Intrafamilial Transmission Between

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Michael Rank sent me the following photograph:

David Feng, who posted this photograph on Flickr, captioned it thus: "This Chinglish is so scary…."

Yes, the Chinglish is scary, but the Chinese is ostensibly fairly mundane:

cuōzǎo jiān 搓澡间 ("rubdown room")

Sometimes cuōzǎo jiān 搓澡间 is translated as "bath room", which is at best a loose rendering.

As to exactly what goes on in a cuōzǎo jiān 搓澡间, in them clients may receive a rubdown with a damp towel, an energetic massage, or other services.

Now, to explain how the baffling Chinglish came about, let us begin with the last character, jiān / jiàn 间. Pronounced in the 4th tone, it means "space; separate; sow discord". In the 1st tone, it means "among; between; room". So the problem with "Between" in the Chinglish is that the translator chose the wrong meaning for jiān 间 ("among; between; room").

I have written about this error before in "Water between"; cf. "Opens the waterhouse; open water rooms". Here are some analogous terms:

xǐshǒujiān 洗手間 (lit., "wash hand room" –> "toilet; lavatory; restroom; water closet")

xǐzǎojiān 洗澡間 (lit., "wash bath room" –> "bathroom")

So much for jiān / jiàn 间.

Moving on, how we get from cuōzǎo 搓澡 (lit., "rub bath"; i.e., "rubdown") to "intrafamilial transmission" is even more mystifying than getting from jiān / jiàn 间 to "between", which, as we have seen, is not really very difficult at all.

I began my investigation of this puzzler by doing a back translation from "intrafamilial transmission" to Chinese. I wanted to see what how to say "intrafamilial transmission" in Chinese. I was stunned and elated when I found that both Google Translate and Baidu Fanyi give none other than cuōzǎo 搓澡 ("rubdown"). Paydirt!

Of course, that's not the end of the story, because we still have to figure out why they give such a seemingly weird translation of the English ("intrafamilial transmission") in Chinese (cuōzǎo 搓澡 ["rubdown"]). At least we have determined that there is an unmistakable connection between the two, and that it is not entirely random.

Before proceeding, I should mention that, for "intrafamilial transmission", Bing Translator gives jiātíng nèi chuánshū 家庭内传输 , which is a more direct and transparent rendering of the English. So far as I can tell, however, jiātíng nèi chuánshū 家庭内传输 always refers to wireless setups within the home.

On the other hand, if we search the web for "intrafamilial transmission" and "cuōzǎo 搓澡" together, we find that they are linked on many Chinese sites. It is curious that these joint occurrences of "intrafamilial transmission" and "cuōzǎo 搓澡" invariably are to be found in the context of salmonella, hepatitis, and other communicable diseases that result from close contact within the family or in, yes, rubdown rooms. It would seem that this is a real concern for cuōzǎo gōng 搓澡工 ("rubdown workers / specialists"). This, then, accounts for the link between "intrafamilial transmission" and "cuōzǎo 搓澡". Case closed.

N.B.: jiātíng nèi chuánrǎn 家庭内传染 ("infection within the family") is also to be found on the web, but only in very rare instances (6 ghits) in combination with ("intrafamilial infection").

[Hat tip Michael Rank; thanks to Fangyi Cheng]


  1. Michael Rank said,

    February 4, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

    Still no comments! This must be a LL record… I find this Chinglish unusually opaque, it's quite bizarre that someone really thought this was the right (or at least good enough) translation and had it made into an official (as it were) sign…

  2. Victor Mair said,

    February 4, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

    @Michael Rank

    I feel the same way as you. I kept coming back here to see if there were any comments and was surprised each time that there were none.

  3. JS said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

    This is first an interesting reflection of the mechanics of Google Translate — which must in part involve mechanized searches of bilingual (already-translated) texts for translational equivalents. At times like the above, the postulated correspondence proves incorrect.

    More humorously, it suggest a feedback loop could be in place where text on the web is machine-translated using Google and then comes in turn to serve as additional support for the incorrect correspondence invoked in its creation…

  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 6:24 pm

    Ah, Michael, now we're "cookin' with gas", as my Mom used to say. Though it is highly rarefied, what JS says makes good sense in terms of what must actually have happened to result in this ludicrous mistranslation.

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