This week my wife and I have been planning a short family vacation to Japan. We’ll be hanging out in Fukuoka for a bit in August.
I majored in Japanese long ago, spoke pretty fluently, and was even reading Japanese literature. Now, after 18 years in China, my Japanese is rusty, but I do still speak it. Reading is much harder than it used to be, because all that Chinese in my brain wants to interpret the Japanese characters I see as Chinese. The more kana mixed in with the Japanese, the easier and more natural it is for me to read kanji as Japanese.
Anyway, what I’m finding much more difficult than reading Japanese is listening to it… in Chinese. The Chinese, of course, read Japanese kanji as if they were Chinese hanzi. In some cases, the Japanese words, pronounced as Chinese, become full-fledged loanwords in Chinese. No surprise, and no big deal. You get used to hearing Tokyo (東京) pronounced as “Dōngjīng,” and Kyoto (京都) as “Jīngdū,” etc.
But what you don’t get used to is hearing everything Japanese pronounced as Chinese. While we’re planning the trip, my wife is constantly dropping the Chinese names of all kinds of random Japanese places, and that’s something my poor brain can’t handle. On the one hand, they’re Japanese places, and I speak Japanese, so I want to know the Japanese names of the places we’re talking about. But on the other hand, my wife isn’t just going to learn Japanese for this trip, and she speaks to me mostly in Chinese, so of course she’s going to use the Chinese names. So my brain has to keep trying to jump through this series of hoops:
Chinese pronunciation → Chinese hanzi → Japanese kanji → Japanese name
(Sometimes I can get as far as step 2, but rarely can I get to step 4.)
I noticed these ads on the Shanghai Metro recently:
妈妈， [Mom,] Tom老师 教我的发音 [The pronunciation Teacher Tom taught me] Amy老师说不对！ [Teacher Amy says is not correct]
妈妈， [Mom,] 今天外教 [today the foreign teacher] 把我的名字 [got my name] 叫错了三次。
“Dada English” is one of a new wave of Chinese online English learning platforms which includes “VIP KID.” What makes these platforms special is that they all purport to offer native speakers as teachers, and many of them are from North America or Europe. (I understand that some of the competition uses mostly teachers from the Philippines.) The first ad above emphasizes 欧美外教: teachers from North America and Europe.
What about the Chinese teacher of English? A resource long known to be often “less than perfect” with regard to native-like English abilities and yet nevertheless a crucial component of the educational system, is not even a part of the discussion these ads are trying to create. Rather, it’s a matter of where your foreign teacher is from and how professional he is.
I’m really curious if there is enough of the right kind of labor in North America and Europe to keep these business models afloat in the long-term. I suspect it’s going to be a lot harder building and maintaining a team of online freelance English teachers when those teachers are not Chinese or physically in China.
“Born Fried” is almost certainly an overly literal character-by-character translation of 生煎, a kind of bready, fried stuffed bun. Wikipedia describes it like this:
…a type of small, pan-fried baozi (steamed buns) which is a specialty of Shanghai. It is usually filled with pork and gelatin that melts into soup/liquid when cooked. Shengjian mantou has been one of the most common breakfast items in Shanghai since the early 1900s. As a ubiquitous breakfast item, it has a significant place in Shanghainese culture.
That same page gives the literal translation “raw-fried” for 生煎. Still, there’s something about “Born Fried”… it has a cool ring to it.
In case you’re not familiar with this little joyful celebration of grease, here are a few photos from Flickr (not my own; click through for the photographer’s photos):
My love of characterplay aside, “and” has to be one of the worst English product names I’ve ever seen. It’s a faithful translation of its Chinese product name, 和 (meaning “and”), but that doesn’t make it any better.
Happy Year of the Rooster/Cock/Chicken! Just as the English word “cock” has multiple meanings, the Chinese word 鸡 (“chicken”) does as well. By itself, it can mean “prostitute,” but the same sound “jī” is also part of the Chinese word for, well, “cock.” I guess I’m friends with a bunch of upstanding Chinese folk, because I didn’t see the many puns I feel I could have for this year’s barrage of Chinese New Year greetings.
