‘Unusual’ Names in Life and Fiction, Part 2

Read Part 1, where I mostly talk about my own name (and my father’s name). In this part, I mostly talk about fiction.

Last year I read Silappatikaram. I would have to invest quite an effort to remember that name, which is why I had to look it up on the internet instead of recalling it from memory. When I talk about it face-to-face, since I can’t remember the name, I instead use the English title Tale of the Anklet, which I remember easily. And it’s not just the title. Though I learned to recognize the names of the major characters, I also do not recall their names, and I was only able to keep track of the place names because of a very useful map which comes with the translation.

There is nothing objectively difficult about a title like Silappatikaram or the names of the characters, it’s only difficult for me because I am very ignorant of Tamil culture. I’m not used to the sounds of Tamil, and because I am so ignorant of that culture, I do not have many mental associations with Tamil names, thus I do not have enough mental glue to get those names to stick in my mind. By contrast, I can remember ‘Tale of the Anklet’ very easily because that is in English, and if the main characters had been called ‘Glen’ and ‘Patricia’ or ‘Tzvi’ and ‘Anat’ I could remember those names easily because I have a lot of mental associations which would help those names stick (for example, I have cousins with those names). Of course, when I am interacting with Tamil people, I try to remember their names and pronounce them correctly.

A statue of Kannagi, one of the protagonists of Silappatikaram, holding the anklet in her hand. Photo by Balamurugan Srinivasan – originally posted to Flickr as Statue of Kannagi, CC BY 2.0, Link

Now let’s talk about wuxia in English translation.

About two weeks ago, Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Is Born was officially published in English. You can read more about it in this surprisingly good article or in this article (I noticed that, even though the caption mentions Guo Jing, they use a picture that shows Mu Nianci and Yang Kang, not Guo Jing). One aspect of this translation which is controversial is that while some names, such as ‘Guo Jing’, are simply transliterated, other names, such as ‘Lotus Huang’, are translated (and have the name order flipped around).

Deathblade comments on this issue in this video. I recommend listening to the entire video, but if you can’t/don’t want to, here is a summary of his main points:

  • English speakers who are already familiar with wuxia already know the Chinese names of the characters, and assigning weird English names to the characters will alienate them and discourage them from buying the book
  • Translating Chinese names (such as Mao Zedong) into English goes against conventional translation standards; likewise names such as ‘George Bush’ and ‘Paul Newman’ are typically transliterated, not translated, into Chinese
  • This translation is inconsistent; some names are translated, some names are transliterated
  • Names are NAMES, not the sum of the meaning of the characters
  • Translating the names will not help draw any new readers


I agree with a lot of what Deathblade says in this video. I agree that ‘Lotus Huang’ specifically is a bad choice and that ‘Huang Rong’ would be much better. If I were working on an official translation of the Condor trilogy, I would translate Xiaolongnü’s name as ‘Dragon Maiden’ but use Mandarin transliterations for the names of all other major characters. (Why make an exception for Xiaolongnü? Because that is an unusual name in Chinese – it does not fit the typical Chinese naming pattern – and translating it into English as ‘Dragon Maiden’ would be a way to convey that her name is unusual). However, I disagree with his final point, that translating names does not help new readers.

A topic that sometimes comes up in English language discussions of wuxia is how to make it more accessible to English speakers who do not know much about Chinese culture. It is noted that many English speakers have trouble remembering Chinese names, so sometimes it is suggested that assigning the characters English names would make these stories more accessible.

I can tell you, from personal experience, that giving wuxia characters English names does help. I was one time describing the story of a Jin Yong novel, but instead of using the characters’ original Chinese names, I assigned the characters names from sources such as Harry Potter and Star Trek. This made it much easier for my audience to keep track of the characters and the plot, and overall improved communication (I also had a lot of fun giving the Jin Yong characters names from English-language pop culture). However, while this approach is good for informal purposes, it is obviously inappropriate for an official translation.

