Today is May 1st, China’s International Workers’ Day holiday. Yesterday I saw this amusing little joke, posted by a former student, “Monica.” The humor is based on transliteration. First the joke, then I’ll follow up with a translation and explanation.
> When I was in primary school, the kids that pronounced the word “English”
> as “yīng gěi lìxī” became bankers,
> as “yīngōu lǐ xǐ” became vegetable vendors,
> as “yīn-guǒ liánxì” became philosophers,
> as “yìng gǎi lìshǐ” became politicians,
> as “Yīngguó lǐ qù” became overseas Chinese.
> As for me, I accidentally pronounced it “yīnggāi lèisǐ,”
> and as a result became a glorious laborer….
> You’ve all been working hard; I wish you an early May 1st Labor Day!
For this to make sense, you have to read each individual character that makes up each transliteration (phonetic approximations of the word “English”). Here’s a quick gloss:
I was amused by this translation of 你好 (“hello”) as “holla“:
I’ve been annoyed in the past by how 你好 is almost exclusively translated as “hello” when “hi” or “hey” would serve better in many contexts. In fact, long ago, when I taught English in Hangzhou, I forced my students to stop using “hello” all the time and start using “hi” and “hey” to be more natural in informal situations.
Still, “holla??” Seems like a translator was bored and trying to amuse himself.
Although this does raise another interesting question: how would one most faithfully translate “holla” into Chinese (dialect allowed)?
Breaking Bad was an awesome drama. Better Call Saul is looking like it’s shaping up to be another great story. But if you’re not already familiar with both series, it’s far from obvious that the two are connected based on their titles alone. Not so with Chinese!
绝命 (not a common word at all) according to my dictionary means “to kill oneself” (but here, while not entirely clear, must mean something like “at the end of one’s rope”), and 毒师 (also not at all a common word) would be something like “drug master” (which you could translate as “drug lord,” but “drug lord” is more commonly expressed in Mandarin as 毒枭). The word 毒师 was likely chosen because it’s similar to 老师, and Walter White begins the series as a chemistry teacher. Meanwhile, 律师 is actually a common word meaning “lawyer,” however. It seems to be just a fortuitous coincidence that the new series name can play off the old series name so neatly.
Now, you could definitely argue that neither is a good translation of the original English series title, but both “Breaking Bad” and “Better Caul Saul” would be extremely hard to translate well into Chinese. It does seem that keeping consistency of translation to link the two is a nice little added benefit when you can’t very faithfully translate the original titles anyway.
I remember when I first moved to China, I used animated films to practice Chinese quite a bit. I quickly discovered that Disney did an especially good jobs with translating (my favorite was the Chinese version of The Emperor’s New Groove). But I also started noticing something strange about a lot of these animated films’ Chinese titles… the word 总动员 appeared, somewhat inexplicably, way too often.
What is 总动员?
It was almost like a formula. In one word, what’s the movie about? That’s the main theme. Then just apply this formula:
> [main theme] + 总动员
What was going on? I asked a number of native speakers abut this phenomenon, and none of them had paid the issue much notice. One bit of helpful information they did give, however, was that the word 总动员, in mainland China, is tied in the minds of many to some popular variety shows that came out around the year 2000. Specifically, they were 欢乐总动员 (“Joyous Zongdongyuan“) and 全家总动员 (“Whole Family Zongdongyuan“). Both were loud, fun, programs with lots of active people.
Pleco‘s dictionaries give the following definitions for 总动员:
1. General/total mobilization
2. General (or total) mobilization
3. general mobilization (for war etc)
OK, obviously those aren’t the meanings they’re shooting for in the titles of cartoon movies.
Native speakers seems to have trouble giving an exact definition of this use of 总动员, but the feeling is clear: exciting, happy, lively, 热闹, with lots of people.