Here’s one tame pun I did see this year:
So the original word is 点钞机, “money counting machine.” Substituting 鸡 (“chicken”) for 机 (“machine”) doesn’t change the sound at all, but 点钞鸡 falls right in line with the Chinese proclivity for wishing financial success in the New Year. And you can totally imagine a money counting rooster.
My daughter is almost 5, and she has a penchant for “riddles.” At first, these started out super simple, such as, “what animal can fly?” or “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” Over time, they started to get more and more complex, morphing into questions such as, “what animal can fly but isn’t a bird?” or “what animals swim in the ocean but aren’t fish?” or “name three animals that live in the ocean but have no eyes.” These games are good linguistic exercises, reinforcing the vocabulary my daughter is picking up in the books we read her. In most cases, she can even do these riddles bilingually, and she enjoys quizzing her mom in Chinese on the ones I give her in English that she is able to answer.
Occasionally I’ve asked her to give me a riddle, and it’s usually something super simple, similar to the afore-mentioned “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” one. Fair enough… I don’t expect the riddle of the Sphinx from a 4-year-old. But the other day she asked me this one:
What has 5 legs and lives in the sky?
Pretty certain that no animal has 5 legs, I figured she got the number wrong, and was counting a tail as a leg or something. So I guessed “dragon” and “pegasus” and the like, but she said those were wrong, and she knows a tail isn’t a leg. I was stumped!
The answer to the riddle is “a star.” (She’s most familiar with the 5-pointed star, which she’s always getting in sticker form.)
I was kind of blown away by this, because it’s a pretty cleverly crafted riddle. Trying not to be too quick to declare my daughter a genius, though, I gave some thought to what might be going on in her bilingual mind.
In Chinese, a 5-pointed star is called a “五角星,” literally, “5-corner-star.” But here’s the thing… “foot” in Chinese is 脚 (pronounced “jiǎo,” exact same pronunciation as 角 above), and it’s a word sometimes used to represent the whole leg. She hasn’t officially started learning Chinese characters yet, and she definitely isn’t aware of how the two Chinese words are written. So in her mind, is it all the same “jiǎo”? Is a Chinese five-pointed star a “five-legged star” to her?
I tried to investigate this question, but my daughter didn’t have much patience for my line of linguistic questioning (a trait she probably inherited from her mother). In the end, I got her to answer like so:
Me: Do you know what the 五角 in 五角星 means?
Her: It means “five legs.”
Her: [thinks for a minute]
Her: …or “5 corners.”
I’m not sure if she thought of that second meaning when she was devising her riddle, and neither is she. Language acquisition is a largely unconscious process, and that’s especially true for kids. She hasn’t come up with any similarly clever riddles since. We’ll see what happens.
There’s a brand of high-quality wigs in China called Rebecca. The Chinese tagline for these wigs is:
The simple slogan (great for beginners!) sets up a nice contrast between the words 假 (fake) and 真 (real). It doesn’t translate well into English, though, because the word for “wig” in Chinese is 假发, quite literally, “fake hair.” So here are your two most obvious direct translation candidates:
“Fake hair, real me”
“Wig, real me”
Pretty bad. The wigs themselves look pretty gorgeous, though, and Rebecca hired Chinese superstar babe 范冰冰 (Fan Bingbing) is their model:
The Rebecca wigs also occasionally stray into the “slightly less than practical,” apparently:
I saw The Martian (火星救援) in Shanghai over the weekend. I had read the book, and I was looking forward to seeing the movie on the big screen. Overall, I found that it was a decent adaptation of the novel, and I enjoyed it. China seems to be enjoying it too! There were two things that caught my attention, watching with a Chinese audience, however:
“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”
I was looking forward to seeing how this line (seen in the trailer above at about 01:30) was rendered in Mandarin:
> “So, in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
(The part I was most interested in was the later half, where the word “science” is used as a verb, and in a crudely amusing way.)
Here’s the Chinese translation:
I would translate that back into English as:
> “I gotta fucking find a way to survive.”
The movie’s translation is not horrible; it captures the meaning and the tone of the original, but it seems more grim and determined than humorous, because it sacrifices the science! Oh well.
Accidental China Pandering Still Counts
The other thing that amused me was the Chinese audience’s reaction to the way China fit into the plot. [SPOILER ALERT!] Chinese audiences aren’t dumb, and they know when they’re being pandered to by Hollywood. In this case, the Chinese Space Agency’s involvement in the rescue of Mark Watney was actually a part of the plot in the original book; it wasn’t inserted by Hollywood in a bid to ensure box office success in China.
But the way the scene was done, cutting to China out of nowhere, just felt so similar to the infamous Iron Man 3 scene (with the Chinese doctor and the Fan Bingbing nurse cameo), that as soon as the audience realized that China was about to save the day, they all laughed. They laughed! They weren’t proud or appreciative, it was just an, “oh puh-leeeze, here we go again…” reaction.
I’m pretty sure that’s not the Chinese reaction the producers were going for; hopefully Hollywood gets better at this!
David Moser recently attended a professional conference and shared this observation about code switching. I’ve edited the content just a little bit to anonymize it, but preserved the original text when possible:
> I attended an all-day series of talks today. Some of the panels were in Chinese, some in English. One that I found particularly interesting was an afternoon panel with [quite a few big-name CEOs]. The panel was supposed to be in Chinese, but I found it hilarious that all of these participants, steeped as they are in American and Western culture and business, seemingly can no longer speak pure Chinese. It is simply impossible for them. Some of the panelists could hardly speak even one sentence without throwing in an English word or two. I started writing down some of their code-switching, but it was so ubiquitous I soon stopped even trying. Here are some examples:
他们从 blood 里面就有 business 的 DNA, 他们就算 natural innovators.
张先生是不是觉得有点被 left out在外, 我建议你参与进去就会 live up to 她刚才说的职员的那种 expectations.
我要讲一个 personal experience, 你可以 believe it or not.
没有，我 just kidding, 但不妨 tell you the truth…
And this delightful misunderstanding:
A: 这是为什么有人说我们中国人是 the Jews of the Orient.
B: The juice of the Orient? 东方的橙汁？？
> And on and on. These poor elite CEOs literally can no longer speak like normal people. This kind of linguistic mixing is incredibly common in China, as we all know, but I’ve never experienced such an orgy of code-switching in my life.
I like #6 the best. Thanks for sharing, Dr. Moser!
I’d say that the Chinese name of Starbucks’ new flat white coffee is adequate proof that Starbucks hates Chinese learners. (The other piece of proof is that Starbucks employees in China probably play the fiercest language power struggle game of any other group I know.) Anyway, the Chinese name of the flat white is 馥芮白:
Yeah, don’t feel bad if you don’t know those first two characters. They’re not at all common. And that fist character… wow.
A little more info about the two hard one characters:
– 馥 (fù) fragrant. (The right half is the 复 you might know from 复旦大学.)
– 芮 (ruì) small / surname. (I am familiar with this one mainly because of the “Réel” mall (芮欧百货) near my office.)
So in this case, even if you’re trying hard to use Chinese as much as possible, I’d say don’t feel bad if you took one look at this Chinese name and opted to use English.
I spotted a punny McDonalds ad in the subway yesterday that might not be obvious to a lot of learners:
The ad presupposes knowledge of the word 充电宝, which is a pretty recent word, and isn’t in a lot of dictionaries yet. 充电 means “to recharge” (electricity, but sometimes metaphorically as well). 宝 means “treasure” and is also used in the common word for “baby” (宝宝), but here it just means “thing.” 充电器 already means “charger” (for electronics), but the difference here is that a 充电宝 is a battery that can be carried with you and used to recharge you smartphone. These portable chargers seem to be way more popular in China than the battery-extending cases (Mophie and the like) I’ve seen a number of Americans use.
OK, so back to the pun. It’s focused on the “bǎo” part of 充电宝 (portable charger). It uses the character 饱, meaning “full”. It creates the sense that a meal at McDonalds is a “recharging fill” (not “full recharge”).
I just finished Season 2 of the bleak HBO TV series True Detective, and enjoyed it (although it depressed me a bit). I’ve had a few discussions with Chinese friends about the show, and I realized that the Chinese name of the show is worth a mention.
So the Chinese name of the show is 真探. The word for “detective” in Chinese is 侦探. Notice that both are pronounced exactly the same: “zhēn tàn.”
