"Washington, D.C." in Chinese

Vidal's 1967 political novel Washington, D.C. was translated into Chinese in 1981 by a Beijing publisher. As with so many translations of a non-Chinese title into Chinese, the translator faced the challenge of representing the title with a Chinese name.

Unlike English, which consists of letters that represent sounds, the Chinese language is made up of characters that represent words and concepts. So the translator could not simply spell out "Washington, D.C." in Chinese.

The four characters above are the translator's choices for a Chinese title for Washington, D.C. In Mandarin (Putonghua), the title is pronounced Cheng t'an yu huo. Here is what the characters mean:

Click Cover To Enlarge First character: "Cheng," the Chinese word for "politics."

Second character: "T'an," which means "stage."

Third character: "Yu," the word for "desire."

Fourth character: "Huo," the word for "fire."

Put them all together and you could say the book's title means "a fiery desire to be on the political stage." And that, in fact, aptly describes the book's politically ambitious characters.

Finally: In the case of a title, a Chinese translator can simply give the book a new name and then write that name comfortably in Chinese. But Vidal's first and last names presented a greater challenge, as does any Western name for any Chinese translator.

ęCopyright 2005 by
Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh
kloman@pitt.edu