The Rise of 总动员
Not appearing in dictionaries did not stop this word from popping up in animated feature titles all over the place, starting shortly before 2000. Many were Disney films, but not all:
– Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3 (1995, 1999, 2010) 玩具总动员: “Toy Zongdongyuan”
– Joe’s Apartment (1996) 蟑螂总动员: “Cockroach Zongdongyuan”
– Finding Nemo (2003) 海底总动员: “Bottom of the Sea Zongdongyuan”
– Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) 巨星总动员: “Megastar Zongdongyuan”
– The Incredibles (2004) 超人总动员: “Superman Zongdongyuan”
– Cars, Cars 2 (2006, 2011) 赛车总动员: “Race Car Zongdongyuan”
– Ratatouille (2007) 美食总动员: “Gourmet Zongdongyuan”
– Bee Movie (2007) 蜜蜂总动员: “Bee Zongdongyuan”
– WALL·E (2008) 机器人总动员: “Robot Zongdongyuan”
– Planes (2013) 飞机总动员: “Airplane Zongdongyuan”
– Free Birds (2013) 火鸡总动员: “Turkey Zongdongyuan”
– Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants (2014) 昆虫总动员: “Ant Zongdongyuan”
This is not a complete list; rather, it’s an attempt to try to capture some of the biggest titles and the range that “zongdongyuan” covers.
OK, some of these seem to work OK… Specifically, Cars seems to deserve the treatment. I can’t help but feel that “Gourmet Zongdongyuan” (Ratatouille) could have been a much better title, though, as could have “Robot Zongdongyuan” (WALL·E).
To be fair, most of these movies actually do have multiple titles, and a casual check seems to indicate that the translators over in Taiwan are putting a bit more thought into the translations of animated feature film titles. Still, I’ve been seeing these zongdongyuan translations for years, and it especially stands out for Disney films, which tend to have excellent translations for the actual movies themselves, despite the total cop-out titles.
The Fall of 总动员
I was thinking the linguistics nerds like me were the only ones that gave this kind of issue any consideration, but fortunately at least some Chinese movie fans are also getting fed up:
> I’m so annoyed by the Chinese translations of animated films. It’s just this zongdongyuan, that zongdongyuan… screw zongdongyuan! Can’t you have just a bit of skill? If you don’t know how to translate, directly using the English title is better than this. You’ve all got culture, but now why so crude? In recent years all movies have been zongdongyuan-ized: cars, toys, bottom of the sea, gourmet food, robots… Do you even know what a zongdongyuan is? Bloody hell! When I see a shoddy translation like this it sets me off. How can such a good move have such a lame translation? I’m so pissed off! I get mad just thinking about it…
Anyway, the good news (for us translation purists) is that in recent years zongdongyuan seems to have worn out its welcome, and quite a few animated movies (including Disney/Pixar films) that almost certainly would have gotten zongdongyuan-ized 5 or 10 years ago did not: Brave, Tangled, A Bug’s Life, Madagascar, Rio, Up, Happy Feet (not 企鹅总动员!), Turbo, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Despicable Me, The Croods (疯狂原始人, “crazy primitive men” rather than 原始人总动员!)… all escaped zongdongyuan-ization. (Whether or not those films’ titles have good Chinese translations, though, is another question… but at least they’re not quite so lazy.)
So did anyone else notice this lazy translation trend, or was it just me?
I saw this sign on the door of the AllSet Learning office building that leads out to the patio:
Here’s a closeup:
> 请大家去阳台后 随手关门 以免雾霾进入楼层
> Please, everyone, when going out on the balcony close the door behind you to prevent smog from entering the building
A young Chinese guy (presumably the one who put up the sign) came by our office to call our attention to the sign and ask for our cooperation. It was a little awkward because our window was open at the time (oops).
It’s weird… there’s a very traditional Chinese belief in a need for “fresh air” (even in the depths of winter). This air pollution problem is now quite visibly butting heads with that belief.
I recently spotted this sign on the stairs leading to the roof of the AllSet Learning office building:
Here’s the Chinese text:
> rooftop / examine and repair / in the middle of, temporarily stop / use; usage, thank you!
The translation offered:
> The roof is during maintenance. Stop using temporarily. Thank you!
The translation, while not great, is understandable. What stood out to me, though, were two issues frequently encountered in Chinese signs which can give translators a hard time:
1. Use of 中 after a verb
2. Signage etiquette
First let’s look at the first part: 屋顶检修中. The translator was on the right track with “during” for 中, and in adding “to be” into the English (its absence in Chinese is key to the difficulty of the translation), and also in converting the Chinese 检修 verb to a noun form for the English. But it still came out weird, because the translation demands a certain amount of linguistic flexibility with the concept behind 中. It’s hard to come up with a stock translation for this 中 that’s going to work in most cases. “During,” “in the middle of,” “in progress,” “underway,” “undergoing,” “in the midst of,” “currently” are all possibilities, but they’re certainly not easy for a non-native speaker to choose between, and not all are prepositions or prepositional phrases, either.
