Maybe Mubarak understands Chinese

« previous post | next post »

Signs with Chinese on them have begun to appear in the Cairo demonstrations. Here is a protester whose sign combines Chinese and two varieties of Arabic:


TOP, in Modern Standard Arabic:
Li'allahu yafhamu irhal bi'l-sini
"Maybe he will understand IRHAL in Chinese"

Then comes the Chinese 出发, which is phonetically annotated with Pinyin, chūfā (tone mark missing on second syllable). I shall discuss the meaning of the Chinese word below.

BOTTOM, in colloquial Egyptian (the verb is overwritten in blue ink):
Mish fahim ayyi lugha!
"He doesn't understand ANY language!"

Some Westerners have speculated that the protesters are using Chinese on their signs to reach out to the Chinese people, presumably wishing to spread the wave of democracy now washing over the Arab world. Most Egyptian acquaintances, however, consider that to be naive, wishful thinking. As one Egyptian correspondent wrote: "Nothing to do with spreading democracy to China. Just sarcasm and humor about Mubarak’s inability to 'understand' Arabic and understand what the protesters have been telling him: "To leave". Some signs say that maybe Mubarak only understands Hebrew, etc. Other signs 'explain' to Mubarak that "Irhal in fusha means Imshi in colloquial." In other words, "amscray," "get out," or, more politely, "leave."

The Chinese expression is actually not the right choice of word for what the Arabic and English mean. Chūfā 出发 means "leave" only in the sense of "depart," not "step down from a position." Here are possible Chinese expressions that might have been used instead of chūfā 出发:

lízhí 离职 (leave one's position)
xiàtái 下台 (step down from office)
círèn 辞任 (resign)
cízhí 辞职 (resign)
chūzǒu 出走 (leave, flee, run away)
gǔndàn 滚蛋 (scram; get out; beat it; lit., "roll out of here like an egg")
[this last expression is perhaps too crude and derogatory to be used under present circumstances, but if Mubarak doesn't step down within another week or so, some frustrated demonstrators who know Chinese might well resort to it]

Another sign is all in Chinese (there is some faint Arabic writing at the top that I cannot make out clearly):

Āijí rénmín yāoqiú zǒngtǒng mùbālākè xiàtái 埃及人民要求总统穆巴拉克下台
"The Egyptian people demand that President Mubarak step down".

I would say that the calligraphy on the poster is quite respectable for a non-Chinese, especially for writing on such a large scale. There are a few errors (I won't point out all of the minor problems that a teacher of first- or second-year Chinese might correct on student homework), such as the miswriting of the -qiú 求 of yāoqiú 要求, the missing cross stroke at the top of -kè 克, and the wrong position of zǒngtǒng 总统 (president — it should come after Mubarak's name, not before it).

Still, questions remain for this second sign: to whom is it directed? what is its purpose?

[Thanks are due to Anne Henochowicz, Paul Cobb, Shawkat Toorawa, Grace Wu, Maiheng Dietrich, Melvin Lee, Liwei Jiao, and Yunong Zhou]]

Share:



41 Comments »

  1. Marc said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 7:33 am

    This is pure brilliance. You were wondering recently whether the Chinese understand irony. The Egyptians obviously do.

  2. GeorgeW said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 7:34 am

    @VM: "The Chinese expression is actually not the right choice of word for what the Arabic and English mean. Chūfā 出发 means "leave" only in the sense of "depart," not "step down from a position."

    Actually, the Arabic word used 'irhal' also means go away, leave, depart. But, it certainly in his context, would also imply stepping down and leaving for good.

  3. Emily said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 7:47 am

    For what it's worth, I blew up the final picture, and I'm fairly certain the Arabic text just says ارحل يا مبارك, irhal ya mubarak, Leave, Mubarak.

    And given the level of snark I've seen in photos from the demonstrations, "roll out of here like an egg" seems perfectly appropriate.

  4. Trimegistus said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 8:19 am

    Maybe the Egyptians have noticed which country's going to be the superpower of this century.

  5. Marc said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 8:50 am

    Despite the mistakes, I'm sure that second sign was written by someone who has studied Chinese. The way the characters are written shows an understanding of stroke order (a ignorance of which is the biggest give-away in hanzismatter-type tattoos, for example).

