Halloween Vocab Challenges

I’ve always found it a bit tricky at first to talk about holidays in Chinese. The Chinese holidays involve these things that we just don’t have, so it’s not a matter of translation, it’s a matter learning what these things are and what they’re called. 红包, 粽子, 对联, 扫墓, etc. Fortunately, that’s a pretty interesting learning process most of the time (especially if you’re learning the stuff hands-on in China), so all is well and good there.

And then there’s explaining the western holidays to the Chinese. Sure, the Chinese already know a lot about western holidays, so frequently all you have to do is fill in a few of the gaps. The fun part of figuring out where the gaps are, and what misperceptions there are. I’ve always enjoyed this too.

AllSet Learning bottled poison

Halloween (万圣节) seems to bring a few of its own challenges, however. The concept is easy for the Chinese to get: it’s a 鬼节 (a “ghost festival”). It’s the trivial things that tend to pose challenges here. How would you say the following in Chinese?

  • What are you going to be for Halloween?
  • Don’t forget to wear a costume.
  • Why didn’t you dress up?

The concept of “Halloween costume” does not seem to have standard translations, and you can get different answers from different people. I’ve been down this road before, and it can get a little confusing. The key is to focus on the verb for “dress up” rather than on the noun “costume.” Here is some of the language I hear Halloween-happy Chinese young people using:

  • 你要穿什么? This one is a little vague, because it just asks “what are you going to wear,” which might apply to any party.
  • 你要扮什么? This one gets more into the costume/disguise theme, sort of like asking, “what are you going to dress up as?”
  • 别忘了装扮自己。 Here we see the verb 装扮, which is probably the most appropriate verb for dressing up for some role, although it seems a little overly specific for everyday usage. But it literally means, “don’t forget to disguise yourself.”

The in 装扮 (“to disguise oneself”) is not the same one as in the phrase 怎么办; it’s the from 打扮, which is most often used to mean “make oneself up” or “deck oneself out” (for a night on the town). Or you fans of role-play might also know it as the from 扮演, meaning “to play a role.” (Indeed, the formal Chinese translation for “role-playing game” is even 角色扮演游戏.)

One thing is for sure: Halloween parties are a great occasion to learn obscure vocabulary! I leave you with a last question (in 2 flavors), which very well might come in handy if the Halloween parties you attend are anything like the ones I’ve attended in China:

  • 你扮的是什么? “What are you dressed up as?”
  • 你这是什么装扮? “What are you supposed to be?”

5 Comments to “Halloween Vocab Challenges

  1. Erick says:

    My wife and I dressed up as Amy and Rory fighting “the silence” (from Doctor Who), and the only Chinese person I know that “got it” was my writing class TA (who is an English major).

  2. jen ambrose says:

    Thanks so much!

  3. Just for the sake of being pedantic, but surely Hallowe’en, All Hallow’s Eve, is 万圣节前夕, and today, November 1, All Saints’ Day, is 万圣节?

  4. Chris Poole says:

    Chis Waugh you are totally right and that issue needs to be addressed. It seems like someone was being lazy along time ago or just some person who didnt understand English well enough came up with the translation.

    Also John, I know its after the holiday but how do you feel about “你會當什麼?” of course you would add a 今天晚上 to it for specificity

  5. Nick says:

    For what it’s worth, I’ve always used the verb “扮成” to refer to “dressing up” for Halloween.

    今年你要扮成什么? 你说扮成超人,哥,你这160高200斤么,直接扮成翁卡工厂里吃蓝莓糖吃多的那个男孩算了。 etc.

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