Spicks & Specks

incorporating 'A Thousand Miles of Moonlight'

What is "Pringle" in Chinese?

24 August 2008

The surname Pringle is a Scottish name from the Scottish Border Region. Scotland is about as far as you could get from China, but here I want to see how this old Scottish name is rendered in Chinese.

Transliterating English names into Chinese is not a standardised affair like it is in Japanese. Despite the fact that most names are now to a large extent standardised on the Mainland, there is still variation in Taiwan and Hong Kong, not to mention variations that occur due to translator whimsy and the translation of brand names.

'Pringle' in Chinese

In a fully-standardised form, 'Pringle' should ideally be 普林格尔 Pǔlíngé'ěr in Chinese (or, in traditional characters, 普林格爾). The characters used are routinely used in transliterations.

Notice how the English has only two syllables ('pring' and 'gle') while the Chinese transliteration has four: + lín + + ěr. That is because:

Curiously, the 'r' and the 'l' in the English are completely reversed in the Chinese. That is, it is as if the Chinese were transliterating 'Plingre'. That's also unavoidable:

The transliteration 普林格尔 Pǔlíngé'ěr is found around the Internet for names like Sir John Pringle, the 18th-century Scottish physician, or Thomas Pringle, the 19th-century Scottish poet.

But 普林格尔 Pǔlíngé'ěr is a rather clumsy name in Chinese. The 'r' syllable is a glaring sign of foreignness and is also somewhat hard for Chinese to get their tongue around. That may be why 普林格尔 Pǔlíngé'ěr is often found truncated to 普林格 Pǔlíngé.

普林格 Pǔlíngé has several advantages. It is shorter -- only three syllables, + lín + -- and is thus closer to the standard Chinese format of three characters per name. It is easier to pronounce and doesn't look so obviously foreign. In actual usage, 普林格 Pǔlíngé tends to be found in less academic contexts, for example, in transliterating the names of contemporary figures or ordinary people, the sort of people less likely to be found in encyclopaedia articles.

Literature is another matter. The translator of literary works has the freedom to follow the conventions, or to ignore them if that seems the better course. For instance, the Pringle name is found in Harry Potter, in the form of Apollyon Pringle, a minor character in the Goblet of Fire.

In the Mainland translation of this book, Apollyon Pringle is transliterated as 阿波里昂·普林格 Ābōlǐ'áng Pǔlíngé. In the Taiwanese version, however, this is truncated completely to 阿破·普哥 Āpò Pǔgē. The transliteration 普哥 Pǔgē is a rather sorry excuse for 'Pringle' whose only virtue is brevity. The literal meaning is 'Pu elder-brother'.

The name Pringle is widely found in several specific contexts.

Taking a name in Chinese

If you are a Pringle thinking of getting an authentic Chinese name, however, you really don't have to think about all this too much. That's because there is no need whatsoever for a Chinese name to slavishly follow the English one.

Traditionally, a Chinese name consists of a surname first, usually one character -- two-character surnames do exist, but they are quite rare -- followed by a given name of two characters. Names should always have a meaning, with impressive masculine names denoting strength traditionally being used for men, and pretty feminine names for women. More recently the trend is to use one-character given names. An example:

Traditional style (given name is two characters)
李鹏飞 (traditional characters: 李鵬飛)
Lǐ Péngfēi: Surname = Li , Name = Pengfei ('roc flies')

Recent trend (given name is one character)
李鹏 (traditional characters: 李鵬)
Lǐ Péng: Surname = Li , Name = Peng ('roc')

Needless to say, Chinese doesn't have the surname 'Pringle'. However, it does have a few surnames that bear some phonetic resemblance to 'Pringle'. For example, the present author decided to render his surname in Chinese as Péng. This is an ordinary surname shared with several million Chinese, and I'm greeted as a long-lost family member whenever I run into one of them. The Chinese notion, of course, is that people sharing the same surname all ultimately come from the same family tree.

Naturally the surname is not the full story. A Chinese name is mostly spoken as a totality and needs to be taken as a whole. My full Chinese name is 彭瑞 Péng Ruì (keeping in mind that the surname comes first), where Ruì is meant to represent the name 'Greg', while at the same time Péng Ruì as a whole is designed to give a gross impressionistic sense of 'Pringle'.

I am not the first foreigner to use the surname Péng. For example, the much-maligned former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, is known in Chinese as 彭定康 Péng Dìngkāng. So Péng should simply be considered as one possibility if you want a Chinese surname that sounds a bit like 'Pringle'.

Another possibility is the surname Píng, although that would probably be more appropriate for someone from the Ping family! A less satisfactory surname, both because it doesn't sound so pleasant to an English speaker and because it fails to capture the all-important 'ring', is . Similarly for the homophonous surname . Or if you want to sacrifice the 'p' altogether, you might prefer Lín, a very common Chinese surname.

Of course, you could dispense with all this and simply give yourself a random Chinese name. There is no requirement that your Chinese name should be even remotely related to your English name. If your English name is Stephen Pringle, why not just adopt a completely random Chinese name like 王小峰 Wáng Xiǎofēng, for instance? There are people who adopt names on the principle that a Chinese name is a Chinese name and has nothing to do with the English name at all.

Summing up

That finishes our discussion of the transliteration of the surname Pringle into Chinese. The ultimate point, of course, is that everything depends on your purpose.

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