  6. Faldone said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 9:26 am

    According to this Wikipedia page the target language in Arabic for the English "It's Greek to me" is Chinese.

  7. William Ockham said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 10:05 am

    I think "leave" is exactly what the protesters mean. They are responding to Mubarak's statement that he would die in Egypt. Dictators aren't ever out of power until they leave the country or die (e.g. Putin). And I think Faldone has it right. They are making a complex word play on the expression. That means the target is us (the international community of language geeks).

    If you have hundreds of thousands of protesters, some of them will be engineers and do what engineers do (http://www.incendiaryimage.com/sketchbook/trebuchet/attachment/egypt-24/ )

    Others will be sarcastic liberal arts majors and do what they do…

  8. Egypt and China « 為世博服務 said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 10:40 am

    [...] Language Log: Maybe Mubarak understands Chinese http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2956 [...]

  9. Rob said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 10:47 am

    As Faldone said, I would expect that the choice of Chinese has a lot to do with its perceived difficulty/the expectation that one wouldn't know it. After all, if Mubarak isn't understanding more common languages , Chinese is the last stop before giving up on linguistic communication altogether.

  10. Jesse Tseng said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 11:37 am

    @GeorgeW @William Ockham
    出发 means "leave" in the sense of "depart", as Victor explained, but more specifically it means "set out on a (planned) journey". In other words, it focuses on the departure as the beginning of a new, typically positive, episode for the person leaving. I think the protesters, on the other hand, are saying "leave" in the sense of "put an end to your presence here", and 出发 is not the right translation for that.

  11. a Chinese said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

    The only thing I see from this is that the Chinese language is more popular than before, as a language used by world's people.

  12. blahedo said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 3:15 pm

    "Still, questions remain for this second sign: to whom is it directed? what is its purpose?"

    To get noticed by media. At virtually any demonstration or protest anywhere in the world, there are signs held up in English; and these are, strangely enough, always the signs that get their pictures on BBC, CNN, etc. This was surprising to me until I realised that the English signage could be a comparatively small fraction of the signs, and they'd still be the ones we'd see. And it seems likely that there would be signs in various other world languages as well, for the same reason.

    In the case of China in particular, there are multiple possible targets: it need not be an attempt to get through to the Chinese people in general; it could be an attempt to get through to the Chinese government, various other east-Asians, or possibly to the Chinese investors that have lately been pumping so much money into developing Africa as a sphere of influence….

  13. GeorgeW said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 4:11 pm

    @Jesse Tseng; 'irhal (imperative of rahal) also means depart and carries a connotation of permanent departure. As an example, it can be used euphemistically to refer to death.

  14. Nijma said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 4:47 pm

    There is a saying in Arabic "Seek knowledge as far as China" ﺍﻃﻠﺐ ﻋﻠﻢ ﻮ ﻟﻭ ﻓﻲ ﺍﻟﺼﻴﻦ . This is a "weak hadith", meaning the chain of transmission from The Prophet is not as reliable.

    There may also be a hidden Sufi meaning to the hadith. In Arabic the word “China” is SYN which decodes to form a word, QN, which is said to represent, in Arabic, the concept of “scrutinizing, observing”, and is therefore taken as a symbol of concentration. Although this may be an overly mystical digression from what the sign maker intended.

  15. Rick Matz said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

    It's Greek to me.

  16. Jacob said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 10:53 pm

    .
    يتحدث باللغة الصينية

  17. Laplace's Demon said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 12:39 am

    I hardly think 滚蛋 would be too "crude and derogatory" given how much shoe-waving treatment Mubarak's already gotten.

  18. mar said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 7:06 am

    http://tinypic.com/view.php?pic=ml31oh&s=7

  19. Michael said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 8:46 am

    What is the Arabic equivalent of "it's Greek to me"? In Hebrew it is indeed "Chinese"… (In German it is Spanish).

  20. mondain said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 9:34 am

    Just noticed that the last few strokes in 穆 are written in a cursive hand.

  21. China Elections and Governance » Chinese Posters in Egypt said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    [...] the final hours before Mubarak was to appear on television, I was left pondering this odd photo out of Egypt. In Chinese, this placard declares,

  22. Maybe Hosni Mubarak Understands Chinese? said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 5:59 pm

    [...] here Maybe Mubarak Understands Chinese? –Language [...]

