2007-10-21

Sorry, I don't have an English name...

If you are not living in Taiwan, you may not understand why a German would need to emphasize this. The problem is that there is something rotten in the system they call education in Taiwan. Not just something, quite a few things, actually, but this is something affecting my work.

Taiwanese have a pretty weird view towards language. For them, a language and its writing system are one. And even though some of them should have noticed through learning Japanese for example that this is not quite true, they still stick to this view. Actually, Taiwanese themselves are using two writing systems (Hanzi and Zhuyin) for Chinese - but they do not notice that these are two different scripts.

So for Taiwanese, everything they write is "Zhongwen" (中文, Chinese, or more precisely "Chinese writing"), for which they use "Zhongwenzi" (中文字, Chinese characters). And since most Taiwanese learn only one foreign language and since that language is English, the characters used for writing that language are of course "English characters" (英文字(母)). It never came to their mind that one (spoken) language could be written in a number of writing systems, or that one writing system could be used for more than one language.

I know, I know: It's pretty obvious. Japan is using three (or four, depending on your view) writing systems, including those "Chinese characters", which in Japan are simply called "Kanji" (漢字), the characters of the Han. The same term btw. is used in the PRC: Hanzi (汉字). So, it's really Taiwan where the education system is teaching people some strange ideas about language.

Most Taiwanese can not imagine that English could be using a script that is not "English". It is the same writing system used by French, German, Danish, Italian and dozens of other languages: Latin script. This is something I learned when I just started to learn how to write during my first year at school. We were not writing "German letters", but "Latin letters" (Lateinbuchstaben in German).

But for Taiwanese, my name is an "English name", because it is written in the same letters as English. No, wait - he's a German, so he must have a "German name". (德文名字, the term used in this case, actually means "a name written in German", not a name of German origin) Things start to become interesting when I tell them that my name actually comes from Scandinavia, from Norway and Sweden. So what is it now? A name in "Scandinavian writing" (北歐文名字)?

So why would I need to write about this? Because it is causing trouble, and I am not talking about the annoyances I mentioned above. It is causing trouble for foreigners who have to deal with Taiwan or are living in/on it. And it is causing trouble for interpreters. Translators are somehow OK, because they still have time to check, but an interpreter can not afford such luxury. An interpreter needs to deliver a target language version "at once", more or less.

But what trouble would an interpreter experience? Well, when you learn a language, you will usually buy at least one dictionary. You can look up words in that dictionary, so you will know that "table" is called "tsukue" in Japanese or "zhuozi" in Chinese. You can find these, because they are terms used for a certain class of objects. That same class of objects exists in another country too, where people are using another language, so those people too have a word for that class of objects.

But can you find your name in that dictionary? Can you find your neighbour's name in it? Or the name of the company you work for? I doubt. Because these are names, also known as proper nouns. They are assigned to a certain object, not to a whole class of objects. And here the "fun" starts: Most Taiwanese think that they need an "English name". The same applies to companies and even many schools. But how is someone supposed to know what kind of "English name" a certain person/organisation is using?

How is someone who does not know my (imaginary) neighbour supposed to know that his "English name" is "Peter"? After all, until last week his "English name" was "Jack". How often would you want to update a dictionary listing all kinds of names for all people, companies and schools in Taiwan? And why does nobody notice what a crazy scheme this is?

If you think that this does not cause any trouble, ask a Taiwanese where you can buy a "Twinhead" notebook. That is the name written on the notebooks, even in Taiwan. You will find a few who know that name. Most however have never heard of it, even if they have such a notebook. But they know a company called "Lunfei" (倫飛). And no, "Twinhead" is not a translation of "Lunfei". (A name can and should usually not be translated...)

Fortunately, there are exceptions. While they use a strange transcription ("Tatong"), "Datong" (大同) is using the same name whether the communication is in English, Chinese or any other language. That's how a name should be handled. Or why can Japanese companies just use the same name in any language? OK, not quite... "Suzuki" for example is called "Suzuki" everywhere except Taiwan, here it is called "Tailing" (台鈴). You have to admit that "Suzuki" and "Tailing" sound extremely similar...

And why would Taiwanese need an "English name"? Simple: Because they don't know how to write their name in Latin script, since they never learned how to do that. The education system here does not care about romanisation, and even those who should know better seem not to care. But that is another story...

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