WYSO

Looking To Win Votes? Change Your (Chinese) Name

Originally published on June 4, 2011 6:33 pm

One of every five residents of San Francisco is Chinese-American. And many don't read English, which means city election ballots have to be translated into Chinese.

That presents an opportunity for the politicians doing the translating.

Take last November's ballot from one if the city's districts. Michael Nava was running for Superior Court Judge; his Chinese name read Li Zheng Ping, which roughly translates as "correct and fair."

But his opponent, Richard Ulmer, translated his last name into Chinese phonetically, as Ao Ma. And what does that mean in English? "Australia horse."

If you're a Chinese voter faced with this choice, it seems like a no-brainer. Who doesn't want a judge who's correct and fair? But there was a bit of a snag.

"The Chinese names that were being used were made up," says Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee, who's proposed legislation that would require phonetic translations.

Rough Translations

It turns out other candidates have done the same thing in San Francisco, where Chinese-Americans are the most predominant Asian minority.

"It's a problem we're trying fix. It is trying to mislead voters and somewhat trick voters," says Yee. "They know exactly what they're doing. Is it breaking the law? No, it's not breaking the law. Is it taking advantage of some rules? Yeah, it's taking advantage of some rules."

About five years ago, Yee started to notice more candidates using certain Chinese characters for their translated names suggesting they were "honest" or "ethical." He sees it as a manipulative tactic to sway Chinese voters based on the positive meaning of the name and not their credentials.

Yee's bill to force candidates to use only phonetic translations has been approved by the state Senate; then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill two years ago.

What's In A Name?

In Chinese culture, creativity in naming is actually encouraged. Parents often choose names for their kids to reflect virtuous qualities.

Yee admits this is true, but he says there's no room for flair in an election where just one character in a name can tell a story about a candidate and could possibly even win votes.

For the record, when you ask Yee about his own Chinese name, he hesitates to distill it down to a simple translation. Yee, who emigrated to America when he was 3 years old, believes the real meaning of a Chinese name is rooted in the historical context of each of the syllables.

The most prominent words that do come forward in his name are "emperor" and "heart," which ends up being a pretty good name to have on a ballot.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Now to a very different political story - this one in San Francisco, where one of every five residents is Chinese-American. And many don't read English, which means city election ballots have to be translated into Chinese. And that presents an opportunity for the politicians doing the translating.

Take last November's ballot from one of the city's districts. A candidate named Michael Nava was running for Superior Court judge. But the ballot didn't read Michael Nava. It said this instead:

Unidentified Voice: Li Zheng Ping.

MARTIN: Which roughly translates as...

Unidentified Voice: Correct and fair.

MARTIN: His opponent was Richard Ulmer, or rather...

Unidentified Voice: Ao Ma.

MARTIN: Which means...

Unidentified Voice: Australia horse.

Now, if you're a Chinese voter faced with this choice, it seems like a no-brainer. I mean, who doesn't want a judge who's correct and fair? Problem is, Ulmer just translated his name phonetically into Chinese. Nava took some liberties in the translation process. Turns out other candidates have done the same thing in San Francisco.

STATE SENATOR LELAND YEE: They know exactly what they're doing. Is it breaking the law? No, it's not breaking the law. Is it kind of taking advantage of some rules? Yeah, it's taking advantage of some rules.

MARTIN: That's California State Senator Leland Yee. He thinks politicians handpicking their Chinese names is a deliberate ploy to sway Chinese voters.

YEE: You would use characters such as, you're the honest one; you're the ethical person.

MARTIN: Yee is pushing a bill to change that, forcing candidates to use only a phonetic translation approved by the Department of Elections. The state Senate has passed his bill; next up, the General Assembly.

But we should point out that in Chinese naming culture, creativity is actually encouraged. People often just pick names for their kids based on how the name sounds, and what the characters of the name mean when they're put together. Leland Yee admits this is true, but he says there's no room for creativity like this in an election where just one character in a name can tell a story about a candidate and may even win votes. Oh, and for the record, when you ask Senator Yee about his own Chinese name...

YEE: Well, so my name is a little different. What my father did was that...

MARTIN: It's a really long story. The most prominent words in his name are emperor and heart, which ends up being a pretty good name to have on a ballot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.