Back in college, I took a regular English course that was required for all majors. The teacher just happened to be a grad student in British Literature, so we read a lot of British literature. All the books we read were 19th century British Literature books - Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. We talked about the names of the characters, such as Pumblechook or Eyre.

I am wondering how a bilingual author would introduce a character with a bilingual name, with the English name simply being a secondary name. The character's "real name" is in a different language, and it is chosen because it sounds playful in that language. Examples include:

  • 林木森 (Mu-Sen Lin. A visual pun.)
  • 马騳骉 (Du-Biao Ma. A visual pun.)
  • 何荷 (He-He. An English pun.)
  • 毛祎 (Yi Mao. A Mandarin-based pun that sounds like "sweater".)
  • 杨树 (Shu Yang. A Mandarin-based full-name pun that literally means "aspen tree".)

Realistically, some parents do choose pun names for their children's full legal names 姓名 or milk names 乳名/小名. Milk names tend to sound cuter, like 豆豆 or 苗苗. Some parents, on the other hand, just choose a ridiculous name. I know one couple that call their newborn baby girl 哼哼. Their reasoning? The newborn's cry sounds like a pig. They say if they have more children, then they will name subsequent children 哈哈 or 呵呵. These characters are merely human laughter sounds.

As an example, a young man goes by the name of 李悟 (may sound like 礼物, which means "present" or "gift"), and his twin sister goes by the name of 李树 (may sound like 李树, which literally means a type of tree that I can't find the translation of right now). They both choose English names for themselves to participate in the international workplace. The sister chooses to call herself Tree, and the brother calls himself Gift. Then, a monolingual English speaker meets them and thinks the English names are just ridiculous. Fortunately, the brother and sister are international students at an American university, and after making some observations, they pick more realistic names. The brother chooses to go by William, and the sister chooses to go by Susan. Does the author have to mention the English names right in the beginning, even though choosing the English names is actually part of the plotline? Or should the author go by the pinyin transliterations of their real names in Western naming order (given name first, surname last), even though the pun will be lost?

  • 4
    Would you mind adding the transliterations for the milk names that sound cuter, the way you did for the list of examples? I take it they're repetitions (like ma-ma or ki-ki), but since you say they sound cute, I get rather curious about their sounds. Jul 21, 2018 at 8:28
  • Pinyin transliterations are based on Mandarin. 豆豆 is written as Dou-Dou. 苗苗 is written as Miao-Miao.
    – Double U
    Jul 21, 2018 at 10:44

5 Answers 5


I have recently had to deal with a similar issue in my own writing: modern Hebrew names too have meanings. Common names might mean 'horizon','spring', etc. Actress Gal Gadot's first name means 'wave', for example, (and her last name means 'riverbanks'). Here's how I dealt with this in a story written in English with several Israeli characters.

  • More than once, the names I picked for characters were somehow saying something about the character. However, I did not spell out the name's meaning - I found that would be too distracting, too "in your face". You can find an example of such use in Battlestar Galactica: Captain Adama's name means in Hebrew 'Captain Earth'. So of course Captain Earth who's on a quest to find Earth,

is going to find Earth.

However, spelling out that his name means 'Captain Earth' ruins the suspense.

  • In very rare cases when a character was choosing a name for a child because of it's meaning, for example, (similar to your example of the two siblings choosing names for studying abroad), I added a very brief footnote, like this:

Keren, an astrophysicist, and her husband Boris, mathematician, named their son Ofek1, thinking of the new horizons opening before Man.
1. 'Horizon' (Hebrew)

Such footnotes weigh on the text, so I try to use them very sparingly. You can also just weave the name-meaning into the story, if it works, and if it's actually important:

My name is Shalom. It means 'peace', so you can see my parents had good intentions when they picked it. Trouble is, it also means 'hello', which led to an endless amount of teasing.

One important note: I never ever leave names in non-English characters. The moment you do that, you limit your readership to bilingual readers. Always transliterate. Consider: I have no idea what those non-English characters in your post are supposed to mean, nor what they sound like, unless you tell me. And you know Wonder Woman's actress as Gal Gadot, not גל גדות.

So, to address your specific question, as you say yourself, using the English names before they are chosen, and when choosing them is actually a part of the plot, is problematic. I would use transliteration and, if it's important enough, add a footnote.


Go long! Write about the custom, and the reader will get it.

In a recent Writing Challenge here on SE, I had a short Human and Extraterrestrial exchange:

Human: Where are you from?
ET: Earth. Sorry about that. In translation, all planets are named Earth.

Suppose the alien communicated in a form of sign language; and in their language the name of their planet was a facial expression modified by a hand gesture. How do you translate into English their planet name to something humans can understand? The human's only reference (until recent SciFi) for a home planet name is "Earth".

You have a similar problem; to write a book in English, you must translate everything to English; including the unusual names.

However, this problem is easy to get around because the custom is easily understandable; in the USA most Americans are familiar with the American Indian custom of naming people after animate and inanimate objects, like "Running Wolf."

I would introduce this custom early, by the narrator. e.g.

My name is Cloud, chosen by father, Gatekeeper. Such symbolic names are the custom of my people, and in truth, the custom of most lands: The English name Leia comes from the ancient word 'Ley' that meant 'meadow'. Leo is 'from the meadow'. Ash is a forest tree with strong fine-grained wood, and Ashley is 'from the Ash forest meadow'.

