Archive for Lost in translation

(T)horny Platonists

From Bryan Van Norden:

There is a funny story about a recent publication of mine.  The Chinese translation of my essay, "Why Are Platonists So Horny? What Murdoch’s 'The Nice and the Good' Can Teach Us" just came out.  However, my hard-working translator mistakenly rendered "horny" in my original title (sèmí 色迷) as "thorny" (jíshǒu 棘手)! I told the translator, and he said that he will fix the mistake, so in case it is changed soon online, a screenshot of the original is copied below.

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Wade not dangerous near

From Geoffrey Wade, of all people:

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Saliva chicken

We've alluded to this Sichuanese dish in posts and comments several times before on Language, but this is the first time I have captured it in the wild (at Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House in Philadelphia's Chinatown):

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Chinesey Japanese in a Hong Kong restaurant

From Zihan Guo:

Yesterday a friend of mine posted this photograph he took in a restaurant called 興記菜館 in Hong Kong. As a Chinese speaker and Japanese learner I find this hilarious.

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The only rex

From a Chinese fish market:

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"Classic Female Poison Earplugs" — Ask Language Log

Image and query from Hans Oddvar Vannes:

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Hemorrhoids outbreak

Article by Stephanie Chiang in Taiwan News (9/2/21):

"Chinese censorship: Media creator substitutes ‘hemorrhoids outbreak’ for ‘plague’

Mobile game developers having to make concessions to appease Chinese censors"

Censorship in the PRC is going from the ridiculous to the pathetic.  We have just been studying the government's attacks on "girlie men" and the authorities are also assailing "entertainment that is too entertaining".  Here's the latest chapter in the CCP handbook dedicated to eradicating everything that is immoral and improper.

Players of the Chinese role-playing mobile game "Entwined Love Across Time" posted screenshots ridiculing in-game dialogue that showed characters discussing the aftermath of a “hemorrhoids outbreak,” UDN reported on Sunday (Aug. 29).

After the screenshots were posted to Weibo (China’s Twitter equivalent), a user claiming to be the creator of the game replied that because censors forbade any mention of the word “plague,” he had replaced the word with “hemorrhoids.” This resulted in a bizarre in-game conversation in the story-based game, in which a character recounts living through “hemorrhoids,” which taught him that “hemorrhoids are not to be feared, as human nature is much more fearsome than hemorrhoids.”

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Live life to drugs

Geoff Wade picked this up from Twitter, but you can find similar signs on Reddit,, and any number of other sites.  Who knows where it began, but it seems to have become a standard meme translation of the Chinese slogan.

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Pork floss Beckham

That's the name of a delectable Chinese nosh made famous by this pastry shop.  The name of the snack in Chinese is "ròusōng xiǎobèi 肉鬆小貝" ("pork floss little cowry / cowrie"), after its shape and the main ingredient of the covering in which it is encased.

If you look up the English name in this encyclopedia entry, it gives "Pork floss Beckham".  What?  How did that happen?

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"Train hard, dream big"

[This is a guest post by Bernhard Riedel]

I stumbled across what was probably a mis-MT in the context of the Olympic Games.  (article in Korean)

"During a foot kick on the way to the gold medal, some hangul became visible. But…"

On the black belt of the athlete from Spain, one can see "기차 하드, 꿈 큰" which is wonderful gibberish. Netizens in Korea were puzzled but also quick to guess an erroneous machine translation.

기차(汽車): (railway) train (definitely *not* related to "to train")
하드: (en:hard, transliterated)
꿈: dream (noun built from the verb 꾸다(to dream) with the nominalizer ㅁ/음)
큰: big (from the verb 크다) in the form used when modifying a noun that follows

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Uncommon words of anguish

From a manual for a thermal printer:

Dǎyìn kòngzhì bǎn nèizhì GB18030 Zhōngwén zìkù, chèdǐ miǎnchú shēngpì zì de kǔnǎo

打印控制板内置 GB18030 中文字库,彻底免除生僻字的苦恼

Printer control panel built-in GB18030 Chinese character, thoroughly remove the uncommon words of anguish

(courtesy of Amy de Buitléir)

A more accurate English translation would be:

Printer control panel with built-in GB18030 Chinese character font, thoroughly removing the anguish brought about by uncommon / obscure characters

"GB" stands for "guóbiāo 国标" ("national standard"), and is used for many technical terms in the PRC (another instance of encroaching digraphia, for which see here and here [with extensive bibliography]).

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"Phrenology for words"

Jake Eberts, "Why Do Analysts Keep Talking Nonsense About Chinese Words?", Foreign Policy 7/6/2021:

Imagine that you are cornered at a party when the topic of race comes up. Your interlocutor tells you that, in the English language, “race” can refer to both a competition wherein one tries to outrun the others and a visually identifiable group of people sharing common ancestry. It is no wonder that racism has been such an intractable issue in the Anglosphere; the very word embodies a sense of competition among different peoples.

You quickly spot a friend on the other side of the room because you understand using a literal reading of a vocabulary item to explain the origins, evolution, and persistence of racism in the Anglosphere is completely ridiculous.

For Chinese speakers, however, this is a frustratingly common experience. The sheer novelty and exoticism of a character-based Eastern language to most English readers mean these spurious dissections of Chinese words can easily be passed off as impressive sociolinguistic insight.

The nature of characters themselves, and the common but wrong idea that they’re pictographs, makes this tempting. But most characters in Chinese consist of two—or more—elements: a semantic component that relates to the meaning of the word and a phonetic one that indicates how it sounds. That phonetic component has no relationship to its meaning. The word for “mother,” for instance, contains “horse” because the word for horse is ma and so (pronounced slightly differently) is the word for mother.

Throw in that many components have multiple meanings, and you get mistakes like claiming that a penguin is a “business goose.” (The component actually means “stand up”; it’s a tippy-toe goose.) On top of that, most words are made up of multiple characters, for a range of reasons.

None of this stops glib foreign analysts from making grand declarations about the meaning of Chinese words based on entirely false linguistic premises with a heavy splash of Orientalism. I just call it phrenology for words.

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Advanced mission

Photo taken in the bathroom of Watt Mann, a thrift store in Sagamihara, Japan:

(Source: the Facebook group Engrish in Japan)

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