Apr 2005

One character said to the other…

I was recently introduced to a cute collection of Chinese jokes based on the small differences between similar Chinese characters. Some of them can even be appreciated without much knowledge of Chinese. I’ve translated a few of those below.

> 个 said to 人: I can’t keep up with you youngsters, and I can’t get anywhere without my cane.

> 日 said to 曰: Looks like it’s time for someone to go on a diet.

> 比 said to 北: Come on, now, you’re a couple! No more of this ridiculous divorce talk!

> 人 said to 从: You guys still haven’t undergone the separation surgery?

> 木 said to 术: Don’t think you’re so hot just because you have that beauty mark…

> 尺 said to 尽: The results are in, sis. You’re going to have twins!

> 由 said to 甲: Doesn’t practicing One-finger Zen make you really tired?

(Read the full list in the original Chinese.)


Mar 2005

Closer Subtitle Surrealism

Everyone knows that in China piracy of American movies runs rampant. The USA acts all angry, and every now and then Beijing makes an attempt to do something about it in order to placate the WTO. Nothing new. I really couldn’t care less about Hollywood’s lost revenues. China’s pirated DVDs do affect my life in other less expected ways, however.

New American releases are obtained as early as possible and mass-produced in China quickly and cheaply. The earlier an eagerly awaited Hollywood title hits the streets in DVD form, the quicker it will be snatched up by movie fans. It should come as no surprise, then, that the quality of translation of the Chinese subtitles for these DVDs can be less than reliable. I’d say that the translations for Chinese subtitles on DVDs fit into three categories:

  1. Professional. These are usually obtained from an official source and are quite trustworthy. The Chinese is often natural and idiomatic.
  2. Hit and Miss. Whoever did the translation could understand a lot of the English dialogue and translate it with a degree of accuracy, but there are clearly some mistakes. Sometimes you can even tell what English word or phrase the translator thought he heard, based on the Chinese. This category can cause some confusion for Chinese viewers, but it’s usually good enough overall to tell the story.
  3. WTF?! For some movies (often the earliest, fuzzy camcorder pirated editions) the “translator” clearly did nothing more than guess at what the people are saying based on visual clues. This can be pretty hilarious if you can understand the original dialogue as well as the Chinese, but it must be very frustrating for the average viewer relying on the Chinese subtitles.

OK, so this whole situation is kind of funny… except for the fact that it can ruin my movie experiences. Why? Because if I’m watching an American movie with my girlfriend, she reads the subtitles. Conscientious boyfriend that I am, I can’t help but do periodic translation checks to ensure that my girlfriend is getting a decent idea of what’s going on. The more mistakes I notice, the more I pay attention to the subtitles so that I can clue her in on important dialogue. Often, before long I’m finding myself explaining the movie in Chinese instead of enjoying it. I guess I can live with that, though, since the movies cost $1 each.

But back to the absurdity of the whole thing. Can you imagine it? A Hollywood movie. The original dialogue has been chucked out the window, save for a few sturdy globs here and there. The rest of the dialogue has just been… made up. Fabricated. By some Chinese guy who’s undoubtedly poorly paid and under a lot of pressure to get the subtitles done now. And I don’t think I have to say that he’s unlikely to have a strong education in Western culture. That’s OK, he can still do subtitles for Western movies with themes ranging from terrorism to Catholic traditions to abnormal psychology. No problem.

The scary thing is that if he’s any good, some Chinese viewers might not realize they’ve been swindled. They may have gotten an alternate version of the story — which shared the same visuals as the original — that was convincing enough that they think they understood it as it was meant to be understood. “I thought the reviews said something about brilliant social commentary,” they reflect for just a few moments after finishing the movie. “Those silly Americans….”

Well, I can do more than just make suppositions, in this case. I actually transcribed a scene from a Chinese DVD copy of the Oscar-nominated film Closer. I transcribed the original English dialogue, but I also translated the Chinese subtitles into English for comparison.


