So the team here at AllSet Learning has created a new thing! It’s an office-centric comic strip giving learners little bite-sized chunks of office language, and it’s called Boring 办公室 (Bàngōngshì). It was not originally intended to be COVID-19-focused, but it kind of turned out that way (for now).
Here’s the intro:
And here’s a taste of the comics:
You can click through each comic to get the full text of the dialog, grammar links, editor commentary, etc.
We just launched it, and there are plenty more comics in the pipeline.
So, please: share, discuss, criticize!If you read it, don’t find it funny, but keep reading, that is a win! We’re just trying to create material that learners don’t mind reading, at a level slightly higher than what’s more widely available (but still not too high).
At the book store the other day, I noticed this series of graphic novels that covers the entire Star Wars saga (Original Trilogy, Prequel Trilogy, and Sequel Trilogy: all 9 movies):
I’m not sure these comic exist in English, but I imagine they do? (Anyone know?)
The 9 movies’ names, in Chinese are:
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
There are some good Star Wars-related key words in there (Jedi, Sith, Skywalker, etc.)… Only problem is that most Chinese people don’t care for Star Wars, so it’s not exactly “practical vocabulary” we’re talking about here! If this is a “Chinese market only” series, then I imagine it’s an effort by Disney at “cultural education” leading up to the final episode of the Skywalker Saga.
Last month my friend Zach Franklin and I spent a half-hour in a recording studio talking about reading Marvel graphic novels as a way to practice Chinese. Not sure how often I’ll do this kind of recording, but hopefully you Chinese learners will find it interesting!
The last interview I did of Zach was all text, for the 2010 interview post The Value of a Master’s in Chinese Economics. Now you get to hear his voice and learn a bit more about how he uses his Chinese for less serious endeavors.
I’m kind of used to Baidu copying almost every initiative that Google comes out with, so it’s always interesting to see what Baidu does that’s consciously different from Google’s way. One such thing is Baidu Images. You’re probably used to Google’s search-centric approach. While you can search for images on Baidu too, Baidu takes a much more curated, discovery-based approach to the home page.
Check out this screenshot:
Oh, also there are lots of pictures of pretty girls. No matter what you search for. Apparently that’s just a Baidu thing.
But also, there’s this “动漫” section now (indicated by the red arrow at the top). If you click on that, you get some kind of manga/anime directory at the top (I didn’t really look at this much):
But then if you keep scrolling down, you get an endless collection of Chinese comics! This is kind of cool. Here’s just a tiny selection:
The webcomic Itchy Feet has some great comics on learning to communicate in a foreign language. I especially like his visualization technique for representing a low level of competency in a foreign language. These are about German and French, but could be about any language, really:
This one will feel relevant to ABCs in China:
Itchy Feet is also the comic that did this amusing take on various Asian scripts which went semi-viral a while ago:
Yesterday Project Naptha hit Hacker News. It offers a way to extract electronic text from image files through a simple Chrome browser extension. Excited to see that simplified and traditional Chinese are both supported by the extension, I immediately installed the extension and tried it out.
The results? Unfortunately, Not so great.
When it doesn’t work at all
First of all, the script needs to recognize the text in the image. This first step doesn’t always go too well, even if the text seems relatively clear to the human eye. Let’s look at some cases where the extension found nothing, despite the Chinese text being pretty legible.
In this first case, the font is non-standard. OK, fair enough. That’s to be expected.
In this next case, the text is pretty clear, but the contrast is poor.
In this final example, the text is fairly clear to the human eye, but also low-res and slanted. That probably makes it difficult for the algorithm.
When it sort of works
In many other cases, some text was identified, but not enough for the extension to be really useful for anything. Here are some images where Project Naptha could identify some text, and the “select all text” function was applied. (The blue boxes show what Project Naptha identified in the images as “text.” Sometimes they are bizarrely incorrect.)
I found the last two quite surprising, considering how clear and straightforward the text is, and also high-res.