For the second part, 暂停使用, although the English is correct, it doesn’t contain the necessary degree of politeness we expect and demand from our signage in the English-speaking world. Chinese signs, while formal, just don’t feel as polite, and everyone is cool with that.
I have to give the translator props for converting the Chinese commas into periods in English, though. The Chinese “legal run-on” sentence being translated into an (unacceptable) run-on sentence in English is one of the most common mistakes made by beginner Chinese-English translators.
Anyway, a better translation would be something like:
> The rooftop is currently undergoing repairs. Please do not use it at this time. Thank you!
Obviously, that can be polished more.
It’s easy to laugh at bad Engrish, but in this case there’s nothing funny, and difficulties translating from Chinese to English (that go beyond simple word choice) can be indicative of difficulties that learners of Chinese will face with Chinese.
I was a little late to the party, but I finally saw Disney’s Frozen recently, and was very impressed. Later I did a bit of searching for different language versions of the movie’s hit song, “Let It Go,” and aside from discovering an impressive 25 language mashup version of the song, I also made another interesting find: Chinese dialect (/fangyan/topolect) versions of the song!
Of the videos included below, only the English, Mandarin, and Cantonese audio versions are official Disney productions. The others are fan creations, and as such, vary widely in quality. Some are translations of the original, while others are spoofs (恶搞) or partial spoofs. I’ve got them roughly in order of quality below (the worst at the bottom), so don’t say I didn’t warn you! (Links go to Chinese video sites (with ads); embedded videos are Disney’s official audio versions with fan-added subtitles from YouTube.)
I discovered this little gem of translation magic in my WeChat feed the other day under the title 中文远比英文美 (“Chinese is far more beautiful than English”). The poem quoted below is widely attributed to Shakespeare online, so the attribution is reasonable. (More on that later.)
I’ve tried to maintain a 4-line structure to make comparisons easier, but in a few cases it was inappropriate to break the Chinese poem structures, so I left them as is, since the 4-part structure is obvious anyway.
Original English Poem
> You say that you love rain, but you open your umbrella when it rains.
You say that you love the sun, but you find a shadow spot when the sun shines.
You say that you love the wind, but you close your windows when wind blows.
This is why I am afraid–you say that you love me too.
― William Shakespeare
普通版 (“Normal” Version)
This is the “normal” version, a straight translation of the English above into modern Chinese. (This is also the second most accessible version if you want to try reading the Chinese.)
文艺 literally means “literature and arts,” but these days it’s often closely associated with the phrase 文艺青年, a young person who pursues artistic beauty (especially of the literary nature), but may often come across pretentious to normal people.
You’ll immediately notice how difficult the following translation is compared to the first one; it’s chock-full of hard words.
女汉子 is difficult to translate, but 汉子 normally refers to a man. So 女汉子 refers to a “manly” woman, or more appropriately a “strong woman,” the type that takes no crap from nobody. “你有本事” (literally, “[if] you have the ability”) lends an air of direct challenge to the whole thing, kind of a “what are you gonna do about it?” feel.
This one, like the 吴语 version above, also seems tacked on, since the phrase 女汉子 is trendy these days.
OK, so here’s the thing… That “original” English poem was not by Shakespeare, and it’s actually a translation into English from Turkish. There’s a reason it doesn’t see too “Shakespearean” (especially in word choice). Below is the original word choice:
> Yağmuru seviyorum diyorsun, yağmur yağınca şemsiyeni açıyorsun…
Güneşi seviyorum diyorsun, güneş açınca gölgeye kaçıyorsun…
Rüzgarı seviyorum diyorsun, rüzgar çıkınca pencereni kapatıyorsun…
İşte,bunun için korkuyorum; Beni de sevdiğini söylüyorsun…
This little experiment certainly doesn’t prove any superiority or “pwnage,” and the English translation was clearly chosen because it matches existing Chinese poem forms, but… Chinese is still pretty awesome.
Here’s another one for the “I can’t believe they named the product that” file (see also “Cat Crap Coffee“). This one has more of a cultural differences angle, with a little bit of translation difficulty thrown in for good measure.
