We had a great question from a client today about how Robert is rendered in Japanese. As this is an excellent example of the issues of translating names to Japanese I wanted to share the details here.
In American English Robert is pronounced more like “rah-bert” and so one would assume the Japanese would be ラバート (raba-to). But it is almost universally rendered as ロバート (roba-to). As specific examples, one can go on down the line of celebrities like Robert Conrad (ロバート・コンラッド), Robert DeNiro (ロバート・デニーロ), Robert Englund (ロバート・イングランド), Robert Ito (ロバート・イトー) and look at their Japanese Wikipedia pages and see how their names are translated. Further one can look at magazine, movie, and news sites like I do and you will find the rendering of the American English pronunciation of Robert into Japanese is almost always ロバート (roba-to).
Alternatively, one can search google.co.jp for “Robert ラバート” to see how many pages use both (this does not give the number of translations, but simply the number of pages where both appear on the same page). The result is one rarely sees the two together which suggests that very few use this even though it is a closer rendering of the American English pronunciation.
The Tsumugi project at the University of Nagoya took this approach a step further and did massive searches for pages where the name and the Japanese translation seemed to appear. In this manner, they tried to empirically determine how names were actually being translated. Here is a partial list of the results for Robert. Note that the numbers in parenthesis are the reliability with 1 being low and 3 being high and the number of pages where the name and the Japanese appear in close proximity:
Tsumugi Data - Robert roba-to ( 3, 1910000) ... BR0000 (raw-burt) roberuto ( 3, 211000) ... BR0472 (ro-bert) robe-ru ( 3, 189000) ... BR0247 (ro-bEr) ro-beruto ( 2, 1770) ... BR0473 (rO-bert) robato ( 1, 142) ... Product not in our database
Again it finds that ラバート (raba-to) is simply not used as a translation for Robert. This may be partly due to the idea that much of the world pronounces the “o” as in “pro”. Indeed the other pronunciations correspond to the pronunciation of Robert in other languages. Specifically robe-ru corresponds to the French pronunciation and ro-beruto to the German (see http://www.behindthename.com/name/robert for a good list of how Robert is pronounced around the world). I also find that because Japanese vowels have one and only one sound and because it is counter-intuitive to the Japanese that something written “ro” would be read “ra” that there is a tendency to preserve the spelling rather than the pronunciation.
So we are left with the situation where what is clearly not an accurate rendering of the American English pronunciation of Robert is the most widely accepted rendering. So when doing an artwork or tattoo one is faced with either doing what everyone else does and is what most people will say is “right” or use a closer rendering that is arguably better but most would say is “wrong”.
I think different people will answer the question differently. While renderings of names to Japanese is amazingly consistent (in fact at StockKanji.com we have a program that verifies that the pronunciation and translation match) there are gray areas and the American English pronunciation of the name Robert is one of them.
The good news is that with all the facts, one can make an informed decision. And at StockKanji.com – Names In Japanese we try to include enough information so our visitors can make an informed choice.