"Gore Vidal" in Chinese

The Chinese written language consists of characters that represent complete words and concepts, rather than single letters that represent sounds the way the English language does. So when Chinese translators need to write a non-Chinese name in their language, they try to choose Chinese characters which, when pronounced, sound something like the name they wish to translate.

Rarely, however, do the Chinese words actually mean anything when placed in sequence. They merely replicate sounds that come as close as possible to sounds of an author's name, and a translation is only as good as the translator. It's possible that different translators would choose different words to create something that sounds like "Gore Vidal." In fact, the first two translations at the top of the page have some identical characters to represent parts of "Gore Vidal," but the translator in each case chose different characters to sound out other parts (details below).

And of course, with all of the many dialects in China, only a speaker of Putonghua (Mandarin) would pronounce these characters in the manner outlined here, which in the examples shown above and described below come out sounding like "Gow-er Way-da." A speaker of another dialect could very well pronounce them differently. For example, in the Yue dialect, using the Chinese characters seen here, the name would sound like "Gou-yi Way-dad."

In addition, there are two methods of writing many Chinese characters: the traditional method, used in Taiwan; and the simplified method, used in mainland China and employing fewer strokes (lines) for certain words. As you will see here, the two ways to write "Gore Vidal" use, in some case, the same words but in different methods.

Below are three versions of "Gore Vidal" in Chinese, the first pair from books published in Taiwan - one in 1997, one in 2003 - and the second from a 1981 Beijing translation of Washington, D.C. Following each set of Chinese characters is an explanation of what they sound like as well as what the characters mean. The translations are largely similar but not identical.

Above are two Taiwan representation of "Gore Vidal" using traditional Chinese characters, the first from 1997, the second from 2003.

First character: Pronounced "gao" or "gow," it means "tall" or "high." It's also a Chinese surname.

Second character: Pronounced "er" or "rrrr," it's the pronoun "you," but in an ancient form not as commonly used today.

Third character: Pronounced "wei" or "way," it means "to defend" or "defense."

Fourth character: In the first translation, this character is pronounced "da," and it can mean either "to arrive" or "to be prosperous." In the second translation, the final character is pronounced "doh," and it means "many" or "much more." This subtle difference in choices from one translator to the next shows the difficulty of creating a definitive translation of an American name into Chinese.

Put these sounds together and you get "Gow-rrr Way-da" or "Gow-rrr Way-doh." Say it quickly and you have something that sounds vaguely like "Gore Vidal."

Above is a 1981 Beijing representation of "Gore Vidal" with simplified Chinese characters.

First character: This is the Chinese word for "American." The brackets indicate to readers that what follows is a Chinese version of an American name.

Second character: Pronounced "ger," it can have a few meanings, one of which is "spear."

Third character: Pronounced "er" or "rrrr," it's the pronoun "you," but in an ancient form not as commonly used today. This is similar in sound and meaning to the second character in the Taiwanese translation.

If you put the meanings of the second and third characters together, you get "spear you." In fact, those two characters side by side translate as "gore" - as in, to gore someone with a spear. So not only do they sound vaguely like "Gore" when pronounced together, they also literally mean to "gore" someone.

Fourth and fifth characters: These are the same characters used for "Vidal" in the Taiwanese translation, only seen here in the Simplified method of writing Chinese. The first is pronounced "wei" or "way" and means "to defend" or "defense." The other is pronounced "da" and means "to arrive" or "to be prosperous."

Sixth character: Once again, this is the pronoun "er," identical to the third character in this Beijing translation. It is a way of representing the final "l" in the name "Vidal." Chinese words can begin with an "l" or "r" sound, but there is no final "l" sound. So translators use the "er" sound to represent both a final "l" or a final "r."

Seventh character: This is the Chinese word for "author." It indicates to readers that they have just finished reading the name of the book's author.

Put the sounds of the name together and you have "Ger-er Way-da-er," with that final "er" sound representing the final "l" as written in some forms of Chinese.

ęCopyright 2005 by
Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh