Beat of the person awarded

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Steven Marzuola writes:

I am a technical translator and amateur linguist, and Language Log is part of my regular reading.
So is reddit, and tonight it led me to this link, which is a set of pictures taken by a young couple living in China.
They're all interesting, but the one I wanted you to see is the last one:


I quickly read through hundreds of the comments on the imgur gallery (some of them are pretty funny, most are inane), and quite a few of them mentioned the wording on this bag, but none of them attempted to explain the Chinglish, so I suppose I'll have to do that myself.

What the Chinese really says is this:

jiǎng gěi zuì niúbī de rén 奖给最牛逼的人
("awarded to the most awesome person")

The Chinglish is so garbled that it's hard to know where to begin to make sense of it.

The key thing, of course, is the expression niúbī 牛逼, which I've translated as "awesome", but it literally means "cow cunt" (I'm not kidding). We've mentioned this ubiquitous term quite a few times on Language Log before (see, for example, here, here, here, and here).

Among the more detailed and direct comments on niúbī 牛逼 are this one by Bob Violence and this one by bocaj (second paragraph; -ing, which is discussed in the first paragraph, is still alive and well in Chinese, as we've documented in this post [see also the links provided for further information]).

All right, so now we know what niúbī 牛逼 (also often written as 牛B or niuB) really means. As to how it got twisted into "beat", the translator may have been so uncool that he / she was unfamiliar with this vulgar expression and simply rendered it as "beat" in an effort to catch an approximation of the sound of the second syllable (the crucial one).

As for the remainder, "awarded to", "most", and "person" are all straightforward, so even the densest human translator or worst machine translation software should have been able to deal with them, but somehow they failed to catch the "most".

It's a stylish little bag, and I wouldn't mind having one, but the Chinese wording automatically eliminates over half of the potential customers who might be in need of such a container. The Chinglish would probably repel another quarter of the potential customers for such a zipper bag. Those who remain as possible purchasers would be Chinese who actually like the vulgarity of niúbī 牛逼 and people who don't know Chinese that think the Chinglish is daffily cute.



17 Comments

  1. Rachael said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 1:39 pm

    I thought "beat" was an error for "best" (either an adjacent keyboard typo, or misreading handwriting). "Best of the person awarded" contains all the right concepts, just wrong syntax.

  2. Nuno said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 1:51 pm

    Maybe beat is a typo for best. A and S are right next to each other on a QWERTY keyboard.

  3. fs said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 3:20 pm

    Hmm. Maybe I should avoid using 'newbie' nowadays, not least to avoid confusion with this new-to-me slang term.

  4. j2h said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

    I was curious to see how machine translators handled this phrase, so I tried a couple; Baidu Fanyi came up with "Award for the best men", which is more or less accurate, even if it doesn't really capture the sense of "niubi".

    Google Translate's attempt was more interesting: "Who awarded newbest", with "最牛逼" alone being translated as "newbest" (Baidu gives "The most Niubi" for the same).

    Despite having a vague interest in Chinese internet culture I've never before witnessed "newbest" as a translation for 最牛逼 – it does kind of sound like an attempted English-ish equivalent coinage along the lines of "niubility", albeit probably one by a native Chinese speaker attempting to approximate the sound of "niu" with an English word, since an English speaker would probably not interpret "newbest" as anything other than "new best" or possibly "newb-est" (as in "most newbie-like") and indeed most Google results for "newbest" seem to reflect one of those two intentions.

    However, searching for "newbest" together with "最牛逼" returns this (somewhat) bilingual article:
    http://edu.sina.com.cn/en/2013-12-20/121378490.shtml

    which has a few attempted translations of "niubi" and related terms tacked on the end, with one suggestion being "newby" "newber" and "newbest". Of course "newby" would never catch on as a translation in English as it's far too similar to "newbie", but it seems to have been used by a few Chinese-speakers, and this is where Google presumably picked it up.

