I’ve recently started using my Chinese blog for a new purpose: exploration of my Chinese readers’ understanding of their language. This can be attempted in many ways, but my first experimentation was with translation.
It all started when a friend asked me how to say “big fish in a small pond” in Chinese. He figured there must be a chengyu for it. It seemed to me like there should be too, so I got out my chengyu dictionaries. When I failed to find anything, I used Google. Still nothing. So then I decided to ask my Chinese readers. I gave my readers a short explanation of the expression (too short, in retrospect), and an example of its usage. Then I asked them: how do you say this in Chinese?
I got a decent number of responses, but none of them seemed to capture the meaning quite right. The results were very interesting, though, so I thought I’d share them. Here are some of the suggestions offered:
- “When there’s no tiger in the mountains, the monkey calls himself king.” (É½ÖÐÎÞÀÏ»¢£¬ºï×Ó³Æ´óÍõ)
- “Choosing a tall person from among dwarves.” (°«×ÓÀïÃæ°Î³¤×Ó)
- “A crane standing among chickens.” (º×Á¢¼¦Èº)
- “Small temple, great monk.” (ÃíÐ¡ºÍÉÐ´ó)
- “A magician meets a great sorcerer.” (Ð¡Î×¼û´óÎ×)
- “Great talent put to little use.” (´ó²ÄÐ¡ÓÃ)
I don’t think any of these match up perfectly. You can read my readers’ discussion of that in the comments if you read Chinese. What surprised me most was that the English expression implied a lot more than I originally thought, which disqualified a lot of the Chinese idioms, each carrying their own implications.
I’ll continue my linguistic explorations on my Chinese blog, and occasionally report back here when I find something I think is worth sharing.