One of the big headaches about learning Chinese is the relative dearth of cognates and loanwords. None of that “car” is “carro” stuff you get when you start learning Spanish. In fact, when you do learn words that were transliterated into English from Chinese (like 麦克风 for “microphone”), the result is often bizarre and a lot harder to learn than if it had been “more Chinese” (keep in mind that you also have to learn all the tones of the word transliterated into Chinese). Kind of a downer.
It seems to me that the Chinese aren’t too crazy about these transliterations either. When they can, they’ll do things like use the Chinese word 苹果 (“apple”) for the American company “Apple” rather than resorting to transliteration. But for foreigners’ names, foreign country names, foreign company names, foreign brand names, and foreign product names, you do get stuck with an awful lot of transliterations into Chinese.
Recently I came across this list of English words (probably taken from a list of vocabulary words for some horrible standardized test) that have been transliterated into Chinese in a humorous way. That is to say, the Chinese characters chosen, rather than being random or “standard transliteration characters,” were chosen for their meanings. I’ve added pinyin tooltips to the transliterations, and also English translations of the transliterations.
– pregnant (怀孕): 扑来个男的 (“throw a man on me”)
– ambulance (救护车): 俺不能死 (“I can’t die”)
– ponderous (肥胖的): 胖得要死 (“ridiculously fat”)
– pest (害虫): 拍死它 (“squash it”)
– ambition (雄心): 俺必胜 (“I must win”)
– agony (痛苦): 爱过你 (“having loved you”)
– hermit (隐士): 何处觅他 (“wherever can I seek him?”)
– strong (强壮): 死壮 (“damn strapping”)
– abyss (深渊): 额必死 (“I must die”)
– admire (羡慕): 额的妈呀 (“mama mia”)
– flee (逃跑): 飞离 (“fly away by plane”)
– gauche (粗鲁的): 狗屎 (“dog crap”)
– morbid (病态): 毛病 (“mental issues”)
– putrid (腐烂): 飘臭 (“wafting stench”)
– obtuse (愚笨): 我不吐死 (“I’m not going to puke to death”)
– lynch (私刑处死): 凌迟 (“kill by dismemberment”)
– tantrum (脾气发作): 太蠢 (“too stupid”)
– bachelor (学士/单身汉): 白痴了 (“turned dumb”)
– temper (脾气): 太泼 (“too unreasonable”)
– addict (上瘾): 爱得嗑它 (“love to the point of cracking it in your teeth”)
– economy (经济): 依靠农民 (“rely on the peasants”)
– ail (疼痛): 哎哟 (“Owww”)
– coffin (棺材): 靠坟 (“leaning on the grave”)
– appall (惊骇): 我跑 (“I’m gonna run”)
I saw an interesting Chinese forward called 小学生造句 (“elementary school students make sentences”). Obviously, the sentences produced are not exactly what the teacher was looking for. Here are some of the more amusing ones (some understanding of Chinese grammar may be required):
Although never studying it too diligently, I’ve always suspected that the syllable “gang” plays a prominent role in Shanghainese. Then I got this forward which proves it (see image at right). Don’t spend too much time trying to make sense of the Mandarin; it’s just a silly story about 江江, 杠杠, 傻傻, and 岗岗 calling each other dumb (傻). And yes, it’s pretty contrived. But the Shanghainese version is hilarious.
If you can read Chinese, you might be amused by the image (focusing on the latter half). But you’ll definitely want to hear the audio I had my Shanghainese wife record:
Here are text transcripts (and keep in mind that the Shanghainese “transcript” doesn’t reflect any official way of representing Shanghainese in written form; it’s mostly just approximately phonetic characters chosen to exaggerate how ridiculous the Shanghainese sounds to non-speakers):
普通话版 (Mandarin version):
上海话版 (Shanghainese version):
Note: Both the Mandarin and Shanghainese texts have been edited slightly from the original image to correct for errors and inconsistencies (and in one case, to better reflect the audio version).
This, as you know, is an apolitical blog, and stories like this are among the least interesting to me personally. But this guy’s name demands to be noticed. His name is 刘铁男. That’s “Liu Iron Man.” His parents named him “Iron Man.” That’s kind of awesome. I haven’t been forced to take notice of a name like this since I discovered the lovely lass named 黄雪 (“Yellow Snow“).
At this point, I’d also like to give a shout out to a friend who goes by the name of 铁蛋 (“Iron Eggs,” i.e. “Iron Balls”).
We’ve been doing some video clip dubbing experiments for fun on the AllSet Learning YouTube page. We started with Downton Abbey, and did Dracula for Halloween. That one was a bit on the discouraging side (although what can you really expect from Dracula?), so we decided to do a much more upbeat one. The result is this classic clip from Animal House dubbed to be about learning Chinese.
Our intern Jack has been doing a good job and having a good time with this little experiment. He’s the “student” in the Dracula clip, and he conceived the Animal House clip (although our AllSet Learning teachers recorded that one). Good job, Jack!
Are clips like this useful as study material? Probably not, but if they give you a smile and get you listening to a bit more Chinese, they’re worth it. For sure, the ones learning the most are Jack the intern and our teachers. It gets them thinking about the limitations of certain forms of media, tradeoffs in production resources, and creativity applied to pedagogy. It’s a worthwhile investment for us as a company. (BTW, we post all our new videos to our Facebook page as well.)
A half-Chinese, half-American actor by the name of Mike Sui (Mike 隋) has been making quite a stir on Weibo and on the Chinese web with his recent video in which he plays the part of 12 different nationalities/personalities. He does various accents in both English and Chinese (and he’s clearly fluent in both). My favorite is the Taiwanese one (starting at around 7 minutes). Take a look if you haven’t seen it already:
(More details about the video and the Chinese reaction are on ChinaSMACK.)
Interestingly, the video is being promoted in a way that refers to him as a 老外 (foreigner), but Mike is clearly half Chinese, and speaks both English and Chinese natively (or very close to natively). According to various Chinese sources (here’s one), Mike’s dad is a Beijinger and his mom is American. That still counts as 老外?
A friend of a friend has started a new video series in Beijing called No Drama Real China. The host is a Chinese girl named Rachel Guo. The concept is simple: ask a cross-section of Beijing’s population some interesting questions related to Chinese culture, and present the hodge-podge of answers in all its heterogeneous glory for the benefit of cross-cultural understanding (so, with subtitles, obviously). The result is interesting, funny, and perhaps even educational (especially for all you students of Chinese).
Sorry, I can’t credit the original author because I don’t know it. I added the Chinese translation into the mix (蝴蝶).
This is especially hilarious to me personally because I know very little German, but I actually learned the German word “schmetterling” long ago by chance, and found the word enormously amusing. Guess I’m not the only one!
I’ve been living in Shanghai a while now, but it wasn’t until just recently that I ever heard of Shanghai’s “fake collar” shirts (假领子). Technically, the collar is not fake at all; the collar helps to create the illusion that the wearer has on a full shirt under a sweater, when in fact he/she does not. They even have little straps on the sides to keep them in place!
Naturally, this calls for pictures:
According to this website, these “fake collars” are a Shanghai creation. My mother-in-law (a Shanghai native) proudly explained to me that they were invented to preserve a well-dressed appearance in a truly Communist age when neither clothing nor fabric were cheap. “We all wore them,” she said. “We could buy quite a few jia lingzi for the same price as one shirt.” When worn under a sweater, they create the impression of full, proper attire. Quite innovative! (Reminds me of all the ways I used to fake having taken a shower when I was little.)
These things were common from the 60’s through to the 80’s, but have long since fallen from favor, now that ordinary people actually have a little bit of money. Apparently you can still buy them in Shanghai, somewhere on Sichuan Road. I’ve gotta get my hands on one of these. (They also just might make for an interesting souvenir!)
Maybe I don’t read the right blogs, but it seems like China Daily Show isn’t getting nearly as much attention as it deserves. This China-centric Onion-style “news” site is hilarious. It describes itself like this:
> China Daily Show is not affiliated with China Daily or The Daily Show and is intended for humorous purposes only. All events, characters, names and places featured are products of the authors’ imaginations, or are used fictitiously.
Here are some recent headlines to get you started:
One of our teachers at AllSet Learning introduced a hilarious Chinese article to me on the grammatical usage of the phrase 他妈的 (often abbreviated as “TMD”). The most appropriate translation of 他妈的 in English is usually “fucking” (in the emphatic sense), so if that offends you, stop reading now.
The origin of this article is unclear to me, but it dates back to at least 2009 (here’s a copy). Anyway, I found the article both funny and instructional, so I’ve translated it below. This is the kind of thing that has tons of translation options, though, so suggestions for more skillful translations are always welcome!
The grammatically correct use of “TMD” (“fucking”)
In this article, I will offer some simple explanations and examples regarding this expression.
Consider the following sentence:
This year’s test questions were the same as the exercise questions.
There’s ambiguity here: are we saying that that the questions on the test were really the same as the exercise questions, or are we just metaphorically stating that the test questions simply resembled the exercise questions? At this time, “fucking” becomes useful. We can insert “fucking” into this sentence to make the distinction:
“This year’s test questions were the fucking same as the exercise questions.” (indicating identical to the exercise questions)
“This year’s test questions were the same as the fucking exercise questions.” (suggesting that the test questions were too simple)
There are many similar cases, for example:
[Translator’s note: I don’t think there’s any way to preserve this ambiguity in English translation, so I’m forced to translate it twice in English.]
“This explanation is unclear.” / “This cannot be explained clearly.”
There are two meanings here: that the explanation itself is not lucid, or that the matter is difficult to explain. However, once we add “fucking,” the ambiguity immediately disappears:
“This explanation is fucking unclear.” (the explanation itself is not helpful)
“This cannot be fucking explained clearly.” (the issue is difficult to explain)
“Didn’t finish reading it once.” / “Didn’t finish reading it all at once.”
This sentence has two meanings: did not finish reading it a single time, or didn’t finish reading it all at once. If we insert “fucking” in different positions, the ambiguity can also be removed:
“Didn’t fucking finish reading it all at once” (didn’t finish reading it all in one go)
“Didn’t finish reading it fucking once”
(simply has not ever finished reading it)
Therefore, our fucking conclusion is that we should advocate the fucking inclusion of “fucking,” which can fucking assist in the clarity of fucking sentence structure, reduce fucking syntactic ambiguity, and make possible obstacle-free fucking communication.
You know the little 5-note musical tune that Intel uses everywhere their logo shows up? Yeah, you know the one. It’s very easy to remember. I just became aware recently that this little musical tune has a translation into Chinese. Here it is:
So the Chinese is:
The English translation of this would be:
> The light! Wait for the light, wait for the light!
This is amazingly appropriate, considering the “English version” of the “lyrics” would be something like:
> Dunnn…. Dun-dun dun-dun!
Not quite as articulate, I gotta say.
The whole idea of “translating a a musical tune into a spoken language” is bizaere, though.
I subscribe to SmartShanghai‘s email newsletter, less because I try to attend all the latest events in this city, and more because the man who writes it, “Da Admiral,” is pretty hilarious.
His latest newsletter, focused on “un-learning Chinese” definitely caught my attention:
> Whenever I’m stopped on the streets, the thing I get more than anything is, “Oh Admiral, Admiral… you’re so knowledgeable and good looking and insightful about Shanghai life and society — I bet you speak perfect Mandarin!”
> My friends, I’ll let you in on a little secret:
> The opposite couldn’t be more true! I don’t speak Chinese for shit!
> And then it occurred to me… Why don’t I take my eight-years-plus experience in not speaking Chinese and share it with others? For money?
> As a sort of compliment to “Mandarin Garden” or whatever it is, I’m calling it “Da Admiral’s Mandarin Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland” and we’re accepting students at all skill levels, whether you want us to rip perfect fluency in Chinese from your brain, or even if you’re looking for something a little more part-time –maybe you’d just like to reduce your vocab a bit and un-learn a few key Chinese phrases — we can help.
> Here’s the pitch:
> “Through the sweat off his brow and sheer determination, Da Admiral has maintained a near perfect and unassailable wall of incommunicability with 99% of Chinese society. Dude is still pointing at shit on the menus like a nutsack who just got off the plane, like, yesterday.
> And now he’s willing to share his secrets with you.
> For a small enrolment fee, you’ll have access to our proven tools of whittling down knowledge of Chinese to basically nil. Whether you want to take a special, personal, one-on-one, 24 hour intensive course — basically this involves about seven pounds of weed and the Complete Filmography of Nicolas Cage — or are looking to un-learn Chinese in a group setting with our special “Dog Bloopers and Various Shit on the Internet” group classes, we’ll have you not speaking Chinese in no time.”
