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!

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