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 signs which can give translators a hard time:

  1. Use of 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 , 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 . It’s hard to come up with a stock translation for this 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.

There Can Be Only One Lunch Time

After having lived in China for over 13 years, how has China changed me? Some changes are more subtle than others.

Chinese Food

Photo by Yoshimai

Here’s a short exchange I had with a friend recently:

Me: So are we doing lunch?

Him: I can’t come at 12pm. How about 1pm?

Me: OK, so after lunch?

Him: What time do you eat lunch then? You’ve been in China too long…

It’s true that the Chinese are pretty rigid about their eating schedules, and now I realize that I have been reprogrammed. I think of 12pm as “the lunchtime,” with deviations as early as 11:30am or as late as 12:30pm acceptable.

Recently I had an evening meeting with an American AllSet Learning client that wrapped up around 10pm. He and his wife (also American) went out for dinner after the meeting, and I was a little incredulous that that was normal for them.

I realized that I now think of 6:30pm as “the dinnertime,” with deviations as early as 6pm or as late as 7:30pm acceptable.

This cultural norm for mealtimes also affects my business. Occasionally AllSet Learning clients want to do 2-hour Chinese lessons starting at 11am or 5pm. Those time slots make it impossible for the Chinese teacher to eat lunch or dinner at an even remotely acceptable time, so I have to explain that for cultural reasons, those are bad times for lessons.

I’m not sure exactly how “Chinese” my eating habits are, or if they’re sort of a hybrid of my original American ways and my Chinese life. One habit I’ve yet to “go native” on is breakfast. I like some Chinese breakfast (煎饼 in particular), but I frequently skip breakfast. This, of course, horrifies Chinese friends.

I think I used to fight this kind of change, these insidious creeping ideas that attempt to slowly win over my brain. This one is kind of hard to fight, though. The stomach wants what the stomach wants, and China’s been whispering in its “ear” for quite a while now.

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 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’m no expert on any of these dialects/fangyan, so if anyone has any corrections to make, please leave a comment.

[Side note: it was kind of weird adding "-ese" or "-nese" to some of those place names, so I used a hyphen to make it clearer which places the dialects/fangan came from.]

Letters Embedded in Characters

Here’s a creative use for the alphabet:

Embedded Letters

The Chinese reads:


…or, “Stupid Apple’s English Learning Method.”

(Hopefully it’s not just hiding letters in Chinese characters.)

V-Day Marketing Opportunism

I’ve grown accustomed to interesting examples of Chinese capitalism (I often say the Chinese are more capitalist than us Americans), but I was presently surprised to see this (sorry it’s not the greatest photo):

Valentine's Day Rose

So on Valentine’s Day, demand drives the price of roses up to something like 30 RMB per flower (give or take). Normally it’s around 10 RMB (which is already kind of high).

Well, this real estate developer decided to give away free roses on the evening of February 14th, right on the street near Zhongshan Park, with this heart-shaped advertisement attached. Quite clever!

I know for a fact that most people immediately removed the ad and kept the rose, but I do wonder if the tactic proved fruitful for them or not.

A Pinyin Typing Shortcut for Crazy Characters

Pinyin is generally great for typing (learn it!), but there’s not much it can do for you when you’re trying to type a character you don’t know how to pronounce. This has always been the case, until recently, when a few of the popular pinyin input methods have started adding a few new tricks.


Basically, you first type “u” (a letter no valid pinyin syllable begins with), and then you type out the common names of the character components. You can see it in action in the image (the apostrophes are inserted by the pinyin input method itself to show how pinyin syllables are interpreted).

