Ninja teens or ninja teams? Ask the Chinese!

Ryan North, artist, linguist, Canadian, and all-around “great thinker,” has posed an interesting question recently: in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song, is the line “Splinter taught them to be ninja teens” or “Splinter taught them to be ninja teams?”

Video below if you must listen for yourself:

I was pretty sure it’s teens myself (rhymes with “machines”… exactly!). Still, in the spirit of “1.3 billion people can’t be wrong,” I had to wonder what the Chinese people thought the lyrics said. Sure, they’re just going on a translation, but whatever the common translation is, that’s what 1.3 billion Chinese people think the song lyrics mean. That’s gotta count for something!

Naturally, I went to ninjaturtles.cn and obtained the lyrics in Chinese:

少年变异忍者神龟,
少年变异忍者神龟,
少年变异忍者神龟,
身披硬甲的英雄们
龟的力量!

他们要迎接世界的可怕挑战
[多纳泰罗:我们是最棒的]
他们是身披硬甲的绿色英雄
[拉斐尔:嘿,快跟上]

当坏蛋史莱德来捣乱的时候
神龟小子们是不会让他好过的

少年变异忍者神龟,
少年变异忍者神龟,

斯普林特老师教授他们成为忍者少年
[利昂纳多:他是一个激情满怀的老鼠]

里昂那多是领导
多纳泰罗是个天才发明家
[多纳泰罗:这都是真的,伙计]

拉菲尔很酷但有些鲁莽
[拉斐尔:饶了我吧~]
米开朗基罗可是一个万人迷
[米开朗基罗:Party!]

少年变异忍者神龟,
少年变异忍者神龟,
少年变异忍者神龟,
身披硬甲的英雄们
龟的力量!

First of all, the Chinese translation confirms the “ninja teens” view (忍者少年)… sorry, Ryan. But looking at the rest of the translation, I must say that there is a thing or two about the translation of these lyrics which concerns me. In the spirit of subtitle surrealism, we better do this whole thing.

First comes original English lyrics (in bold), then Chinese “translation”, then re-translation back into English (in brackets).

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
少年变异忍者神龟
[Teenage mutant ninja supernatural turtles]

Whoa, did someone sneak an extra word in there? Mostly an exact literal translation, except that the Chinese prefer to call the turtles supernatural turtles (神龟), or “god-turtles,” for the more literal-minded. Thinking this particular phrase might have some root in China’s rich cultural heritage, I did a Baidu image search. Hmmm. Lots of TMNT. No legends involving Guanyin and a massive turtle or something? I guess it’s not as important as TMNT. You know… the god-turtles.

Heroes in a half-shell
身披硬甲的英雄们
[Heroes draped in hard armor]

Hmmm… dramatic, but decidedly less turtley.

Turtle power!
龟的力量!
[Turtle power!]

Sweet!

They’re the world’s most fearsome fighting team
他们要迎接世界的可怕挑战
[They take on the world’s fearsome challenges]

Hmmm, so these “challenges” the translator made up are fearsome, but the turtles are not? Maybe it’s because they’re god-like.

We’re really hip!
我们是最棒的
[We’re the greatest!]

This is actually less humorous than a ridiculous cartoon character from the 80’s saying “we’re really hip.”

They’re heroes in a half-shell and they’re green
他们是身披硬甲的绿色英雄
[They are green heroes draped in hard armor]

Wow. Nice dramatic effect.

Hey – get a grip!
嘿,快跟上!
[Hey, catch up!]

Hey, a turtle is telling you to catch up! That is so cool but crude.

When the evil Shredder attacks,
当坏蛋史莱德来捣乱的时候
[When bad egg Shredder comes to make trouble,]

“Evil”… “bad egg”… more or less the same right? Yes! …in Chinese.

These Turtle boys don’t cut him no slack!
神龟小子们是不会让他好过的
[The supernatural turtle guys will not give him an easy time]

Now I see why they’re not referred to as “fearsome.”

Splinter taught them to be ninja teens
斯普林特老师教授他们成为忍者少年
[Teacher Splinter taught them to become ninja youths]

And here you have the translator correcting the original lyricist’s mistake of not giving Master Splinter proper respect.

He’s a radical rat!
他是一个激情满怀的老鼠
[He is a rat brimming with passion]

Ah yes, “brimming with passion,” the little-known synonym for “radical.”

Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines
里昂那多是领导,多纳泰罗是个天才发明家
[Leonardo is the leader, Donatello is a genius inventor]

This line has lost the ambiguity of “does machines,” but I guess we won’t miss that.

