Tag: translation


06

May 2020

How to Choose a Chinese Name: 4 Approaches

Should learners of Chinese have a Chinese name? That’s a good question, but it’s not one that I’ll be answering in this article. Assuming that you feel you need a Chinese name, there are several approaches that you can take, depending on your preferences and your needs.

Foreign Name Transliteration

Transliteration means representing the sounds of one language as closely as possible, using the sounds of another language. My last name, “Pasden,” has been transliterated into Chinese as something like “Pa-si-dun.” Names converted into Chinese in this way have a distinctly foreign feel, and there’s essentially a set of “transliteration characters” used for the full text conversion. When a Chinese person sees a transliterated name of this sort written in characters, she immediately knows it’s a foreigner’s name, and she also knows to disregard any meanings the characters might have originally had. It’s just a string of sounds.

This is the type of name you get if you don’t speak any Chinese and are only accepting a Chinese name because you have to. For example, if you’re applying for a work permit in China, they will ask your Chinese name. If you don’t have one, the government worker will do a basic transliteration and use that.

Examples of this kind of name include:

  • 路德维希·范·贝多芬 (Lùdéwéixī Fàn Bèiduōfēn) Ludwig van Beethoven
  • 阿尔伯特·爱因斯坦 (Ā’ěrbótè Àiyīnsītǎn) Albert Einstein
  • 贾斯汀·汀布莱克 (Jiǎsītīng Tīngbùláikè) Justin Timberlake
Justin Timberlake learns his Chinese name

You’ll notice that this approach also results in the longest possible Chinese names. If your Chinese friends or co-workers actually have to use a name like one of the above, they’ll quickly shorten your name or give you a Chinese nickname.

Which brings us to the next approach…

Chinese Nickname

This approach is undoubtedly the most fun. Many Chinese people love to bestow cute Chinese nicknames on foreigners, and you’ll find that lots of singers and Hollywood actors have well-known Chinese nicknames (because no one wants to use those long, unwieldy transliterated foreign names).

As a non-Chinese, you’re going to have a very hard time coming up with anything clever on your own. These frequently develop organically as a natural result of interactions with Chinese friends, and if you like a nickname you hear, you can claim it as your own. (Just be sure you know what it means!)

Some examples of this type:

  • 郭一口 (Guō Yīkǒu)
  • 铁蛋儿 (Tiě Dànr)
  • 大山 (Dàshān) — this one is less “fun” or silly; it actually came from the name of a character in Mark Rowswell’s first performance

Chinese Familiar Name

If a nickname is too informal or silly for your needs, but you’re not ready to go “full native” with a Chinese name, you might consider just choosing a Chinese surname, and then using the “familiar address” form built into Chinese culture which involves Chinese surnames.

This method usually uses 小 (xiǎo) or 老 (lǎo), plus a surname. This approach has the advantage of being fully culturally Chinese while still being easy, and not requiring full commitment to a Chinese name. This can actually be a good way to “get started” with your Chinese name: choose a Chinese surname, then add a 小 (or possible 老) before it. You can figure out the rest of your Chinese name later, after you’ve “tried out” the surname for a while.

Examples:

  • 小潘 (Xiǎo Pān) — this is what my own Chinese name started as
  • 老马 (Lǎo Mǎ) — this one sort of doubles as a nickname, since it literally means “old horse”
  • 小江 (Xiǎo Jiāng)

Note that this is not a formal name, so I doubt you could use it for official registration purposes. Because it’s a Chinese form of address, don’t be too surprised if the Chinese official responds with a “that’s not an official name.”

Native-like Chinese Name

This is what most learners want: a name that sounds like a Chinese person’s name, and is not readily distinguishable from a native speaker’s name. Ideally, it also has a connection to one’s original name.

Some learners opt for a Chinese name that sounds as close as possible to their real English name while still sounding native Chinese. This doesn’t work well for all names, and when done poorly, can even sound like a semi-transliteration.

Other learners are satisfied with a few token similarities (begins with the same letter, for example) and just go with something “more Chinese” that they like. (This is what I did myself.)

It’s worth nothing that you don’t have to represent both your surname and your given name in a set way. I’ve seen lots of creativity in the way that people choose their names, including the following:

  1. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that sounds kind of like one’s surname only
  2. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that sounds kind of like one’s given name only
  3. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that swaps the typical surname/given name order, e.g. choosing 周 (Zhōu) as a surname to represent “Joe,” and then choosing a given name that sounds kind of like Joe’s surname.
  4. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name that in no way relates to your English name, or does so in a subtle way related to meaning
  5. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name that integrates with Chinese in-laws, e.g. taking your Chinese spouse’s family surname

I’m not going to give lots of examples of these, because the whole point is that this kind of name sounds like a Chinese person’s name. So you might as well look at a list of native Chinese names.

One thing you need to take into account is the feel of the Chinese name, and you’re definitely going to need to ask a lot of native Chinese speakers how they feel about your Chinese name. Keep in mind that no single opinion represents all of the Chinese-speaking world, and expect a bit of conflicting information! Some feedback you might get is that the name sounds “too revolutionary” or “too traditional” or “too literary” or “too foreign” or even just 不好听 (bù hǎotīng: sounds bad!).

Get help from native speakers. (This is not something you can do entirely on your own.) Get lots of feedback. Find a name you love.

Special Mention: Jeremy Goldkorn

Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei.org and now Editor in Chief of SupChina, has a Chinese name which delights nearly everyone who hears it, but doesn’t fit neatly into any of the four approaches I’ve outlined above. His name is:

  • 金玉米 (Jīn Yùmǐ) literally, “Gold Corn”

金 (Jīn) is a legit Chinese surname, but the use of the word 玉米 (yùmǐ) seems to fall into nickname territory, although it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that an actual native Chinese person could have this as their name. (I’ve heard some pretty bizarre real Chinese names in my time in China.) I think this name would be accepted by Chinese officials as a formal name.

The point here is: there’s room for creativity! My four approaches should be useful for a lot of people, but there’s definitely wiggle room for you to get creative and go your own way.

Podcast Discussion

I discuss this issue on the latest issue of You Can Learn Chinese podcast with my Mandarin Companion partner, Jared Turner. You can tune in here:


14

Apr 2020

The Door Door

Well, this one’s a little on the nose:

"Men" (Door)
Photo taken in Shanghai by John Pasden

The character there is 門 (mén), a traditional character. It is written 门 in simplified Chinese. It means “door” or “gate.”

I’m curious what the story is behind this door. And why no 窗 (chuāng) windows??


17

Mar 2020

Unwarranted N-Word: Crimes of Song Lyric Translation into Chinese

I’ve been using QQ Music for years already. It’s one tenth of the cost of Spotify, and it has almost all of the songs I want to listen to (plus no VPN required!). It has English lyrics for most of its songs, and sometimes even Chinese translations of those English lyrics.

I’m quite the reader of song lyrics, and sometimes QQ Music lets me down in weird ways. The first way is just bad translation. Song lyrics are a translation challenge no matter what, and I’m forgiving, but sometimes the translations into Chinese are just plain bad.

The Used

Do you remember that emo band called The Used? Here’s a YouTube video to refresh your memory:

Anyway, what do you think this band’s Chinese name is? Translated literally, it would be something ridiculous like 被利用着. Nope. This is it:

The-Used
Mentioning crying right in the opening lines of the song… that’s emo for ya!

习惯乐队. 习惯 as in “customs” or “habits,” and 乐队 as in “band.” The word 习惯 also means “to get used to” (doing something), so some translator got the words right, but badly misunderstood the meaning of the band’s name. I guess he was thinking the band’s name meant something like “Getting Used to It”?? No idea.

This kind of translation mistake is fairly common on QQ Music, but not common enough that it bothers me too much.

Perplexing Use of the N-Word

This next mistake, concerning Steven Cooper’s song “Born to Do,” really had me confused, though:

Born-to-do
Suspicious use of the N-word

I randomly came across this song on QQ Music, and my kids liked it. I did a quick lyrics scan, and didn’t notice any bad words, so we listened to it. It wasn’t until after listening to this song several times that I read the lyrics carefully and discovered the N-word.

I was pretty shocked, because this is a Christian rapper. WHY did he feel the need to use that word (just once) in this song?? It didn’t make any sense.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that the lyric itself didn’t make any sense, and not just because of a bad transcription:

Locked in this room off through the night
Trying write
Every second of my life in this mic
It’s been a fight just to get them to
Listen and pay your attention watching
Until my n****s are bleeding

Wait, what? Who’s bleeding and why? It’s a song about how hard he tries to improve his skills at rapping because it’s what he was “born to do.” This particular part of the song is about writing.

So yes, the “n-word” here should have been “knuckles.”

How could such an offensive mistake happen? I’m sure a Christian rapper with clean lyrics takes care not to drop gratuitous N-bombs in his song lyrics.

The best I can guess is that the lyrics are transcribed by machine, not be a person. It’s kind of weird that a computer would identify the N-word. I mean, you can’t have it popping up randomly in Celine Dion songs or Disney lyrics, right? But maybe if a song is classified as rap, then the “ban use of the N-word” toggle is switched off.

Here’s how that section should have gone:

Locked in this room all through the night
Trying to write
Every second of my life in this mic
It’s been a fight just to get them to
Listen and pay attention watching
Until my knuckles are bleeding

There’s one final strange thing happening here, though… Although the English lyrics contain the N-word, the Chinese lyrics contain a translation of the word for “knuckles”: 指关节.

…and now I am totally at a loss to explain this!


06

Mar 2020

Hubei Automobile Profiling?

Just another sign of the effect the coronavirus has on people:

Hubei-license-plate
Photo taken by my co-worker

The Chinese reads:

本车近一年
未去过湖北

The English translation is:

This car has not been to
Hubei for close to a year

The character 鄂 (È) on the license plate is the one-character abbreviation for Hubei.

I do wonder if there’s a story behind the owner of this car putting that sign up. What did his panicked compatriots do?


Related: Download the COVID-19 Vocabulary PDF on this page.


27

Feb 2020

Combatting the Coronavirus with Punny Propaganda

Three exhibits from the streets of Shanghai, each replacing one “yi” character of a chengyu (typically 4-character idiom) with the character 疫 (yì), which means “epidemic”:

yi-yan-jiu-ding

‘疫’言九鼎 is a pun on 一言九鼎 (yīyánjiǔdǐng). The original idiom refers to solemn statements, and the poster exhorts people to be honest (about their true health).

duan-zhang-qu-yi

断章取‘疫’ is a pun on 断章取义 (duànzhāngqǔyì). The original idiom refers to quoting out of context, and the poster warns people not to spread unsubstantiated rumors about the epidemic (you could end up in prison for as long as 7 years if you do!).

ren-zhi-yi-jin

仁至‘疫’尽 is a pun on 仁至义尽 (rénzhìyìjìn). The original idiom refers to fulfillment of moral obligations, and this poster implores people to remain compassionate while battling the epidemic.

In all fairness, “yi” is one of the most common readings for characters in Mandarin Chinese, so choosing that one to focus on with the puns really made things easier.


Related: Download the COVID-19 Vocabulary PDF on this page.


07

Feb 2020

Chinese Nicknames for the Novel Coronavirus

After sharing the vocabulary about the coronavirus, I got a good question on LinkedIn about a shorter Chinese name for the virus. There are two 4-character names commonly used in Chinese:

  • 新冠肺炎 (xīn guān fèiyán) lit. “New corona pneumonia”
  • 武汉肺炎 (Wǔhàn fèiyán) lit. “Wuhan pneumonia”

I’m thinking about writing about the name a bit more, since there are so many variations. (Not the most exciting topic, I know, but it’s just so omnipresent these days…)

Novel Coronavirus Nickname in Chinese

16

Jan 2020

Shanghai’s Chinese New Year Melancholy

Recently a Shanghainese friend shared this screenshot on WeChat:

Shanghai-CNY 上海春节的杯具

I’ll transcribe it below as text for you learners:

我们上海人不过年是真的,因为我们没有什么事可以做!过年就是比谁年夜饭的酒店订得早,然后躺在家里看朋友圈欣赏全国各地的人是怎么过年的……我们不怕春运,又不能放鞭炮,也不爱看春晚,没有习俗,也没有土特产,家里亲戚少且关系没那么好,路上没有店也没有人。

And a translation:

It’s true that we Shanghainese don’t really celebrate Chinese New Year because there’s not really anything for us to do! Chinese New Year is just competing who can make the earliest restaurant reservation for Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner [年夜饭], then lying around at home browsing WeChat Moments to see how the rest of the country is celebrating Chinese New Year…. We have no fear of the massive CNY migration [春运], and we’re not allowed to set off fireworks anymore. We don’t like the CCTV New Year’s Gala [春晚], and we don’t have any real traditional customs or local specialty foods. We have few relatives, and the ones we do have, we’re not on great terms with. There are no shops open or any people in the streets.

My immediate reaction was, “wow, this is so true! And sad!” I shared it with my co-workers, and a Shanghainese co-worker’s reaction was:

大实话。有时候我会羡慕赶春运的人们。

Translation:

So true. Sometimes I envy those people crammed into trains just to get home for Chinese New Year.

[I had to take liberties translating 春运.]

This year my family and I will spend Chinese New Year in Japan (again). At first I felt uncomfortable with this. You hear Chinese people say all the time, “Christmas is like you guys’ Chinese New Year,” and while that’s not really true in many ways, it is true in that they both are the year’s biggest holiday in their respective cultures, they both mean a lot to the people of that culture, and they’re both meant to be spent with family. But then how could my wife be OK with running off to Japan (without her parents) instead of spending CNY in Shanghai with them? I would not be OK with blowing off Christmas in similar fashion.

One of the ways I’ve made sense of this cultural issue is reflected in the post above: the Shanghainese really do have a bit of a different take on Chinese New Year, and it has evolved rapidly in recent years (as evidenced by the role of WeChat in the original post). The Shanghainese are different.

