May Day Word Play

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

Holla as “Ni Hao”

I was amused by this translation of 你好 (“hello”) as “holla“:

Holla = 你好?

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 …

Linking Breaking Bad to Better Caul Saul through Chinese

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!

The Chinese titles of the two series are:

Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul: Chinese Names

And in plain text:

  • Breaking Bad 绝命毒师 (Juémìng Dúshī)
  • Better Call Saul 绝命律师 (Juémìng Lǜshī)

The two differ by exactly one …

The Laziest Animated Movie Title Translations Ever

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, …

Don’t Let the Air In

I saw this sign on the door of the AllSet Learning office building that leads out to the patio:


Here’s a closeup:


It reads:



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 …

Translation Challenges: Roof Repair

I recently spotted this sign on the stairs leading to the roof of the AllSet Learning office building:


Here’s the Chinese text:


Literally, that’s:

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 …

Frozen’s “Let It Go” in Chinese Dialects

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 …

Chinese Pwns Shakespeare?

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.)

Qu Yuan Pwns Shakespeare?

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 …

The (Chinese) Alcohol for (Chinese) Alcoholics

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:


in Chinese, while often translated as “wine,” more generally means “alcohol.” Traditionally, it’s some kind of grain alcohol, like 白酒 (Chinese “…

Cat Crap Coffee

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 …

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