If you followed President Obama’s recent trip to Asia, you may have picked up on a story about different names for Obama used in Chinese. Essentially there are two competing versions of his last name: 奥巴马 (aobama), which is the officially endorsed version used by Xinhua and other news agencies in China, and 欧巴马 (oubama), which is the version used by the US Embassy in China for press releases and other information. The embassy claims 欧巴马 should be used because it more accurately reflects the pronunciation of the name, while Xinhua and most Chinese news outlets prefer 奥巴马 because that is the form that organically occurred back when Obama was a candidate. As for which version I would use, I’m not sure yet. I’m a big believer in self-determination when it comes to names, but Obama didn’t really choose that transliteration himself, he had Chinese-speaking aides do it. And there’s something to be said for using consistent spelling forms, if for no other reason that it makes it easier on search engines if they don’t have to recognize the variant forms (or users so they don’t need to remember to search both forms at once).
But I didn’t tune in late to a discussion of Obama’s name just to opine on that. The fact is, learning Chinese, you have to learn new names for everyone and everything you might want to talk about to Chinese people. If you’ve ever studied another language you have some idea what I’m talking about. Even in European langauges, you’re likely to have to learn new country names, names of Biblical characters, and many historical figures (particularly those from the 1500’s or earlier), and maybe deal with a few mispronunciations of more recent names coming from monolinguals. In Chinese, every country, place, movie, book, or famous person has a “Chinese name”, whether that name is just a transliteration like 奥巴马 or 哈利・波特, some sort of translated name like 星际旅行, or in the case of many Chinese actors and celebrities, the actual characters of their name: such as 成龙 or 李安.
Historical figures have the same problems. Of course, it won’t take long to learn that Mao’s full name is 毛泽东, but often figures in Chinese history are known by different pronunciation of their name from a different Chinese language (Chang Kai-shek for instance, is 蒋介石 Jiang3 Jie4shi2 in Standard Mandarin). And of course, foreign historical names are prone to transliterations, which can be compounded by not necessarily knowing which language was the source for the Chinese phonetic pronunciation.
These things go the other way around, as well, particularly with older historical and literary figures. You learn pretty quick that Confucious is usually called 孔子 (Kongzi) — the English name comes from an honorific title 孔夫子 (Master Kong), and you may later learn that his real name is thought to have been 孔丘 (Kong Qiu).
So what’s the best way to sort out these names. Good dictionaries will have some of them listed, but I’ve found the best way to find the names is to use Wikipedia. Most (if not all) people and literary works that originated in China will have their Chinese names listed in the introduction. For those things that aren’t so closely related, look at the list of languages, hopefully you will see the a link saying 中文. Thanks to some script magic, all Chinese Wikipedia articles are available in four versions: Mainland, Hong Kong / Macau, Singapore, and Taiwan, so you can choose the character set that best suits your needs. That won’t get you everywhere, but it’s a useful learning tool, or a resource you can use if you happen to be chatting online with Chinese friends and you want to know, “What do I call Obama him in Chinese?”
Anyway, hope I was helpful in some way.