Translation is tough work, as someone who has translated from Mandarin to English and English to Mandarin for both work and personal purposes, I can attest as much. As any assiduous student of a translated text- from Sun Zi’s Art of War to the Holy Bible- can tell you, if you need an in depth understanding of the subject matter, it is often necessary to refer to the original text.
That is all fine if its a classic text in question- certainly much benefits can be derived from in-depth study, what if all you want to do is buy some tea- i.e. know what you are buying.
The incomparable MarshallN has written a post on romanization and there is no much I can add to the discussion.
But I will add my own spin on how we name teas on our online tea shop– Peony Tea S. To put it simply, we go for all 3 names:
i) English- a product name
ii) Hanyu Pinyin
iii) Chinese name
Chinese names of tea
We do realize not all of our customers read Chinese characters but it doesn’t matter. With the wonders of ‘copy-and-paste’ aka ‘Ctrl C’ & ‘Ctrl X’, you can always cut it out and compare with another site.
At the source, this is the most accurate- since the disparity of Hanyu Pinyin vs Wades-Giles vs translator’s whims would not come into play. Of course that doesn’t stop vendors for tacking on additional labels on their tea such as ‘monkey picked’, ‘competition grade’, ‘superior grade’, ‘old bush’ etc which until there is widespread regulations on using this labels, is pretty meaningless.
Labeling my Dragon Well as ‘superior grade’ for example is tantamount to misrepresentation unless my Dragon Well genuinely fits the Chinese grading system criteria- of which one of the easiest to verify is the 1 bud to 1 leaf ratio. If you look at the ‘premium grade’ or ‘superior grade’ Dragon Wells you have at home, you can easily ascertain if the vendor made those claims in line with official regulations.
Unfortunately, enforcement is a problem, especially overseas so until this is in place, personally I feel tacking on ‘grade’ related labels is meaningless.
But I have gone off on a bit of a tangent.
Hanyu Pinyin names of tea
Back to Hanyu Pinyin. Each Pinyin spelling has 4 sounds and sometimes the Pinyin spelling doesn’t convey the full picture.
Phoenix Dancong is a pretty big family- even among the 10 common classifications there are 2 that easily causes confusion- 蜜兰香 Mi Lan Xiang and 米兰香 Mi Lan Xiang the former being Honey Orchid Fragrance and the latter Rice Orchid Fragrance; both having the same Pinyin spelling.
Then there is the commonly confused pronunciations. ‘h’ is very commonly mixed up in sounds such as ‘sh’ vs ‘s’, ‘zh’ vs ‘z’ and ‘ch’ vs ‘c’ etc, even among native speakers.
For example Shan Lin Xi Taiwanese Oolong is commonly spelled as ‘San Lin Xi’, not to mentioned the fact that until very recently, Taiwan is still on the Wades-Giles convention.
English names of tea
For English names, it is where the most creative liberty is given. You could translate Lishan as Li Mountain or Pear Mountain, for example.
One of the most commonly mistranslated names is Shui Xian. The problem arises because individually- Shui is water and Xian is immortal or fairy or deity or sprite. Hence you can see where some names came from. Of course Chinese students do not just have 字典 （word dictionaries) but also 词典 (phrase dictionaries).
As a phrase, Shui Xian refers to the flower known as Narcissus Tazetta- Sacred Lily or daffodil.
Just as a point of interest- if you entered 水仙传说 or ‘legend of shui xian’ into baidu- the Chinese equivalent of google, there are no ‘immortal’ related legends, in fact you would first read about ‘narcissus’- yes the greek one who fell into the water admiring his own reflection- before you ever found anything about the Chinese water immortal.
Again I digress but that’s the advantage about blogging on this ‘independent’ site as opposed to the company blog.
Where we translate product names, we try to adhere to existing conventions where appropriate, keep it close to the source and yet translation has to be meaningful to the end reader and maintain some semblance of readability.
For example- Tieguanyin is most accurately translated as Iron Goddess of Mercy but to non-Chinese (and many new generation Chinese) it is quite meaningless. Knowing that it refers to a deity pretty much tells the story and keeps the name easy to remember.
Or 凤凰单丛通天香. If I wanted to be literal I would translate it as ‘Phoenix Single Bush- Fragrance that reaches to the heavens’ but its quite a mouthful, not to mention arcane as well- hence I latched on the relatively well-known pinyin spelling and went with a dynamic equivalent name- Phoenix Dancong- Heavenly Fragrance
Of course, all 3 names are listed on our sites so you know exactly what you are buying.
I think listing all 3- while might seem a tad excessive- helps the reader (and hopefully buyer) to know
i) What they are buying
ii) What it means
iii) Not have perform tongue acrobatics when someone asks the simple question ‘what are you drinking’
That is the purpose of our naming convention.