My first Chinese New Year was spent in Zhuji (诸暨), Zhejiang Province. It was cold, it was crowded, it was noisy, it was non-stop eating and card-playing and tea-drinking chatting. It was undoubtedly very Chinese. It was pretty fun for me, but as an outsider, it’s not something I would really want to commit to every year (especially if it’s not with my actual family).

Over the years, I’ve discovered that I’m not a huge fan of Chinese New Year festivities. But as the traditions have faded in Shanghai and the holiday is left something of a husk of its former self, I can’t help but feel bad for the Shanghainese.


09

Jan 2020

Happy New… uhh… Year?

A reader shared this image with me:

Happy New Year

Can you read the Chinese? It’s supposed to say 新年快乐.

I can get the 新年 easily, and then I can make out the , but the … the top sort of works, but the bottom just… huh??

It’s fun to see stylizations that don’t work sometimes, too.

P.S. The “translation” I used for the title of this post is sort of a translation of the hard-to-read Chinese. It doesn’t totally work, though, because the “year” part of the Chinese is easy to read; it’s the “happy” part that isn’t. But I didn’t like the sound of “Something New Year,” so here we are! Anyone got a better idea for a translation?


Parsing “Xue Xi Qiang Guo” for the Deeper Meaning

21

Nov 2019

Parsing “Xue Xi Qiang Guo” for the Deeper Meaning

A recent topic of conversation among friends in Shanghai is the new app “Xue Xi Qiang Guo.” It’s a news hub for state-sponsored news and commentary, as well as a way to show devotion to the Chinese Communist Party by studying what’s in the app and proving mastery through quizzes. In this way you can get points which can earn you nominal rewards, and it also ties into China’s “social credit” system. (For more info on Xue Xi Qiang Guo, you can check out its official site as well as the Wikipedia’s article.)

What I want to talk about today is the name: 学习强国. If you plug that into Google Translate, Wenlin, or Pleco, you get a similar two-word breakdown: 学习 强国 (xuéxí qiángguó). You’ll note that English news coverage of the app (including Wikipedia) all write the name in pinyin as two words: “Xuexi Qiangguo.”

Xuexi Qiangguo in Google Translate

But this is Chinese, where clear word boundaries are not provided, and that is not the only breakdown. It’s not even the one that occurs first to most native speakers of Chinese.

1. Xuexi Qiangguo

OK, so 学习 is a given. it means “study,” and it’s certainly in keeping with the spirit of the app. No problem there. The word 强国, meaning “powerful country,” however, is not so common. The overall interpretation here seems to be “learn from the powerful country (China),” which seems plausible, but it’s just not what occurs to Chinese users first. So let’s drop the 强国 parsing (which, unfortunately, seems to be the norm in English language coverage of the app) and see what else we can get.

2. Xuexi Qiang Guo

Classical Chinese was remarkably flexible, most words consisting of individual characters that can serve as various parts of speech in different contexts (noun, verb, and adjective fluidity being common). This trend carries over to modern times for certain words, and is one of them. So while used by itself is most often used to mean “strong” in modern Mandarin, in certain contexts, can also mean “strength” or “strengthen.” So from there, we can get the two-word phrase 强 国 (qiáng guó), “strengthen the country.”

Since the word 学习 (meaning “study”) can also be a noun or a verb, you might translate the full app name literally as something like “Studying Strengthens the Country,” “Study Strengthens the Country,” or even “Study to Strengthen the Country.” This interpretation would likely be the official meaning of the name if you asked the CCP.

Breakdown of interpretations of "Xue Xi Qiang Guo"

3. Xue Xi Qiang Guo

There’s one other unofficial, sly interpretation which goes unnoticed by few Chinese these days. The word 学习 can also be broken down into two separate words. Since the first character, , can mean “study” on its own, and the second character, , is also the surname of Xi Jinping (president of China), you can also interpret 学 习 as the phrase “xué Xí,” which means “study Xi” or “learn from Xi.” A quick look at the content of the app shows that this interpretation is, indeed, fully grounded in reality. In fact, some are calling the app the “Little Red Book” of the modern age.

In this parsing, the final meanining of 学 习 强 国 would be “Studying Xi Strengthens the Country.” Since cause-effect relationships are often implied in Mandarin, you could also make that a command: “Study Xi to Strengthen the Country.”

Pretty clever name. It is indeed an age of 学 习 (xué Xí). Now there’s an app for that: Xue Xi Qiang Guo.


Nov. 25, 2019 Update: Dr. Victor Mair shared with me his take on this app, which he wrote on Language Log way back in May of this year. I would have linked to it originally if I had been aware of it: The CCP’s Learning / Learning Xi (Thought) app


13

Nov 2019

The Bagel Gets No Respect in China

I love bagels. So I have to say: the bagel has gotten a bum deal in China. It starts with the name.

sad bagel

The Chinese Name for “Bagel” is 贝果

Now, of course 贝果 (bèiguǒ) is a simple transliteration for the English word “bagel.” But there are good transliterations, and there are bad ones.

In this case, the character means “shell” (like in “shellfish”) and appears in words like 扇贝 (scallop) and 贝壳 (clamshell).

The character means “fruit” or “nut” and appears in words like 水果 (fruit), 苹果 (apple), 坚果 (nut), or 开心果 (pistachio nut).

So with regards to the food-related characters used in the Chinese name for 贝果… that’s 0 for 2 on the food groups! Could this name possibly be confusing?

Knowing that bagels are not well-known among Chinese people, I tested my co-workers. I asked them if they’d ever had a 贝果. They said no. I asked them if they knew what it was. They weren’t sure, but guessed it was some kind of nut.

On the upside (sort of?), I’ve noticed that my pinyin input method (Mac) is giving me the option of a bagel emoji as I type 贝果, and it has cream cheese on it! so maybe not all hope is lost for the bagel in China…

bagel emoji in Chinese

And that’s all I have for you today from the world of hard-hitting bagel journalism in Shanghai.


09

Aug 2019

How many ways are there to ask “where are you from” in Chinese? LOTS.

As an English speaker, you may be tempted to think that “where are you from?” is a super basic question. Just 4 words, right? How hard could it be? Well, for this particular question, in the particular language of Mandarin Chinese, it can be phrased more than 10 different ways.

Before I get into this, let’s be clear: I’m not trying to say Chinese is super difficult to learn, or that beginners can’t learn it. No no no no. I may personally feel that the language is kinda hard to learn, but Chinese is not bad at all when it comes to sentence structure in particular. BUT, it’s not unreasonable for beginners to assume that the question “where are you from?” is super straightforward, with just one way to express it in Chinese. And it’s that little assumption that I’m destroying here. You may have to put forward just a bit more effort on this one.

The Swappable Words

A big part of the problem is that in the question “where are you from,” pretty much every part of the sentence can be expressed in multiple ways. Let’s break it down:

  • where: 哪里, 哪儿, 什么地方, 哪个国家
    So the first two are the most common and should be learned first, but you will hear the others as well, so you have to learn them sooner or later
  • are… from: 从……来, 来自, 是……的
    There aren’t one-to-one translations, they’re roughly corresponding structure. See below for more clarity here.
  • you:
    OK, this one you don’t have to worry about much, at least!

The Structures

I live in Shanghai, so I’m going to pick 哪里 and stick with it for these examples. Just keep in mind that most of the others probably work as well.

  • 你从哪里来? (Nǐ cóng nǎlǐ lái?)
  • 你来自哪里? (Nǐ láizì nǎlǐ?)
  • 你是哪里人? (Nǐ shì nǎlǐ rén?)
  • 你是哪里的? (Nǐ shì nǎlǐ de?)
  • 你是(从)哪里来的? (Nǐ shì (cóng) nǎlǐ lái de?)

The Big “Where are you from?” List

OK, now let’s put all these words and structures together and see how many sentences we can come up with!

  1. 你从哪里来? (Nǐ cóng nǎli lái?)
  2. 你从哪儿来? (Nǐ cóng nǎr lái?)
  3. 你从什么地方来? (Nǐ cóng shénme dìfang lái?)
  4. 你从哪个国家来? (Nǐ cóng nǎge guójiā lái?)
  5. 你来自哪里? (Nǐ láizì nǎli?)
  6. 你来自哪儿? (Nǐ láizì nǎr?)
  7. 你来自么地方来? (Nǐ láizì má dìfang lái?)
  8. 你来自哪个国家? (Nǐ láizì nǎge guójiā?)
  9. 你是哪里人? (Nǐ shì nǎli rén?)
  10. 你是哪儿人? (Nǐ shì nǎr rén?)
  11. 你是什么地方的人? (Nǐ shì shénme dìfang de rén?)
  12. 你是哪个国家的人? (Nǐ shì nǎge guójiā de rén?)
  13. 你是哪里的? (Nǐ shì nǎli de?)
  14. 你是哪儿的? (Nǐ shì nǎr de?)
  15. 你是什么地方的? (Nǐ shì shénme dìfang de?)
  16. 你是哪个国家的? (Nǐ shì nǎge guójiā de?)
  17. 你是(从)哪里来的? (Nǐ shì (cóng) nǎli lái de?)
  18. 你是(从)哪儿来的? (Nǐ shì (cóng) nǎr lái de?)
  19. 你是(从)什么地方来的? (Nǐ shì (cóng) shénme dìfang lái de?)
  20. 你是(从)哪个国家来的? (Nǐ shì (cóng) nǎge guójiā lái de?)

Wow, that’s kind of a lot. The good news is that there a few that are used much more often than the others. Different native speakers will have different opinions on which ones are the most common, and it’s also partially dependent on region.

