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Diplomatic tussle: 'Aobama' or 'Oubama'?

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009 8:52 AM

BEIJING -- The Chinese government invited "President Aobama" to China. But it was "President Oubama" who emerged from Air Force One.

In a visit expected to be marked by trade tensions, disagreements over Tibet and disputes over the value of the Chinese currency, one of the earliest diplomatic tussles involved how to spell -- and therefore pronounce -- the name of the 44th American president in Mandarin Chinese.

And the wrangling went all the way to the White House, or, as the Chinese have always called it, the "Bai Gong," meaning "White Palace." But the Obama administration was having none of that, reminding their Chinese hosts that the United States has no palaces, and insisting on using in official statements the term "Bai Wu," literally "White House."

"The Embassy is working to standardize the translation of common vocabulary in Chinese," said U.S. embassy spokeswoman Susan Stevenson in an e-mail, when asked whether President Aobama or President Oubama was coming to China.

"Ou-bama," she said, "conforms to the actual pronunciation of the name and is our preferred Chinese appellation." And she added, "By the same token, "Bai Wu" (which means "White House") is more accurate than "Bai Gong" (White Palace)."

But President Oubama living in the Bai Wu also more closely conforms to how the names are commonly rendered in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which may explain why, so far at least, official Chinese media, and the Chinese foreign ministry, continue to use the old familiar forms.

The president has been referred to here as "Aobama" since he first appeared on the national scene. And change, as he himself often says, is hard.

One foreign ministry official Chinese translator even appeared to be mocking the American translation efforts. He said he preferred "Aobama," because the Chinese character for Ao is used also for Australia and as part of Macao, and means "profound and deep." By contrast, "Ou" is the Chinese character used for Europe.

The official agreed that the pronunciation of "Oubama" may indeed be closer to the American pronunciation of the 44th president's name. But he said it sounded strange to the ear, reminding him slightly of the Japanese term "Obaasan," which is a rather unkind way of referring to an old lady ("Obaasan," while Japanese, is widely understood by Chinese on Taiwan and in Hong Kong).

What the translator did not mention, however, is that the "Ao" character has a lot of other less complimentary meaning -- which may be why the Chinese government prefers to use it for Obama. "Ao" can also mean "difficult to understand," "abstruse" and "obscure."

The translator also recalled that the White House versus White Palace dispute was an old one between the embassy and the foreign ministry here. He said the ministry had no plans to change for the moment, and would probably take its cue from Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.

So for the moment, Chinese journalists covering the visit are left with dueling Chinese and American translations of both the American president's name, and the name of the place where he lives and works.

"I think any change will take time to work its way through," Stevenson said in the e-mail, recalling how long it took for "Peking" to become "Beijing." She added: "The U.S. government, however, has adapted this new vocabulary."

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