"Let It Go!" in Chinese

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Natasha Heller called to my attention the fact that there are several Chinese covers of the Oscar-winning song "Let It Go", from the blockbuster Disney computer-animated film "Frozen".

The title (also the refrain) of the song is variously rendered as:

1. Mainland Mandarin

suí tā ba 隨它吧 (lit., "follow / let /allow — it — FINAL PARTICLE indicating suggestion, command, or request")

subtitles:  a. pinyin romanization with tones but each syllable separate (not joined as words); b. Chinese characters; c. English translation of the Chinese

2. Taiwan Mandarin

fàng kāi shǒu 放開手 (lit., "release /set free — open — hand")

subtitles:  a. English translation of the Chinese; b. Chinese characters

3. Taiwanese

ràng tā qù 讓它去 (lit., "let — it — go") (for reasons that will be explained below, I have given the pronunciation in Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM], not Taiwanese)

subtitles:  Chinese only, but this version freely interweaves English into the Chinese, and even gives an explicit Chinese definition of "Let it go":  "the meaning of 'Let it go' is 'ràng tā qù 讓它去'".

Nathasha originally wrote to me to ask my opinion about which of the three translation I thought captured the spirit and feeling of the English original best.  Before turning to that question, I want to focus on the Taiwanese version, because it raises some very interesting issues about writing systems in China.
As soon as I saw the Taiwanese title, ràng tā qù 讓它去, I said to myself, "That doesn't sound very Taiwanesey to me!"  Doubting that this version really was authentic Taiwanese, I started listening to it, and it wasn't very long before I realized that everywhere the subtitles wrote ràng tā qù 讓它去, the singer actually sang something quite different.  Namely, it sounded to me like "ho yi ki" or something of that sort.  Knowing full well that you can't get "ho yi ki" out of ràng tā qù 讓它去, I embarked on an investigation to find out where the actual title and refrain came from, since they clearly weren't directly from ràng tā qù 讓它去.

I soon determined that what the singer was actually saying was indeed hoo7 yi khì 吙伊去, but was forced by circumstances and custom to write ràng tā qù 讓它去.  Before I'm finished with this, it will become apparent how beastly difficult it is to write anything but Literary Sinitic (LS) and MSM with characters.

The first character, huō 吙, usually means "exhale" or serves as an exclamation of surprise in MSM and in LS.  In Taiwanese, however, it is used to transcribe the sound of a Chinese morpheme, hoo7, meaning "let; cause; allow".

The second character, yi 伊, is not often used in MSM, but when it is (borrowed from other topolects and from LS), it means "he, she".

The third character, khì 去, still means "go" as in MSM.

I also noticed a lot of other places in the song where what he sings doesn't match the characters that are written.  This is because there's a discrepancy between written and spoken Taiwanese that results from the fact that there has never been a standardized system for writing Taiwanese with Chinese characters.

"No character for the most frequent morpheme in Taiwanese"

"Our Taiwan"

If anyone ever tries to tell you that Taiwanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and dozens of other Sinitic topolects are "all the same when written down", you can politely inform them that they simply don't know the grammar, lexicon, and syntax of these different languages.  As has been pointed out again and again on Language Log, especially with regard to Cantonese, normally what gets written down is Mandarin, not Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and so forth.  In other words, native speakers of Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, etc. must learn a second language, Mandarin, if they are to become literate according to the standards of educational authorities.

As a Taiwanese speaking colleague, who cannot read and write Taiwanese put it:

…[S]ince most people in Taiwan (even those who speak Taiwanese as a native language) never learned how to transcribe it either in romanization or in characters, they tend to transcribe it using Mandarin by meaning instead of by sound. I think that's why they use 讓它去 instead of 吙伊去. I think this is the result of the language education policy in Taiwan; at school we never learned POJ [VHM:  Church Romanization] or the standard way to transcribe Taiwanese using characters.

And, from a Taiwanese speaking graduate student:

I think that is one of the issues about transcribing Taiwanese into the Chinese script now. Sometimes it will be written with the Chinese characters of the same meaning; sometimes, it will be transcribed with the Chinese scripts with the same sound. It is not consistent even in the same song.

From yet another Taiwanese speaking graduate student:

…[A]s you know, Taiwanese has no written language yet.

In general, there is a poorness of fit between the Chinese characters and all spoken Sinitic languages, even local versions of Mandarin.  The forte of Chinese characters is for book language, not the vernaculars and colloquial languages.

I'll just give one more example of the contortions one has to go through to write even the simplest Taiwanese in characters.  I remember from my first days in Taiwan (1970-72) that people were fond of calling my baby son "kasúi" ("pretty; beautiful").  I was never certain how to write that expression in characters, but later I found that the "súi" part was written with the character shuǐ 水, which means "water"!  Of course, writing this Taiwanese morpheme with the character 水 doesn't mean that it has anything whatsoever to do with water.  It's merely being used to convey the sound of the Taiwanese morpheme.

I noticed, in watching the video, that when Elsa asks if she's pretty, she uses this morpheme and a Taiwanese interrogative (bo), but the subtitle — supposedly in Taiwanese — actually has "piàoliang ma 漂亮嗎", which is MSM.

Some folks borrow the character tuó 媠 ("pretty") to write the meaning of the Taiwanese morpheme.  So these are the two main strategies for writing Taiwanese (and other topolects) with Chinese characters:  borrowing the characters for  a. their sound, b. their meaning.  Thus, sometimes the characters are being used as semantic equivalents and sometimes as phonetic transcriptions  Naturally, the words of Taiwanese and Mandarin often overlap, in which case the characters can be used directly, both for their sound (though their sounds are not identical) and their meaning, and need not be borrowed for one or the other.

By the way, hoo7 yi khì 吙伊去 is also the Taiwanese translation of the Beatles song "Let it be".

This raises the interesting question of the different nuances between English "Let it be" and "Let it go".

Now, to turn to Natasha's question, which of these three (actually four, counting the real Taiwanese one) Chinese translations of "Let it go" best conveys the sentiment of the English original?  The following are comments by my colleagues and students.

From a professional lecturer on Mandarin who is also a native speaker of Taiwanese:

Thanks for sending the links. I watched the film in the theater and have heard the song in English many times. However, this is the first time I heard it in Chinese and Taiwanese.

The first one (随它吧) is made in Mainland China. The lyrics are closest to the original English lyrics and the phrases are short, easy to remember, and rhyme well. If I am going to perform the song myself, I will pick this version. It sounds more natural to me. However, 随它吧 is actually the translation of "Let it be" rather than "Let it go".

The second one (放开手) is made in Taiwan. The lyrics are more literary and use more long and ornate phrases. While it may read well as a poem, it doesn't sound as natural as a song. It gives me the feeling that the writer is trying too hard, but as a result it sounds awkward. Also, 放开手 is closer to "Let go" rather than "Let it go" in English.

The third one (让它去) is in Taiwanese. It's apparently a mocking song because the lyrics are hilarious and they use a male voice to perform the song. However, the combination of Taiwanese and English in the lyrics actually match perfectly. Because the purpose of this version is to produce humor, the lyrics are least like the original. However, 让它去 is actually the closest translation to "Let it Go" in English, though in Taiwanese 让它去 is pronounced more like "乎伊去"

I would say my favorite is the first one. If I am going to perform in a rather formal occasion, I will use the first version. However, if the performance is mostly to make it fun, I will use the third one.

From a senior lecturer on Mandarin and Taiwanese:

The third one is all Taiwanese, and the lyrics are very different from the original. It's really hilarious. There are a few Taiwanese slang expressions such as "靠北"khao2 pe7(哭爸-如丧考妣)骂人的话,用词不太文雅,意思是"不要乱吵"。however, I feel the lyrics are sooo cute!

I like the second one better, the Chinese lyrics are great.

From a mainland graduate student:

I think the first one is the best of the three. Although I am not familiar with Taiwanese, the third version is really in that language to me. About the translation, I think "随它吧" is a better translation for "let it go". Also, the second one and third one are too obviously from a translation for me, but the first one doesn't have many marks of translation.

From a Taiwanese graduate student:

I prefer "讓它去", the third version.  It really is in Taiwanese. I was laughing out loud!!
It is "KUSO" ("crappy; shitty; corny"), a notion borrowed from Japan that has spread over all of East Asia. (For "KUSO", see this Wikipedia article.)

This is an good example of KUSO culture in Taiwan.

From a mainland graduate student:

Did you notice that the English subtitles are different? They fit the corresponding Chinese lines well.

The first one is my favorite.

隨它吧 sounds the best, for it reveals the Queen's 大氣灑脫的 ("free and easy; carefree; easygoing") personality. If you use 放手, you mean one person was haunted by something for a long time and tried very hard, and at last chose to let it go, perhaps reluctantly.

From a Taiwanese graduate student:

Comparing these three versions, if I am asked to choose between the two Mandarin versions, I would choose the second one, the Taiwan version translated into Chinese. The reasons are because lyrics written in Taiwan (it is a tendency in Mandarin songs in Taiwan) are prone to use 4-word idioms, such as 暴雨奔騰, 冰雪風霜. In addition, the wording in Taiwan version is also more poetic, more like song lyrics. For example, at 2:39, the Taiwan version goes, 力量強大從地底"直竄雲宵", but the simplified version [VHM:  first one] goes, 我力量從空氣中擴散到地上. In addition, 放開手 in the Taiwan version  seems to have the same rhyme with "let it go." "隨他吧" did not sound that smoothly.

