different from transliteration between European phonetic scripts. This paper pools techniques commonly used in loanword phonology and second language acquisition to illustrate complications that arise when translating names from English into languages such as Japanese and Chinese, which differ significantly from the source language in syllable structure and orthographic convention. Competing strategies of adaptation and accommodation are placed in the context of lexical retrieval and compared with experimental studies of nativization in interlanguage. It will be shown that for names to be perceived as similar-sounding across language boundaries, it would be desirable to look beyond segmental equivalence and consider stress, syllable count and other suprasegmental factors that play a greater role in phonological memory.

Table of contents

As translation methods go, a distinction is often made between the transfer of meaning and the transfer of sound. This is especially true in the Chinese tradition, where the choice between yiyi “meaning translation” and yinyi “sound translation” accounts for a considerable portion of the literature on translation methodology and theory. However, the balance between the two methods in the theoretical literature is anything but equal: the bulk of the literature on translation theory deals [ p. 46 ]with aspects of meaning, and little, if anything, has been written about the technicalities of the transfer of sound (which is so often encountered in the rendering of foreign names), leaving this frequently utilized method of translation in a theoretical limbo: What is sound transfer? What are the algorithms for performing such a transfer? What dimensions of similarity do we take into consideration? What are the empirical bases for guidelines thus formulated? This paper seeks to begin to answer some of these questions by placing the issue of intralanguage sound transfer within the framework of linguistic theory.

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