    (Incidentally, for "牛逼" (niubi) alone, Google offers "Regressed" first, with alternate choices being "Niubi" or "Fast hardware", while Baidu gives "Niubility"; for "牛屄" ("niubi" written with the real character for "bi") Google gives "Niubi" and Baidu the charmingly literal "Bovine vaginal orifice")

  5. chiếu trúc việt nam said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 10:38 pm

    Maybe beat is a typo for best chiếu trúc việt nam

  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 13, 2014 @ 2:22 am

    I'm convinced by several of the commenters who suggested that "beat" was meant to be "best", which means that the translator completely ignored the niuB part, unless — which is possible, especially if they were ignorant or squeamish about the real meaning of niuB — they collapsed the ideas of "most" and "awesome" into "best" = "beat".

    I'd better not say what the real etymology of the common term chuīniú 吹牛 (lit., "blow-cow" = "brag; boast; bull; blast; bazoo; talk big") is, or you might be disenchanted with this colorful expression too.

  7. Adrian said,

    June 13, 2014 @ 5:37 am

    I'd quite like a bag for "decent women".

  8. JS said,

    June 13, 2014 @ 8:40 am

    Tons of these change purses in the Beijing stalls these days; most are perfectly normal (stupid) jokes like "spending money from my wife," etc., but the one I was tempted to buy read 毛主席夸我会聊天 because, WTF? Maybe there is a back story I don't know.

  9. Matt Anderson said,

    June 13, 2014 @ 10:29 am

    Some of what's printed on those purses is quite unexpected. I saw one last year in Shanghai which reproduced a text-only flyer for an early 80's punk show in San Francisco. On it was simply printed, in Helvetica:

    MINUTEMEN
    MEAT PUPPETS
    DESCENDENTS
    ANGST
    ON BROADWAY Saturday January 22 9pm $6

    The woman carrying it couldn't have looked less punk rock or interested in underground music. Apparently it looks cool?

  10. hanmeng said,

    June 13, 2014 @ 7:18 pm

    @Matt Anderson,

    I'm convinced that most Chinese pay little or no attention to the (non-Chinese and usually English) expressions on their clothes or accessories.

    …unless it's a luxury brand.

  11. Chas Belov said,

    June 14, 2014 @ 6:09 am

    @Matt Anderson: There used to be a trend for football jackets having totally out-of-context content on the back. I remember seeing the following on the back of a jacket in SF about 10-20 years ago.

    Because … uses only the finest hops this humble Czech hops picker can feed his family.

    where … was presumably the brand of some Czech beer.

    The wearer appeared Asian, not European.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    June 14, 2014 @ 8:29 am

    @JS: I remember seeing this somewhere, but forget what the context is:

    Máo zhǔxí kuā wǒ huì liáotiān 毛主席夸我会聊天
    ("Chairman Mao praised me for being able to chat")

    It's fairly prevalent on the web. I'm trying to figure out how this came about it and what it signifies.

    Meanwhile, it's a bit easier to document a similar sentence that's all the rage, namely:

    Máo zhǔxí kuā wǒ zhǎng dé shuài 毛主席夸我长得帅
    ("Chairman Mao praised me for being handsome")


    And there is another related saying that comes from the title of a book composed by Jiang Qing (Mao's wife), which was quite popular during the Cultural Revolution:

    Yào wèi rénmín lì xīn gōng 要为人民立新功
    ("[We] should make new contributions to the people")


    Here's a picture of the zipper bag that JS was talking about:

    This is a canvas purse / wallet you can buy online or in some gift stores. Note the Chinglish mistranslation printed on the bottom.

    There is a whole series of such products with Máo zhǔxí kuā wǒ XXX 毛主席夸我XXX ("Chairman Mao praised me for XXX") printed on them. Randy Alexander mentioned to me that XXX could be "parking the car", "boiling eggs", whatever.

    Here's another nice one about Chairman Mao praising Obama for being handsome:

    Both pictures are from online stores. Apparently, young Chinese have developed a special brand of humor. As Randy Alexander put it, "Lighthearted sarcastic self-deprecation from an increasingly affluent middle class?"

  13. Victor Mair said,

    June 14, 2014 @ 9:01 am

    @JS

    From the memoirs of Lǐ Zhìsuí 李志绥, Mao's personal physician ( The private life of Chairman Mao: the memoirs of Mao's private physician), as recounted by a Penn graduate student from the PRC:

    =====

    At the first sight, it came up to me that it's said by Mao's private doctor 李志绥. I happen to have read 李志绥's memoir in Profossor Waldron's class.