> Are you a Mandarin un-learner on the go? Subscribe to our special Un-ChinesePod, which is basically just me screaming nonsensical phrases in made-up French to you, intermixed with the latest news on the Batman sequel. Mind-numbing stuff. Just try to retain knowledge after a few of these.
> What I’m saying here is nothing about my time in Shanghai has been more rewarding — more spiritually fulfilling — than not learning Chinese, and I feel it’s a duty at this point to share my non-knowledge with others for money.
> I’m an educator at heart. I care about my students. They’re like my family for money. And when we’re in cabs together and I see them struggling with that last — “Zho-gw-ai” or “Yoh-gw-ai” or “Ting” or whatever the fuck it is, I don’t know, you know what I mean — I feel like my job is done.
> My job is done… and a tear comes to my eye.
I’m obligated to point out here: if you’re looking for a really good one-on-one “Mandarin Un-Un-Learning” experience in Shanghai, there’s AllSet Learning. And of course, the best Un-Un-ChinesePod is ChinesePod.
OK, I know, it’s been done before, and it’s just so easy. There are many menus in China with bad (and often hilarious) English translations. But even after all these years, this one stood out to me because (1) it is otherwise an extremely high quality menu, and (2) the errors are of a somewhat bizarre nature, rather than centering on horribly inappropriate mistranslations of the character 干 [more on that here and here].
Anyway, here are some samples (apologies for the quality!):
Where pathology and cuisine meet:
Halogen? (Another meaning of 卤)
A bunch of them have really weird endings (I think the machine translated names have been truncated):
This last one is my favorite, because it comes across almost poetic:
In case you’re interested, the restaurant is called 炖品世家, or “Aristocratic Family of Soup.” (Oh yes, this is clearly a restaurant that has some fun with the English language!) The restaurant is in Shanghai, near the intersection of Kangding Road and Wanhangdu Road (康定路、万航渡路). A photo:
Also, a big thanks to Will, who introduced this resturant to me and provide the above photo and address.
On my recent trip home, I brought a few bottles of this stuff to give to some friends:
The name of this unremarkable-looking “rice wine” is 张裕特质三鞭酒. The part to pay atention to here is “三鞭“. That means “three penis.” We’re talking various types of animal penis here, brewed in the liquor to impart vitality to the drinker. If you read the back, you can find out which three it is: 海狗鞭 (seal penis), 鹿鞭 (deer penis), and 广狗鞭 (Cantonese dog penis).
If you live in China, the character 鞭 is worth learning to recognize. It shows up a bit more often than you’d expect. “Special” liquor, “special” hot pot, Chinese medicine, etc.
The 3-penis liquor in the picture isn’t expensive, and I got it at Carrefour. When you take it home from China as a gift, remember to ask your friends to try it first, then tell them specifically what kind of special liquor it is. It’s a gift they won’t soon forget.
Recently Micah retweeted a short Chinese comedy routine [original] that was clever enough to be shared a bit more. The setup is that a census-taker asks a resident how many are in his household. Confusion ensues:
> “请问您家里是几口人？” [May I ask how many are in your household?]
> “是一口人。” [It’s one person.]
> “十一口？” [Eleven?]
> “不是十一口，而是一口人。” [Not eleven, but 1 person.]
> “二十一口？” [21?]
> “不是二十一口，其实一口人。” [Not 21. Actually, one person.]
> “七十一口？不会吧？” [71? For real?]
> “不是七十一口，就是一口人！” [Not 71. It’s just one person!]
> “九十一口？” [91?]
> “对，就是一口人。” [Right, just one person.]
OK, maybe I should have warned those of you that don’t read Chinese: the translation makes no sense in English, because the confusion is all based on tone-related misunderstandings:
– 是一 (shì yī) misunderstood as 十一 (shíyī)
– 而是一 (ér shì yī) misunderstood as 二十一 (èrshíyī)
– 其实一 (qíshí yī) misunderstood as 七十一 (qīshíyī)
– 就是一 (jiù shì yī) misunderstood as 九十一 (jiǔshíyī)
Although most of the misunderstandings above shouldn’t happen if both speakers are using standard Mandarin, I’ve witnessed quite a few cases where dialect influences tones, which, in turn, can lead to miscommunications. Personally, I find it a little comforting to know that even native speakers experience tone-related confusion, even if it’s not all that common (or comical!).