Have you ever wondered what your country’s name looks like in Chinese and what its meaning is? The literal Chinese translations of country names often results in some funny interpretations. Many of the Hanzi writings of foreign countries are supposed to reflect a nice meaning and also be phonetically similar (transliteration) to the original. However when translated from one language to Chinese and then to English, the meaning may be lost in translation and changed to something completely different. I tried to choose some of the most interesting literal translations, but as with all translations there is a multitude of meanings and understandings, hence results may vary from translation to translation.
So, to be clear, these are not “literal translation of the Chinese names”, rather they are literally translations of characters used phonetically
Germany: 德国, deguo. De mimics “Deutsch” (of Deutschland), and means virtue, righteousness.
Netherlands/Holland: 荷兰, helan. Lotus Orchid, Helan sounds vaguely like Holland.
United Kingdom: 英国, ying guo. Either “Brave land” or “Great country” however “英” is now a character associated with England/UK
Russia: 俄国 e guo. This one is an exception as the first character just means Russian now, and doesn’t correspond to the phonetic in any way.
Belgium: 比利时, bi li shi. “Time to compare profits”. Let the games begin!
Iceland: 冰岛, bing dao. Same as its native entomology – “ice island”
Belarus: 白俄罗斯, bai e luo si. “white Russia” convenient as Belarus means white Russia in Belarus as well.
Montenegro: 黑山, hei shan. Black mountain which is the same as its native etymology
Switzerland: 瑞士, rui shi “Lucky gentleman”. This is one of the names that gets people asking about the etymology of place names. It clearly doesn’t make sense phonetically in Mandarin, but in Cantonese, where the transliteration was likely to have taken place, it’s clear that we’re transliterating “Switzer”.
Hungary: 匈牙利, xiong ya li. “Hun teeth profit”. In Cantonese, 匈 is pronounced as “hung” and 牙 is pronounced as “nga”. Could also be a reference to the myths that the Hungarians are descended from the Huns and the Xiongnu, a perennial northern rival of ancient Chinese dynasties, are the same as the Huns.
Italy: 意大利 , yi da li. “Hoping for/expecting big profits”. Sounds like 一大粒, “one big lump”.
Spain: 西班牙, xi ban ya. “Western class teeth” the sound is supposed to mimic Hispania.
Greece: 希腊, xi la. “Hope for BBQ”. Well, no, but “longing for cured meat” doesn’t sound as snappy. 腊 can also refer to the twelfth month of the Chinese calendar, so “hoping for the 12th month of the year” is another possibility.
Canada: 加拿大, jia na da. “Add grab big”
Mexico: 墨西哥, mo xi ge. “Ink west older brother”.
Haiti: 海地, hai di. “Sea land”.
Guatemala: 危地马拉, gua di ma la. “In the land of danger, the horse pulls”. This is the transliteration used in Mainland China. The Taiwanese use “瓜地马拉”: “In the land of melons, the horse pulls”.
America: 美国, meiguo. Beautiful country ,first character means “beauty” on its own, that Chinese think America is a beautiful country, but again, don’t be fooled, its only because of the sound “mer” in “America”.
China: 中国, Zhong guo. “Middle kingdom” Through out Chinese history China and its people believed that they were the middle kingdom of earth.
Japan: 日本, ri ben. “Land of the Rising Sun” or “The suns origin”
Korea: 高丽, gao li. “Goryeo” This was the dynasty that ruled Korea from 900 AD to 1400
Australia:澳大利亚, ao da li ya “Big bay, inferior profits”.
India: 印度 , yin du. “The degree of printing”
Singapore: 新加坡, xin jia po. “Newly added slope”
Vietnam: 越南, yue nan. “More south” Due to Vietnamese position to China and their long history.
Yemen: 也门, ye men. “Also door”.
Israel: 以色列, yi se lie. “According to color, list”, or “list according to color”.
Bhutan: 不丹, bu dan “Not red”
Cambodia:柬埔寨, jian pu zhai. “Letter to the plain of the stronghold”
Malaysia: 马来西亚, ma lai xi ya.”Horse comes to West Asia”. Which is funny, because they are in Southeast Asia.
South Africa: 南非, nan fei. Fei is from the name for Africa ‘feizhou’, means literally south Africa.
Egypt: 埃及, ai ji. “Catching up to dust”.
Namibia: 纳米比亚, na mi bi ya. “Comparing extremely small profits”