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Translating names into Kanji

Cloak decorated with kanji characters (1973), designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the Aladdin Sane tour

Cloak decorated with kanji characters (1973), designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the Aladdin Sane tour (© The David Bowie Archive)

This summer’s David Bowie exhibition at the V&A museum apparently features several Japan-themed outfits designed by Kansai Yamamoto. The cloak shown here is decorated with the calligraphic characters 出火吐暴威, which represents the name “David Bowie” as follows:

Kanji Meaning
de exit; leave; emit
bi fire (usually hi)
to spit; vomit; belch
outburst; rave; fret; force; violence
i intimidate; dignity; majesty; menace

This translates roughly as “the one who spits fire with forceful menace” (or “one who spits out words in a fiery manner” according to the rest of the blogosphere). Regular visitors to this site are probably already aware that foreign names are normally written using the phonetic katakana syllabary, and not without good reason — kanji characters can usually be read in at least two different ways, so it’s almost impossible to achieve unambiguous results.

For example, film director Yoshikazu Katō and human rights activist Giichi Nomura both share the same given name (義一) but with completely different pronunciations (Yoshikazu and Giichi). At least with Japanese names it’s usually possible to make an educated guess of the most likely pronunciation. But with foreign names and words, it’s much harder. This is precisely the sort of ambiguity that katakana was designed to eliminate.

If you really do want to translate your name into kanji, there are a few things you need to bear in mind:

Linguist Jack Halpern writes his name as 春遍雀來 (Harupen Jakku), but with a furigana pronunciation guide (ハルペン ジャック) to avoid confusion. (From the Japanese title page of the New Japanese-English Character Dictionary)

Linguist Jack Halpern writes his name as 春遍雀來 (Harupen Jakku), but with a furigana pronunciation guide (ハルペン ジャック) to avoid confusion. (From the Japanese title page of the New Japanese-English Character Dictionary, 1st edition)

  • Kanji characters are ideographs, so you have to consider the meaning as well as the pronunciation of each one. (Try to avoid characters like “vomit”!)
  • Katakana offers a better range of pronunciation. For example, デイヴィッド (deividdo) is much closer to the English pronunciation of “David” than debito.
  • Unless you’re already well known, you’ll still have to explain to Japanese people how your name should be pronounced.
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One Response to Translating names into Kanji

  1. Phil says:

    廾ヨ尺ヨ'己 丹几回卞廾ヨ尺 山丹と 回乍
    山尺工卞工几呂 "句丹レ工句 日回山工ヨ"
    工几 勹丹尸丹几ヨ己ヨ


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