Heard at Work
16 Mar 2004
Last Friday I enjoyed a number of interesting little incidents at the office.
One of the directors of the company has been visiting from Taiwan, and I overheard him chatting with someone else in our office. The director seems to take it upon himself to enlighten the mainlanders (according to the Taiwan view). I don’t want to go into specific political topics that came up, but one thing he did say was that currently airplane tickets from mainland China to Taiwan are especially cheap. Why? Because a lot of Taiwanese work in mainland China, and the Taiwanese government is trying to encourage those people to come home and vote in the March 20th election. Interesting….
I spent a good deal of my morning trying to explain to another employee here that some things just can’t be translated. You see, she had some songs that she wanted me to help her translate into Chinese. Among the lines that were giving her trouble were “itsy bitsy teeny weenie” (yellow polka dot bikini), “nick nack paddy whack” (give the dog a bone), and “Auld Lang Syne.” I’m not saying these are completely untranslatable, but they certainly require a creative translation to create the same effect in Chinese that they do in English.
Speaking of communicating linguistic principles, at noon my co-worker and I got in a debate with four girls in the office about grammar. We could hardly believe they weren’t joking at first. You see, these four girls’ contention was that the Chinese language has no grammar. Unbelievable. Their claim was that there’s no “grammar,” it’s just that Chinese people have gotten used to putting words together a certain way. (And what exactly do you think grammar is…??)
Since there were four of them that agreed to disagree with the two of us silly foreigners, they considered themselves victorious. But then at lunchtime three of them went off somwhere, and one of them ate lunch with my co-worker and me. Once we had her alone, we pounced on her (verbally) and tore her argument to shreds. That was fun. I don’t think it did any good, though.
Why would Chinese people think their language has no grammar? Is it because in elementary school they spend all the time in “Chinese class” just learning Chinese characters, and there’s no real need to cover grammar in-depth? I’m not very familiar with the curriculum of the Chinese school system at the primary level.