Just the Queen invites irrigation

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Victor Mair sent in this picture of a bilingual sign from a public bathroom. The Chinese text means "Please flush after using."

Homework: figure out how the translation came to pass. (Credit will not be given for vague references to Monty Python skits.)

Hint: look up "queen" in the dictionary, and then see what else 后 (hòu) can mean; etc.

Victor explains, character by character:

BIAN4 can mean "then, in that case; just; even if" and lots of other things, but here it is a shortened form for both DA4BIAN4 ("excrement") and XIAO3BIAN4 ("urine"), used verbally. Incidentally, BIAN4 is an abbreviation of FANG1BIAN4 ("convenience"), which derives from a medieval Buddhist euphemism (< Sanskrit UPAYA ["skillful means," i.e., "convenience"]) used by monks and nuns when they needed to go to the lavatory.

HOU4 ("queen, empress"), but here it is being used for the homophone HOU4 ("after"). This is one of those very frequent cases where the simplified characters play mischief with inexperienced translators, since the traditional form of HOU4 ("after") was 後 (9 strokes), whereas the simplified form used on this notice is 后 (6 strokes), with a mighty saving of 3 strokes, but a great loss of clarity.

QING3 ("please; invite; request; ask [a favor]; let; engage, hire [a teacher, etc.]"). This graph is involved in a significant proportion of Chinglish howlers, since only a human being who is fully fluent in both Chinese and English can figure out when to use which sense in a particular translation, whereas machines and partially knowledgeable individuals are more likely to botch the job than get it right, since there are so many quite different possible meanings depending upon the circumstances.

CHONG1 ("charge, rush, dash; clash, collide; pour boiling water on; rinse, flush; develop [film]; flat stretch in a hilly area") and much else besides, especially when pronounced in the fourth tone, which I won't go into now.

XI3 ("wash; rinse")

The last two characters should be joined as one word, CHONG1XI3, meaning "flush, rinse, wash; develop (film); irrigate (in medical terminology)."

The ambiguity of the second character would have been greatly reduced if the bisyllabic term YI3HOU4 以后 (i.e., 以後) had been used. This would also bring the expression more in line with spoken Mandarin, though there is always an incentive to get away with using fewer characters in writing, even at the expense of lucidity.

More linguistic fun with bian : "Linguistic Advice in the Lavatory: Speaking Mandarin is a great convenience for everyone", 9/11/2007.

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