Dan’s lines are in a rich blue. Alice’s lines are in a dark pink. Since the Chinese subtitles are only a shadow of their English counterparts, Dan’s lines translated from Chinese are in a lighter blue under the original, and Alice’s lines translated from Chinese are in a lighter pink under the original. I have added a at the beginning of the translated-from-Chinese lines just to keep it as clear as possible. You’ll find that it can be a little difficult keeping the parallel (occasionally intersecting) dialogues in your head at once.

(On the bus.)

A: How did you end up writing obituaries?
A: What kinds of things do you like?

D: Well, I had dreams of being a writer…
D: I like drinking beer.

D: But I had no voice — what am I saying??
D: But I don’t drink often. Also…

D: …I had no talent. So I ended up in obituaries, which is…
D: I love singing. I can sing many songs.

D: …the Siberia of journalism.
D: …including German folk songs.

A: Tell me what you do. I wanna imagine you in Siberia.
A: I hope I’ll have a chance to hear you sing.

D: Really?
D: Really?

A: Mm.
A: Mm.

D: Well… we call it “the obits page.”
D: Well… we don’t often sing.

D: There’s three of us. Me, Graham, and Harry.
D: Because everyone is really busy.

D: When I get to work, without fail — are you sure you wanna know?
D: Especially when I’m working. Extremely busy.

(She nods.)

D: Well, if someone important died, we go to the “deep freeze.”
D: If someone died, we would sing the funeral hymn.

D: Which is, um, a computer file with all the obituaries, and we find that person’s life.
D: Although I rarely sing, singing is something I can’t do without in my life.

A: People’s obituaries are written while they’re still alive?
A: Do people like your singing?

D: Some people’s. Then Harry — he’s the editor — he decides who we’re going to lead with…
D: Some people. Sometimes we get invitations [to sing].

D: We make calls, we check facts…
D: Some are favors, some paid…

D: At six we stand around at the computer and look at the next day’s page…
D: We’re all happy to do it; the money doesn’t matter. It’s great.

D: …make final changes, add a few euphemisms for our own amusement…
D: It’s a kind of addiction. But it’s not like alcoholism.

A: Such as?

D: “He was a convivial fellow.” …meaning he was an alcoholic.
D: I have a really strange friend. A homosexual.

D: “He valued his privacy.” …gay. “Enjoyed his privacy” …raging queen.
D: But he’s content with his lot in life.

A: What would my euphemism be?
A: Guess what kind of person I am.

D: “She was disarming.”
D: You’re a cute girl.

A: That’s not a euphemism.
A: I’m not cute at all.

D: Yes it is.
D: Yes, you are.

(Some time passes…)

D: What were you doing in New York?
D: What were you doing in New York?

A: You know.
A: You know.

D: Well, no, I don’t… What, were you… studying?
D: No, I don’t know. Are you… studying?

A: Stripping.
A: Struggling.

A: Look at your little eyes.
A: Your eyes are so pretty.

D: I can’t see my little eyes.
D: Your eyes are even prettier.

Impressive, no? For my own amusement, I have graphed the two dialogues below:

Closer - Graph

I should note that the whole movie was not this bad. This is a particularly WTF scene subtitle-wise. The subtitles of my copy of Closer are probably halfway between the WTF and Hit and Miss categories overall. Love stories are not so hard to figure out, but a relatively inconsequential bus ride with few context clues just unleashes the imagination of the “translator,” it would seem.

This example, I’m afraid, is by no means unrepresentative of the subtitle work provided by the hard-working DVD pirates. What are the ramifications of this? Well, it means every time I talk to a Chinese person about a movie we’ve seen separately, I feel a gap. Sure, we watched the same movie, but we may very well have experienced a somewhat different story. Exaggeration? Perhaps. But then again, maybe every scene of that movie was translated similarly to the scene above. You just don’t know. Furthermore, until this situation changes, the average Chinese citizen’s efforts at foreign film appreciation have been thoroughly sabotaged.


Mar 2005

Bitch Day

Happy International Women’s Day! Ummm, I guess I have some explaining to do about the title of this post. (It may be inflammatory, but it’s in the name of education.)

In China, International Women’s Day (March 8th) is called Èý°Ë¸¾Å®½Ú or, commonly, just Èý°Ë½Ú. That’s “3-8 Day” because of the date. (Quite a few Chinese holidays are referred to this way.)

