Ninja teens or ninja teams? Ask the Chinese!
01 Apr 2008
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:
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
[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
[Heroes draped in hard armor]
Hmmm… dramatic, but decidedly less turtley.
> Turtle power!
> They’re the world’s most fearsome fighting team
[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!
[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
[They are green heroes draped in hard armor]
Wow. Nice dramatic effect.
> Hey – get a grip!
[Hey, catch up!]
Hey, a turtle is telling you to catch up! That is so cool but crude.
> When the evil Shredder attacks,
[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!
[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
[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!
[He is a rat brimming with passion]
Ah yes, “brimming with passion,” the little-known synonym for “radical.”
> Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines
[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!
[This all is true, man]
Props for not using “杰克” (Jack).
> Raphael is cool but crude
[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!
Yes, he is less crude in Chinese.
> Michaelangelo is a party dude
[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?
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.
Thanks for the link, Ryan!