So if you’re hearing the name of this show in Chinese for the first time, you’d probably think it is just called “zhēntàn,” translating to “The Detective” in English. You have to actually see the characters to realize that a “True” has been slipped in there. (Makes me think of a line from the show intro: “I live among you… well disguised.”) It’s different from the common character swaps you see in Chinese brand names because it’s actually a translation, and it’s the fusing of two meaningful words into one.
And this got me thinking about similar wordplay for other names. It’s not a true portmanteau, as I understand the term, because there is no phonetic fusing going on. The “fusing” is entirely writing-based, but extends to meaning once you see it. We can do this in English too, I’m sure, but I can’t think of any examples right now.
I actually see this a lot going the other way (semantically) in Chinese: a name makes you think of certain meanings associated with certain characters (that you think you hear), but then the name purposely switches out those characters (in an attempt to be more “subtle”?). One example of that is 肯德基. (The Chinese name for Kentucky is 肯塔基州, but since it’s the name for KFC, the brand could have used 鸡 instead of 基). Another examples is 珍爱网, a dating site, which is clearly playing on the “true love” meaning of the word 真爱.
I recently watched a Chinese movie called Monkey King: Hero Is Back in English, or 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai) in Chinese (full name: 西游记之大圣归来). The name 大圣 is short for 齐天大圣, which is another name for 孙悟空, the “Monkey King” character from Journey to the West (西游记).
Have I lost you yet? This is actually a pretty good movie, with high-quality animation, but it’s written for a Chinese audience, and as such has a lot of cultural assumptions built in. Although I’m generally familiar with the story of Journey to the West (西游记), it’s a classic that every native-born Chinese person is intimately familiar with from childhood, so foreigners trying to understand the story are at a bit of a disadvantage. (I’m going to provide all the Chinese characters and pinyin for Chinese learners like I always do, but the following info should still help even if you’re not studying Chinese. Mouse over characters for pinyin.)
Pretty much every Chinese person, young and old, knows that Journey to the West has 4 main heroes (plus a horse). One annoying thing is that each character has multiple Chinese names and multiple English translations of those names. The names given in parentheses (in bold) are the ones I hear used the most by Chinese friends.
唐僧 (Tang Seng), AKA 唐三藏, 玄奘, or Tripitaka in English. He’s a Buddhist monk on a mission to retrieve the sacred sutra from the West. He’s the one that always wears the tall hat.
孙悟空 (Sun Wukong), AKA 齐天大圣, the Monkey King, also called just “Monkey” in some translations. He’s a badass rebel with an attitude that can do all sorts of magic, including taking on 72 different forms.
猪八戒 (Zhu Bajie), AKA “Pigsy.” Once an immortal, but now a greedy pig-man with magical powers, but only 36 forms.
沙悟净 (Sha Wujing), AKA Friar Sand or “Sandy.” Also a fallen immortal, he’s in the shape of a man, but he only knows 18 forms. He seems to be the lackey of the group, and is often seen hauling around everyone’s luggage. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the above 3 characters.)
玉龙 AKA 白龙马 (“White Dragon Horse”), a white dragon and son of the Dragon King. Takes the form of Tang Seng’s steed as atonement for a crime. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the top 3 characters.)
OK, now how do these traditional characters fit into the new movie 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai)? That’s key to understanding it. I won’t give any real spoilers, but the following are a few important notes that all Chinese viewers understand immediately, which should clear a few things up for foreign viewers:
The movie kicks off with Sun Wukong starting a brawl in heaven. He’s basically a troublemaker and is pissing everyone off. You get a taste of his full power here, and also see him change form.
In the end of the opening heavenly brawl, Sun Wukong is stopped by 佛祖 (the Big Buddha), and imprisoned for 500 years under a mountain. This detail is faithful to the original.
When Sun Wukong is first released from imprisonment, he is surprised to discover that he’s lost most of his powers, and it seems to be that magical shackle thing holding them back.
Sun Wukong is referred to in the movie by three names/titles: 齐天大圣, 大圣, and 孙悟空.
