The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon’s Chinese
14 Apr 2010
A few weeks ago, a series of clips from The Big Bang Theory, Season 1, Episode 17 became popular on various Chinese sites. In the episode, brainy theoretical physicist Sheldon says he has decided to learn Mandarin because:
> I believe the Szechuan Palace has been passing off orange chicken as tangerine chicken, and I intend to confront them.
Here’s the clip (on Tudou):
To someone who knows no Chinese, this episode works fine. However, native speakers of Mandarin will have trouble following a lot of what Sheldon is trying to say. Although most of the first scene would be easy to follow, a combination of inaccurate pronunciation and bizarre word choices in later scenes make the subtitles a necessity for even native speakers of Mandarin. (I forced my wife to watch this clip with the subtitles covered up, and she could only understand a few of the lines, even listening multiple times. You can also find more than one “what the heck is he saying??” conversations on the Chinese internet, like this one.) The Chinese clip adds Chinese subtitles, but some of them are inaccurate. The play-by-play is below.
Scene 1: In the Apartment
The Chinese content is quite simple:
> Sheldon: 我的姓是Sheldon。
> Howard: No, it’s “我的名字是Sheldon”.
> Sheldon: 我的名字是Sheldon。
So in the beginning of this scene, Sheldon is mixing up the words for surname (姓) and given name (名字), and Howard corrects him. The Chinese subtitles misinterpret Sheldon’s “zing” as the word “字” (the second half of 名字). Actually, “zing” is a typical mispronunciation of the pinyin syllable “xing” (姓). This is the kind of mistake an English speaker makes before becoming familiar with the proper pronunciation of pinyin.
Next comes this line:
Without the English translation, a native speaker would be hard-pressed to figure out what Sheldon said. (My wife had absolutely no clue.) It’s an intentionally bizarre collocation, and 梅毒 (syphilis) is not a word you ever really expect to hear. Plus the pronunciation of 驴子 sounds more like three syllables instead of two, resembling the nonsense phrase “lu-yi-za.” (The Mandarin “ü” sound is not easy for us Americans!)
Scene 2: In the Hall
Now we’re getting to the crux of the plot. Sheldon is practicing the Chinese for “show me your citrus peels.” This might at first seem like an odd choice of words, since “citrus” is not a concept used much in Chinese. Typically you’re either talking about tangerines (橘子) or you’re talking about oranges (橙), but not “citrus”. The word Sheldon uses for “citrus peels” is a little hard to understand, but should be 陈皮, a traditional Chinese medicine ingredient which dictionaries translate as “dried tangerine/orange peel.” According to the Wikipedia page for chenpi, it’s supposed to be tangerine peel, which jives with Sheldon’s obsession.
The “tangerine chicken” dish Sheldon mentions is listed in Wikipedia as “orange chicken“:
> Orange chicken 陈皮鸡 (陳皮雞; Pinyin: chénpí jī) is a Chinese American dish of Hunan origin. The variety of orange chicken most commonly found at American fast food restaurants consists of chopped, battered, and fried chicken pieces coated in a sweet orange-flavored chili sauce, which thickens or caramelizes to a glaze. While the dish is very popular in the United States, it is most often found as a variation of General Tso’s chicken rather than the authentic dish found in China.
> In most western countries, the names “orange chicken”, “orange peel chicken”, and “tangerine chicken” are typically used for this particular dish. In Chinese, however, the dish is always known as “陈皮鸡”, literally “old peel chicken”, referring to dried orange or tangerine peel, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine as well as cooking. For western restaurants, fresh orange peel is often used instead, or even no peel at all but usually there is always a peel.
Anyway, the line in Mandarin (which the Chinese subtitles get wrong) is:
Then he flips out with a “you scared me to death” when Penny taps on his shoulder:
His pronunciation here is quite good! (It’s the line my wife thought was best.)
Scene 3: The Cafeteria
Here Sheldon is just being a weirdo show-off. The first thing he says, based on the English translation “long live concrete”, is supposed to be:
> Sheldon: 长寿石灰？
石灰 actually means “lime” (as in the mineral, not the citrus); “concrete” would be 水泥.
The Chinese translator makes a good contribution here, guessing that “石灰” was probably supposed to be 社会, and that 长寿 (“long life”) was probably supposed to mean 万岁 (“long live”). So he may have been trying to say “社会主义万岁” (“long live socialism”), which is something that used to be said (non-ironically) in China, once upon a time.
Then he says “thank you”:
> Sheldon: 谢谢。
His final bizarre comment is:
> Sheldon: 猴子睡在里头。
The English translation, again, helps you interpret the Chinese words used. The English “your monkey sleeps inside me” was given, but the Chinese phrase above means something closer to “the monkey sleeps inside.”
Again, the Chinese translator makes a pretty good guess as to what Sheldon might have actually wanted to say, based on the context:
> Sheldon: 好滋味在里头。
This means, “there’s a good flavor inside.” It’s still a little odd (normally you’d just say “好吃！” or maybe “味道好极了！” if you’re really enthusiastic), but it’s at least a possible utterance.
Scene 4: Szechuan Palace
The Chinese dialog provided in the subtitles is as follows:
> Sheldon: 鼻涕在哪儿？鼻涕。
> Restaurant Owner: 擤干净鼻涕后，快走快走！
> Sheldon: 这不是柳丁脚踏车！
> Restaurant Owner: Crazy man. Call the police!
> Sheldon: 不必打给图书馆。鼻涕在哪儿？
> Sheldon: 猛牛在我床上！很多很多猛牛！
> Restaurant Owner: [dismissive noise]
> Sheldon: 哎呀！
So what’s going on here? Why is Sheldon ranting about 鼻涕 (snot) rather than 陈皮? Obviously it’s done for comic effect; the only thing I can think of that might come close is the word 皮子 for “peels.”
The Chinese restaurant owner’s initial response, aside from the “快走，快走！” at the end, was indecipherable even to my wife. The Chinese subtitles sort of make sense, but the whole conversation is pretty ridiculous anyway. There’s not much point in trying to make more sense of it!
The point of this exercise isn’t to belittle the efforts of the actor, Jim Parsons. I think Parsons did a pretty good job, considering. Mandarin is simply not a language you can sound even remotely fluent in without prolonged study, and the initial pronunciation learning curve is steep. Based on his past performances as Sheldon, we know that Parsons is good at delivering big long diatribes on theoretical physics in character, but Mandarin is just a whole different ballgame.
The question in my mind is whether the writers of the Chinese lines started with actual Mandarin and distorted it (like the “long live socialism” example assumes), or whether these are just weird random phrases. Clearly, the Chinese writer had Taiwanese influence, using words like 柳丁 (orange) and 脚踏车 (bicycle), which are less common in Mainland China. It’s pretty hard to draw anymore conclusions, but I’d be interested in hearing other interpretations.
Thanks also to Albert of LaowaiChinese for reminding me about this clip on his blog.