Bilingual Spanish-Chinese street signs

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Germán Renedo recently noticed that the government has installed bilingual street signs in the Belgrano neighborhood of Buenos Aires, where Chinatown is located. The signs transcribe the sounds of the Spanish words rather than translate their meanings.

For instance, Arribeños ("those who came from the highlands and live on the coast"):

Ālǐbèiniǔsī jiē 阿里贝紐斯街 (jiē 街 means "street")

And here is Juramento ("oath; sacrament; vow"):

Hūlāménduō jiē 呼拉门多街

I leave it to readers who are fluent in Spanish to determine whether the transcriptions are faithful renderings of the Spanish sounds.

These are the previous (Spanish-only) versions:

Aside from the accuracy of the transcriptions, I'd also like to ask whether readers think that transcriptions or translations are more useful in such circumstances (I have my own view on this).


  1. Juliana said,

    August 21, 2016 @ 4:51 pm

    Spanish is my third language and Mandarin my fourth, so I will of course admit that native speakers of either language would probably know better than I, but I would say that the transcriptions are quite good, assuming of course that they're meant for speakers of Modern Standard Mandarin. Mandarin doesn't have the rolled rr sound that Spanish does, so there really is no good transcription for that; the use of /l/ to approximate both R sounds is about as good as you can get.

    Personally, I would opine that transliterating the sounds of the names, rather than translating their meaning, is more likely to be useful to someone who goes there, because then speakers of both (or however many) languages are more likely to be able to explain where they are, and how to get to where they want to be, to each other. The face semantic value of a street name is usually secondary, I think, to its value for communicating where the thing is. A Spanish-speaker might be able to guess where "Hūlāménduō" is if they know that there is a "Juramento" street, and perhaps draw a map; if it were rendered as, say, "誓言," Chinese-speakers would understand that it meant "vow," but Spanish-speakers would be completely unable to figure out where "Shì​yán" might be.

  2. FM said,

    August 21, 2016 @ 5:30 pm

    Presumably what matters is what names the target audience (i.e. local monolingual Chinese-speakers) actually use?

  3. Fernando Colina said,

    August 21, 2016 @ 5:56 pm

    It seems to me that if there was a Chinese / English sign pointing Chinese tourists to Trafalgar Square it would be more useful if the Chinese was a phonetic transcription rather than something like "The name of a cape in Southern Spain near which a battle was held in the 19th century between the navies of England on the one side and those of France and Spain on the the other".

  4. Paul Clapham said,

    August 21, 2016 @ 6:22 pm

    Kirkenes (in Norway) has done the same sort of thing to their street names to cater to the Russians who come across the nearby border. They did a straight transliteration so that when a Russian says the name of a street to, say, a taxi driver, it comes out the same way that a Norwegian would say it. With no doubt a Russian accent, of course.

  5. Circeus said,

    August 21, 2016 @ 6:29 pm

    @Fernando Colina

    That's one of the most disingenuous choice I could have thought of because not only is Trafalgar a proper name instead of a common language word (like "juramento" is), it's not even an English one: the word is Arabic and means "Cape of the Cave" or "Cape of the Laurel" (homophones are fun!).

  6. Roger Lustig said,

    August 21, 2016 @ 10:55 pm

    In Belgrano? No Yiddish? There goes the neighborhood…

  7. Mark Mandel said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 12:41 am

    (Originally posted to your LiveJournal feed. I seem to be with the majority here.)

    These words seem to be being used here as place names. For that purpose, I think the transcription is a lot more useful than a translation would be. How much use would it be to a monolingual Francophone visiting New York City to be given directions to «Rue du Mur» (Street of the Wall)?

    @Circeus: Were you being serious?! As if any of the points you made were relevant?

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 1:03 am

    I believe that in California the transcriptions are Cantonese. See here or here.

  9. Francis Boyle said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 1:57 am

    Circeus seems to have overlooked the fact that a good example is rarely typical or realistic. And while it's pushing it a little, Fernando Colina is hardly wrong about the meaning of 'Trafalgar" in 'Trafalgar Square' (even if in 'Cape Trafalgar' it's just a proper name). It's not like the name of a military operation pulled off a deliberately random list. Sure, it might not be strictly semantic but then the objection to transcription is hardly likely to be that it misses the literal meaning rather than the cultural significance.

  10. Thomas Rees said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 2:06 am

    In Los Angeles the names were translated from Spanish to English. Thus calle Primavera became Spring Street. I believe the same was done on the street signs in Chinatown. I can’t make out what Spring Street is on Google Street View, but New High Street is clearly 新高街 (Xīngāojiē).

  11. Thomas Rees said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 2:13 am

    Alameda Street looks like it’s transliterated: the first two characters are 亞拉.

  12. Hans said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 4:25 am

    How recent is the Chinatown in Belgrano, and who is the audience addressed by the signs? Transliterating into Chinese writing only makes sense if there is a sizable number of Chinese living there or visiting who don't know the Latin script and are therefore are not able to decipher the street names.

  13. Rodger C said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 6:43 am

    If I saw "Spring Street" in California I'd tend to assume it translated "Calle de la Fuente."

  14. Thomas Rees said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 7:37 am

    Rodger C: I thought so, too, but apparently Lieutenant Ord of the US Army, who surveyed the city in 1849 and produced the first map, was flirting with a local young lady, Trinidad Ortega (1832–1903). He called her mi primavera and named the street after her. Ord became a major general and was present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House. Ortega, a relative of mine, married Miguel de la Guerra and had eight children.

  15. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 8:44 am

    Is Fort Ord named for this Ord?

  16. Thomas Rees said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 1:46 pm

    Coby Lubliner: Yup!

  17. Adrian said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 5:58 pm

    It's an interesting question; one worthy of research. The vagaries of both (translation and transliteration) mean both are full of pitfalls, whichever you choose.

    I had a look at some Welsh examples and came across this one: which reminded me that it makes quite a big difference which direction the translation is going in, since if the original name was Buddug you might not translate it as "Victoria"!

  18. julie lee said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 8:14 pm

    @Coby Lubliner links us to a photo of a street sign " Grant Street" rendered as "都板街 "– "doog bahn gai" ("doog bahn street") in Cantonese. I wonder how "Grant" got to be transcribed as "doog bahn". In Mandarin the Chinese characters would be read "du ban", still hardly "Grant".

  19. julie lee said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 8:37 pm

    Mott Street in Manhattan, New York, is transcribed 勿街 ("moog street" in Cantonese, "wu street" in Mandarin), evidence that most of the Chinese who live in that neighborhood are Cantonese.

  20. Fluxor said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 11:14 pm

    @julie lee — 勿 in standard Cantonese is pronounced very much like the English word "mutt" (mat6 in jyutping/粵拼), so the transliteration is quite good, although whether that necessarily means the locals comprise mainly of Cantonese speakers is not obvious.

    Grant Ave used to be called Dupont St. According to Wikipedia, the name change happened in 1906, which means the Chinese transliteration was most likely in Taishanese/Hoisanese (aka 台山話、開平話、四邑話). The characters 都板 is pronounced "doo-bahn" in Taishanese, which seems to be closer than the pronunciation from standard Cantonese.

  21. Richard said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 11:19 pm

    Grant Avenue was originally called Du Pont Street, and the name stuck in Cantonese as doo pon' gai, where I guess second word ends in a nasalized vowel.

  22. Chas Belov said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 11:35 pm

    @Coby Lubliner: There's a mix:

    1. Transliterations, e.g. Stockton Street is sai-tok-tun-gai as in the photo
    2. Transliterations of a former name of the street. Grant is du-baan-gai, as in the photo, for when it was Dupont Avenue, perhaps 100 years ago
    3. After a landmark, e.g., Waverly Places is tin-hau-miu-gai after the Tin Hau temple on that alley
    4. Traditional name, specifically, Sacramento Street is tong-yan-gai or Chinese Person Street, using the cultural Cantonese name for the Chinese people, Tong.
    5. There is one street, Walter U. Lum place, named after someone with a Chinese name. The Chinese street name uses his Chinese name.