When it actually works
Sometimes it was relatively successful in identifying the text. In these cases you must first set the language to Chinese (either simplified or traditional, depending on the text). There’s a cool effect showing you that some processing is going on. When that’s done, you can copy and paste the text.
But… it might not be exactly what you were hoping for.
This selected Chinese text yielded the following copy-paste results:
> 总统亲 ã热ﬂ地接
If it had correctly captured all the text, it would have been:
This one is better:
> 化武器况妹俩也不示弱 麝芦神功连
> 连使出 胭宙电二怪打入深深的山沟
It should have been:
Also, my sample size is too small to make any definite conclusions, but it seems like the extension works better for simplified characters than for traditional.
I don’t mean to sound overly critical. This is amazing technology here, and the fact that it launched with any support for Chinese characters at all is pretty awesome (and brave)! I’m sure the technology will improve with time, and that is going to be tremendously helpful to Chinese learners.
To put this in perspective, the development of OCR (optical character recognition) for mobile devices meant that you could point your cell phone’s camera at any characters you see, and get feedback on what the characters say (sometimes). Project Naptha means the same thing, but for your home browsing experience. For me, that’s when I do a lot more Chinese reading, so it’s even more important. Once this technology is perfected, as long as you have a tool to help you read electronic Chinese text, you’re all set!
Personally, I think this is especially great news for comics. It’s no coincidence that I tested this extension out on comic book text. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this extension develops.
Magnus of MandMX.com has been busy lately. You may be familiar with his Shanghainese podcast or his bilingual comics (he even did one about Sinosplice once). Anyway, now he’s come out with a book of his English/Chinese comics. It’s called Electric Voices and Stinky Tofu (a reference to the Chinese words 电话 and 臭豆腐).
Magnus was kind enough to give me an advance copy of this book to share my thoughts. I like that the book is bilingual, and that it’s focused entirely on the “foreigner in China experience.” This makes it unique. We foreigners in China all have our photos, our little private whining sessions, our blogs about life in China… but this book takes a lot of those recurring themes and distills them into one convenient collection.
The book isn’t all about being funny… some of it is too true to be funny. And I daresay that most people that have never been to China won’t understand a lot of it. In some ways it’s almost like a reference book of inside jokes. I like that.
“Reduplication, in linguistics, is a morphological process by which the root or stem of a word, or part of it, is repeated” (Wikipedia). You see reduplication in Chinese a lot, with verbs (看看, 试试), nouns (妈妈, 狗狗), and even adjectives (红红的, 漂漂亮亮).
You get reduplication is Japanese too (some of the coolest examples are mimetic), in words such as 時々 or 様々. As you can see, rather than writing the character twice, the Japanese use a cool little iteration mark: 々. Now if the Japanese learned to write from the Chinese, why don’t the Chinese use the same iteration mark?
According to Wikipedia, the Chinese sometimes use 々, but you don’t see it in print. This is true; what the Chinese use (only when writing shorthand) actually looks something like ㄣ. Ostensibly, because you never see 々 in print in China (or it never even existed in neat, printed form), it comes out a bit sloppily as ㄣ in Chinese handwritten form.
I recently read a cutesy Taiwanese comic called 兔出没，注意！！！ Rabbits Caution about the lives of two rabbits named 呵呵 and 可乐 and their owners. In the comic, the author took a rather “mathematical” approach to reduplication. Look for 宝宝 and 玩玩 in this one:
Look for 看看 and 谢谢 in this one (and don’t be confused by the 回 in 回家):
In this frame, even “bye-bye” gets the treatment:
While cute, I figured this representation of reduplication was not likely original. I was quite surprised, however, to see an almost identical representation on Wikipedia dating back to 900 B.C.! The quote:
The bronzeware script on the bronze pot of the Zhou Dynasty, shown right, ends with “子二孫二寶用”, where the small 二 (two) is used as iteration marks to mean “子子孫孫寶用”.