But in the West they have long forgotten their ancient meanings, and must look them up, although some still choose names of meaning, like 'Destiny'. We still speak our ancient language, and we still cherish the magic of meaning in our names, carrying the aspirations of our parents. I will tell you of my cousins, Gift and Tree, brother and sister, as we together must leave our homeland and venture into the Western world.

Something like that, tailored to your character and story.

  • Surely Leo is more typically an abbreviation for a name such as Leonard (where the Leo component etymologically means lion) or Leopold (where it means people)? Jul 22, 2018 at 20:42

You're right that it's about how and when the characters are introduced.

This will depend on the narrator and the way the story develops. If the narrator has followed Gift and Tree from the beginning and the story is written chronologically, there's no need to mention the English names until they are chosen. If, on the other hand, the narrator meets William and Susan in the US at the start of the novel, their life before university and the selection of the names can be covered using analepsis (flashback).

If the narrator is someone who has known them (or known of them) before they took their English names, but the introduction occurs after they've started to be know as William and Susan, this could be covered in dialogue at the time of introduction, for example :

"Hello. I'm using the name Susan when I'm in the US - people seem to find it easier."

If the narrator is the person who helped them choose the names, you could refer to them either way, and include the story of how the names were chosen in the narration.

Galastel has already mentioned the problems with limiting the audience. Another point to consider if the story works best to a bi/multilingual audience is that you don't trip over an unintended pun (or even an intended one that doesn't go the way you thought it would).

Apparently "Murder Law" wouldn't work for a detective show in France.

  • So, suppose the narrator is a first cousin who has lived and gone to school in the US for most of her life. One day, she, a high school student, hears her cousins are coming to stay at her house for study. At the same time, she self-studies Chinese, because she has never gone to school in China (except kindergarten) and uses the opportunity to immerse herself more in the language. The characters all call each other by kinship. English does not distinguish "cousins", and in direct address, English speakers refer by name. So, it is possible that the narrator calls them "Ge-ge and Jie-Jie".
    – Double U
    Jul 21, 2018 at 11:07
  • @DoubleU - A cousin would probably know them by the names the family use - I'll edit. Jul 21, 2018 at 11:14
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    Talking about the protagonists, the narrator would use their real Chinese names, which may be written in pinyin transliteration. Some time later, the protagonists choose English names without knowing English naming customs, so they end up with Gift and Tree, which later causes them embarrassment. They report the story to the family at the table. The narrator, a naturalized American citizen, helps them with name-choosing. She selects "William", because the w sounds like the original in Wu Li, and she selects "Susan" because the "Sue" part resembles the shu part in Shu Li.
    – Double U
    Jul 21, 2018 at 11:16

First off, as has been pointed out in at least on other answer, romanize (or pinyinize, or hepbunize, or whatever other term you want to use) everything if the book is in English. English speaking readers are more likely to get cross-lingual jokes this way (your 'he he' example would not need to be explained if romanized for example), and it also makes it much easier on the readers (and the printers).

Beyond that though, don't try to explain this type of thing unless it's critical to the story. Humor in the form of puns or wordplay does not translate well unless you get really lucky, as it usually relies on peculiarities of the source language's vocabulary or phonetics (Wikipedia actually has a number of good examples for puns and wordplay in their article on untranslatability). Because of this, translations will usually either end up changing meaning (which is very bad), or will spend way too much time explaining the joke, which just detracts from the story itself. The explanation will usually distract most readers without contributing much, and not explaining it leaves the joke as a bonus for people who just get it.


Puns, by there nature, have a weird translation issue. Sometimes they just don't work because, they are play on words, but the pun doesn't work in the new language because those words don't sound close. Other times, they work way more universally than anticipated because the format doesn't rely on similar sounding words to be in play.

For example, take the following joke:

A wife asks her husband, "Does this dress make me look pretty or ugly?"

The husband looks up and responds, "I'd say pretty ugly."

This joke is occasionally refered to as the universal pun because it translates into just about every language there is. Most languages use pretty as an adjective (as per the wife's line) and an adverb (as per the husband's line) in a similar fashion... Similarly, any English Joke that relies on a pun on the word "Dream" translates well into Japanese and vice-versa because the Japanese word for "Dreams" (Yuma) has the same exact meaning in all possible uses.

Other times, Jokes do not translate well, but can be understood if you know the language. Japanese, for example, has several different sounds for numbers, so it's not uncommon for people to use a numerical value to represent themselves or another concept, because the pronunciation of the number sounds makes a pun on the thing's name. An example of this comes from an entry of the Japanese Television Show Super Sentai (Power Rangers in the U.S.). The 1999-2000 series was themed after Rescue Services and was given an increadibly fun pun to explore in "Kyukyu Sentai GoGoV" which translates to "Rescue Task Force Go Go Five" (V being the Roman Numeral for Five, not the letter). This has several number puns going, on... the first is that the sound "Kyu" in "Kyukyu sounds like one of the sounds for 9, so Kyukyu sounds like 9-9 which is the year the show first aired... In the phrase GoGoV, the title uses a well known pun on their word for the number 5 sounding like the English word "Go". The V is used to show they want to use the English word for 5, not another go. Being one of the few teams following the Green Ranger to lack a sixth ranger, the first pun is telling the team of rescue workers to move to the scene with haste ("Go! Go, Five!" and probably the reason why it's US counterpart was called "Lightspeed Rescue" as they both imply rapid deployment to emergencies) but additionally, it's also making a number pun off of 555... the 911 equivalent emergency call line in Japan. It helps to know that post WWII Japanese is loaded with English Loan Words.

If this is a naming pun thing, I would advise not to explain the joke and let your readers figure it out. They can be quite clever.

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