  23. bryan said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

    球, qiu = ball and is written incorrectly. It should be 求, qiu without the left hand radical if you want to express "to request, to beg, to implore, etc…"

    The last syllable of Mubarak's name, from the writing does not exist. It should be "克", pronounced "ke". 克 means "to overcome" but here is used only for its phonetic value, which is the k of Mubarak. Mubarak = 穆巴拉克, "Mubalake" in Mandarin Chinese.

  24. bryan said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

    "developing Africa as a sphere of influence…."

    UH… If you never noticed, Egyptians are mostly Islamic, so they consider themselves from the Middle East/Arab world/Magreb, but NOT from Africa!!!

  25. bryan said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

    "but NOT from Africa!!!"

    I meant: Egypt is geographically in Africa, but the Egyptians are mostly of Islamic religion and so learned a form of Arabic, called Egyptian Arabic, and so considered themselves as a part of the Magreb/Arab world, etc…

  26. bryan said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

    "and the wrong position of zǒngtǒng 总统 (president — it should come after Mubarak's name, not before it)."

    You are wrong, The title of president is before the last name NOT after it. 总统奥巴马 is correct for President Obama, NOT 奥巴马总统, which means "Obama the president", which is almost never said.

    总统穆巴拉克 is perfectly acceptable Chinese as on the sign, whereas 穆巴拉克总统 is incorrect.

  27. bryan said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 4:06 pm

    Of a government officials' titles, the title is before the name President Obama = 总统奥巴马* or President Mubarak = 总统穆巴拉克.*

    Otherwise for other titles, the name is before the title, as in Dr. Smith = 史密斯医生* or Manager Chang = 张总经理.*

    PS I don't know if the commenter is a beginner of Chinese or not.

    * 奥巴马 = last name Obama
    穆巴拉克= last name Mubarak
    史密斯 = last name Smith
    张 = last name Chang

  28. Bob Violence said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 1:43 am

    You are wrong, The title of president is before the last name NOT after it. 总统奥巴马 is correct for President Obama, NOT 奥巴马总统, which means "Obama the president", which is almost never said.

    总统穆巴拉克 is perfectly acceptable Chinese as on the sign, whereas 穆巴拉克总统 is incorrect.

    You're going to have to elaborate on this, since search engines find literally millions of instances of "奥巴马总统", including Xinhua articles and government websites. 总统奥巴马 is even more common (and note that some of the links above use both forms), but in every single instance I've seen, 总统奥巴马 is preceded by a modifier, typically 美国 "America" (as in 美国总统奥巴马 "America[n] President Obama"). Mubarak's name and title evidently aren't treated any differently — the first headline has 总统 first and preceded by 埃及 "Egypt", while the second has an unmodified 总统 following Mubarak's name (as does the protester's sign). Maybe there's something else that makes the protester's sign incorrect or unidiomatic, but saying the title of president is "almost never" used after the surname is a stretch at best.

  29. Bob Violence said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 3:37 am

    You are wrong, The title of president is before the last name NOT after it. 总统奥巴马 is correct for President Obama, NOT 奥巴马总统, which means "Obama the president", which is almost never said.

    Search engines turn up literally millions of results for 奥巴马总统, including Xinhua articles and government websites. 总统奥巴马 is even more common than 奥巴马总统, but in every instance I've seen 总统 is preceded by a modifier — typically 美国 "America," as in 美国总统奥巴马 "America[n] President Obama." Mubarak gets the same treatment: the headline here has a 总统 preceded by 埃及 "Egypt" before Mubarak's name; meanwhile this one has an unmodified 总统 after it, as does the protester's sign. Perhaps the sign is unidiomatic in some way, but to say the title of president "almost never" comes after the surname is really stretching it.

    *Or "President" to use the (current) official translation

  30. Bob Violence said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 3:38 am

    Apologies for the (sort of) double post — I seem to be having cache issues, since the first post never showed up in my browser until now.

  31. Lareina said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 4:10 pm

    That 球 is so funny, and it made the sentence into
    埃及人民要球总统穆巴拉克下台
    the egyptian ppl wants ball President Mubarak to step down….