    My Chinese is not good enough to tell from the list below whether there are other types of naming, including any translations of the English name.
    List of streets and alleys in Chinatown, San Francisco

  23. Chas Belov said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 11:37 pm

    I neglected to mention I was told that tong-yan-gai would be the name of the main street in Chinatown. If so, Sacramento would be a bad choice as Stockton is the main street of Chinatown, at least for the 30+ years I've spent in San Francisco.

  24. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 9:44 am

    Julie Lee: I forgot — Grant Avenue was once called Dupont! So Chinatown has stuck with the old name.

  25. julie lee said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 11:42 am

    Thanks, Fluxor, Richard, and Coby Lubliner, for the correction and clarification. Thanks to Chas Belov for the list of streets and alleys in Chinatown, San Francisco.

  26. January First-of-May said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 9:39 pm

    I always wondered about the reason for all the "English" signs in Moscow that just transliterate the names (sometimes – to make up an example – it's "Sadovaya ul.", and sometimes it's "Sadovaya st.", but it's never "Garden st."). Now I know – it's so that people know what to say to a taxi driver.

    Now if I could only figure out who the ch*rp made a transliteration system for Israeli street signs that used the same letter for hey and khet…

  27. BZ said,

    August 25, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

    Thee real question is, do transliterations into Chinese characters really help anyone? I assume that most literate Chinese speakers know the Latin alphabet at the very least in order to input Pinyin characters, not to mention how Latin (English?) words and syllables are common on public signs in China these days.

  28. Rodger C said,

    August 26, 2016 @ 7:44 am

    @BZ: Why assume that the inhabitants of a Chinatown in South America are drawn from the literate classes of the PRC?

  29. Kenny Easwaran said,

    August 28, 2016 @ 8:45 am

    On a related note, I've always thought it's weird when cities with a lot of foreign tourists sign their streets as "First Street", "Second Street", "Third Street", rather than "1st Street", "2nd Street", "3rd Street". The former might be easier for a foreign visitor to sound out to a local when asking directions, but the latter would be much more helpful for letting people know where they are.

    I recently ran into a related problem when visiting Amsterdam in seeing an address written as "2o Weteringdwarstraat" and having to figure out that I wanted the street labeled as "Tweede Weteringdwarstraat", not the parallel one that was "Weteringdwarstraat".

  30. Chas Belov said,

    August 28, 2016 @ 4:34 pm

    @Kenny Easwaran: Interesting. A nitpick: It appears from Google maps that Tweede (2nd) Weteringdwarstraat (along with the preceding Eerste (1st) Weteringdwarstraat and following Derde (3rd) Weteringdwarstraat, and Niewe (New, not 4th!) Weteringdwarstraat) are actually perpendicular to Weteringdwarstraat. Confusing!

    And why would they show it in the address as 20? Or is that a typo for 2?

    Oddly, I had to zoom in to the business-name level for me to show a street name for Tweede Weteringdwarstraat. This revealed a nearby business with the intriguing name of "Poopy Cat." It's an actual English name, not a translation, and they have their own Poopy Cat website selling cat-related stuff.

    But foreign-language business names is a whole 'nother topic.

  31. Chas Belov said,

    August 28, 2016 @ 5:36 pm

    Now that I think about it, having numbered streets with the same name as their cross street is not unique. They do that for side streets off a longer street in Bangkok, for instance. But this doesn't appear to be a side street/main street situation in Amsterdam; both appear narrow on this Google map view.

    And totally off the subject, I inject a "p" sound between the "m" and the "s" in Amsterdam when I say it: "Ampsterdam."

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