The “Where are you from?” Shortlist

You’ll hear lots of these in China, but after I asked a bunch of Chinese teachers, the most common favorites were:

  1. 你是哪里人? (Nǐ shì nǎlǐ rén?) — popular with southerners
  2. 你是哪儿人?(Nǐ shì nǎr rén?) — popular with northerners
  3. 你是哪个国家的? (Nǐ shì nǎge guójiā de?)

What might be surprising is that the question which most learners start with is not in the list:

  1. 你从哪里来? (Nǐ cóng nǎlǐ lái?)
  2. 你从哪儿来? (Nǐ cóng nǎr lái?)

When asked, the teachers say that’s because it sounds a bit formal (same with using 来自). That doesn’t mean that a beginner shouldn’t use it, though… it’s still fine.

Learner Shortcuts

So I bet you want to just pick one, memorize it, and use it exclusively, right? That’s fine. You can do that.

BUT, that’s not necessarily going to help you when you talk to random strangers in China. They are going to ask you where you’re from, and that’s when the big “Wheel of ‘where are you from?’” is spun, and the gods determine your fate.

Rather than memorizing 20 “where are you from” question forms, go with your gut. If you just started chatting, and you hear a 哪里 or a 哪儿 (exception: taxi drivers!), and maybe a 国家 or a 地方 or a on the end, just assume they’re asking where you’re from. This usually works.

Pro tip: Also be sure to answer in a complete sentence. Something like: “我是美国人。“. This way if you guessed wrong about what the person was asking, that person won’t be too confused by your answer.

Conclusions

I’m not saying you have to learn 20 ways to ask “where are you from?”

I am saying that if you are feeling frustrated because you’ve been studying for a while, but you still sometimes can’t understand the simple question “where are you from?” that there is actually a good reason, and it’s the fault of the Chinese language, not your fault.

"It's not your fault." (Good Will Hunting)

Over time, you will get these. It’s just a little more work than memorizing one sentence.


06

Jun 2019

New Star Wars Comics in Chinese

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):

Star Wars manga

I’m not sure these comic exist in English, but I imagine they do? (Anyone know?)

The 9 movies’ names, in Chinese are:

  1. Prequel Trilogy
    1. 星球大战前传一幽灵的威胁
      Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
    2. 星球大战前传二克隆人的进攻
      Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
    3. 星球大战前传三西斯的复仇
      Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
  2. Original Trilogy
    1. 星球大战新希望
      Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
    2. 星球大战2帝国反击战
      Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
    3. 星球大战3绝地归来
      Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
  3. Sequel Trilogy
    1. 星球大战7原力觉醒
      Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
    2. 星球大战8最后的绝地武士
      Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
    3. 星球大战9天行者崛起
      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.


02

Apr 2019

This box is very afraid

I was struck by the use of the word on this package:

pa-shuai-pa-ya

It reads:

怕摔
怕压

Literally, “afraid of being dropped” and “afraid of being crushed.” I’m more used to seeing 易碎 on boxes: literally “easily broken” or “fragile.” This struck me as interesting because neither the box nor its contents actually fears anything. It doesn’t feel like an anthropomorphic usage, so it’s got to be an abstraction of the human “fear” emotion.

When I thought about it some more and talked about it with some AllSet Learning teachers, I realized it’s not just a matter of the two kinds of fear “human fear” and “abstracted fear”; there’s actually a whole range of usage with this :

  • 怕冷 (pà lěng) to be sensitive to the cold (lit. “to be afraid of cold”)
  • 怕热 (pà rè) to be sensitive to heat (lit. “to be afraid of heat”)
  • 怕辣 (pà là) to be sensitive to spiciness (lit. “to fear spicy”)
  • 怕生 (pà shēng) to be afraid of strangers (lit. “fear the unfamiliar”)
  • 怕黑 (pà hēi) to be afraid of the dark
  • 怕死 (pà sǐ) to be afraid of death
  • 怕高 (pà gāo) to be afraid of heights
  • 怕人 (pà rén) to be shy around people (usu. describing a child), to be afraid of people (usu. describing an animal)
  • 怕水 (pà shuǐ) to be afraid of water (usu. because one cannot swim)

Are they just degrees of the same emotion? Or are they totally different usages? It can be difficult to separate shades of meaning, especially for native speakers. This is what the field of semantics deals with.

To me, learning how other languages construct words and phrases in both familiar and utterly unfamiliar ways is one of the major joys of learning a language.


20

Feb 2019

Cthulhu in China

It’s always fun to discover cultural tidbits from home unexpectedly implanted in China, whether it’s Marvel superheroes, Steve Jobs, or even potatoes. So it was fun to make these two book discoveries in my local bookstore:

Snow Crash

Snow Crash: 雪崩

Snow Crash (雪崩) is a classic cyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson (尼尔·斯提芬森). 雪崩 simply means “avalanche,” so it’s a shame that this translation seems hardly nuanced. But still… it’s Snow Crash!