  32. Lareina said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

    After reading the discussion before me by Bon and Bob,
    I started to wonder why they translated America as 美国 in Mandarin. I dont understand where they get the 美。
    In Japanese America = either 米 or アメリカ
    I used to joke about America being the State of Rice.

  33. Bob Violence said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

    mĕi = the "me" in "America," just like the 米 in the Japanese name.

  34. Zhang Yuan said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

    As a mainland Chinese who have never stepped out of Communist's regime, I am so excited and amazed by the brave and creativity of Arabian people, firt Iranians, then Tunisia, and now Egypt people!!! We have the same language and disgust to dictatorship and desire to tear down it! You inspired us!!!! The commuinst authoritarians are tasting disregard by Chinese people, and I believe the color revolution and internet revolution is begin in China and will soon collect it's power, Chinese people, let's ChuFa! 出发!

  35. Zhang Yuan said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

    Lareina, it seems that you hated America, can I ask – is your father Li Gang? 你爸是李刚?

  36. Li Mengtao said,

    February 14, 2011 @ 2:32 am

    "Nothing to do with spreading democracy to China. Just sarcasm and humor about Mubarak’s inability to 'understand' Arabic and understand what the protesters have been telling him: "To leave". The purpose of communication is to pass on the message. Since the message has been conveyed why bother about the word order or spellings?

  37. Li Mengtao said,

    February 14, 2011 @ 2:50 am

    Some one in the past translated USA as 美国, probably because the transliteration of the full name of your country is "美利坚合众国",in this phrase 美利坚 is equavilent to "America", and as a friendly gesture, all the Chinese are good in meaning " 美(beauty) for "am" 利 (favourable) for "ri" 坚" for can (the strong". the short form for 美利坚合众国 is therefore , 美国。

  38. Chinamuse said,

    February 14, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

    [...] fame, got six years for the hit-and-run death of a young woman; and Egyptian protesters carried Chinese signs in Cairo. Throw in the Chinamuser starting a new job, and there's just been no way to keep [...]

  39. As revoluções do Oriente Médio vistas da China said,

    February 18, 2011 @ 11:16 am

    [...] Como os egípcios se sentiriam em relação à China, seja tento em vista o governo em Beijing ou o pessoal que endossou a Carta 08, é difícil de dizer. Mas é bem interessante que uns poucos cartazes nos protestos em Tahrir Square – “Fora Mubarak!” e “O Povo Egípcio Exige Que Mubarak Renuncie” – estavam escritos em chinês. [...]

  40. Seraph said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 2:57 am

    put the word "总统"(president) before the name is not an error. If you write "president" after "Mubarak" in Chinese, it means "We demand (Our) president to step down.", and if you put "president" before "Mubarak"(as it shows in that board), it tends to mean that "We Egypt people tell you (chinese), we demand the current Egypt president Mubarak to step down."
    Simply put, the sentence as they showed, is not showed to Mubarak, it is showed to Chinese (that we egyptian indeed want Mubarak to step down, just in case you mistake us as Mubarak's supporter), they may know that chinese official Media may misguide chinese people in that issue.
    The man who posted it online put a line behind it: "Just in case chinese are watching."

  41. wchou said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 1:32 am

    To me "…总统穆巴拉克…" is totally grammatical. In this case 总统穆巴拉克 does not refer to "president Mubarak", but more like an appositive. It will read like, "the people of Egypt demands that the president (of Egypt), Mubarak, to step down." Of course in Chinese you don't put a comma in between 总统 and 穆巴拉克. Another example, in this news title”日本首相菅直人承认收政治献金拒绝辞职” (Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan admits receiving political contribution and refuses to resign), there is a clear entity (i.e. Japanese prime minister), and that his name is Naoto Kan. In fact, in a structure like this, the name 菅直人 or 穆巴拉克 can even be dropped, because there can only be one president of Egypt and one prime minister of Japan. But in the example of "Dr. Smith", since there are too many unidentified "doctors" in the world, the title can not go before the name. (You can test it by dropping the last name and see if the whole text still makes sense and doesn't cause reference problems , i.e. 日本首相/总统 vs. 医生)

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment