An honest mistransliteration

2014-04-18 — Good Characters (Leave a message)

Oliver Stone made news recently for his remarks about mainland Chinese censorship. Many Chinese agree with his criticism but are afraid to voice their thoughts.

“The film director Oliver Stone, never one to shy from controversy, dropped a verbal bomb at the Beijing International Film Festival on Thursday, saying that China had to face the truth about its history and criticize Mao Zedong if it wanted to become truly creative.” — The New York Times

I read the Times Chinese edition and noticed something quite wrong about the transliteration of Stone, 斯通 (Sī Tōng). On the surface, the character 斯 (sī) brings to mind the word 斯文 (sīwén), meaning cultured, refined, elegant, gentle, or polite. The character 通 (tōng) means to communicate, to know well, or to go through. No problem; the name appears to mean “polite communicator.” Stone might like that name. But whoever transliterated this failed to notice that there is an existing word, 私通 (sī tōng), that is pronounced exactly the same as 斯通 (Sī Tōng) that means to have secret communication with, have illicit intercourse, be maritally unfaithful, or commit adultery.


Unless you’re in it for shock value, a normal person would not want his or her name to sound like adultery. Adultery constitutes grounds for divorce in mainland China and is a crime in Taiwan:

“A married person who commits adultery with another shall be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than one year; the other party to the adultery shall be subject to the same punishment.” — Criminal Code of the Republic of China, Article 239.

It turns out that there are at least two transliterations of Stone in Chinese: Simplified Chinese users say 斯通 (Sī Tōng), described above, and traditional Chinese users prefer 史東 (Shǐ Dōng), literally “history” and “east.”

History and East:

I think the name 史東 (Shǐ Dōng) fits Stone in the context of his criticism about mainland China’s unwillingness to examine its history openly and honestly.

Mr. Stone is furious that mainland China will not openly examine its past. So his name should not be 私通 (sī tōng), secret communication or adultery, but 史東 (Shǐ Dōng), history and east.

“It’s all platitudes. We are not making tourist pictures, photo postcards about girls in villages. This is not interesting to us. We need to see the history, feel China, talk about great figures like Mao and the Cultural Revolution.” — Oliver Stone


If you’re famous and you don't have an official Chinese translation of your name, Chinese business associates as well as reporters may create names for you. You might not like the names they create: “Hello, my name is Adultery.”

If more than one person writes about or refers to you, you could end up with several versions of your Chinese name. The different versions will confuse people. “I know 史東, but who is 斯通? Are they the same person?”

When an enthusiastic amateur gives you a Chinese name, it is done with little or no marketing or branding consideration. It may also have connotations you will not like.

Once people start to associate you with a name, it is difficult for you to ask them to change the name without offending them. “You don’t even speak Chinese. Who are you to tell me how to translate?”

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