Well, as they say, there’s nothing new under the sun, and history repeats itself. The weird thing is that 2 and 々 even sort of look alike, in the way that 々 and ㄣ do. 2 is 々 without the first stroke, and ㄣ is 々 without the last stroke. Meanwhile, the ancient Chinese iteration mark 二 bears a striking resemblance to the modern “ditto mark” used in modern English! (I’ll leave those for the orthographical conspiracy theorists among you to chew on.)
While I’d like to kick off the new year with an interesting post about language, I’ve been enjoying myself too much recently to put one together. I’ve become addicted to a cool independent game called Spelunky.
Spelunky has cool retro pixel graphics. It’s kind of like Super Mario Brothers (physics) + Zelda (items) + Indiana Jones (theme). What really makes it unique, though, is its random level generation. The game most famous for this is the old 1980 classic Rogue, but Spelunky does it in a more sophisticated, fun way.
You play randomly generated level after randomly generated level, knowing you will never play them again. And you die many, many times. Randomly generated levels strewn with enemies and traps are often very unfair, yet the design is sufficiently balanced and full of surprises that you keep coming back for more… again and again and again.
Well done, Derek Yu. It’s innovative games like this that make me glad I still have a PC and not just a Mac.
Two nice pop culture references there, but interested in Chinese onomatopoeia as I am, I can’t help but fixate on the Street Fighter sound effect label: 欧由根. This especially amuses me because I remember when I was playing Street Fighter II in high school, my friends and I could never quite agree on what the heck Ryu was saying. We always thought it was something like “Har-yookin,” but apparently at least some of the Chinese hear it as “oh-yoogun.”
For those of you who have no idea of what I’m talking about, or only a very fuzzy recollection, this video, taken directly from the Street Fighter II video game, has plenty of sound bites for you:
Anyway, curious, I Baidu’d the phrase and, on a page about 我们丫丫吧, found some interesting stuff. I couldn’t help trying to decipher these:
– 欧由根: the classic shoryuken in the illustration above (see 0:11, 0:12, and countless other places in the video)
– 啊卢给: Hmmm, either it’s a hadouken (0:08), or it’s someone else’s move. (Anyone…?)
– 加加不绿根: the hurricane kick (0:54)?
If you’re Chinese and you used to play Street Fighter II, I’d love to hear what you used to hear the characters saying.
Recently at a Family Mart convenience store I encountered 黑背 (“Black Back”) comics, the creations of Zhang Yuanying (张元英). I’ve been a fan of independent comics for a while, but I’ve had trouble finding much I like in China. The main thing that has turned me off of mainland Chinese comics is their highly derivative nature. They all seem like copies of Japanese manga! Not 黑背, though. While it does borrow some elements from Japanese manga, it has its own simple style. And it’s definitely darker than the comics of Zhu Deyong (朱德庸), the wildly popular Taiwanese cartoonist.
Apparently 黑背 gained popularity on Tencent’s QQ community through the author’s blog. Here are the three 黑背 books I bought:
A very morbid little book about suicide. It’s basically a guide to suicide in comic form, going through all the various possible methods, rating them according to various factors such as pain, chances of success, consequences of failure. Each section has a little “commentary” at the end using recycled art reminding you why suicide is actually a bad idea, which I’m 100% sure the editor (or censors?) demanded be added in so that the book can’t be seen as totally condoning suicide.
OK, so I like Edward Gorey; I can deal with morbid illustrations and themes. What I really can’t forgive, though, is that the comic just isn’t very funny. I guess I did learn some new suicide-related vocabulary from it, but I hope that never comes in useful. I have to admit, though, that the Mac-using devil character amused me.
Also, after reading most of the book, doing Google and Baidu searches, and asking several Chinese friends, I’m still not sure what the 丫丫 in the title means. That annoys me.
I guess this one is semi-autobiographical. We learn about the married life of the young artist, in comic form. It’s kind of cute, and definitely less morbid than the other book. Unfortunately, it’s still not terribly funny.
