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Candidates' names are tough in Chinese

Mitt Romney's been called many things as he runs for president, but chances are "Sticky Rice" isn't one of them.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mitt Romney's been called many things as he runs for president, but chances are "Sticky Rice" isn't one of them.

That's how his name might be read on some ballots, according to state Secretary William Galvin.

Galvin says the federal Justice Department is pressuring Boston election officials to translate candidates' names into Chinese characters in precincts with prominent Chinese-speaking populations.

But there's more than a little lost in translation, according to Galvin.

Multiple options
Since there's no Chinese character for "Romney," translators have resorted to finding characters that most closely match the sound of each syllable in the name.

The problem is that there are many different characters that could be used to match the sound of each syllable, and many different meanings for each character.

So Mitt Romney could be read as "Sticky Rice" or "Uncooked Rice." Fred Thompson might be read as "Virtue Soup." And Barack Obama could be read as "Oh Bus Horse."

Galvin's own name could be read at least two different ways, as "High Prominent Noble Educated" or "Stick Mosquito."

But perhaps the most perplexing translation would be for Boston Mayor Thomas Menino's name, which could be read as "Sun Moon Rainbow Farmer" or "Imbecile," or "Barbarian Mud No Mind of His Own."

"To try to make rhymes or approximations in Chinese, you can have unintended negative meanings," Galvin said. "It leads to confusion. You can render it with a good meaning or a bad meaning."

Multiple dialects
To add to the confusion, Galvin said, the ballots have to be offered in two major Chinese dialects, Mandarin and Cantonese, leading to even more potential variations of candidates's names.

But advocates for minority voting rights say Galvin's objections are misdirected. If the translations are awkward, they say, the candidates should be free to offer variations, or look to the way Asian language newspapers already transliterate their names.

"We are looking to make sure Asian Americans are able to vote for their candidates of choice," Glenn Magpantay, staff attorney of the New York-based Asian American Defense Fund, told the Boston Globe. "This is difficult to do when voters with limited English proficiency cannot find those candidates."

Cynthia Magnuson, spokeswoman to the Justice Department's civil rights division, said a system is needed to let voters with limited English vote without the aid of election monitors.

"This will allow them to vote independently," she said.

Galvin said he supports translating the bulk of the ballots into Chinese as required by a 2005 agreement with the justice department, as long as the names of the candidates' names remain in Roman letters.