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 () and given name (名字), and Howard corrects him. The Chinese subtitles misinterpret Sheldon’s “zing” as the word “” (the second half of 名字). Actually, “zing” is a typical mispronunciation of the pinyin syllable “xing” (). This is the kind of mistake an English speaker makes before becoming familiar with the proper pronunciation of pinyin.

Next comes this line:

> 梅毒驴子。

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 (), 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:

> 给我看你用的陈皮。

Then he flips out with a “you scared me to death” when Penny taps on his shoulder:

> 哎呀,吓死我了!

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!

Conclusion

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.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Love this post! Had a good laugh when I first saw the episode and another one while reading your post.

  2. After reading this post, John, I’m pretty sure there’s a place for you on the show. 🙂

  3. It’s everywhere!

    Firefly was a real struggle trying to work out what on earth people were saying. Even with the subtitles (yes, I have it on DVD…) didn’t help as they just said “Speaks Galactic Language”). My wife didn’t fare much better than I did at working it out.

    Stargate SG1 had an episode where I thought Michael Shanks did a fair bit better than this and now even House speaks Chinese – and probably more clearly than on Ni Hao, Kai-lan!

    When will putonghua be part of the standard TV actors repertoire?

    • It’s true, Mandarin really is everywhere these days. My wife was watching some random American TV shows online recently — “The Big Day” Season 1, and “Las Vegas” — and both included scenes with Mandarin spoken by non-Chinese people.

      • Another sort of odd phenomena is that Mandarin is the go-to Chinese language for American TV and films, even when the character would not necessarily speak Mandarin. A Macau businessman on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, characters in Batman and some Jackie Chan movies that are supposed to be from Hong Kong, and (my favorite) the child-led drug trafficers in Tropic Thunder.

  4. Ha! My father-in-law LOVES this show and I’m surprised he saw this without mentioning it to me.

    I say kudos to Parsons if he’s never studied a lick of Mandarin before. Much better than what I could do. On the other hand, if this is the product of years of study in the States then we need a lot more native Chinese to go to the US as teachers.

  5. Funny, I was just introduced to “The Big Bang Theory” when I was in the US — my mom loves it — and when we got back KX and I started going through the back catalog on Youku. Hilarious show.

    Another Chinese on TV shows moment was from Desperate Housewives a while ago, when Tom decided to go back to school and study Mandarin (it was a short-lived subplot… some financial disaster ended it, I think). His rendition of 公共汽车 (something like “gong gong chee cheeew”) made my wife laugh so hard she almost cried. It was fantastically bad.

    I wonder, did Japanese get inserted into pop culture like this in the 80s?

    • I think so. Watch Bladerunner, Die Hard, late 80’s cartoons, B martial arts movies, etc.. and you’ll find Japanese stuff popping up all over the place with China pretty rarely mentioned.

      BTW, how the heck do you guys say 柳丁 over there?

    • Yes, there’s even a top-40 hit song about the prevalence of Japanese influence: “I think I’m Turning Japanese”. A web search will turn up the lyrics & audio for you if you’d like to hear it.

  6. When I was a kid, tv and movies were all filled with French. Characters would be learning French in school or for some other reason, and it was always something about cheese. So personally I’m glad to see we’ve gotten off that and onto demanding citrus peels, though I don’t doubt this could get old as well.

    Could be worse. At least it’s not Cantonese by people who can’t pronounce Cantonese words.

  7. Catherine Says: April 15, 2010 at 9:41 am

    This reminds me a bit of a scene that had me laughing in Noble House. Pierce Brosnan is Ian Dunross, Tai Pan in ’80s Hong Kong. Throughout the first few episodes Dunross goes on and on about how he was raised in HK and speaks perfect Cantonese and Mandarin. Then finally we get to hear him speak… he describes his manison on the Peak as having excellent “fung shoooeeey.”

  8. just some random thoughts, 脚踏车 may be 焦的鸡 (fried chicken)?图书馆 maybe 土著官 (local … officer) ?猛牛 may be 朋友

  9. I absolutely love the show, and remember this episode. Thanks for breaking it down for us John.

    The thing that my wife and I always get a laugh at when watching American TV shows is how they seem to love to cast Cantonese (or just Asian looking) actors as the FOB Chinese that requires a translator in the show (for interrogation, or what not). Are there really so few Mainland-born Chinese actors looking for bit parts?

  10. 陈皮
    陈皮是用橘子(桔子)皮做的,橙子皮不行。

  11. wow you do clarify most of my cruxes i stuck with after i watched the episode even the second time (im a taiwanese). thanks!

  12. Christine Says: April 23, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    It’s all in good fun. If today TBBT was a drama, then you can talk about how off the chinese grammar and translations are. But since it’s only a sitcom, the whole episode is made to be hilarious even with the mistakes.

  13. I used to tell people the only thing I ever needed to be bilingual in Chinese was 哎呀!;)

  14. well.I still can’t understand what does the syphilitic donkey(梅毒驴子) mean. what was sheldon trying to say?
    I cannot make it out.

    • -Sheldon might be trying to say “你好”(ni-hao, Hello), and somehow he memorized the single character “好” as a word “女子”(nü-zi, woman), plus his accent it became the “驴子”(lü-zi, donkey) you’ve heard in the show.

      -or he was trying to translate “美的日子”(mei-de-ri-zi, nice day; good day)literally from English because grammatically it doesn’t make much sense in Chinese, and “梅毒驴子”(mei-du-lü-zi)was purely from his accent.

      Nevertheless I really enjoy the show.

  15. Love the show. Absolutely hilarious episode.

    This post is terrific. Thanks for putting this up… I was really confused about what the Chinese was and this helped explain things a bit (or make me feel better about not getting it).

  16. […] There’s an excellent post on this I discovered later on Sinosplice. […]

  17. 安 和平 Says: February 4, 2012 at 5:58 am

    I’m just starting to learn Mandarin, and I really enjoyed the episode, tho I didn’t understand a word of the Chinese. The subtitles made it work for me.
    I really appreciate your posting this. Knowing the symbols 鼻涕 may prove useful some day!

  18. 这个“梅毒驴子”真是惊艳的一比那啥,实在不知道从哪儿冒出来的,貌似在华语圈也没人会说这吧?随便挑了两个词组合?还有“猛牛在我床上!很多很多猛牛!”…..

  19. 哈哈,用我教你们中文吗。
    Haha,I’m a Chinese.
    Any question?

  20. In your discussion of the peels, as far as I can deduce from using Goolge Translate, it seems plausible to me that peels resemble skin resemble hide (italian: pelle) resembles leather.

  21. I guess the last scene that sheldon try to said was “where is the peels” which you are right. and the second sentence he said I guess is “I have a lot of friends on my car, very very lot friends”. that means he was not afraid of that owner and maybe want to scare the owner a little. However the owner doesn’t buy it. 🙂

  22. e. quimby Says: March 24, 2014 at 5:50 am

    i wrote down the supposed chinese words from the subtitles (scene 1) googled translation to english and it said “yes, i will go out with you” but in polish. im not into different languages so i dont know how true that is. but if you are into tbbt at all you will know that is what penny told leonard in this episode. any comments from language experts?

  23. I find one point requires willing suspension of disbelief. As bad as Sheldon’s pronunciation, it is much better than Howard’s. If Howard is his teacher, how did his pronunciation better than Howard’s?

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