    In this memoir, he recorded his first private meeting with Mao, beside a pool. By then he just finished his study in Australia and came back to Beijing, got a job as the doctor for some high officials in CPC. After a while he was recommended by someone to Mao, as a dependable private doctor.

    He was made waited for a long time before he could really meet Mao personally for the first time. He was told to meet Mao by a pool and Mao just finished swimming, lying on a chair, with a blanket covering his stomach.

    李志绥 was nervous, for Mao's very suspicious and a lot of people around him got in trouble. Not to mention 李志绥 has the background of oversea study, which would automatically cause Mao's suspicion. This is why this first private meeting meant a lot to 李志绥 at that time.

    Anyway, during the chatting, he tried to please Mao and avoided mentioning his experience in Australia. I don't remember exactly why Mao said he's good at chatting, but it seems to be something about Dream of The Red Chamber. Mao liked this classic, 李志绥 sensed it and continued the rest of the conversation around this book. That's all I remembered about this part. That was a thick thick book and we read through it in one week. So I'm sorry if there's some mistake.

    =====

    I had a vague recollection that it had something to do with Li Zhisui, so I'm glad to have that confirmed by a student in Arthur Waldron's class.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 14, 2014 @ 9:05 am

    Another Mao comment

    From Zhao Lu (with romanizations and translations by VHM):

    =====

    I did not know that this was all over the Web now. I thought this was one of the T-shirt and mug slogans from the Máo zhǔxí kuā wǒ "毛主席夸我…" ("Chairman Mao praised me…") series sold at shops in Nán luógǔ xiàng 南鑼鼓巷 ("South Gong and Drum Lane") or 798. I have no idea what it alludes to now. I only know that huì liáotiān 會聊天 ("be good at chatting") is a very colloquial expression used by people around my age or younger. It of course literally means "good at making conversations." Although in the Máo zhǔxí kuā wǒ huì liáotiān 毛主席夸我会聊天 ("Chairman Mao praised me for being good at chatting") case, it is a compliment, it is more often used as a joking response to others' nice (or mean) words about what you just said (nǐ zhēn huì liáotiān 你真会聊天 ["you really know how to chat"], or nǐ zhēn bù huì liáotiān 你真不会聊天 ["you really don't know how to chat"]). For example, I had a conversation with my cousin:

    =====

    My cousin: wǒ zuìjìn yòu pàngle 我最近又胖了!("Recently I've gotten fatter again!")
    I: wǒ zěnme juédé nǐ fǎn'ér shòu liǎo bù shǎo ne? 我怎么觉得你反而瘦了不少呢?("But somehow I feel that you've lost a lot of weight?")
    My cousin: nǐ zhēn huì liáotiānr 你真会聊天儿!("You really know how to talk!")

    =====

    In this case, it seems to me that one could look at huì liáotiān 會聊天 ("be good at chatting") as a way to avoid saying chuīniú 吹牛 (lit., "blow-cow" = "brag; boast; bull; blast; bazoo; talk big"), which I mentioned in a comment above.

  15. JS said,

    June 14, 2014 @ 11:29 pm

    Ah, I see; an absurd twist on 你真会说话… I like.

  16. Donald Clarke said,

    July 4, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

    One very late comment on the "beat" question: Seems obvious to me that it's a mistake for "best", as many above have commented, and that seems a reasonable (if dull) translation of 最牛逼. Instead of it being a typo caused by the propinquity of "a" to "s" on a QWERTY keyboard, though, I think it's at least equally likely that it's a misreading by the printer/typesetter (who understands no English at all) of a handwritten instruction. You see this kind of mistake all the time where that's the only plausible explanation.

  17. John Rohsenow said,

    October 16, 2014 @ 2:51 am

    Don Clarke's comment about " a misreading by the printer/typesetter (who understands no English at all)" recalls to me my experience as a "Foreign
    Expert" at Hangzhou University back in 1979, when most of my colleagues in the Foreign Languages Dept. were former Russian teachers who were
    teaching English out of Russian English texts, and all our teaching materials
    were hand typed on manual type writers in a typing pool. I had to keep
    explaining to my fellow ex-pats that of course the typists didn't know English, b/c if they DID, they wouldn't be typists!

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