More text-friendly breakdown of what the image shows:

  • 壵 (zhuàng) = 士 (shì) + 士 (shì) + 士 (shì) = u’shi’shi’shi
  • 磊 (lěi) = 石 (shí) + 石 (shí) + 石 (shí) = u’shi’shi’shi
  • 渁 (yuān) = 氵 (sāndiǎnshuǐ) + 水 (shuǐ) + 水 (shuǐ) = u’shui’shui’shui
  • 淼 (miǎo) = 水 (shuǐ) + 水 (shuǐ) + 水 (shuǐ) = u’shui’shui’shui
  • 萌 (méng) = 艹 (cǎozìtóu) + 日 (rì) + 月 (yuè) = u’cao’ri’yue

[Side note: best English translation for the slang word 萌 "adorbs"??]

The bad news is that this doesn’t seem to work on Mac OS X or iOS. I hear from reliable source that it works on Sogou pinyin for PC and Google Pinyin (for PC). Does it work on Android devices running Google Pinyin?

Let me know in the comments if it works for you, and share some interesting examples of what works and what doesn’t work. Thanks!

The Year of the Horse Chengyu

This is my second “Year of the Horse” Chinese New Year in China, and there’s one thing I’ve noticed: a certain chengyu (Chinese idiom, typically 4 characters long) gets thrown around like crazy in Chinese New Year’s greetings.

That chengyu is 马到成功.


There are a few interesting things about this chengyu, and some points worth exploring.

Is it worth knowing?

Like many learners, you may not want to junk up your brain space with too many useless chengyu. So is this one worth it? Well, it sure gets liberally tossed around at the beginning of the Year of the Horse, that’s for sure.

But aside from that, it’s not a terribly uncommon chengyu. I’ve learned it without trying just by living through one Year of the Horse CNY, and you probably can too, if you live in China or if you’re tuned into Chinese media for the holiday. Tons of repetition of this chengyu.

What does it mean, really?

The nice thing about 马到成功 is that its components are so easy:

  • : horse (easy!)
  • : to arrive (easy!)
  • 成功: to succeed (not bad, intermediate-level vocab)

It’s all high-frequency vocabulary, so that’s great. What does it really mean, though? “Horse arrives, success!” Something is missing. Is there some mystical luck-horse that runs around providing success to all it encounters? Not exactly.

If you look up 马到成功 in a dictionary, you get something like this:

win instant success

Or, more literally:

win success immediately upon arrival

OK, so if you take 马到 to mean “instant,” than isn’t it just the same as 马上, “immediately?”

But it’s not. At Chinese New Year, the chengyu is used in New Year’s wishes to others. If you were wishing people “马上成功” it sounds like they’ve already started something, and you want them to succeed immediately (like really soon!). Wishing them 马到成功 is wishing a speedy success to whatever endeavor someone undertakes. That makes a lot more sense.

OK, but does that explain why it’s 马到? Not really. Fortunately Baidu has the answer (in Chinese, of course). The chengyu actually refers to ancient warfare, in which cavalry played an important role. If your cavalry could get there on time right as the battle began, you’d frequently be assured a swift victory. (There’s a more complicated story behind the chengyu which Baidu relates, but it’s related to cavalry.)


This isn’t to say that Chinese people have images of cavalry slaughtering their enemies as they wish their friends 马到成功. In fact, most Chinese people probably aren’t aware of the origin of the saying. If you Baidu image search it, you see a whole bunch of images of horses frolicking around, not an enemy soldier in sight.

Using it

Even though the 马到成功 literally means “swift success,” you can also use it by itself to wish someone success in the New Year. You don’t need to add 祝你 in the front for “I wish you” (even though it’s not wrong to say that).

A common greeting that won’t stretch any intermediate learner’s abilities is:

新年快乐,马到成功! (Happy New Year, and swift successes!)

And with that, I wish everybody a 马到成功 in their Chinese studies!

May the Horse Be With You

I wasn’t expecting Star Wars to get in on the CNY festivities, but here it is:

The pun is (in traditional characters originally):


In simplified, that’s:


新年快乐 means “Happy New Year.” The pun replaces (xin: “new”) with (xing: “star”). The two are both first tone, and do sound very similar in Chinese (in fact, many native speakers don’t carefully distinguish between the “-n” and “-ng” finals of many syllables), and Star Wars in Chinese is 星球大战 (literally, “Star War(s)”).

