Look familiar? If you’ve ever been to China – or Tumblr – you’ve probably seen a gem like this.
This is a classic example of what we call “Chinglish,” i.e when Chinese doesn’t make the journey to English unscathed. The sign above is the result of google translate (well, baidu translate) issues: you plug in the sentence and the literal word-by-word approach unfailingly produces awkwardness and hilarity. To be fair, this has less to do with Chinese itself and more to do with the thus-far-unpolished nature of most translation software – as the internet is quick to remind us.
Unfortunately, the process of actual human Chinese-English translation – or more accurately, English-Chinese – is less hilarious and even more problematic, if you can believe that.
The first thing you need to understand is that the actual spoken language of Mandarin consists of a very specific set of syllables. There’s only about 400 of them, and anyone with a decent grasp of the language and Excel could come up with the entire list in an hour or so. Thankfully, someone already did it for me:
[Thanks, Live From Beijing! Please don’t sue me!]
Now, being the clever and good-looking readers that you are, you’re probably wondering: “but Taylor, aren’t there thousands of Chinese characters? How can there be only 400 sounds in the language?”
Good question! The answer is depressingly simple – everything is homonyms. There’s tens of thousands of written characters, and anyone who spouts that *you only need 2000 to read a newspaper* bullshit deserves to be stuck on a desert island with Chinese-only boatbuilding instructions. Want to see the madness firsthand? Download a Chinese dictionary and type in “ji,” “li,” shi,” “ma,” “shu,” or just about any other word from that chart. Even when you narrow things down by tone (one of four possible inflections), you still end up with dozens of different pictograms for a single sound. How anyone managed to learn this language before smartphones is beyond my feeble millennial mind.
So now that you understand the building blocks of Mandarin, let’s talk translation. If Chinese needs to add a new word – something that tends to happen quite a bit when you’re a newly globalized and historically isolated major power in the 21st century – there’s two options on the table.
1.) Using random Chinese syllables to approximate the sound of the word with no regard for the meaning.
2.) Using characters to approximate the meaning of the word with no regard for the sound.
You’ll notice that there’s a conspicuously lacking option 3: Just adopt the word into the language. You know, like English did with villa, hamburger, lager, voila, algebra, feng shui, voodoo, mumbo jumbo, taco, burrito, and countless others. No such luck: the list of Chinese syllables is set in stone and exceptions simply aren’t allowed. Ever wondered why so many Chinese people seem to say “HA-llo” rather than “hello?” Ha (as in haha) is a Chinese sound, but the heh sound in “hello” is not. The caw and fee sounds of “coffee” are no good, so we get KAH-FAY, which for me always conjures up the image of some kind of fairy barista.
The more complicated the word gets, the worse things get. Aussies, you’re from OW-DAH-LEE-AH, Canucks hail from JYAH-NAH-DA, and apparently we won’t be suing the government of SHA-TEH-AH-LA-BO anytime soon.
Before the accusations of hypocrisy start flooding my inbox, I get that every language alters the pronunciation of new loanwords to some degree and that there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, we call doufu “tofu,” Kongzi “Confucius,” and gongfu “Kung Fu.” I’d point out that Chinese’s arguably inadequate number of syllables exacerbates the problem, but the real communication barriers stem from the writing system. Unlike a language with an alphabet or at least some kind of phonetically-based writing system (see: most of them), every one of Chinese’s 20,000-50,000 characters has its own meaning despite them all having to share the same 412 basic sounds. So when you’re transliterating something, the odds that the appropriate sounding syllable is going to line up with a character that makes sense are like finding the winning lottery ticket in the mouth of the shark that’s eating you.
So, the vast, vast majority of transliterations end up being utter nonsense. Case in point:
Here’s the literally-translated map of Europe:
While this sort of Chinglish is undeniably amusing, it makes reading Chinese garment-rendingly frustrating. Remember how I mentioned the whole “2000 characters to read a newspaper” thing is nonsense? This is a big part of that. You may know the characters “叙” (chat or narrate), “利” (benefit or profit), and “亚” (inferior or second), but I guarantee the first time you see them strung together to mean Syria (Shoo-Lee-Yah), you’re going to be very confused and completely out of luck if you don’t have a dictionary. Think of the ramifications here: basically any noun – especially proper noun – that isn’t either something Chinese or something the Chinese have been discussing for centuries is going to be one of these transliterations. A headline that’s about Hillary Clinton issuing a declaration regarding the Assad regime in Syria is going to look something like this:
GRAM-FOREST-PAUSE ISSUES DECLARATION REGARDING [PREFIX]-SA-VIRTUE IN CHAT-BENEFIT-INFERIOR
When you consider how already insanely difficult Chinese literacy is even for the Chinese, then pile on the past 20-30 years of imported names and products that have all been given Chinglish names, it’s no wonder that casually reading a Chinese newspaper or (god help you) book is such an utterly Sisyphean task. That’s to say nothing of an English novel translated into Chinese. Can you imagine trying to read Harry Potter with all those made-up words transliterated into meaningless combinations of characters?
Sadly, there’s not much that could be done to improve this. Even if you had no regard for the history or beauty of Chinese characters, you can’t just get rid of them and start writing in pinyin – there’s just too many homynms and without the visual depiction of meaning all advanced communication would be impossible. And when you take the alternate translation path – that is, choosing characters that convey the meaning rather than the sound, things somehow manage to get even sillier.
More on that in Part 2. For now, I leave you with these words of wisdom: