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?

toy-story-zongdongyuan

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:

finding-nemo-zongdongyuan

  • 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.

cars-zongdongyuan

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:

最烦动画电影的中文翻译!动不动就什么什么总动员,总动员个屁呀!!有点技术含量行不行,不会翻译就直接用英文名也比这个好吧,都是文化人,怎么那么俗啊?这几年的电影都被总动员了,汽车、玩具、海底、美食、机器人,你知道什么是总动员不?我了个呸!!!!!看见这么二货的翻译就来气,这么好的电影弄了个蹩脚翻译!气死我了!想起来就来气。。。

A rough translation:

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?

Sun Moon Eyeglasses

ri-yue-yanjing

I recently noticed an eyeware shop called 日月眼镜 (literally, “Sun Moon” Eyeglasses”). This is a good example of a name that plays on common knowledge of characters and character components. The glasses themselves, of course, are unrelated to celestial bodies, but when you put the characters for sun () and moon () together, you get , a character which means “bright.”

Why “bright”? There are two reasons:

  1. The word 明亮 (“bright”), is frequently used to describe attractive, alert, healthy young eyes. So it’s a good association.
  2. Another association, although less direct, is that can refer to eyesight itself. There’s a word 失明 (literally, “lose brightness”) which means “to lose one’s eyesight.” Logically, then, can refer to eyesight, but there’s no word (of which I am aware) other than 失明 which uses to mean “eyesight.”

Have you noticed any other Chinese shop or brand names that use “deconstructed characters” in their names?

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:

IMG_2999

Here’s a closeup:

IMG_3001

It reads:

请大家去阳台后
随手关门
以免雾霾进入楼层

Translation:

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.

What Makes Bad Characters Readable?

I recently stumbled upon an interesting blog post titled The persistence of comprehension, which focuses on this handwritten Chinese note:

sabotaged-chinese-note

Now before you go too crazy trying to read it, know this:

Some time ago, Instagram user jumppingjack posted the above image of a note she left to her mum. She said that her brother secretly added extra strokes to the characters in the note. The result is interesting though: even though extra strokes were added, the note is still readable to most competent Chinese speakers.

bad-characters

That brother is kind of awesome. That is the kind of mischief I would have been all over as a kid, if only I had had Chinese characters at my disposal. The character substitutions are pictured at the right. (Note: not all of them are real characters.)

(Also, I totally sympathize with jumpingjack for writing the character wrong, with the two sides swapped. I have done that way too many times myself.)

Try having a Chinese friend read the note and take note what gives them the most trouble. Read the original post for the note’s original content (in electronic text) and the author’s analysis and conclusions.

Ad to “Save More”

means “save” (as in “save money,” 省钱) or “conserve” (as in “conserve electricity,” 省电).

I feel like I’ve been seeing this particular in-store advertisement in Carrefour forever, but it’s time I pointed it out, because it’s a nice simple example of characterplay:

省更多

The text reads:

省更多

Which means, “save even more” (or “saving more”). (Check out this Chinese Grammar Wiki article on 更 if it’s new to you.)

Obviously, the clever part is sneaking the ¥ sign (representing money) into the character.

Interview with Kathleen of gotCharacters.com

I recently discovered gotCharacters, the personal project of Kathleen Ferguson. I was impressed by the logical organization of the character components, and the clean, attractive design of the site. It was clear that a lot of work went into the site, and it’s all available for free! The following is my interview with her.


What made you decide to create a new resource for learning Chinese characters?

I came to Chinese in 2006 as an adult learner and struggled to remember even the simplest of characters and pinyin. There were few resources that suited my learning style, so early on I started developing my own mnemonics. I’m sharing them on gotCharacters.com with the hope that it will make someone else’s learning experience easier.

How is your work on gotCharacters different from that of “Chineasy” (of TED Talks fame)?

Based on ShaoLan Hsueh’s TED Talk and a quick look at the Chineasy website, I think we share the same goal: offering ways, like visual aids and other mnemonics, to make characters stick and to make learning Chinese less intimidating.

In developing gotCharacters, however, my perspective is different. English is my first language, and I’m a Chinese language learner (an adult learner at that); to me, my content represents material I would have liked to have had earlier in my learning curve. As an example, gotCharacters includes lookalikes—characters that look similar (like and , or and ). To the experienced eye the differences are clear, but for a newbie these characters can be indistinguishable (as they were for me).

How did you create all the content on gotCharacters? Do you have a team? Do you have Chinese teachers involved?

Most of the content started out as reams of handwritten notes accumulated over the years. With the benefit of time and mulling, an idea evolves and it’s sketched on a yellow pad. Then I use a variety of tools like graphics, Flash animations, audio recording, and eLearning software to develop the online content. Cecilia Lindqvist’s book China: Empire of Living Symbols and Claudia Ross’s Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar are my two bibles.

radical_view

I’m a visual learner, and animating characters brought them to life for me. My first animations were in 2010; in my mind’s eye, I could visualize (person) walking, flying, and rearing back on its hind legs and neighing. Every time I would come across these characters, as part of another character or as a stand-alone, I remembered the animation and thus the character.

Some ideas take time to come to fruition. I created the “Radical View” map (www.gotCharacters.com/radical-view) in 2011 as an independent project for class. Two years later I presented a more fully formed version at a World Language Teachers conference (my topic was “Overcoming the Challenges of Learning Mandarin: An American Student’s Perspective”), and the Chinese teachers’ enthusiastic response inspired me to make a color-coded, interactive version for the website, which was launched just this month.

As far as a “team” goes, I’m it. My family is supportive of my passion for Chinese and my desire to share that with others. My first Chinese professor, Wu 老师 at Central Connecticut State University, and several Hanban and StarTalk teachers, including Wang 老师, who currently teaches Mandarin at our Newtown High School, have been strong supporters as well.

How far have you come with your Chinese studies?

I’ve come a long way since 2006 when learning everything was a struggle and remembering how to count to ten was elusive. I’ve taken four college classes and continue to self-study using podcasts, books, Chinese movies, and anything else that helps me to learn and remember Chinese.

My reading proficiency is good, and I can carry on a basic conversation with a native speaker as long as they speak slowly and deliberately. My goal is to become fluent in Chinese, and though I have a long way to go, I’m enjoying the journey a great deal.

Did some of the characters you learned at a more advanced level influence how you designed the material for beginners to learn characters?

Technology has actually had the greatest influence on how I designed the material. With the evolution and easy availability of software and web tools, I can do more today than just a few years ago to extend the functionality and versatility of the content.

What’s next? Is this a growing business, or a side project?

It is my passion and avocation (I’m doing what I love), and I hope that I can make a living with it at some point. There is much more content coming to gotCharacters, and I look forward to opportunities to collaborate with others, to develop course curriculum, and maybe someday to teach characters. My mother always told us “Your goal should be just out of your reach” so my goal is for gotCharacters.com to become for Chinese what Kahn Academy is for math.

Translation Challenges: Roof Repair

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

Caution

Here’s the Chinese text:

屋顶检修中暂停使用谢谢

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:

笨苹果的
英语
学习法

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

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

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