Thanks, Jared, for bringing this video to my attention!

Advertising the Year of the Horse

It’s almost the Year of the Horse (马年) in China, and you can see it in advertising all around China. Here are three examples from Shanghai:

The Year of the Horse in Advertising
This first one incorporates the traditional character (horse) into the design.

The Year of the Horse in Advertising
Using the word 马上 (literally, “on horseback,” it means “right away”) is the easy way to go.

The Year of the Horse in Advertising
This one uses the internet slang 神马 (literally, “god horse”), which is sometimes used in place of 什么 (“what”).

Happy Year of the Horse!

Chinese Grammar Points Used by a 2-year-old

My daughter is now two years old, and she’s well on her way to simultaneously acquiring both English and Mandarin Chinese (with a little Shanghainese thrown in for good measure). We’re using the “One Parent One Language” approach, and it’s working pretty well.

I’ve taken a keen interest in my daughter’s vocabulary acquisition, but recently I’ve also been paying close attention to her grammar in both English and Chinese. Those that follow the debate regarding order of acquisition and whether or not a child’s natural acquisition should be closely mirrored by language learning materials should not be surprised to learn that her grammar pattern acquisition is all over the place. What I mean is that the grammar patterns she can or cannot use do not match well to what a beginner learner of Chinese should or shouldn’t be able to use after a year of study.


So what I’m going to do in this post is briefly comment on her mastery of some well-known grammar points, and also highlight some of the more surprising ones. I’ll be using the Chinese Grammar Wiki’s breakdown by level for reference (the order, low to high, is: A1, A2, B1, B2).

Grammar Points My Daughter Can Use

  1. Measure word “ge (A1)
    So she’s counting things the Chinese way, with . Picked this one up pretty quick, it seems.
  2. “Er” and “liang” (A1)
    I was wondering how quickly she’d master the use of and , but she had it down easily, before she was two. (Obviously, she has no need for most of the fringe cases; she just needs to count stuff.) I know her waipo (maternal grandmother) practiced this one with her a lot.
  3. Expressing possession (A1)
    It took her a while to get the hang of for possession, just as it took her a while to get the hand of “‘s” for possession in English. Neither is totally consistent (she sometimes forgets to use them), but she’s basically got them down.
  4. Questions with “ne (A1)
    When an adult learns Chinese, you learn the pattern “____ 在哪儿?” to ask where something is. My daughter totally skipped that, and uses exclusively to ask where things are. This is a use of you don’t normally learn as an adult student of Mandarin until a bit later, but there’s no arguing that it’s simpler! Kids like linguistic shortcuts.
  5. “meiyou” as a Verb (A1)
    She doesn’t know that is a special adverb of negation used with . She just knows what 没有 means as a whole. And it works!
  6. Negative commands with “bu yao (A1)
    Yeah, two year olds can be a bit demanding and uncooperative. 不要 is a key tool in her arsenal of terribleness, and it’s one of the few Chinese words that she likes to use when she’s otherwise speaking English, as well.
  7. Standard negation with “bu (A1)
    Again, very useful when she wants to be contrary. She uses pretty indiscriminately, putting it in front of verbs, verb phrases, and adjectives, but sometimes also nouns.
  8. Expressing “with” with “gen” (A2)
    I say she “knows” this, but she uses it exclusively with the verb , for talking about “going with (someone).” Again, it gets the job done!
  9. Change of state with “le” (A2)
    This is another one of those grammar points that she has a very limited mastery of, but makes good use of. She knows and uses the phrases “来了,” “走了,” and a few others. (Interestingly, she often uses “来了” as a substitute for the existential , meaning “there is.”)
  10. Negative commands with “bie” (A2)
    Again, a great pattern for the terrible twos.
  11. Reduplication of verbs (A2)
    She uses this with specific, high-frequency verbs, like (看看).
  12. -wan” result complement (B1)
    Obviously, she has no clue how to use complements. She learns phrases, and the phrase “吃完了” gets used a lot. (Her English equivalent for this is “finished” or “done,” not “finished eating” or “done eating.”)
  13. Expressing the self-evident with “ma (B1)
    (not ) is notoriously tricky for adults to get the hang of, but my daughter jumped right in and started using it early. Sometimes it feels like she’s not using it quite right, but clearly that doesn’t faze her. You’ll notice that any Chinese 3-year-old uses pretty liberally, so it’s clearly something that kids pick up really quickly, and adult learners over-analyze.