There’s a brand of Chinese rice wine called 酒鬼酒. Here’s a picture of it:
酒 in Chinese, while often translated as “wine,” more generally means “alcohol.” Traditionally, it’s some kind of grain alcohol, like 白酒 (Chinese “white wine“).
A person who routinely drinks to excess is called a 酒鬼 in Chinese, which literally means “alcohol demon” or “alcohol devil” or “alcohol ghost,” depending on how you want to translate 鬼. It sounds pretty negative, but in fact, in Chinese culture this type of alcohol abuse is not nearly so stigmatized. Although the police forces of many regions in China have begun cracking down on drunk driving in recent years, alcoholism in China is not as closely linked in the public consciousness to vehicular manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse, and the host of other evils as it often is in the west. In fact, regular heavy drinking is closely linked to some of China’s greatest poets, most famously 李白 (Li Bai).
Here’s 李白 getting his drink on:
So it’s more in the spirit of historical drunken poetry (as opposed to inebriated abusiveness) that this brand of Chinese rice wine is called 酒鬼酒.
Translating the brand name into English is a new challenge in itself, though. If you simply translate 酒鬼 as “alcoholic” and 酒 as “alcohol,” you get “Alcoholic Alcohol,” which sounds like it means “Alcohol that Contains Alcohol,” which is just plain dumb. In fact, you can’t use the word “alcoholic” as a modifier at all for that reason, so if you don’t want to ditch the noun “alcoholic” altogether you have to say something like “Alcohol for Alcoholics,” which sounds like some kind of horrible demented “charity” to my American ears.
So what else can you do? “Booze for Boozers” and “Wino Wine” are ridiculous. “Drunk Spirits”? I’m curious what a creative translator can come up with. (Pete? Brendan?)
OK, so you’ve heard of kopi luwak, right? Just in case you haven’t, here’s some Wikipedia for you:
> Kopi luwak, or civet coffee, refers to the beans of coffee berries once they have been eaten and excreted by the Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). The name is also used for marketing brewed coffee made from the beans.
Given the process by which this coffee is created, it’s not too surprising that we elect to refer to it in English by a foreign name–kopi luwak–rather than actually giving it a descriptive name. I mean, you can’t just call it “cat crap coffee,” charming as the alliteration may be, right? Well, you can in Chinese.
The Chinese name is 猫屎咖啡, literally, “cat crap coffee.” If you want to be a little cruder, the translation “cat shit coffee” is no less accurate.
What kind of blows my mind is that a coffee shop in the business of trying to sell this product (and it’s kind of expensive coffee) just straight up calls it 猫屎咖啡 (“cat crap coffee”). Don’t strain yourself too much with the marketing effort, right?
You can ask your Chinese friends if they’ve heard of 猫屎咖啡, and probably most of them have. What you won’t hear is them saying things like, “isn’t it weird that we just call it ‘cat shit coffee?'” Well, I have to hand it to the Chinese for calling a spade a spade.
But what I find even crazier is that there’s now a coffee chain expanding to multiple locations in Shanghai that goes by the very name “猫屎咖啡.” So some entrepreneur heard of this coffee, liked it, and decided he wanted the word “shit” in both his main product’s name as well as the name of his very business. Now that’s bold. Sassy, even.
The English name for the Chinese chain is, notably, “Kafelaku Coffee.”
Looks like there’s some backlash forming around this particular strain of coffee in the UK. I can’t imagine it’ll faze the Chinese market, though!
One of the big headaches about learning Chinese is the relative dearth of cognates and loanwords. None of that “car” is “carro” stuff you get when you start learning Spanish. In fact, when you do learn words that were transliterated into English from Chinese (like 麦克风 for “microphone”), the result is often bizarre and a lot harder to learn than if it had been “more Chinese” (keep in mind that you also have to learn all the tones of the word transliterated into Chinese). Kind of a downer.
It seems to me that the Chinese aren’t too crazy about these transliterations either. When they can, they’ll do things like use the Chinese word 苹果 (“apple”) for the American company “Apple” rather than resorting to transliteration. But for foreigners’ names, foreign country names, foreign company names, foreign brand names, and foreign product names, you do get stuck with an awful lot of transliterations into Chinese.