Cthulhu

Cthulhu Mythos: 克苏鲁神话

H. P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos (克苏鲁神话) is well-known by all American geeks, but this is the first time I’ve come across it in China. Three volumes, even! The books were shrink-wrapped, so I couldn’t see exactly what they contained without buying them.

Xi Jinping’s Stories

习近平讲故事

Finally, there’s this gem: 习近平讲故事 (Xi Jinping Tells Stories). The book was with children’s books, but a quick glance revealed that this was not a book for kids. Yes, it was stories, but it was the sort of pretty straightforward propaganda the cover suggests, intended for adults.


16

Nov 2018

Shanghai Wall Wisdom

Spotted on a wall in Shanghai:

Shanghai Wall Wisdom

It reads:

勿以恶小而为之,
勿以善小而不为。

Because it’s from classical Chinese, it’s written in traditional characters and also reads right to left. It’s also a pretty simple introduction to classical Chinese, so if you’re intermediate or higher, it’s worth a closer look.

Translation:

Even in small matters, do no evil.
Even in small matters, do not fail to do good.

A few notes on the classical (or harder) Chinese:

  • : “do not” for commands (also used in formal modern Mandarin)
  • : “because” (classical Chinese)
  • : a tricky grammar word usually indicating contrast (also used in formal modern Mandarin)
  • : “to do” (classical Chinese)
  • : “it” (classical Chinese)

Words like and are especially tricky because they can mean so many different things! 慢慢来… it takes time to absorb all those different usages.


11

Oct 2018

EF’s “REAL Foreign Teachers”: Progress or Dog Whistle?

I spotted this EF advertisement here in Shanghai recently:

REAL English Teachers!!!

The text reads:

在英孚,我们
只用真正的外教

  • 100% TEFL/TKT双证上岗
  • 100% 全职教学
  • 100% 大学以上学历

A translation:

At English First, we
only use real foreign teachers

  • 100% TEFL/TKT double certification
  • 100% full-time teaching
  • 100% university graduates

So you see a white face and the promise of “REAL foreign teachers.” Is this some kind of racist ad? No, no, you are mistaken: they’re referring to the qualifications of their teachers, which just happens to be written in smaller type below. It’s just a coincidence that the teacher they chose for the ad is white, right?

This seems like a dog whistle advertisement to me. They’re communicating with the racist segment of their target market while also maintaining plausible deniability.

What do you think?


12

Sep 2018

Shanghai Subway Ads that Teach Chinese Grammar

Sometimes it feels like the environment is actively trying to teach certain words or grammar patterns. Recently I’ve been seeing this series of ads in the Shanghai Metro every day:

JD.com Ad 1

不为朋友圈而运动

JD.com Ad 3

不为跟风而运动

JD.com Ad 5

不为赶时髦而运动

JD.com Ad 4

不为别人的眼光而运动

JD.com Ad 2

不为自拍而运动

In this case, the pattern is a negative version of 为……而……. The pattern 为……而…… indicates doing a certain action for a certain purpose (apparently the red line is just there to emphasize “NOT for this purpose”). I discovered that this pattern was not yet on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, so I immediately added it: Explaining purpose with “wei… er…”.

The ads are interesting, because they come from JD.com (京东), which presumably sells sporting clothing and equipment (the ad mentions 京东体育), but it’s not made explicit what’s for sale. Furthermore, JD.com take a stance on values which seem to go counter to what a lot of young Chinese people are doing these days, and the values they’re advocating don’t seem to clearly lead to greater sales for JD.com.

The ads roughly translate to:

  • Exercise, not for your WeChat Moments [China’s version of Instagram]
  • Exercise, not just because everyone else is
  • Exercise, not to keep up with the trends
  • Exercise, not because of what other people think
  • Exercise, not for the selfies

(As you can see, it’s also challenging to translate the 为……而…… pattern into English in a consistent way. It would be nice to use “for” in all of them, but it just doesn’t work for some of them.)


04

Sep 2018

The Value of Reading Marvel Comics in Chinese

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!

John and Zach talk Marvel Infinity


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.

The book we talk about (aside from Harry Potter) is Marvel’s Infinity, or 无限 in Chinese (in Zach’s hands above).