The third version, the Taiwanese one, is more like a vulgar and funny takeoff. Especially the lines in Taiwanese are not the direct translation of the original. It is the creative addition of the writer. Some vulgar uses are emphasized. For example, 天公伯  is like what folk people say 老天爺. "靠北 他們都知道" 靠北 is like Fxxk in English. At 1:20, 啥 T….毀 is interesting. Because it means originally the singer wants to sing 啥小(ㄒ一ㄠ\/), which is like "what the hell." But maybe he notices that it is inappropriate to say 啥小, so he changes suddenly to 啥毀, which is more like "what the heck."

My verdict:  "You pays your money and you takes your choice!"

[Thanks to Henning Kloeter, Melvin Lee, Grace Wu, Fangyi Cheng, Chia-hui Lu, Rebecca Fu, and Sophie Wei]



18 Comments

  1. Stephan Stiller said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 1:08 am

    1. Taiwanese translations of Western movie titles also tend towards 4-character phrases.
    2. I would think that the more literary style on TW reflects the fact that Mandarin came to Taiwan later and vernacularization was hence incomplete and hampered by a population that didn't speak it natively. Perhaps someone else can comment on this more.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 7:12 am

    Ben Zimmer mentioned the multilingual renditions of "Let It Go" in this post.

  3. Neil Tarrant said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 7:13 am

    Disney released a version of 'Let it Go' featuring '25 different languages' (although I believe this figure includes both Castilian/American Spanish and Metropolitan/Quebecois French): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC83NA5tAGE

    It includes some of the official Mandarin (~0:55 in the video), and Cantonese (~2:20) versions, and is quite an interesting listen for people who are interested in languages in general.

  4. Wentao said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 9:08 am

    I wonder if 吙 huō is truly an etymologically correct written form, or, just like 水 for "kasúi", just a phonetic transcription of the Taiwanese morpheme?

    I also find the absence of the most common [e] morpheme immensely interesting. According to the 本字 approach, it should be possible to trace the etymons of such unwritable topolectal morphemes to Middle Chinese or Old Chinese. I wonder if the 本字 of [e] has been found yet? Or is it possible that it is from a certain substratum of 越 Yue, and therefore may not even be Sino-Tibetan?

  5. Wentao said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 9:16 am

    @Neil Tarrant

    Thank you for your link – the Disney multi-language version is absolutely beautiful!

    On that note, I also recently came across a fan-made version, featuring 26 Sinitic topolects, sometimes with improvised lyrics. I find the result as hilarious and brilliant as the Taiwanese cover, and is a great example of the amazing linguistic diversity of China.

    http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNjgxNTk0NzM2.html

    Unfortunately, the subtitles are all, as Professor Mair noted in the post, in Mandarin.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 10:42 am

    @Wentao

    I agree with you that huō 吙 is just a phonetic transcription of a Taiwanese morpheme.

    I think that the 本字 approach is fallacious. I studied this problem very carefully about 20 years ago and discovered that in many instances the 本字 solutions were forced and often even absurd, without any solid philological grounding whatsoever. I quite agree with you that a considerable portion of these "unwritable" (in hanzi) words in Taiwanese and other topolects may well come from non-Sinitic substrates. Of course, quite a few non-Sinitic terms early on were adopted into mainstream Chinese so securely that characters had to be devised for them, such as the Austroasiatic words for "Yangtze" and "crossbow" studied by Jerry Norman and Tsu-Lin Mei.

    Finally, thank you very much for the link to that amazing video with "Let It Go" being sung in 26 different topolects. You can be sure that I will be sharing it far and wide.

  7. A-gu said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 10:55 am

    @Wentao, you ask about 吙 huō. The government currently suggests the character 予 for hō͘, and that character has at least two other pronunciations that seem to be historically correct (û in the literary 予取予求 û-tshú-û-kiû and ú in the 書面語 phrases like 施予 si-ú).

    So I think the government suggestion is very unlikely a 本字, the government seems to be borrowing the character more for meaning than for real etymology.

    Lack of a proper character choice for [e] is often attributed to the possibility that this word came from the 東越 Dong Yue languages of ancient Fujian and creeped into the Min language.

    A couple of my favorite characters the government has started to use in their educational materials:

    啉 lim (Mandarin readings lan1, lan2, lan4) v. to drink.
    Most often represented in current KTV videos as 喝 or 飲. Although 啉 lim is not in common use and is not even listed in the online 國語辭典,there are historical and phonetic reasons for picking it. It's damn close to the Mandarin reading you might try on first glance, līn, and in second tone meant "to drink to completion."

    仝 kâng / kāng (Mandarin readings tong2, quan2) together (as in 仝款 kāng-khóan, "the same").
    Often represented as 共. 仝 kâng is a historical varient of both 同 and 全.

    佮 kah (Mandarin reading ge2) with/and (as in 我佮你, you and me). In Mandarin, this character is a varient of 合 he2, making this choice pretty good for both sound and ease of understanding just by looking. See the phrase 佮意 kah-ì, "interest" (有佮意 "interested [in]").

    佇 tī (Mandarin reading zhu4) dwell or live at ;stay or wait at; be at
    Historically meaning 久立, something like "to stand/be established in one place for a long time."

  8. A-gu said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 11:43 am

    The Taiwan grad student mentions 啥小, and while this is the most common representation, I prefer 啥潲 siánn-siâu which is probably the historical character choice as well.

  9. Alec said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

    If I'm remembering correctly, 伊 was used at least in some Mandarin-ish vernacular less than a hundred years ago. If we assume that 魯迅 wrote in his vernacular, and I *think* he did although I'm not sure about my memory on that, he uses it all over the place in his writing as an explicitly-female third-person singular.

    See https://zh.wikisource.org/wiki/%E4%B8%80%E4%BB%B6%E5%B0%8F%E4%BA%8B for an example from 魯迅

  10. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

    It is very good to have this expert, up-to-date information from A-gu.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

    @Alec

    That's a good example of how Mandarin absorbs elements from the topolects. Mandarin is full of words from Cantonese, and there are quite a few from Shanghainese too.

  12. Wentao said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 6:42 pm

    @A-gu
    Thank you for the great examples. It's quite surprising to see obscure characters such as 仝 popping out in vernacular Taiwanese though. Maybe the word has been in circulation in speech for thousands of years, but hardly ever recorded in writing? Maybe it was derived from a regional variation of, say, 共, and later assigned a character? Or maybe it's a result of different phonological developments of the same Classical Chinese word? I'm very curious about the evidence given by the government in choosing the specific characters.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 11:14 pm

    From a native Taiwanese speaker in Hawaii:

    I like Victor's verdict: you pays the money, you takes your choice!
    讓它去 is written as 付/乎/予伊去in Taiwanese, the last ho is more etymologically correct. When you say you are using Mandarin characters for their meaning, you really mean that you are using those phonetic characters for what they are supposed to indicate semantically in Mandarin, since讓它去were phonetic indicators to begin with.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 11:23 pm

    From a native Taiwanese speaker in Chicago (her husband is also a native speaker of Taiwanese):

    I strongly recommend you watch the Taiwanese version of "Let it go". I laughed so hard, tears rolled down, and I was so happy that this email meant for academic discussions brought such joy to my morning!

    I also read all the comments by the graduate students and Chinese teachers at UPenn. Who would have guessed that Taiwanese students would favor the Taiwanese version and Chinese students favored the Mainland Chinese (!) except for one Taiwanese teacher (who favored the Chinese version, Traitor!). :)

    I just have a little comment about the comment made by a grad student:

    =====

    "At 1:20, 啥 T….毀 is interesting. Because it means originally the singer wants to sing 啥小(ㄒ一ㄠ\/), which is like "what the hell." But maybe he notices that it is inappropriate to say 啥小, so he changes suddenly to 啥毀, which is more like 'what the heck.'"

    =====

    According to my husband, the second morpheme of 啥小(ㄒ一ㄠ\/) is the ejaculated semen, which is only appropriate among males when cussing. The Taiwanese version is obviously not meant to translate the song, but another way to "entertain." I feel that both 啥小(ㄒ一ㄠ\/) 啥毀just meant "what", not what the hell or what the heck. They are just crude variations of "sha-mi".

  15. W. Sun said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 12:47 am

    I got distracted by the heated debate on whether if Taiwanese people should write in English on Youtube, in the comments below the Taiwanese version.

  16. A-gu said,

    March 24, 2014 @ 2:54 pm

    @Victor, My wife says 啥潲 siánn-siâu all the time, but then again she curses with the best of the boys.

  17. A-gu said,

    March 24, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

    @Wentao, just guessing on motive, but maybe the gov suggesting the word 仝 was done because they felt the word was different from 共 kiōng as in 總共 chóng-kiōng, and they maybe figured 仝 happened to be available.

  18. 方思宇 said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

    This comment is both linguistically and dramatically perceptive; so many others miss the point of translation. (It's not about you.)

    "The first one is my favorite.

    "隨它吧 sounds the best, for it reveals the Queen's 大氣灑脫的 ('free and easy; carefree; easygoing') personality. If you use 放手, you mean one person was haunted by something for a long time and tried very hard, and at last chose to let it go, perhaps reluctantly."

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