唐僧, the main monk on a mission in Journey to the West, is the little boy named 江流儿 in the new movie. This name is made up for the new movie, and making him into a little boy has no basis in the original story; it’s a fresh twist. He is often referred to by Chinese audiences, for convenience, as 小唐僧 (Little Tang Seng). Everyone knows who he’s supposed to be.
The old man that takes care of Little Tang Seng and raises him to be a monk is just created for convenience in this adaptation, as is the little girl that Little Tang Seng is protecting.
Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie are represented pretty faithfully to tradition in this movie.
The “White Dragon Horse” makes a few appearances in this new movie, but he has not yet become Tang Seng’s steed. (That will probably happen in a sequel.)
Sha Wujing does not make an appearance in this new movie. (That will also probably happen in a sequel.)
If you’re studying Chinese, I recommend you check out this movie. It’s pretty easy to follow even without the above information, but it’s nice to know how it “plugs into” contemporary Chinese culture.
I hope the forthcoming English-dubbed version is better than this:
One thing that many non-Chinese may not realize is that the average Chinese person doesn’t really care about dragon boat races on Dragon Boat Festival. Sure, we call it “Dragon Boat Festival” in English, but the dragon boats (龙舟) are just the easiest part of the festival’s traditions to translate. In fact, Wikipedia uses the name Duanwu Festival for its English article, reflecting the Chinese name 端午节.
The most visible tradition of Duanwu Festival for me personally has always been the zongzi (粽子), those bamboo-leaf-wrapped, stuffed glutinous rice triangle-ish things. They’re quite tasty (although you might want to be careful if you have an aversion to pork fat; some of them are a little high on fat and low on meat).
One of the traditions I just recently became aware of is the Duanwu Festival use of a plant called 艾草 (Artemisia argyi in English). It’s a strongly aromatic plant, and the idea is that you hang it by the doorway of your home to ward off bugs and disease.
Apparently this tradition is not observed by young people very much (at least in Shanghai), so I’m not sure how long this particular tradition will be around. But today I snapped some pictures of (mostly old) people loading up on 艾草 at the wet market in preparation for Duanwu Festival. (Those bundles are two for 5 RMB, which to me seems to reinforce the idea that only old people buy it.) Photos below.
Here’s what a zongzi gift set looks like:
This one, sold by a Korean bakery chain that pretends to be French (巴黎贝甜), includes 12 zongzi and retails for 158 RMB. (Normally individual zongzi sell for less than 10 RMB.)
> Searle writes in his first description of the argument: “Suppose that I’m locked in a room and … that I know no Chinese, either written or spoken”. He further supposes that he has a set of rules in English that “enable me to correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols”, that is, the Chinese characters. These rules allow him to respond, in written Chinese, to questions, also written in Chinese, in such a way that the posers of the questions – who do understand Chinese – are convinced that Searle can actually understand the Chinese conversation too, even though he cannot. Similarly, he argues that if there is a computer program that allows a computer to carry on an intelligent conversation in a written language, the computer executing the program would not understand the conversation either.
> The experiment is the centerpiece of Searle’s Chinese room argument which holds that a program cannot give a computer a “mind”, “understanding” or “consciousness”, regardless of how intelligently it may make it behave. The argument is directed against the philosophical positions of functionalism and computationalism, which hold that the mind may be viewed as an information processing system operating on formal symbols.
So my first thought was: what do the Chinese call the Chinese room? The laowai room? Turns out the answer is a little more boring than that: in Chinese it’s called the 中文房间. (You might have been tempted to translate it as the 中国房间, but that doesn’t work as well, since the whole part of the argument is that there are these inscrutable symbols that can be manipulated. It’s Chinese characters that are key, not Chinese culture or nationality.)
The room is “Chinese,” of course, because of the inscrutable nature of Chinese characters. It boosts the argument if it feels like there’s no chance that the person in the room will actually learn them in the process of their Chinese room work.
I have to take umbrage at that: you can read Chinese. (If you want to.) I admit, though, that the Chinese room is not the best way to go about it.
There’s one other thought experiment mentioned which touches on China: the China brain. That one doesn’t seem to have a well-known translation (and no page on Wikipedia), but it seems at least some translators have gone with the straightforward 中国脑子. (This one refers to the people of China, and not the Chinese language itself.)