Recently I came across this list of English words (probably taken from a list of vocabulary words for some horrible standardized test) that have been transliterated into Chinese in a humorous way. That is to say, the Chinese characters chosen, rather than being random or “standard transliteration characters,” were chosen for their meanings. I’ve added pinyin tooltips to the transliterations, and also English translations of the transliterations.
– pregnant (怀孕): 扑来个男的 (“throw a man on me”)
– ambulance (救护车): 俺不能死 (“I can’t die”)
– ponderous (肥胖的): 胖得要死 (“ridiculously fat”)
– pest (害虫): 拍死它 (“squash it”)
– ambition (雄心): 俺必胜 (“I must win”)
– agony (痛苦): 爱过你 (“having loved you”)
– hermit (隐士): 何处觅他 (“wherever can I seek him?”)
– strong (强壮): 死壮 (“damn strapping”)
– abyss (深渊): 额必死 (“I must die”)
– admire (羡慕): 额的妈呀 (“mama mia”)
– flee (逃跑): 飞离 (“fly away by plane”)
– gauche (粗鲁的): 狗屎 (“dog crap”)
– morbid (病态): 毛病 (“mental issues”)
– putrid (腐烂): 飘臭 (“wafting stench”)
– obtuse (愚笨): 我不吐死 (“I’m not going to puke to death”)
– lynch (私刑处死): 凌迟 (“kill by dismemberment”)
– tantrum (脾气发作): 太蠢 (“too stupid”)
– bachelor (学士/单身汉): 白痴了 (“turned dumb”)
– temper (脾气): 太泼 (“too unreasonable”)
– addict (上瘾): 爱得嗑它 (“love to the point of cracking it in your teeth”)
– economy (经济): 依靠农民 (“rely on the peasants”)
– ail (疼痛): 哎哟 (“Owww”)
– coffin (棺材): 靠坟 (“leaning on the grave”)
– appall (惊骇): 我跑 (“I’m gonna run”)
Foreign words, like “Minnesota” or “Kobe Bryant” or “Carrefour” often get “translated” into Chinese in a way that uses the original sounds of the words and tries to represent those in Chinese (thus, using Chinese characters). This process is called transliteration, or sometimes transcription (音译, which breaks down character by character into “sound translation” in Chinese). Thus, the three examples above become “Mingnisuda” (明尼苏达), “Kebi Bulai’ente” (科比·布莱恩特), and “Jialefu” (家乐福) in Chinese.
These foreign names can be quite a pain for learners to remember, because the pronunciation is “off,” and they’re often quite long, plus the worst part: you have to remember all the tones for those “nonsense characters!”
But are they really nonsense characters? That depends. A carefully transliterated name will make some sort of sense in Chinese. This is almost always done with company and brand names, and is the case with Carrefour (家乐福) above; the three characters chosen mean “home,” “joy,” and “happiness,” respectively. For place names, though, the characters are a bit less lovingly selected. So Minnesota (明尼苏达) got: “bright,” “Buddhist nun,” “Suzhou,” “arrive.” Pretty random. Same goes for “Kobe Bryant” (科比·布莱恩特) in Chinese.
So a typical learner of Chinese wants to know: what’s my name in Chinese? And that’s where the tumble down the foreign name transliteration rabbit hole begins. You see, most English names already have standard translations in Chinese. So “John” is 约翰, “Mary” is 玛丽, “Richard” is 理查德, etc. Clearly, these are all transliterations; the sounds are approximated in Chinese, but not the meanings.
From the moment I first heard “约翰” (“John” in Chinese), I hated it. It didn’t sound like “John” at all! There wasn’t even a “zh” or a “j” sound in the whole name. (It does sound quite similar to “Johann,” though; I think I had early European missionaries to thank for the “standard” transliteration of my name.)
After examining the characters, there were two main things I didn’t like about 约翰:
1. The characters 约翰 didn’t make much sense (OK, they make a little sense, from a “Gospel of John” missionary perspective)
2. “Yuēhàn” just sounded weird to me, and unlike most Chinese names
These two features define most foreign names transliterated into Chinese. In fact, oftentimes the characters really are nonsensical; they’re chosen systematically from a fixed list of characters used in transliterations. This list even has its own Wikipedia page: Transcription into Chinese characters.