Grammar Points My Daughter Cannot Use

  1. Personal pronouns (A1)
    This might seem surprising, but these ubiquitous, abstract words for expressing “I” (), “you” (), and “he/she/it” (他/她/它) are totally unnecessary in the beginning and ignored by kids for quite a while. My daughter is just know starting to use “I” and “我,” but she’s still just experimenting. (Previously, she used “baby” and her own name instead of “I.”)
  2. “Can” with “hui” “neng” and “keyi” (A2)
    Here’s something elementary learners spend quite a bit of time mastering, but my daughter has decided to shelve the use of modal verbs , , and 可以 altogether, for the time being. (She seems to be making some progress on English “can,” however.)
  3. Basic comparisons with “bi” (A2)
    Doesn’t need it, doesn’t use it. She confines her “comparisons” to just nouns and adjectives.
  4. “Shi… de” construction (B1)
    Yeah… doesn’t need 是……的, doesn’t use it. She hears this pattern in questions all the time, however. She’s slowly soaking up the input.
  5. “Ba” Sentence (B1)
    This one is notoriously difficult for adult learners, and kids avoid it for a while, too, as it turns out. My daughter definitely understands the structure, though, whether or not she even notices the presence of in the sentences she understands. She never uses it.
  6. “Bei” sentence (B1)
    She definitely doesn’t use . No need for passive at all, and she doesn’t hear it much either, at this point. I’m sure linguists have studied at what point kids acquire passive constructions and why, but it’s clearly a lower linguistic priority for kids.


None of this is scientific; these are just casual observations. Watching my daughter simultaneously acquire two languages, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the differences between the way children and adults acquire languages. Whether or not there are neurological limits is still being debated, but it’s clear to me that there are differences, in practice.

What I’m seeing:

  • Kids can get by without pronouns. Without pronouns! How many adults could do that, even after being told they’re not high priority? I’ve personally observed quite a few people that try to start learning a language by translating the English of what they want to say, and their first question is frequently, “how do I say ‘I’?” You don’t need to start this way, but adults feel they need to.
  • My daughter was not at all tripped up by measure words, but after mastering numbers 1-10 in both languages she zoomed ahead with her Chinese numbers, while the irregular teens in English (“eleven,” “twelve,” “thirteen,” etc.) really slowed her down.
  • By putting utility above all else, my daughter frequently starts “using grammar patterns” before she understands how they work at all, simply by learning phrases. I don’t mean she doesn’t intellectually understand grammatical concepts (of course she doesn’t), I mean she doesn’t even know that she can put on the end of other actions; she just knows how to say 吃完了 when she finished eating, because that’s all she needs from at this point. The memorized phrase will be generalized into a “pattern” when it becomes necessary. This is actually a point that adults should really learn from: over-analysis frequently slows adults way down and delays meaningful communication. This is also the logic behind the approach to learning on the Chinese Grammar Wiki; learning patterns in a gradual process is actually the best way to learn how to use . And it’s usually best to memorize a phrase you need first, then generalize later.

There’s a lot I could say here, but I’ll stop now. Comments are welcome! I’m especially interested in hearing about relative order of grammar acquisition of my readers’ children.

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