Here’s an example of a simple strip:
Again, I like the art, but the “gag” is only good for a smile at best. It caught my attention for its use of the term 河蟹 (river crab), a pun on the term 和谐 (harmonize).
I was completely surprised to discover that this book was by far the most entertaining of the three. It seems that the most work went into it (wonder why??). The book gives a humorous history of the Olympics, then goes on to give comic commentary on each event. It ends with some lame pro-Olympics propaganda (seems this book was 河蟹d as well).
This is probably my favorite drawing from the book, illustrating the great variety of foreigners flocking to the Beijing Olympics:
The Value of 黑背
Like I said, I like the style of art. It’s cute and fun, but dark at times. That’s a big plus for me. Unfortunately, 黑背 is not terribly funny (Zhe Deyong is far, far funnier), but the Olympic book showed me that there’s some promise there.
I think that the handwritten Chinese characters are a good form of reading practice for a learner of Chinese. Very few Chinese study materials prepare learners for handwritten characters. While the characters in these comics don’t look like typical Chinese handwriting, the variation will still be good practice in stretching basic character recognition ability.
As for vocabulary, the intermediate (and even elementary) learner should be able to read much of 宅男宅女私生活 (see example above), but the others will pose more of a challenge.
Ryan North, artist, linguist, Canadian, and all-around “great thinker,” has posed an interesting question recently: in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song, is the line “Splinter taught them to be ninja teens” or “Splinter taught them to be ninja teams?”
Video below if you must listen for yourself:
I was pretty sure it’s teens myself (rhymes with “machines”… exactly!). Still, in the spirit of “1.3 billion people can’t be wrong,” I had to wonder what the Chinese people thought the lyrics said. Sure, they’re just going on a translation, but whatever the common translation is, that’s what 1.3 billion Chinese people think the song lyrics mean. That’s gotta count for something!
First of all, the Chinese translation confirms the “ninja teens” view (忍者少年)… sorry, Ryan. But looking at the rest of the translation, I must say that there is a thing or two about the translation of these lyrics which concerns me. In the spirit of subtitle surrealism, we better do this whole thing.
First comes original English lyrics (in bold), then Chinese “translation”, then re-translation back into English (in brackets).
Whoa, did someone sneak an extra word in there? Mostly an exact literal translation, except that the Chinese prefer to call the turtles supernatural turtles (神龟), or “god-turtles,” for the more literal-minded. Thinking this particular phrase might have some root in China’s rich cultural heritage, I did a Baidu image search. Hmmm. Lots of TMNT. No legends involving Guanyin and a massive turtle or something? I guess it’s not as important as TMNT. You know… the god-turtles.
Heroes in a half-shell
[Heroes draped in hard armor]
Hmmm… dramatic, but decidedly less turtley.
They’re the world’s most fearsome fighting team
[They take on the world’s fearsome challenges]
Hmmm, so these “challenges” the translator made up are fearsome, but the turtles are not? Maybe it’s because they’re god-like.
We’re really hip!
[We’re the greatest!]
This is actually less humorous than a ridiculous cartoon character from the 80’s saying “we’re really hip.”
They’re heroes in a half-shell and they’re green
[They are green heroes draped in hard armor]
Wow. Nice dramatic effect.
Hey – get a grip!
[Hey, catch up!]
Hey, a turtle is telling you to catch up! That is so cool but crude.
When the evil Shredder attacks,
[When bad egg Shredder comes to make trouble,]
“Evil”… “bad egg”… more or less the same right? Yes! …in Chinese.
These Turtle boys don’t cut him no slack!
[The supernatural turtle guys will not give him an easy time]
Now I see why they’re not referred to as “fearsome.”
Splinter taught them to be ninja teens
[Teacher Splinter taught them to become ninja youths]
And here you have the translator correcting the original lyricist’s mistake of not giving Master Splinter proper respect.
He’s a radical rat!
