Intentional mistranslation

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From a student:

Here are very popular "emoticons" [VM: "image macros" might be more appropriate] that young Chinese people send each other while online chatting. They use "literal" translation of Chinese into English to achieve a comedic effect. I don't think they reflect the young generation's bad English; they actually suggest that the young Internet generation's English is good enough to understand that such translations are ridiculous and thus funny. My personal favourite is "I don't eat this condom."

wǒmen hǎoxiàng zài nǎ'er jiànguò 我们好像在哪儿见过
("it seems as though we've seen each other somewhere")

hǎo biàntài 好变态
("really abnormal") — using the Japanese pronunciation of a word that can also mean "pervert"

wǒ bù chī zhè tào 我不吃这套
("I'm not buying it") — the word for "condom" in Chinese is bìyùn tào 避孕套 or bǎoxiǎn tào 保险套, where tào 套 literally means "sheath; case; series; set")

háo wú rénxìng kě yán 毫无人性可言
("completely without humanity; totally lacking human nature to speak of") — the homophonous háo 壕 ("moat; trench; fosse") is intentionally chosen for comic effect;  xìng 性 ("nature; sex")

wúfǎ zhí shì 无法直视
("unable to look; no way to look directly") — fǎ 法 ("way; method; law")

Of course, all of these translations sound ridiculous, but they are arrived at by translating Chinese idiomatic language into literal English.

[Thanks to Ashley Liu]


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 12:19 am

    The comic effect veritably leaps to the eye and gives one furiously to think. Or as a college friend of mine liked to say, "Dos malo" ('too bad').

  2. Christopher Henrich said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 9:26 am

    Why does the face on that "panda" look so much like Bibi Netanyahu?

  3. Brett said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 9:53 am

    @Christopher Henrich: My first thought was also that it looked like Netanyahu, but looking more closely, that face has some distinctively West African features. (I feel now like it's some other face that I would recognize if I saw the whole thing, properly shaded.) It must be something about the expression that makes it so strongly reminiscent of Bibi.

  4. hector said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 4:04 pm

    When I was in grade ten, taking Latin, we thought "semper ubi sub ubi" was hilarious. The above examples are cleverer.

  5. Bruno Estigarribia said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 9:13 pm

    We do this in Argentina too, occasionally. We translate expressions into English literally for comedic effect: No images though.

  6. Wentao said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 12:35 pm

    Didn't expect to see Wechat subculture featured on Language Log! 壕 is chatspeak for 土豪, someone who is showing off their wealth. So I would guess 壕无人性可言 means "extravagant beyond human".

    @hector It took me a long time to figure out that one until I spoke it out loud.

  7. Bmblbzzz said,

    November 11, 2015 @ 10:32 am

    Surely this is a very common linguistic play. I've come across it often in Polish, eg Warsaw = wojnę widział or kolej na ciebie (your turn) translated literally as 'railway on you'. All done knowingly and for a laugh. The basic idea goes back at least as far as the classic schoolboy Lation caesar adsum jam forte and in all probability far further.

  8. John Ohno said,

    November 11, 2015 @ 5:43 pm

    The Kawaiikochan comic ( does the same thing, by being a mix of broken english and intentionally terrible japanese.

  9. Alon Lischinsky said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 9:51 am

    @Bruno Estigarribia: so do the Spaniards. Unfortunately, most of the idioms covered in that book (including the ones in its title: de perdidos al río ~‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, and hablando en plata ~‘in all frankness’) are common in Peninsular Spanish only, so the jokes are lost on the rest of us.

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