While in English a foreign word for an animal is adopted phonetically, Chinese seems to do otherwise. I believe the name for ‘Giraffe’ in Mandarin is something like ‘Chang Jing Lu’, which means ‘long necked deer’. The name for Panda is xiong mau (these may be innacurate renderings of the pinyin) meaning ‘bear cat’.
Can anyone give some other amusing names of animals? I would especially like to know for the takin Yesterday, I saw a striking bird called the Temmnick’s Tragopan. How about it?
I don’t think that the panda example really fits your question, since the panda is native to China and so they didn’t need to adopt a name for it. The reason the “cat” part is in the name is because the pupils of the panda’s eye is a vertical slit, giving it a cat-like look.
Chinese has some difficulty transliterating foreign words, for two main reasons:
the language has a relatively small set of phonemes. This is particularly true if you don’t count the tones that distinguish different homonyms.
the phonemes that do exist need to be represented by a Chinese character, which automatically gives it a meaning to go along with the sound. Even if you can find a way to represent a foreign work phonetically, you may not like the available characters.
So often the Chinese will just give it their own name, and not try to transliterate.
That said, I’ll throw in an entry. Hippopotamus in Chinese is “HeMa”, “River-horse”.
Slight nitpick – the set of phonemes in the various varieties of Chinese aren’t especially small. The real hang-up is that the syllable structure is so constrained. In Mandarin, for example, syllables start with a single consonant, have a vocalic nucleus of 1 to 3 vowels (which tend to diphthongs/triphthongs) and can end only in a vowel, “n”, or “ng”.
This strikes me as more of a collective preference than something that was necessary due to phonetic constraints (not you’re point … just speaking to the gallery).
A long word like hi-po-po-to-ma-su could fit just fine within Chinese phonetics (and the Chinese dialects do have words like this … it is not monosyllabic as commonly thought).
I am mainly after “cute” translations, no matter the origin. For example, the German word for gloves is ‘Handschuhe’: hand shoes.
This is the kind of thing I am after, though here the Chinese etymology follows the Greek.