The reason so many English speakers have trouble remembering Chinese names is the same reason I have trouble remembering Tamil names; lack of familiarity. I myself find it much harder to remember a Chinese name if I only know it from transliteration than if I know the Chinese characters. That is because Chinese characters can serve as mental glue to help a name stick in my mind.

It’s also worth point out that all Jin Yong characters have both a Mandarin name and a Cantonese name. For example, ‘Huang Rong’ (Mandarin) is also ‘Wong Yung’ (Cantonese), and there are many fans who feel that the Cantonese names are the ‘real’ names. They have even more names in other Chinese languages – for example, Huang Rong is ‘Oey Yong’ in Hokkien and ‘Waon Yon’ in Shanghainese.

Here is a chart showing the names of the characters in Mandarin, Cantonese (using a different romanization scheme), and Hokien. Even though more people speak Shanghainese than Catonenese or Hokkien, I have a pretty good idea of why Shanghainese names are not on that chart – but I don’t want to digress into Chinese linguistic politics.

One could research every character, guess their native language, and then transliterate their names based on that language. Huang Rong’s native language is most likely the Ningbo dialect, which is closely related to Shanghainese. I can’t find an online Ningbo dictionary, so I am guessing that her Shanghainese name ‘Waon Yon’ is closest to how someone from her native region would pronounce her name. Also, Shanghainese is Jin Yong’s native language, so that is an argument for using Shanghainese rather than Mandarin transliterations for the names of all of his characters – in fact, I think that would be very cool. And someone would argue that, since these novels were originally published in Hong Kong at a time when most Hong Kongers did not understand Mandarin, Jin Yong intentionally chose a publisher in Guangdong (as opposed to publishers in other regions of China) to publish the Chinese editions of his novels, and the original novels once in a while use Cantonese words which lack a Mandarin equivalent, the Cantonese names are most appropriate. Also, some of the existing English translations, including the only English-language dub of any TV adaptation of the trilogy, uses Cantonese names, not Mandarin names. Finally, English speakers tend to find Cantonese names easier to pronounce than Mandarin names, which may very well be why they chose the Cantonese names for that English-language dub. Or, you could reconstruct the pronunciation of Ancient Chinese or Middle Chinese and base the character names on that (actually, to be honest, Huang Rong’s native language might be closer to Middle Chinese than modern Ningbo-Chinese).

Additionally, in the Condor Trilogy, one protagonist is named 郭靖 and another is named 楊過. That isn’t a problem at all if one is reading in Chinese, since those are two obviously different names. However, the Mandarin pinyin of those names are Guō​ Jìng​ and Yáng​ Guò​ – which are also easy to tell apart if one notices that ‘Guō​’ and ‘Guò’ are pronounced with different tones. But without the tone markers, it does get confusing – and I’ve seen people get confused between ‘Guo Jing’ and ‘Yang Guo’. However, their Cantonese names – Kwok Ching and Yeung Kuo – are also easy to tell apart, so this is an advantage of using their Cantonese names in English translation.

You know how I said that, if I were doing an official translation, I would use the Mandarin names? I change my mind. Now that I’ve thought it through, I think there is a stronger case to be made for using Cantonese names, though I still consider Mandarin names to be an acceptable choice (and I will continue to use Mandarin names on this blog).

Likewise, the Japanese translations give all of the characters Japanese names – Huang Rong’s Japanese name is Kō​ Yō​. In Korean, her name is Hwang Yong. In Vietnamese, her name is Hoàng Dung. In Indonesian, her name is Oey Yong (same as Hokkien). In Persian, her name is Ryang Rong. In Burmese, her name is Hun Yôn. In fact, the only official translations which I could find which use the Mandarin names are the Thai translation and the (awful) French translation. I admit that I didn’t check every translation – for example, I could not find her Hindi name or her Khmer name, even though I know her name exists in those languages.

This photo from the 1983 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes shows the character (in alphabetical order) Hoàng Dung / Huang Rong / Hun Yôn / Hwang Yong / Kō​ Yō​ / Lotus Huang / Oey Yong / Ryang Rong / Waon Yon / Wong Yung

In short, the Mandarin names of Jin Yong characters are not their One True Names.

