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My Japanese knowledge is very limited, so I am not good in Japanese alphabet.
With the help of an online Japanese name converter, I tried writing a name in Japanese, but the resulting name does not sound exactly as it is in English. It seems some characters turn into other characters.

The name is: Siavash Divani The result is: シアバシュ ディバニ (shiabashu dibani)

As you see in the parentheses, it sounds different from the English spelling. Is it possible to write the name in Japanese in a way that sounds just the way it is written in English? If the answer is no, why? Wikipedia says that only the kanji system has over 50,000 characters. So, it seems it should support writing foreign names in a way that sounds the way you like.

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    This will be helpful to you. Focus attention on the availability of sounds written in Katakana, since all foreign names use Katakana for writing a person's name. – JACK Aug 28 at 19:47
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    Kandyman's answer is a good one. Another consideration -- there are various sounds with specific spellings in the Devanagari script, and those sounds are not present in English. For instance, Hindi distinguishes between unaspirated //b// or ⟨ ब ⟩ and aspirated //bh// or ⟨ भ ⟩. However, English makes no such distinction, and monolingual English speakers generally won't be able to hear or pronounce the difference. Similarly, Japanese has no //v// sound, only a //b// sound, as well as a requirement that all consonants except //n// must have a following vowel. Hence the differences you note. – Eiríkr Útlendi Aug 28 at 22:58
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    The writing system of the language does not affect how many sounds it has. Consider: I can invent another 50,000 letters for English, but that won't give English the ability to express 50,000 more types of sounds. In fact, even inventing one more letter for English won't give it the ability to produce one more sound. – droooze Sep 1 at 9:52
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Basically, there are just some sounds that exist in other languages which cannot easily be phonemically represented in Japanese.

Disclaimer - this is a simplified answer, but ...

As with any language, you must differentiate between the actual sounds (phonology) and the writing system which represents the language (orthography). Although there are several thousand kanji characters which form the basis of the writing system (2136 on the official list), that doesn't mean there are 2136 individual sounds. In fact, there are approximately 50 sounds in Japanese (or around 100 if you include dakuon and yoon). By 'sounds', I mean the variations of vowel and consonant combinations which are used in spoken Japanese.

That is probably a lot less than you imagined. As such, there are some sounds that exist in other languages which are not easily transferred to Japanese. They simply are not part of the standard collection of sounds in Japanese phonology. A famous example is that there is no strict equivalent of 'l' and 'r' in Japanese - the ら、り、る、れ、ろ sounds are used to represent both. So if your name was 'Roland', it would be difficult to represent the difference between the 'r' and 'l' sounds. It would be ローランド, which when pronounced would not contain the distinction that you would hear if pronounced in English, for example.

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    Yep. You could also explain about phonotactics, if you wanted to cover why the added /u/ in the OP’s name is unavoidable. – snailcar Aug 28 at 23:13
  • That final sentence should be moved to the beginning of your answer and set to bold. – ラメージルーカス Sep 25 at 16:48
  • @ラメージルーカス Done, sir. – kandyman Sep 25 at 17:48
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The amount of kanji is irrelevant because they are a writing system. The thing is that, when writing a foreign word in japanese, what happens is that the sound of the word is aproximated to the sounds available in the Japanese language, and then it can be written down using a Japanese syllabary such as hiragana or katakana (not Kanji). What you see in alphabet script is just the transliteration from the version in the japanese syllabary (where the original pronunciation has been lost already) to the western alphabet script.

For this reason, what is important here is the set of sounds (to be accurate, phonemes) that Japanese people use in their tongue. This set of sounds is not so large when compared to other languages.

Let's compare what wikipedia says in regards of phonemes for both Japanese and English:

The phonology of Japanese features about 15 consonant phonemes, the cross-linguistically typical five-vowel system of /a, i, u, e, o/, and a relatively simple phonotactic distribution of phonemes allowing few consonant clusters.

The number and distribution of phonemes in English vary from dialect to dialect, and also depend on the interpretation of the individual researcher. The number of consonant phonemes is generally put at 24 (or slightly more). The number of vowels is subject to greater variation; in the system presented on this page there are 20–25 vowel phonemes in Received Pronunciation, 14–16 in General American and 19–20 in Australian English.