Looking over the list, I can’t help but feel that certain specific characters are more “foreign” (used especially often in foreigners’ names, and not so often in Chinese names), while others are more “Chinese” (equally likely to appear in Chinese names). For example, 文 and 平 are both common in Chinese names. 托 and 斯… not quite so much.
Thus, over time, as you hear more and more combinations of these “transliteration characters” (杰克, 汉克, 路易, etc.), you start to get a feel for when a “Chinese name” sounds foreign, especially compared to the growing list of authentic Chinese people’s names you’re compiling in your memory. In fact, a computer program could actually run through big long lists of transliterated foreign names and original Chinese names, and by comparing the character distributions in the two lists, assign “Chineseness” and “foreignness” values to each character, allowing for fairly accurate prediction of what “Chinese” names would sound the most foreign. You could probably increase accuracy by taking note of the position of the characters in a word, and certain repeated character sequences (like 斯坦).
But this is what your brain does unconsciously as you learn more and more names. This is how we develop a sense for when a Chinese name feels foreign.
The ironic part of all this for me personally is that after rejecting 约翰 as my Chinese name, I later settled on 潘吉. Both of those characters are in thetranscription table! (Ah, but 潘吉 is actually much more Chinese, even if a bit boring. So 潘吉 is my official Chinese name, although these days I usually just go by John.)
A friend pointed me to this article: Emotions For Which There Are No English Words. A nice intersection of some of my favorite topics: semantics, translation, psychology, and infographics. You’ll need to go to the site for the full infographic (it’s zoomable), but here are the Chinese words that make an appearance:
The Chinese words are:
> 心疼: The feeling somewhere between sympathy and empathy, to feel the suffering of loved ones.
Literally, “heart aches.” This one isn’t too hard to understand.
> 加油: A form of encouragement as if you are fighting along with the person, backing them up.
Literally, “add oil.” It does take a little bit of time to get used to how when you say “加油！” you’re actually putting yourself on the same team as the enouragee, somehow. (Similar deal with Japanese 頑張って.)
> 忐忑: A mixture of feeling uneasy and worried, as if you can feel your own heart beat.
(That one is also kind of famous for its characters… good ideogrammatic fun.)
> 纠结: Worried, feeling uneasy, don’t know what to do.
纠结 probably gets my vote for “newest super useful slang word that you won’t find in a textbook,” but it’s not just a word-fad that’s going away anytime soon.
I really like this next Japanese choice. It’s once of my favorite Japanese words:
> 懐かしい: Missing something. The sense of longing, being nostalgic for something, someone, or somewhere.
The weird thing about the word 懐かしい is how often it’s used as a complete sentence, usually as an exclamation. When you’re not used to the word, and you see someone confronted with something dear but forgotten from childhood, and then they bust out with “nostalgic!” it seems very odd at first. It’s like one word to say, “oh wow, that really takes me back.”
Just thinking about using 懐かしい is kind of 懐かしい for me. (I do miss Japanese!)
As most of us in China know, fortune cookies are not a Chinese thing. They’re an American thing. ChinesePod just recently did a lesson on American Chinese Food, and user he2xu4 linked to this TED talk which gives more detail on the issue: Jennifer 8. Lee hunts for General Tso. (ChinesePod also once did a lesson on the fact that you can’t get fortune cookies in China.)
The thing is, it looks like now you can get fortune cookies in China. I took this photo in my local Carrefour supermarket:
OK, so it was in the “imported foods” section (they seem to be from Japan), but the packaging is in simplified Chinese. They come in two flavors: “cream” and “chocolate.” It says on the package: 装密语签语饼干, which means something like “Secret-containing Fortune Cookies.”
Probably the best thing about these fortune cookies, though, is that they feature Pac-Man. The Japanese may have had the invention of fortune cookies stolen by the Chinese in the United States, but at least as they introduce fortune cookies to mainland China they’re sneaking Japan’s home-grown video game icon into the mix!
Sometimes Chinese seems to warp the fabric of space-time. It’s true; culture can warp our perception of reality with Sapir-Whorfian aplomb. I exaggerate, though; I’m talking about interpretations of the phrase “this week.”