That’s a fact, Jack!
这都是真的,伙计
[This all is true, man]

Props for not using “杰克” (Jack).

Raphael is cool but crude
拉菲尔很酷但有些鲁莽
[Raphael is cool, but he’s a bit crude]

Nice! They even toned it down to just “a bit crude” to save him some face.

Gimme a break!
饶了我吧~
[Forgive me!]

Yes, he is less crude in Chinese.

Michaelangelo is a party dude
米开朗基罗可是一个万人迷
[Michaelangelo is a mack daddy]

Well, it’s debatable whether 万人迷 means “mack daddy” or “ten-thousand men love,” but the real question is where’d the “party” go?

Party!
Party!

Ah, there it is.


UPDATE: Ryan has responded to this post on his site, and here’s what he said:

April 3rd, 2008: A few days ago T-Rex was considering the “ninja teens” / “ninja teams” issue in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song. I got a lot of emails about that (and here it is nice to be able to say “Man, it’s not me that’s wrong, it’s T-Rex!”) but SECRETLY, I agreed with T-Rex, and thought that the lyrics says “Splinter taught them to be ninja teams”. But guys! I am going to admit that I was wrong.

Here is the fantastic blog post, by linguistics grad student John, that turned me around. It turns out the answer to this debate is (as in most things) to simply Ask The Chinese.

Thanks for the link, Ryan!

40 Comments to “Ninja teens or ninja teams? Ask the Chinese!

  1. Matt says:

    This reminded me that I wished G.I. Joe translated their battle cry as dog porridge.

  2. 蓝风 says:

    It goes ever more to prove the notion that the translator is not ever an objective force. Even the subtle little twists say something about the subjectivity of Chinese translation. It’s amazing.

    Just a quick comment – typo in the first paragraph, with mutant when it should read ninja.

  3. This reminds me of the Chinese translation of “My Hump” that I ran across on Baidu Zhidao:

    http://zhidao.baidu.com/question/48200234.html http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXKxs8Ge_9g

    Whatcha gonna do with all that junk 你要怎样处理那些垃圾 all junk inside your trunk 那些你行李箱里的垃圾 I’ma get get get get you drunk 我会让你醉,让你醉 get you love drunk off my hump 让你迷上我的双峰

  4. Heilong says:

    Thanks John for another intresting post, Chinese people love he TMNT. I tought when you said Turtle god you were talking about those lucky turtle statues, you know the ones in the Forbbidon Cities around China, that Chinese throw money at for good luck.

    Also in the past I tought it was Ninja Team because Splinter shouldnt be teaching them how to be teenagers, he is too old man!

  5. John says:

    蓝风,

    Thanks for pointing out the typo. Fixed!

  6. Peter says:

    In the UK, this show was known as the “Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles” due to a mysterious censorship of the “offensive” word Ninja. However, the censors somehow didn’t mind the depiction of teens running around with swords…

  7. Joel says:

    ha – this totally made my day.

  8. Gabrielle says:

    Thank you so much for sharing that. It totally made my day. I’ll have to share it with my friend, Phil. He loved TMNT growing up.

    And you are right. It does sound like ‘teams’. Never really thought about it until you said something.

  9. cory says:

    ehm. not to raise another debate, but isn’t it cool but “rude”, not “crude”?

  10. Matthew says:

    No! It’s not “crude!” Why do so many people hear “crude?” It’s “rude,” I tell you! No respectable lyricist would write “but crude!” That’s back-to-back alveolar and velar stops! IT’S “RUDE,” PEOPLE!

  11. ktern says:

    To be fair, “bad egg” is extremely commonly used for “villain” in Chinese. It’s not really an isolated case; you have “stupid melon” and “dumb egg” for “idiot”, for instance.

    Similarly, the “forgive me” seen here has a “stop hassling me” intonation, which makes it suitable; it’s certainly not the usual “sorry” (i.e. “I can’t make it up to you”).

    I get the impression the owner of the blog knows these things, so I guess I’m addressing everyone else here. Also, no slander intended! I think this article is great and applaud the excellent solution of asking China for the answer to deep, meaningful questions.

  12. JB says:

    I’m pretty new to kanji but can’t 甲 be translated as shell instead of armor? It seems to make a bit more sense but then again the later words might be changing it or something. Nonetheless a pretty funny and insightful look into the translation you’ve got here.

  13. Vance says:

    best post ever.

  14. Justin says:

    I don’t understand the argument, “Also in the past I tought it was Ninja Team because Splinter shouldnt be teaching them how to be teenagers.” He’s not teaching them how to be teens, he’s teaching them to be ninja teens.

  15. Rebecca says:

    hehe, that was pretty awesome. Now that I know the chinese translations are that hillarious, I might try to find an episode or two with chinese subtitles.

  16. Feds says:

    Ha! Post-thesis John seems to have a bit more time on his hands…

  17. Feds says:

    Sorry, not post-thesis John, but post-thesis-draft John. Keep it up, bud.

  18. Neil says:

    I think Raphael is “cool but Rude”. Everyone seems to agree on Crude, but I just don’t hear the C. Anybody?

  19. Char says:

    Dude that is very hilarious. I am bookmarkin this blog.

  20. gmcfly says:

    Haha this is wonderful! I must add, though, that the Chinese translation of “Gimme a break!” is really closer to the sarcastic, “Spare me!”

  21. Jimmy says:

    just to confirm that in britain it was teenage mutant HERO turtles…and, it suddenly occurs to me (abstract philosophy being somewhat beyond my ken at the age of seven and, arguably, now), what kind of sick puppy hurls a load of adolescents into battle? “Yo, shredder, we’re HEEIIYA to KIIEEYICK your arse! Just as soon as we’ve found some Clearasil…”

    (P.S. For any transatlantic brothers, clearasil is an acne cream…actually, it’s probably an american product originally, isn’t it? aw well, back to my buckfast…)

  22. Jimmy says:

    also, there were some “squeak” quotes in that post originally, but I made the fatal mistake of using the pointy-parentheses. silly me.you’ll just have to insert them as you see fit.

  23. John says:

    cory and Matthew,

    I actually thought it was “rude” as well, but the site I quoted from used “crude,” and I figured there was already enough TMNT controversy for one post…

  24. John says:

    Feds,

    I’m not done yet, but yeah, definitely a bit more time on my hands these days.

    If I had enough time I’d be writing posts like this every day… :)

  25. Peter says:

    Teens rhymes with the next line. Or maybe the line after that. Also “Teams”, plural? He is making them into multiple teams? sorry, its teens.

  26. rain says:

    Hahaha. Can I just say that the song is really loosely translated and taken out of context, and that’s probably the main reason why it sounds/reads funny.

    gotta love Engrish.

  27. John says:

    Over the weekend I just happened to run into mention of “magical tortoises” (神龟).

  28. Eric says:

    “Splinter taught them to be ninja teams” doesn’t make any sense. They are A team. They can’t be several teams. They can however be a team made up of ninja teens.

  29. tim says:

    is it possible that the chinese got it wrong?????

    maybe splinter WAS teaching them to be ninja TEAMS in the sense that each one of them was made capable of team-like destruction compacted into singular mutant “god-turtles”?

    army of one????

    teams being plural as a logical conclusion of there being FOUR of them, FOUR godlike turtles capable of damage equal to that of A HUNDRED THOUSAND mortal turtles (per turtle)!!

    ahhhhh i dunno

  30. I’m finally catching up on all the posts I’ve missed (Three!! You’ve been busy considering how many other things you’re juggling!) This was awesome, totally made my day and forget how much I want to be outside instead of in front of my computer. :) Can we expect future posts like this for the transformers and He-man? haha

  31. Mark says:

    I can understand how the lyrics might change a lot. It still has to rhyme and otherwise sound good when sung. Like if one of the English lines ended up translating to a Chinese line that was twice as long, you’d have to make some changes. Also, I’m not even sure if Chinese music ever rhymes (in any sense of the word ‘rhyme’).

  32. Norm says:
    Matthew Says: No! It’s not “crude!” Why do so many people hear “crude?” It’s “rude,” I tell you! No respectable lyricist would write “but crude!” That’s back-to-back alveolar and velar stops! IT’S “RUDE,” PEOPLE!

    Yes, but it’s also alliterative, and therefore pleasant sounding. I think the lyricist is allowed to break the rules some time if they like the way something sounds.

  33. Christian says:

    Ahahahahahahahahahaha

  34. 长舟丫 says:

    Oh God… my totally separate Internet favourites are converging.

    Magic tortoises/turtles make an appearance a good 3,000 years or so ago in the Book of Changes, hexagram 27, line 1:

    “舍爾靈龜,觀我朵頤,凶。”

    ‘Cept it’s ‘linggui’ instead of ‘shengui’. They’ve since been promoted!

  35. “很酷”? Nice! If this had been in the 21st century, we could have used “屌” instead.

    I thought “万人迷” meant they had 10,000 fans. I think they have more than that. I can’t help but recall my cousin’s underwear. I have a video, and I’ve threatened him with posting it on YouTube.

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