a question for speakers of Mandarin
I have a couple of different stories in the pipeline that take place in semi-Chinese societies — specifically, societies where I’ve decided to base the language on Mandarin, at least as far as the phonology of names is concerned. (i.e. I’m neither using actual Mandarin in the story, nor conlanging beyond deciding what to call characters and towns.) IANASpeaker of Mandarin, so my question for those who are is: how likely are you to be distracted by possible meanings for the names I’ve made up?
To put it differently: if I invent German-looking names for a story, I can (and do) check in a dictionary to make sure I haven’t named a character “Elbow” or something like that. And it’s relatively easy to avoid actual words, just by changing a few letters. With the semi-Japanese names in the doppelganger books, on the other hand, I kind of let it go, because any random pair of mora I threw together were likely to mean something in Japanese — tsue is a walking stick, for example, and katsu, depending on the kanji, means “to win,” “thirst,” “yet,” “living,” “cutlet” (when written in katakana) and something you yell at Zen practitioners when they screw up. (Or so my favorite dictionary tells me.) So the Cousin names and honorifics in particular were likely to mean something whether I wanted them to or not.
Mandarin’s more opaque to me, since I don’t speak more than about five words of it, and those very badly. I’m familiar with the function of tones in it, so I suspect it’s likely any random syllable I stick in a name is likely to mean one or more things, possibly incongruous ones. Hence asking the fluent speakers: how badly would that distract you, in a story written in English? Is it something you could just sort of breeze by (provided I don’t accidentally hit upon something flagrantly obscene), or is your brain likely to play the homophone game, coming up with variant translations of the character’s name?