The thing is, some misogynists took the name of the holiday and turned it into a derrogatory term for women. “Èý°Ë” in China (literally, “3-8”) means something like “bitch.”

The slang term Èý°Ë is special because it’s so easy. Numbers one through ten are one of the first things you learn when you learn a language, and 3 and 8 are especially easy in Mandarin (in my opinion) because the sounds are easy and they’re both first tone.

So there you have it… how “International Women’s Day” became “Bitch Day.” Sorry, ladies.

The “glory” goes to “Benny” for the inspiration for this post.


Mar 2005

Picking at Alternative Word Choice

Among students of Chinese, it’s relatively well known that Taiwan and mainland China have a few differences in terminology. Things like “peanut” and “potato” and various household appliances. Nothing to get excited about, or even very interesting. There were only two such word usage differences that I found interesting when in Taipei, Taiwan.

First is the word for “internet cafe,” which is 网吧 in mainland China. The 网 means “net” and the 吧 means “bar.” It works quite neatly. In fact, the Chinese love this “net bar” literal translation into English so much that they use it at every opportunity and even brainwash foreigners into abandoning the term “internet cafe” in favor of “net bar.” (Not me, though — I’m onto them!)

The Taiwanese don’t say 网吧, though, they say 网咖. It’s short for 网络咖啡厅 (“network cafe”), just as, presumably, 网吧 is short for 网络酒吧 (“network bar”). In this sense, the Taiwanese version is closer to the English, but I just couldn’t get used to it. For one thing, wang ka just sounds kinda ridiculous to me. For another thing, it sounds to my ears a lot like the British word wanker. Nice one, Taiwan. (The mainland term for “network card,” 网卡, sounds less to me like “wanker” because the ka is third tone rather than first.)

I just mentioned the mainland term 酒吧 up above, and that brings me to my next Taiwanese coinage. Instead of saying 酒吧 they said pa bu. This apparently has no characters (gasp!); it’s an approximation of the English word pub. Lame.

[Check out a similar rant of Micah’s on one of China’s most beloved words: 朋友! Those in China may find it more convenient to visit Micah’s RSS-aggregated entries.]

Note to my uptight commenters: the above are my opinions on language, and if you are upset by them, I don’t care.


Feb 2005

Pronunciation: Chinese and Japanese

Ever since I learned the proper pronunciation in Mandarin of pinyin x, q, and j, I’ve had my doubts about the true pronunciation of Japanese. According to the Japanese textbooks I learned from, the Japanese し (romanized as shi) is pronounced nearly the same as the English word “she.” Any textbooks that wanted to go into picky differences would be likely to talk about the differences in vowel sounds between English and Japanese, not the “sh” sound.

I have a very clear memory of a chat with a Japanese exchange student named Miya in my junior year at UF. She made an offhand comment about how foreigners couldn’t pronounce the Japanese し sound quite right. Having already spent a year in Japan, I was pretty confident in my pronunciation abilities, so I took on the challenge. She told me to make a huge “show all your teeth” grin and say し. At that point I was still saying “she.” I tried it, and then she did it. With the mouth in that position, the difference becomes rather obvious. I could hear it, but I couldn’t account for it. I shoved it into the back of my mind, where I keep the rest of the inconvenient knowledge.

Learning pinyin x taught me an important lesson. Two sounds that may sound pretty much identical to me can sound very different to native speakers of the target language. This was very important when learning Chinese, because pinyin x and sh, q and ch, and j and zh must be differentiated in Mandarin Chinese.

The difference with Japanese is that there are no such sound pairs. There are no similar sounds “competing” with し in Japanese, so the English pronunciation of “she” can easily be understood by native speakers of Japanese as し. The same goes for じ (ji), ち (chi), and their derivatives (しゃ, しゅ, しょ, じゃ, じゅ, じょ, ちゃ, ちゅ, ちょ). This explains why educational materials in English on the Japanese language don’t distinguish between the “sh” of English and the Japanese “sh,” but it doesn’t excuse it.

