The New York Times

November 23, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

Au-Ba-Ma or Ou-Ba-Ma?


XIANGGANG, China For readers not familiar with this dateline, it lies southwest of Hankook and southeast of Xizhang. One of those is a place where people guard their identity most tenaciously. The other has just been visited by a president whose name needs to vary according to where he is — should the Chinese characters for it sound more like Au-ba-ma or Ou-ba-ma? Even U.S. officials cannot decide whether the mainland or Taiwan usage is linguistically correct, or politically correct. Anyway, pronunciation of the alternative Chinese characters used for the first syllable of his name varies according to whether it is spoken in Mandarin or Cantonese.

Nor are these matters to be taken in jest. A serious slight has been committed by Mr. Ou-or Au-ba-ma in referring to a nation as Ba-ma (Burma) instead of the name, Myanmar, that its current rulers insist be used.

Asia is in a state of low-intensity warfare over names. Usage of one rather than the other is often seen as politically motivated or as a colonial hangover. But in reality, these are not the ideological divisions of the Leningrad-St. Petersburg sort but arise from confusions over English, growing out of differing romanizations of Chinese dialects.

Chinese officials would be up in arms if Barack Obama referred to “Peking,” (now viewed as a colonial legacy) rather than Beijing, the official name for the past few decades. But Obama would be astonished if he were expected to refer to Xianggang rather than Hong Kong. Both Hong Kong and Peking are anglicized names that are closer to Cantonese pronunciation than the now official romanizations. So why is one acceptable and not the other? The French get away with Pekin, but, with the exception of Hong Kong, English-users are expected to use a romanization decreed by Peking.

The reason for all this is not clear. China accepts that foreigners use “China,” derived from a dynasty of 2,200 years ago, rather than Zhongguo. So what is wrong with Peking? The fact is that most English, Portugese, French and other traditional versions of Chinese place names derive from Cantonese pronunciations because it was with southern China that they had most contact.

If China wants greater phonetic accuracy surely it is time for it to stop talking about Mei-guo,Ying-guo and Fa-guo to describe America, Britain and France.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Koreans may have got used to being named by most foreigners after a dynasty which ruled a thousand years ago. And use of “Korea” may help ignorant foreigners confusing capitalist Hankook with Communist Choson (or with the alternative romanizations of both). Though both are historically correct, Hankook (or Hanguk or Hangook) is more often used in the South, Choson (or Chosun) in the North.

But it is doubtful that the historical inhabitants of Xizhang (literally “Hidden West”) much appreciate their land being described as though it were simply an obscure western appendage of the Han empire. The use of Tibet, a name of obscure origin that may have come to English from Arabic or Turkic, is a long way from what the people themselves call the country, Bod. But at least it is not so politically charged as Xizhang.

The same applies to the historical inhabitants of Xinjiang (“New Territories” in Chinese) who might prefer not to be the newest part of China but part of a greater Turkestan — the East Turkestan once used in the West to describe this region.

As for Burma, if the military rulers want to make Myanmar the official romanization that is their prerogative, at least for now. But if English and other speakers (including Thai neighbors) prefer their own approximate names, why not? Maybe a change of regime may involve a change in attitude, just as Cambodia stopped demanding to be known in English as Kampuchea once the Khmer Rouge were overthrown.

After all, even Hitler never demanded that newspapers in occupied France stopped using Allemagne instead of Deutschland.

As it happens there are enough real political issues involved in names that it would be best to avoid meaningless spats over translations or romanizations, whether it is Beijing into standard English or Obama into Chinese characters.