Audio Highlights

Here are a few markers for the audio, as well as some of the Chinese mentioned in our conversation:

  • 03:00: 2000 AD, Judge Dredd and Spawn discussion
  • 03:48 : Harry Potter discussion begins
  • 04:50: 4 Privet Drive = 女贞路4号
  • 05:38: Buying James Bond 连环画 books in Xujiahui
  • 09:16: to answer this question, Spawn (再生侠) has still not been officially translated for the Chinese market
  • 10:20: Beijing 潘家园 Market, 星球大战(上、中、下)
  • 11:41: my “Vader didn’t get a lot of screen time” comment was a reference to this YouTube video
  • 12:51: Discussion of Marvel Comics in Chinese, and the experiece of tackling them for the first time
  • 15:10: Discussion of the graphic novel Infinity
  • 17:49: Why Zach is a hypocrite (when it comes to study methods)
  • 19:12: Character names in Chinese discussed: 钢铁侠 (Iron Man)、雷神托尔索尔 (Thor)、鹰眼 (Hawkeye)、黑寡妇 (Black Widow)
  • 21:09: Calling out Pleco for lack of Marvel character name vocab
  • 21:28: 灭霸 (Thanos)、黑色兄弟会 (the Black Order) / 杀戮黑曜石 (lit. “Slaughter Obsidian”)、黑矮星 (Black Dwarf / Cull Obsidian)、超巨星 (Supergiant)、亡刃将军 (Corvus Glaive)、比灵星午夜暗夜比邻星 (Proxima Midnight)、
  • 25:10: “Infinity” is not the same as “Infinity War” at all
  • 26:38: Is reading translated comics in Chinese a good idea for other learners as well??
  • 27:44: “Cultural depth” of Marvel comics and Star Wars in Chinese society
  • 29:06: The value of studying material you’re actually interested in

Images from Infinity (Chinese Version)

The front of the book has a list of all the Marvel characters’ Chinese names, and here are the sections that relate to this podcast (apologies for the quality; it’s a photo of a physical book!):

Infinity (Marvel), Avengers

Infinity (Marvel), Black Order

Here we can see the members of the Black Order more clearly:

Infinity (Marvel), Black Order

And, just for balance, here are a few shots where the Chinese used is actually really easy to read:

Infinity (Marvel), Cap & gang

Infinity (Marvel), Black Bolt & Thanos

Finally, a few cases where apparently translation was not really an option (or maybe just too much trouble):

Infinity (Marvel), Thanos

Infinity (Marvel), Thor

(Take that, 灭霸!)

If anyone has a question for Zach, please leave a comment on this blog post, and I’ll gleefully harass him until he answers!


26

Jul 2018

The Torture of Japanese via Chinese

This week my wife and I have been planning a short family vacation to Japan. We’ll be hanging out in Fukuoka for a bit in August.

I majored in Japanese long ago, spoke pretty fluently, and was even reading Japanese literature. Now, after 18 years in China, my Japanese is rusty, but I do still speak it. Reading is much harder than it used to be, because all that Chinese in my brain wants to interpret the Japanese characters I see as Chinese. The more kana mixed in with the Japanese, the easier and more natural it is for me to read kanji as Japanese.

Anyway, what I’m finding much more difficult than reading Japanese is listening to it… in Chinese. The Chinese, of course, read Japanese kanji as if they were Chinese hanzi. In some cases, the Japanese words, pronounced as Chinese, become full-fledged loanwords in Chinese. No surprise, and no big deal. You get used to hearing Tokyo (東京) pronounced as “Dōngjīng,” and Kyoto (京都) as “Jīngdū,” etc.

But what you don’t get used to is hearing everything Japanese pronounced as Chinese. While we’re planning the trip, my wife is constantly dropping the Chinese names of all kinds of random Japanese places, and that’s something my poor brain can’t handle. On the one hand, they’re Japanese places, and I speak Japanese, so I want to know the Japanese names of the places we’re talking about. But on the other hand, my wife isn’t just going to learn Japanese for this trip, and she speaks to me mostly in Chinese, so of course she’s going to use the Chinese names. So my brain has to keep trying to jump through this series of hoops:

Chinese pronunciation → Chinese hanzi → Japanese kanji → Japanese name

(Sometimes I can get as far as step 2, but rarely can I get to step 4.)

Brain melting…


26

Jun 2018

Eat Less Meat, says Huang Xuan

I spotted these pro-veggie ads in the Shanghai Metro recently:

少吃肉 (Shao chi rou_

少吃肉 [Eat less meat]

多走走 [Walk more]

少吃肉 (Shao chi rou_

少吃肉 [Eat less meat]

多福寿 [Be happier and live longer]

The obvious grammar points here are 少 + V and 多 + V (which don’t tend to come naturally to English speakers).

This is good to see, because as anyone who has lived in China should know, the (even remotely) affluent Chinese consume quite a bit of meat these days (and waste a lot of it, too).

蔬食 (shu shi)

The ads aren’t too clever, but the message is good, and there’s even a spot of characterplay in there. 蔬食 refers to a “vegetarian diet.”

The guy featured in the ad is 黄轩, an actor, and the ads are sponsored by WildAid.

Related links:



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