I was recently watching an episode of the once-popular TV series Everybody Loves Raymond where the plot involved the main character’s mispronunciations of a few words. Naturally, I was curious how these slips of the tongue were translated into Chinese. The Chinese subtitles are tiny and pixelated, but if you strain a little you can see for yourself in the video below (10:28-13:08):
So what’s interesting about this translation is that tricky sequences of consonants in English, mispronounced, are being represented by wrong tones in Chinese. Here’s exactly how it plays out:
1. ask / *ax, 问 (wèn) / *刎 (wěn)
2. asterisk / *asterix, 星号 (xīnghào) / *星蚝 (xīngháo)
3. cinnamon / *cinnamum, 肉桂 (ròuguì) / *肉鬼 (ròuguǐ)
Originally I spotted this translation on DVD, but I went looking for it online to save time. Turns out that the video on Youku is a different translation, but exactly the same trick is used. In the version I first saw, 问 (wèn) was mispronounced as 闻 (wén).
So how is the translation? Would native Chinese speakers actually routinely make slip-ups of a tonal variety the way Ray does with “ax” and “asterix?” Actually, yes, but likely only if the speaker’s Mandarin is heavily influenced by another dialect. For example, my father-in-law is from the mountains of Hubei, and his Mandarin is pretty normal, but there are a few words whose tones he routinely mispronounces.