To finally settle this issue, I turned to the Wikipedia. It’s amazing how authoritative and comprehensive a resource it has become. I often find it to be a very helpful and succinct reference for linguistic issues. The articles I compared were Japanese language: Phonology, Pinyin in IPA, and International Phonetic Alphabet Chart.

Here are the IPA symbols for relevant sounds:

  • X Chinese:[ɕ]
  • SH English:[ʃ] Japanese:[ɕ] Chinese:[ʂ]
  • Q Chinese:[tɕʰ]
  • CH English:[tʃ] Japanese:[cɕ] Chinese:[tʂʰ]
  • J English:[dʒ] Japanese:[dʑ] Chinese:[tɕ]
  • ZH Chinese:[tʂ]

I’m not going to go into detailed analysis as to why the Japanese sounds are more similar to the Chinese sounds than to the English sounds (this post is already boring enough), but they are. Short version: the Chinese pinyin sounds x, q, and j and the Japanese sounds “sh,” “ch,” and “j” are all palatals, but the English sounds are not. In the case of pinyin x and Japanese “sh” they’re identical: [ɕ].

Ever since my ZUCC days I’ve noticed that (diligent) Chinese students make excellent students of Japanese. It’s easy to chalk it up to some similar cultural features and a largely overlapping character set, but it goes beyond that. For one thing, the Chinese meticulously study the pitch accent for every Japanese word. That’s something not often done in the West. Presumably the Chinese do it because the importance of tones in the Chinese psyche carries over to the study of Japanese, even though tones and pitch accent are very different in both nature and importance to their respective languages. In my opinion, the Chinese are obsessing unnecesarily there. In the case of pronunciation, though, the Chinese seem to have a natural advantage when studying Japanese.

Related: Pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese: Setting the Record Straight


Jan 2005

Murakami Haruki

Murakami Haruki (or Haruki Murakami to most of the Western world) is one of my favorite authors. His novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is probably my favorite book. I was introduced to his works in college Japanese class when we read the short story 「」.

Micah is also a big fan of Murakami. He recently brought to my attention that the new novel Kafka on the Shore has been translated into Chinese and been for sale already for some time. Hardcore fan that he is, Micah read it in Chinese. The English translation is now out.

The difference in publication dates made me wonder why. Was it a quality issue? Does Murakami value his English-reading audience more than his Chinese-reading audience? Or maybe it’s because Murakami can actually read the English version? I’m not sure if authors approve translations in cases like that. I’m a little curious about all this.

This rash of Murakami links came about when I checked out what Murakami-tagged bookmarks people have in In a weird coincidence, I also found a short story by Murakami called Tony Takitani involving Shanghai (briefly).

Finally, if all this has interested you in the least, you may be interested in my own contribution to the Murakami links: a Chinese wiki of Murakami’s works. Titles are given as published in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Japan, which yields some interesting differences if you dig that sort of thing.


Jan 2005

A Record of Spoken Chinese

According to Xinhua, Chinese linguists are finishing up a huge database of spoken Chinese, and they’re going to use it as a basis for a new dictionary and grammar book of modern Chinese. This is good news! Using actual spoken speech as the source should produce a much more useful dictionary.

I’m a little disappointed that all the spoken Mandarin Chinese samples come from Beijing, though. Yes, I know Beijing is the standard, but wouldn’t real linguists want to get a larger sample? A descriptive sample for the whole country?

But then, maybe they had no choice in the matter. They probably had to act in the interests of the Chinese government. I have this bad habit of thinking of the interests of foreign students of Chinese, who won’t necessarily be living in Beijing when they go to China.

Via Language Log, which has more linguistic commentary on the issue.


Dec 2004

Chinese Flashcards

Lately a few of my friends have been working on bringing Chinese vocabulary study into the high-tech age. Those projects are not yet complete, but I found an impressive flashcard database site called Flashcard Exchange. It also has a Chinese study section.

The flashcard sets are focused on beginners, with Mandarin vocabulary – Kung Fu (I) apparently the best of them. It’s not actually focused on fung fu (which would be kind of cool), and it’s in simplified characters.

The javascript flashcard viewer worked for me the first time I tried it, in Firefox, without the need to install any plugins. I assume it works fine in IE too.

This link was found via’s popular links, and is now in my links as well.


Dec 2004

Christmas Calvin & Hobbes

I wrote before about discovering Calvin & Hobbes Chinese translations here in Shanghai, and about how the two characters’ names were translated into Chinese. I got some requests for scans.

I think the comics are translated mostly quite well. I’m still unsure of the legitimacy of the publication, though. The cover looks all nice, and I bought the books for 20 rmb each in a major Shanghai bookstore (思考乐), but the paper is rather low quality and the reproduction sometimes comes off as a shoddy photocopy. Also for that reason, my scans aren’t real great. (That and I’m still learning how to get the best scans from my new scanner.)

Anyway, below are the five comic strips I chose to share. I think they have a few interesting translation issues, and they’re Christmas themed to boot. I’m not going to comment specifically on the translations (you readers feel free to go crazy in the comments, though!), but I did provide the original English beneath each panel, with areas of interest highlighted in red.

So without further ado:

1. On Santa’s Omniscience

2. On the Legality of Santa

3. On a Hypothetical Good/Bad Case

4. On Being on the “Bad” List

5. On the Spirit of Christmas

Finally, I’d like to add that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Bill Watterson, so if what I’m sharing here in the name of translation study is deemed unacceptable by Bill Watterson, I’ll take them down immediately. Higher quality English Calvin & Hobbes scans are all over the internet, though, so I doubt this counts as much.

Merry Christmas!


Dec 2004

Ding Ding Dong

The name of the Christmas song “Jingle Bells” is 圣诞铃声 (something like “Christmas Bells”) in Chinese. But the famous English refrain “jingle bells, jingle bells” in Chinese is the onomatopoeic “叮叮当, 叮叮当,” which sounds like “ding ding dong, ding ding dong” to Western ears. It doesn’t sound at all like sleigh bells ringing to us, it just sounds really funny (or maybe like doorbells). In my experience, every Westerner who learns these Chinese lyrics busts out laughing.

I tried to find a Mandarin Chinese version of “Jingle Bells” using Baidu MP3 Search. All I turned up was a version which I originally thought was Cantonese, but two Cantonese-speaking friends say it isn’t. The refrain definitely sounds like “ding ding dong” though. My guess is it’s Vietnamese. Can anyone identify the language?

I was disappointed because I can’t understand the lyrics, but I think the song may sound even funnier this way. I’m not one to mock any language, but this song — like the Chinese version — just sounds really funny, for cultural reasons, I guess. Give it a listen:

Asian Jingle Bells (1.2MB MP3 file, 64kbps)

I was able to find the Mandarin “Jingle Bells” lyrics, but they obviously don’t match up to this MP3. If you’re interested in the Mandarin version, continue reading below.

Merry Christmas!


Rapping Flight Attendant


Dec 2004

Rapping Flight Attendant

Through “anonymous sources” I’ve been hearing for a while now about how unhappy the flight attendants at China Eastern are. They have little job security, their lives are not their own, and they get treated terribly by both passengers and management. Don’t worry, though, I’m not going to start pretending I’m a journalist. This is just the context which has produced the following MP3:

Passengers aren’t God

(4.34 MB)

The rap is in Shanghainese, and it’s basically a flight attendant venting about passengers and their attitudes. The first verse goes something like this (my apologies in advance for the translation):

Ah, poor me, poor me
Let me sing about it like a bird (yeah)
Why are there so many morons in our society today?
They think just because they’ve got some money
They’re all big and bad
Know what pal? I can’t do everything
Don’t get on my plane and cause a big fuss
You’ll know I mean it
When I smack you upside the head
Damn, what do you want?
Filing complaints at the slightest thing
Who do you think you are?
You’re a moron (yeah), a moron

The young lady who raps in this song has quite a few other tunes as well, which have made the rounds at China Eastern and are now getting around on the Chinese internet in general. My source tells me that at first the singer succeeded in staying anonymous, but then she was caught writing lyrics on the job by co-workers. There are actually several girls involved. My source does not know of any repurcussions that the writers have suffered thus far.

I’m not going to bother translating the whole song into English, but I recommend you give it a listen. It’s really quite professionally done (a little “borrowing” from Eminem aside), and the background vocals are funny. It also has a cute ending.

Below you’ll find a Mandarin version of the lyrics which a friend wrote out for me, followed by the “Shanghainese” lyrics which were posted online. The “Shanghainese” lyrics are pretty annoying because they’re written phonetically — things like 弄 being used for 侬, 进早 for 今朝, etc. Anyway, I didn’t write any of these, so I can’t guarantee their accuracy. If anyone wants to make corrections (Naus?), they’d be welcome.



Dec 2004

Code Switching in the Car

Code switching: a term in linguistics referring to alternating between one or more languages or dialects in the middle of discourse between people who have more than one language in common.Wikipedia

I was riding with my girlfriend in her car. We were pulling up to my apartment, and the guard was motioning to her.

Legend: SHH=上海话 (Shanghainese), PTH=普通话 (Mandarin)

> Her (SHH): Can’t I park here?

> Guard (SHH): No, you need to park over there.

> Her (SHH): Oh, over there?

> Guard (SHH): Yeah.

> Her (PTH): OK, got it, thanks.

> Guard (SHH): No problem.

> Me (PTH): Why did you use Mandarin just now?

> Her (PTH): I wasn’t sure if he knew Shanghainese.

> Me (PTH): What are you talking about? He spoke to you in Shanghainese, and you were replying at first in Shanghainese.

> Her (PTH): Oh.

> Me (PTH): So why did you switch?

> Her (PTH): I don’t know. Why are you giving me a hard time?

Ever since I first came to Shanghai I’ve been trying to figure out if there’s any pattern to the way bilingual speakers in Shanghai use Shanghainese and Mandarin. There are some obvious general patterns, but other times (as in the above example) there seems to be no reason at all.

It’s a little frustrating. Most people don’t pay much attention to their own natural linguistic processes and aren’t too keen on metalinguistic self-examinations either, which doesn’t help my understanding any.

Don’t Chinese people know they’re all supposed to be cooperating with me on this “understanding the Chinese language” thing?


Nov 2004

Hunting! Ha ha!

Happy Thanksgiving

My company has been doing some Thanksgiving activities lately. It’s my responsibility to help design the activities to make them educational both in basic vocabulary as well as in cultural content. It’s also my responsibility to execute some of the activities. This involves such excellent speaking opportunities as explaining in Chinese to a group of kids the basic history and traditions of American Thanksgiving.

So the other day I found myself explaining to some kindergarteners about the Indians (my company’s choice of vocabulary, not mine). It seems that the Chinese would be happy to portray them as ridiculous savages, so I go out of my way to make them seem badass in their own way. I tell the kids how the Indians were really in tune with nature, and how they knew all about the plants and animals, and how they never had problems finding food on the land.

During my narration I mentioned that the Indians would hunt. I used the Chinese word ´òÁÔ. A simple translation. But when I used the word, I noticed that one of my co-workers laughed. I was suddenly self-conscious. Did I pronounce the word wrong? ´ò: third tone, ÁÔ: fourth tone. No, no problems there…. So what could have been funny about that?

Afterward I asked her why she laughed when I said ´òÁÔ. Laughing again, she replied, “kids don’t know that word!” I was a little confused. I felt pretty sure the word is not at all formal or complicated. Huh?

I asked for clarification. “What, because no one hunts in China?”

“Right. It’s just not something they ever come into contact with.”

Whaaat…? Were these city kids really that removed from nature? But, when I thought about it, it actually made sense. So then I thought about the USA. Why does “hunt” seem like such a basic word to me, even in modern society? Is it partly because of the role “Indians” still play in our culture? Is it because of the American pioneers? Is it because the word “hunt” has crossed over into so many other areas of the language, like “Easter egg hunt” and “manhunt?”

OK, there’s a really obvious reason: that there are actually large sections of America where hunting is considered a legitimate form of recreation. There are gun freaks and gun shows. “Hunt” is the only acceptable verbal refuge for what they do with their guns. And the USA still has lots of land where animals roam free.

In China, I’m guessing, the majority of “hunting” that goes on is “poaching.” It’s pretty clear that the average Chinese person has seen very little wildlife (in a natural setting) in his lifetime. If you go on a trip to Huangshan or some other mountain, you can witness Chinese people freaking out in glee over a brief squirrel sighting.

But animals and overpopulation: vehicle for linguistic change? Weird thought.

P.S. Maybe it’s all in my head, but I feel unable to write normally due to my recent obsession with Daily Dinosaur Comics. If you read them, you’ll understand why. I must read them all….


Nov 2004

Accidental Obscenity

I was teaching some kindergarteners today, holding up a picture of a frog:

Me: What’s this?

Kids: ÇàÍÜ!

Me: Say “frog.”

Kids: Flock!

Me: ffffff…rrrrrrr…ahhhhhhh…g!

Kids: ffffff…rrrrrrr…ahhhhhhh…g!

Me: Frog!

Kids: FROG!

[5 minutes pass]

Me: What’s this?

Kids: FUCK!

Hmmm… close?


Nov 2004

Calvin & Hobbes in Chinese!

Ever since I first started reading it as a kid, I’ve always been a huge fan of Calvin & Hobbes. No other comic strip has ever impressed me on so many levels. I remember when I first came to China and brought presents for the special Chinese people that helped me get on my feet, the most prized ones I would give away were Calvin & Hobbes collections. They were one of the few really good items I could think of that you couldn’t get in China.

But that was back in 2000. Today at Shanghai’s Scholar bookstore (思考乐) in Xujiahui, I stumbled upon these:

Calvin & Hobbes in Chinese

The store had Something Under the Bed is Drooling, Revenge of the Babysat, Yukon Ho!, and Weirdos from Another Planet. Notably absent was the original self-titled collection. I’m really stoked that the Chinese can now share in this cultural treasure.

After I got over my excitement, though, I started wondering… how good could the translations be? The titles of the two books I picked up were translated OK. Something Under the Bed is Drooling became “Who is under the bed drooling?” (谁在床下流口水), and Yukon Ho! became “Off to the North Pole” (到北极去).

More disappointing were the names of the two main characters. Most fans know that Calvin was named for theologian John Calvin, and Hobbes was named for political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. I know I’m no translator, so maybe there were good reasons, but it was sad to see Hobbes’ name translated as something like “Jumpy Tiger” (跳跳虎). That name seems much more appropriate to Winnie the Pooh’s friend Tigger, whose Chinese name also happens to be — guess what? — 跳跳虎. “Hobbes” in Chinese is 霍布斯. Not cute enough, I suppose.

Calvin’s name became 卡尔文, which is very close to the preferred Chinese transcription of the theologian’s name, 加尔文. Unfortunately, the transcription 卡尔文 is the one used for Calvin Klein’s Chinese name.

But what’s in a name? The real test is how the comics themselves read. I don’t have the books anymore; I sent them home with my girlfriend under strict instructions to read and enjoy ASAP. Hopefully I’ll know soon. If she doesn’t love Calvin & Hobbes, I’ll be forced to conclude that the comics must be poorly translated into Chinese.


Nov 2004

Number Character Variants

If you’ve studied Chinese characters, you know that each number has its own Chinese character. As a joke, many Chinese-illiterate foreigners boast that they know three Chinese characters: 一 二 三 (1, 2, 3). After 3, though, the characters start getting a little harder to remember.

Or do they? Recently I discovered this little-known character: . It means 4. I didn’t find a similar one for 5, though.

Still, there’s a lot more to Chinese number characters below the surface. One set of “standard variants” are the 大写 (“capital”) characters used on checks and other transactions. Banks require their use on forms. Each digit 0-9, as well as 10, 100, and 1000 has a “capital” form, much more difficult to alter than a 一.

In the following chart, the first column is European numerals (that’s right, I didn’t say Arabic numerals, and I did it on purpose), the second column is the standard Chinese character, and the third column is the “capital” Chinese character.

Chinese Numbers

Still, there are a lot more variants than the official “capital” forms. Check out the following ones. Standard non-capital forms are in bold.