[He is a rat brimming with passion]
Ah yes, “brimming with passion,” the little-known synonym for “radical.”
Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines
[Leonardo is the leader, Donatello is a genius inventor]
This line has lost the ambiguity of “does machines,” but I guess we won’t miss that.
That’s a fact, Jack!
[This all is true, man]
Props for not using “杰克” (Jack).
Raphael is cool but crude
[Raphael is cool, but he’s a bit crude]
Nice! They even toned it down to just “a bit crude” to save him some face.
Gimme a break!
Yes, he is less crude in Chinese.
Michaelangelo is a party dude
[Michaelangelo is a mack daddy]
Well, it’s debatable whether 万人迷 means “mack daddy” or “ten-thousand men love,” but the real question is where’d the “party” go?
Ah, there it is.
UPDATE: Ryan has responded to this post on his site, and here’s what he said:
> April 3rd, 2008: A few days ago T-Rex was considering the “ninja teens” / “ninja teams” issue in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song. I got a lot of emails about that (and here it is nice to be able to say “Man, it’s not me that’s wrong, it’s T-Rex!”) but SECRETLY, I agreed with T-Rex, and thought that the lyrics says “Splinter taught them to be ninja teams”. But guys! I am going to admit that I was wrong.
Have you ever heard of Exploding Dog? It’s a website where Sam Brown, the artist, takes suggestions for titles, then turns them into simple, awkward drawings that can leave quite an impression. I’ve known about Exploding Dog since way before my more recent affair with webcomics, and I’ve even linked to it here once (wow, that old entry feels a little embarrassing now…).
Anyone at all familiar with Exploding Dog knows that although the drawings are very simple, they have a very distinctive style. Therefore when 21st Century (China Daily’s youth-oriented English language newspaper) put an Exploding Dog illustration on its front cover, it wasn’t hard to recognize. The use of the image was not approved. The illustration is only marginally relevant to the text beside it, and Exploding Dog isn’t featured anywhere else in that issue.
Click on the image at the right to see a larger image of the newspaper cover featuring the Exploding Dog art. Apparently someone removed the text from the original artwork and then did a mirror image of it.
Ah, plagiarism in Chinese news. Not news, really. I just happened to notice it this time because, being an “old-timer China blogger” I was interviewed for that edition. My painstakingly crafted interview responses were then trimmed way down and branded “EASY.” Heh. Take a look.
I recently stumbled across this Chinese webcomic called Old Wang through Baidu. It’s an odd mix. It’s by Chinese people, about China, but in English. Not natural English. The home page makes these claims:
> The 1st English/Chinese Theme Cartoon Portal
> A Career Life Forum for the Commuting Tribe
A lot of the comics seem like an attempt at a Chinese Dilbert. But they’re not really funny, they’re just sort of… odd. And yet I found myself reading a few more of them. A representative example:
The frame at left is from a comic strip called The Perry Bible Fellowship by Nicholas Gurewitch. (Apparently he doesn’t want people linking directly to certain comic strips. “Kids Are Thirsty” is currently at the top of the list, but if you’re getting to this blog entry late, you may need to scroll down a bit to find it.) It’s an excellent comic strip… it’s a lot like The Far Side, but a bit darker and with its own distinct brand of humor, of course. It’s far from derivative.
After teaching kids in Shanghai for about a year, I don’t feel this “Kids Are Thirsty” comic is much of an exaggeration. Is it kids everywhere, or Chinese kids in particular? Not having taught kids anywhere else, I can’t make the comparison.
Whatever happened to the Kool-Aid man, anyway? Is he still doing his thing? If not, maybe he met his demise in China.
A comment on my Origin of Koi entry led me to the Three Kingdoms Comic. Wow! Impressive. I’m not sure whether to be more impressed by the concept* or by the fact that it’s available in English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai! I haven’t gotten a chance to read them all yet, but I definitely will.
Since last year I’ve been a big fan of webcomics. My favorites:
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.
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.
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:
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.