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How do you Translate Names into Kanji?

Good question! After all, if you have learned about katakana elsewhere on this site, you will know that Western foreign names are usually written in katakana and not kanji.

However, do a quick search on Google and you can find that, apart from this one, there are a number of sites that claim to translate names into kanji. Why? Well, I think there are two reasons why people are attracted to the idea of having their name in kanji: First, of course, is the fact that most Japanese names are written in kanji. Having your name in kanji somehow seems much more "authentic" than having it in katakana. The other main reason is almost certainly because each kanji character has its own meaning. Katakana are just sounds, but kanji have greater depth - they have meaning.

So what methods are used to translate a name into kanji characters? Well, look around at other sites on the Internet and you will see that there are basically two common methods

Translating the meaning

This method involves finding out the original meaning of the English name, and then finding the kanji equivalent. My name has its origins in Greek and means "crowned one". The one who is crowned is the king, so I could translate my name into the kanji for king and call myself ohsama - although it sounds pretty pretentious, doesn't it? (And not unlike Mr. Bin Laden's first name, which I, personally, would not be very happy about!)

Translating the sound

This is a lot more difficult! Flick through a dictionary and you will find a bunch of kanji that sound like your name. But sound isn't everything: Remember that kanji have meaning as well.

In fact, it is even more complex than this! That is why we have made every effort to balance the following four factors when translating the over 2,200 names in our database:

  1. Sound - Does it sound like your name or not? If the transaltor is not familiar with the original pronunciation, then there is no way they will be able to give you the right kanji! Of course, since Japanese uses slightly different sounds to English, it is not always possible to get an exact match: For example, Alison is written as "a ri son". In this case the sound that is usually written as ri in romaji is actually halfway between the way we would pronuonce li and ri in English.
  1. On-yomi and kun-yomi - Are the on-yomi or kun-yomi readings being used correctly in combination? Yes, this sounds a bit technical, but it is really quite simple: Both on-yomi and kun-yomi are terms that refer to the pronunciation of the kanji. Since most kanji originated in China, they have usually both retained their original Chinese reading (the on-yomi) and often gained a new Japanese-only reading (the kun-yomi). If you take a typical character like that for "mountain" you will learn that it has an on-yomi (san) and a kun-yomi (yama). Now the thing about on-yomi and kun-yomi readings is that you can't really mix them in the same word. So, say you have a three character word. You can't have two out of the three characters with on-yomi readings with the third as a kun-yomi reading. This is why for a few names (like Hannah = hana) we have used the kun-yomi reading, but for most (like Jim = ji + mu) we have used combinations of on-yomi readings. Be careful: Some kanji name translation sites out there mix these readings incorrectly.
  1. Meaning - Do the kanji have a good meaning together? As you can see if you search our database, we have some great combinations like Jasmine + Tea (Lisa), Grace + Beauty + Reason (Emily) or Truth + Flows + Success+ Warrior (Malcolm). Now, occasionally it can be very difficult to find kanji that sound right and have meanings that fit together well, so sometimes a little compromise is necessary here. An example of this would be the ja in Janet. The problem here is that there is not a great selection of kanji generally used for names that are pronounced ja that also have a good meaning. (The two worst offenders being "serpent" and "wicked"!) That is why in this, and other similar cases, we have taken the liberty of using two characters instead: For the name Janet we achieved a better meaning by using two kanji, ji and a, to create a better combination.
  1. Masculine or feminine - I guess this is more like a sub-category of meaning, but it is vital to consider this to avoid embarrassment. For example, while Asian + Beauty (Abby) may be a great combination for a woman, probably most men would not be too happy with those kinds of characters in their own names!
We believe that in considering all these factors we offer the best, most thorough approach to kanji name translation.

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