By now, practically everyone has heard of the remarkable basketball performances of Jeremy (Shu-How) Lin 林書豪, the Harvard grad who came off the bench for the New York Knicks last week and helped them win seven straight games.
So sensational has his play been that enthusiasts swiftly coined the term "Linsanity" to describe it. Of course, because Lin is of Chinese (er, Taiwanese [more about that later]) ancestry, there had to be a Mandarin equivalent. Unfortunately, I think that the translation of Linsanity, Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂, that was circulating most widely (267,000 ghits; had 212,000 ghits two days ago) is not a good one. No sooner had I heard the expression Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂 a few days ago than was I disappointed by it. Not only did it fail to capture the nuances of "Linsanity", it sounded as though it had been invented by someone who doesn't have a native feel for Chinese word formation. To quote Deadspin: "Our resident Chinese expert, Tom Scocca, gives the translation of 林疯狂 as "Lin-insane," which carries a somewhat different connotation." Tom Scocca's unease is not unfounded.
Let me analyze in greater depth and more detail why I believe that Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂 is a bad translation for Linsanity.
First of all, it is not cute or clever the way Linsanity is. It is clumsy and clunky; just doesn't sound right. Moreover, the rhythm is wrong for a Chinese word, and believe me, rhythm is very important for Chinese word formation. (This will be spelled out very clearly in Perry Link's forthcoming book entitled An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics, due out from Harvard University Press in the fall.)
Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂 actually sounds like a person's name, which, in English order, would mean something like "Insane Lin"! That certainly is not the impression we wish to convey when we shout "Linsanity"! Chinese trisyllabic nouns usually have their main constituent at the end, and what comes before modifies it: fēijīchǎng 飞机场 ("airport" [lit., "airplane field"]), dǎzìjī 打字机 ("typewriter" [lit., "strike character machine"]), huāshēngjiàng 花生酱 ("peanut butter" [lit., "peanut sauce"]), bōlípíng 玻璃瓶 ("glass bottle"), and so forth. Note that the rhythm is usually 2 (modifier / dependent) + 1 (modified / head noun). In this type of noun construction, 1 + 2 (which is how Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂 is constructed) doesn't scan well.
We might avoid the confusion with an inept personal name by reducing the fēngkuáng 疯狂 ("insane") part to just fēng 疯 or kuáng 狂 (both of which mean "mad; crazy; insane; wild"), hence Línfēng 林疯 or Línkuáng 林狂, but these don't sound right either. There are several reasons for that: a. they could still be awkward personal names (though the majority of Chinese names consist of one syllable for the surname and two syllables for the given name, there are many that are 1 +1, 2 + 1, or 2 +2, b. whereas fēngkuáng 疯狂 may be either a noun or an adjective, fēng 疯 and kuáng 狂 normally only function as adjectives, but we really need a noun in this position if we want to talk about "insanity".
So, what other alternatives are there? I will list some of them here, give their ghit numbers, and offer a few comments:
Línrè 林热 ("Lin craze") (663,000 ghits, though I can't guarantee that all of these are about Jeremy Lin) The problem is that this focuses on the rage and hoopla over Lin, while Linsanity includes his abandoned, exuberant style of play.
Lín shì xuànfēng 林氏旋风 ("Mr. Lin cyclone") (10,300 ghits) This expression is popular among certain circles in Taiwan, but it doesn't capture the flavor of Linsanity with regard to the wildness surrounding Jeremy Lin.
Lín shì fēngkuáng 林氏疯狂 ("Mr. Lin insanity") (2,200 ghits) dud
Lín shì fēng 林氏疯 ("Mr. Lin crazy") (7,490 ghits) sub-dud; a considerable proportion of these ghits include bào 暴 ("storm") at the end, hence Lín shì fēngbào 林氏疯暴 ("Mr. Lin crazy storm")
Lín shì kuáng 林氏狂 ("Mr. Lin mad") (1,280 ghits) sub-sub-dud
For nearly a week, I was in despair. Such a fantastic phenomenon as "Linsanity", yet such an unsatisfying rendering of that into Chinese as Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂!
Finally, however, a new translation of "Linsanity" surfaced, namely, Línláifēng 林来疯. Brilliant!! I fell in love with this rendering as soon as I encountered it. Not only does it capture the spontaneity of Jeremy Lin's moves and the thrills they evoke in the crowds who watch him, it is constructed in accordance with the rules for Chinese word formation. Moreover, like "Linsanity", which is modified from an actual English word, Línláifēng 林来疯 is transformed from a real Chinese expression: rénláifēng 人来疯 ("get hyped up in front of an audience"). Perfect!
I was particularly pleased and enormously gratified when I noticed that the number of ghits for Línláifēng 林来疯 had soared from 155,000 two days ago to 683,000 today! This shows that, when an excellent, idiomatic translation is made, people recognize it and approve of it enthusiastically. So the problem of how to translate Línláifēng 林来疯 into Chinese has been solved, and beautifully so.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Lin's surname seems made for spinning off coinages based upon it. Here are a few I've heard in recent days:
Linderella (New York Post, Sydney Morning Herald)
Lin-plausible (Los Angeles Times)
Lin-sational (USA Today)
Limmense (here, which also suggests many other possibilities)
Now come the non-linguistic problems, such as whether Jeremy Lin is American, or Taiwanese, or Chinese, and to what extent his Christian faith helps him play such astounding basketball. The internet is abuzz with discussions on these topics, and politicians are making pronouncements and claims. But I'm sure that Jeremy Lin is unfazed by all of it. He's the type of guy who just loves to play basketball, so he's not going to get bent out of shape by identity issues (the same as Yo-yo Ma, who doesn't care whether he's French, American, or Chinese, or something else; he just loves to play the cello — and, like Jeremy Lin playing basketball, he plays the cello with abandon and utmost finesse).
Embedded in this Savage Minds post by Kerim Friedman is a Next Media Animation (NMA) video from Taiwan. Because I'm in China, I cannot see it, but friends have told me that it shows Jeremy Lin throwing flaming basketballs at Yao Ming, as mentioned in "The Political Footballization Of Jeremy Lin Has Begun".
As a former Ivy League basketball player, I'm as moonstruck as anyone over Jeremy Lin's dazzling displays of sheer gutsiness and finesse. Nonetheless, I care enough about Chinese that I don't want his fans around the world to be calling him "Insane Lin" when what they really want to be saying is the Chinese equivalent of "Linsanity".
[Thanks to Mandy Chan, Gianni Wan, Zhao Lu, Ben Zimmer, Perry Link, Alan Chin, An Rong Xu, Bonlap Chan, Nelson Ching, Mien-hwa Chiang, Grace Wu, Yunong Zhou, Liwei Jiao, Daniel Maas, Nathan Hopson, and Rebecca Fu]