(Though I tend to use Huang Rong’s Mandarin name because I encountered her Mandarin name before I encountered any of her other names, and when I read the books I was pronouncing them in Mandarin in my head).

However, one could argue (heck, I would argue) that using any of the Chinese names, even if they are not Mandarin, are better than creating an English name because the non-Mandarin Chinese names are also derived from Chinese culture. And while there are a lot of non-Chinese languages which have their own unique name for this character, they are for the most part modifications to make the name easier to pronounce rather than translations of the name’s meaning.

I think the very best argument against translating the names and using Chinese transliterations (whether from Mandarin or not) is an argument that Deathblade does not bring up at all. It’s the argument which is made in the essay “Let’s Talk about Characters with Difficult Names”. The heart of the argument is here:

As someone with a non-English name and made a conscious decision to not change my name, seeing these names mean a lot to me and gives me hope that, one day, an individual’s name will no longer be an ‘indicator’ of a person’s character, ability, or degree of belonging.

I want to see characters in books, especially young adult literature, with names like Vân Uoc and Agnieszka and Li Jing and Reshma and Kamala. We need to create spaces that are accepting of name diversity.

And there is a comment on that essay/blog post which goes like this:

When it comes to book, I always get incredibly excited every time I see an Asian or Muslim sounding name, even if it’s not Indonesian names. Just because they’re so rare, you know?hahaha I’m slightly annoyed sometimes that weird high fantasy names are more appreciated than the non Caucasian names because fantasy names aren’t real. Our names are real. Anyway, great post! 😀

In other words, name diversity – including names from real non-European cultures – is good because it helps readers who have non-European names, whether it helps them see themselves in fiction, or it teaches their peers to treat their names with more respect. In my opinion, this is more important than pleasing the existing English-language wuxia fanbase (though some of the people in the current English-language wuxia fanbase ALSO have non-European names), especially since this translation can be especially beneficial for readers in the Chinese diaspora who want more representation of themselves in novels but do not know enough Chinese to read the original books (there is some discussion of this on this comment thread).

There is not enough name diversity in English language popular fiction right now. And one of the most obvious opportunities for increasing name diversity is when one is translating a work of fiction where the characters ~already~ have non-European names. If some of the names are being translated rather than transliterated into English, what message does that send to people who are socially penalized for having non-European names?

Since I have more thoughts on ‘unusual’ names in life and fiction, I may write a Part 3 at some point, but not in the near future.


3 thoughts on “‘Unusual’ Names in Life and Fiction, Part 2

  1. Interesting thoughts, again (and as usual).
    Anyhow, as I’m currently reading “The Dark Forest”, which is the English translation of a Liu Ci Xin novel … and having been confused a bit during the first fifty pages or so, I’d actually plead for using a transliteration, plus an appendix with “Dramatis Personae”, listing transliteration, original name (i.e. Chinese characters) plus what it means. The first part of the trilogy (“The Three Body Problem”) actually has a list of characters in order of appearance, which I found incredibly helpful.
    In my newest novel, many characters have names that sound Arabic (and are sometimes using the same radicals/word roots as their original counterparts), and I’m making a point to actually explain what the main character’s names mean, in the hopes my readers will have less trouble remembering them.

    • Oh yes, I agree that a “Dramatis Personae” would be great, as well as a map to help readers who don’t know much about Chinese geography. I don’t think including the meanings of the characters names is necessary, because when it’s relevant to the story the meaning of the name is explained right in the novel, and if it’s not relevant to the story it’s information overload (especially since it’s a LONG Dramatis Personae – I think it’s better to focus on the characters’ relationships with each other). For example, in Chapter 1, it is explained that Guo Jing and Yang Kang are named after the Jingkang incident (though most English-language readers don’t know what the Jingkang incident was, so it probably won’t help them remember those names), and the meaning of Huang Rong’s name has nothing to do with the story (the meaning of her father’s name, ‘Huang Yaoshi’, is slightly relevant to the story, but ‘Huang Rong’, not at all).

      • Probably depends on the book, and the “I wanna know what that means” might be a me-thing.

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