  • Japanese: 15 consonant phonemes and 5 vowels

  • English: 24 consonant phonemes and 14 vowels (at least)

Since there are far more sounds in English than in Japanese, that means for sure that there are English sounds that Japanese people can't say using their phonetic system. That's one of the reasons why it is not possible to say foreign words with an accurate pronunciation for Japanese people. The sound "si" does not exist in Japanese, that's why the "Si" at Siavash becomes "Shi".

Another aspect which is equally important is that, aside from ん (which sounds like 'n'), any other consonant phoneme in japanese is necessarily followed by a vowel, so it is not possible to reproduce combinations of consonant sounds together with accuracy, nor consonant phonemes alone either. That's the reason why the "sh" at Siavash is changed to "shu". In the japanese system, separating 'sh' from 'u' (or another vowel) is not a possibility. They form an indivisible unit both in terms of writing (Shi, ジ , one single symbol) and speech.

There may be other limitations or constraints that contribute to change significantly the original pronunciation of a foreign word in Japanese.

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The simple answer is that there aren't enough sounds.

There are set sounds for the vowels "e", "i", "a", "o", and "u", as well as 40 other standard sounds and one standalone "n." These sounds are "k", "s", "t", "n", "h", "r", which each have the full three kana, as well as "y" that has three kana and "w" that has two (Okinawan has two other "w"s in we and wi, but these are non-standard)

If we add the voiced "Diacritics", then we add sounds for "g", "z", "d", "b", and "p", adding another 25.

Adding digraphs (e.g., "kya", "sha"), we get another 30 sounds.

This is a grand total of 103 sounds. However, you will notice that a few sounds are missing when compared to English: "v", "l", "x", "f", and "q".

X is normally substituted for a "z-" sound (as in "xylophone"), while using x (as in "x-ray") is pronounced "ekkusu."

L is almost always substituted with "r-", thsu "ball" can be "baru".

Q is substituted with a "k-"

F is written as "fu" plus a smaller vowel kana (unless the sound is explicitly "fu")

V is seems to be always pronounced as a "b", and the standard writing is as such, however the non-standard writing can be done by putting the voice marks by the "u" kana and writing a smaller vowel kana next to it (similar to the digraphs).

Your program likely didn't utilize this way of writing "v", so if you really want it:

シアヴァシュ ディヴァ

As an aside, the reason for the trailing "u" on your first name is that Japanese is a phonetic language, so with the exception of "n" (sometimes pronounced "m" when before a "p" or "b"), all letters have a consonant followed by a vowel. Most adults drop the trailing "u" when reading (thus hearing "des" instead of "desu"), so your name should be pronounced fairly close.

  • Thanks for the anwer. Is it possible to write the name in Kanji? – codezombie Aug 29 at 6:29
  • You have used ヴァ in both first and last name. What does it do exactly? – codezombie Aug 29 at 6:38
  • @codezombie by putting gthe voicing marks (") by the kana for "u", it turns it into a "v-" sound. adding the small "a" kana turns the sound into "va", which I believe is how your name is pronounced. If you need a different sound, you can use a different vowel, as long as it's written smaller. – awsirkis Aug 30 at 2:22
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    @codezombie if you want a kanji name, I would suggest learning more kanji. Each kanji is 1-4 syllables, so it's best to know a variety. If you want an easy answer, then use kanjizone.com, then type in a part of your name. It will let you choose different kanji to use (and also helps understand the concept of using the same pronunciation for many words). For example, the "a" in my first name can be written 7 different ways. There's 13 options for the "da", and 12 options for the "mu". My last name wasn't in the system, so I had to come up with one myself – awsirkis Aug 30 at 2:29
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    @codezombie forgot one thing - You can have a pronunciation fo your name in kanji, like what I described. However, what would probably be better is if you took the meaning of your name and translated it. For example, "Adam" meaning "Man of Earth" would get written as "Chikyuujin". "Shiavash", apparently meaning "possessing black stallions", could be read as "Umashoyuu" (horse possession). However, kanji names are almost never used for foreigners, so probably stick with katakana unless you want to be seen as weird – awsirkis Sep 1 at 4:47

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