At the crux of the matter is the fact that the Western American week starts on Sunday (星期天), whereas the Chinese week starts on Monday (星期一). Most of the time this causes no problems… Unless you’re trying to make plans for the next 7 days on a Sunday. This is such a simple matter; it shouldn’t be so confusing. But if you forget that this discrepancy exists, misunderstandings abound. It’s embarrassing, but I admit: even after all this time in China, if I’m careless in my thinking, I still make this mistake occasionally. (The key is that one doesn’t often make plans for the coming week on a Sunday.)
Here are some diagrams to make the issue clearer:
So, in the examples above, if I say “这个星期三” on a Sunday, thinking I’m referring to the coming Wednesday (May 9th), I’m actually referring to the past Wednesday (May 2nd).
OK, now here’s the annoying part (for us native speakers of American English): the Chinese way is more logical. Here’s how it works:
1. If you refer to any day of last week (even if it’s yesterday, technically), you use 上个.
2. If you refer to any day of this week (Monday through Sunday, even days already past), you use 这个. It just means, strictly, “of this week.” No ambiguity.
3. If you refer to any day of next week (even if it’s tomorrow, technically), you use 下个.
As long as you remember that the week starts on Monday and not Sunday, it’s all very consistent and logical. The reason this is confusing to non-native speakers like me is that the system that we use in American English is kind of a mess. I hear that many British speakers follow rules that are basically the same as the Chinese ones, but I know from experience that the system used in the USA is much more muddled (examples here, here, and here).
OK, it’s not actually that hard. I’m not trying to add a new item to “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard.” But it’s a pretty bewildering experience when it happens to you the first time. The joys of intercultural exchange!
Update: In the original post I said “Western” when I should have said “American.” Apologies for the inaccuracies. The point of the post still holds true (particularly for us Americans).
Sorry, I can’t credit the original author because I don’t know it. I added the Chinese translation into the mix (蝴蝶).
This is especially hilarious to me personally because I know very little German, but I actually learned the German word “schmetterling” long ago by chance, and found the word enormously amusing. Guess I’m not the only one!
Learners of Chinese confront the “de triple threat” of Chinese structural particles pretty early on. You see, there are three different characters to write what sounds exactly the same to the ear. The three characters are 的, 得, and 地, each pronounced “de” (neutral tone) when serving as a structural particle.
If you’re just trying to improve your listening and speaking, you don’t really need to worry about this issue. If you’re working on your writing, however, you’re going to want to get it straight. I found the following (simplified) approach helpful:
…的 + Noun
Verb + 得…
…地 + Verb
OK, yes, it leaves out a lot of special cases, and the aforementioned “Verb” in “Verb + 得” can also be an adjective. But they’re nice rules of thumb if you’re looking for something a bit simpler.
But here’s the interesting thing: because the issue of the three de’s is one concerning writing and not speaking, Chinese native speakers themselves have to learn these rules, and can sometimes get tripped up. Some people who don’t need to write for a living might even just “opt out” of the whole issue and use 的 exclusively.
But because Chinese children have to learn to use the proper “de” in school, there is actually a children’s song about the three de’s! [source]
I’ve mentioned before that I occasionally indulge in the Chinese dating show 非诚勿扰. There’s another one of these reality TV-type Chinese shows that I watch from time to time called 非你莫属 (English name: “Only You”). On this show, each entrant is a job applicant given a chance to explain the type of job he’s looking for and interview with a panel of 12 bosses right there on camera. If all goes well, the bosses make offers to the applicant, and details of salary are discussed right on the show. Finally, the applicant is given a chance to accept the final offers or decline them and leave the stage.
This show is appealing for a number of reasons. There is quite a range of applicants, from young kids with no experience, to senior citizens, to the destitute and desperate, to the physically abnormal. Quite a few of the applicants just plain don’t have much to offer. The “bosses,” who are on the show to promote their own companies, can also say some interesting things. Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects to me is seeing what kind of job offers are made on the show, and what salaries the applicants will accept.
After watching this show for a while, I was surprised to see recently that there was a young American applicant. Unlike 非诚勿扰 (the dating show), which has had quite a few foreigners on the show, I’d never seen it on this show. The applicant was a 25-year-old white American male named Nathan (Chinese name: 尚德). Having lived in Beijing for a while, Nathan spoke pretty solid Chinese, and had no major issues communicating on the show. But the bosses’ reactions to Nathan were not quite what I expected.