  • 1 弌 (all pronounced yī)
  • 2 弍 弐 (all pronounced èr)
  • 3 弎 (all pronounced sān)
  • 4 亖 (all pronounced sì)
  • 20 二十 廿
  • 30 三十
  • 40 四十

How many more can there be? I don’t know. I’d be interested to learn, though.

Note: The European number system is used everywhere in China and has been for some time. Traditional Chinese numbers are sometimes used as well, however.

Related Link: 大写数字wiki

Update: Thanks to zhwj for his additions to the list.


Nov 2004

To hanzify or not to hanzify…

Hanzi (汉字 or 漢字) is the Chinese word for “Chinese character.” The Chinese language has been written in hanzi for a very long time. As the Chinese tell me, hanzi have been in use since approximately 3000 years before the Big Bang. It’s quite a tradition.

When an institution has been in place for that long, it can be incredibly hard to implement change. For example, when the new Communist emperors wanted to reform and “simplify” hanzi, some old fuddy-duddies opposed. Still, significant change was effected, but only in the writing system of mainland China. The two bastions of traditional characters to this day remain Hong Kong and Taiwan, two territories well known for their linguistic backwardness — many of the people there can’t even speak good Beijing Mandarin!

The PRC’s Emperor Mao had an even more radical scheme. He was in favor of eventually replacing Chinese characters with pinyin — a romanized form of Chinese. This idea was so upsetting that some experts believed it may reverse the Big Bang itself. It is also one of the stronger pieces of evidence that Emperor Mao’s personal doctor cited for his belief that in his later years Mao suffered from WTF Syndrome.

But allow me to get to my point. While those are all old issues better forgotten by fashionable people, there are new issues. More radical issues. No one is trying to further simplify Chinese or replace it with pinyin, but something else upsetting to the fuddy-duddies is happening. English is creeping into Chinese!

Now, I’m not talking about English being thrown in here and there, like someone saying “sorry” instead of “dui bu qi,” the cultural equivalent of an American saying “amigo.” Those are inevitable results of internationalization. They’re different. I’m talking about an English word becoming the preferred nomenclature, in Chinese.

Some examples:

  1. Pose. When Chinese people take pictures, they might tell those having their picture taken to strike a pose. The traditional Chinese way to say this is “摆个姿势“. Nowadays, though, you frequently hear young people say “摆个pose”. Why the word “pose” might be singled out for adoption I have no clue.
  2. High. When young Chinese people talk about a feeling of excitement, they often use the word “high” in its adjectival form, as in “很high的感觉” (a ‘high’ feeling). This usage is not related at all to drugs.
  3. Kitty. I’ve been told that Hello Kitty is officially known in written Chinese as something like “凯迪猫,” which is basically “Kitty Cat.” The thing is, no one pronounces the “kitty” part as it as written, kǎidí. They all say “kitty 猫,” following the English pronunciation. (Incidentally, I’m really suprised by the “decision” to drop the “hello,” a word the Chinese normally seem to adore.)
  4. Cheese. The traditional Chinese word for “cheese” is 奶酪. In recent years phonetic transcriptions of the English word have cropped up on trendy menus (mighty catalysts of monumental linguistic change, as we all know), like 芝士 and 起士, but the actual word for cheese you hear coming from young Chinese people’s mouths is quite different. It is undeniably the English word “cheese,” although the final /z/ sound is often pronounced as an /s/ sound.

To Chinese language purists, this English creeping into Chinese must all be very terrifying. Why? Because English words cannot be written in Chinese characters! What’s the big deal about that? Well, Chinese is always written in Chinese characters! And only in Chinese characters! The reason, as mentioned before, has something to do with the Big Bang and the stability of the space/time continuum. The fate of the universe, it seems, rests precariously on the tongues of this new reckless generation of Chinese youngsters. Yikes!


Oct 2004

Translation Runaround

After reading my first article on the new group Chinese blog ³öÓï²»Ë×, Tian liked it so much that he decided to translate it.

So the article that I have written in Chinese, a second language to me, has been translated into English by a Chinese person for whom English is a second language. Crazy.

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