Poetic Vienna

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Photograph accompanying Catherine Wong's article titled "Farewell Palm Springs: China to crack down on foreign names for buildings, residential areas to ‘protect culture’" (SCMP, 3/23/16):

The Chinese sign outside this development reads:

huāxiāng wéiyěnà 花香維也納
("floral fragrance Vienna")

Such grandiloquence is typical of real estate developments in China.  Often, as in this case, they hit you with a double dose of bombast, with the Chinese saying one thing extravagant, and the English another.

Something similar happens with translations of English movie titles into Chinese, where a short, serious title in English often becomes something long, hilarious, and pompous in Chinese.  See here and here.  The latter article, which also deals with translations of English language film titles into other languages, has plenty of Chinese examples, including this interesting section:

The Chinese characters for “story” used in most movie titles, zǒngdòngyuán (总动员), literally translate to “general mobilization”, which sounds militaristic and vaguely threatening. This trend is particularly apparent in Pixar films:

  • Toy General Mobilization (玩具总动员) – Toy Story
  • Super People General Mobilization (超人总动员) – The Incredibles
  • Seabed General Mobilization (海底总动员) – Finding Nemo
  • Food General Mobilization (美食总动员) – Ratatouille
  • Machine Implement People General Mobilization (机器人总动员) – WALL-E

Just to be clear, zǒngdòngyuán 总动员 does not mean "story"; it means "general mobilization".  There are plenty of other words for "story" in Chinese, the most common being gùshì 故事.

Brendan O'Kane, who has worked in the Chinese film industry, notes:

My impression is that the locus classicus for this is the title of Toy Story, and that this was originally an HK rather than PRC translation. (I remember hearing this somewhere, but can't find anything on a quick search.) As you've listed, it seems to turn up most frequently in the titles of animated films — particularly ones from Pixar.

Re: overtones: despite the literal sense of 总动员, I don't know that it's perceived as particularly military or threatening at this point. ("Brigade" in English might be a good comparison: "Charge of the Light Brigade" vs. "Laugh Brigade" and "Code for America Brigade.") If I had to guess, I'd say that 总动员 is probably more of a branding strategy at this point than a translation of anything in particular: it's familiar enough to serve as a sign to people that if they enjoyed Toy Story / Inside Out / Ratatouille, then they'll enjoy this other movie as well. (WALL-E, for instance, really only has two characters in it, which would make 总动员 feel weird — to me at least; check with a native speaker — if it were being used for its meaning.)

To return to China's crackdown on foreign names for buildings and residential areas, I doubt seriously that the new pronouncements will amount to a hill of beans.  As the SCMP article states,

The ministry introduced a set of guidelines forbidding the use of westernised names for residential areas or buildings in China in 1996, but the rules have not been properly enforced, the report said.

Just as I was about to make this post, June Teufel Dreyer sent in another article on the same subject:

"In Bid to Protect ‘National Dignity,’ China Cracks Down on Foreign Place Names " (WSJ, 3/23/16)

It's not gonna work.  We've been through all of this before.  So long as China remains open to the world, foreign names will continue to increase.

"Banning foreign-language signs in China " (10/12/13)

"English Banned in Chinese Writing " (12/23/10)

[h.t. Mark Metcalf]


  1. Bathrobe said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 6:49 pm

    My feeling is that this usage possibly came from Japan. Japan has plenty of variety shows entitled xxx 大集合 dai-shūgō 'great gathering', implying an "all-cast" show. My impression is that 総動員 sōdōin 'general mobilisation' can be used with a similar meaning. For instance, 「東京喜劇人協会」所属の喜劇人たちを総動員し 'tōkyō kigekijin kyōkai' shozoku no kigekijin-tachi o sōdōin chi… "to mobilise all the comedians of the Tokyo Comedians' Association…". The concept seems to be one of "Everybody in!"

    I don't believe that it has military overtones in Japanese (although it once may have). It now simply means that everyone is on board, or that a huge cast has been gathered.

  2. Bathrobe said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 7:06 pm

    I wasn't impressed with the Telegraph article on movie title translations (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/11148825/The-Greatest-Chinese-Film-Title-Translations.html)

    The problem is that it doesn't give the original Chinese; merely someone's lazy or exaggerated translation into English.

    That someone has translated 美国骗局 as 'United States Cheat Bureau', which isn't really what it implies. 骗局 is just a word for a scam or a swindle, and the title could be better translated as "American Swindle". Not quite right, but not as ludicrous as 'United States Cheat Bureau".

  3. Bathrobe said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

    25 American Movies With Hilarious Foreign Titles (https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/american-movie-titles-weird-translations) is just as bad.

    西部往事 Xībù Wǎngshì does not mean "Western Department of Memories". It means something like "Old Happenings in the West" or "Memories of the West". 西部 doesn't mean "Western Department", it means the western region (of a country), and is the normal Chinese translation for America's West. Babbel should be ashamed of itself for putting around such arrant rubbish.

  4. Avinor said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 7:48 pm

    Reminds me of Swedish movie title translations of old.

    In the seventies and eighties, every Mel Brooks movie got a title starting with "Det våras för…" ("Springtime for…"). Similarly, every movie starring Goldie Hawn was named "Tjejen som…" ("The girl who…").

  5. j2h said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 8:23 pm

    "总动员" is translated to "Story" by Google and other statistical translation software, thanks to its use in the title of the film "Toy Story" – that's presumably where the Babbel article author got the idea that that's what it means.

    "Machine implement person" for "机器人" is pretty egregious too, one of those "translate every character individually"-style translations done by people who have no idea how to translate Chinese at all. A better translation would simply be "robot".

    Back on the subject of 总动员, I also noticed its proliferation in animated film titles recently, and it does seem to have originated with Toy Story (where it actually makes sense as a title). Pixar then continued to use it for most of their subsequent films, while several locally-produced movies and Chinese releases of international movies have also taken up the pattern (e.g. Bee Movie is named 蜜蜂总动员, bee general mobilisation). It has even spread beyond the film industry – I recall a sports game console of which I forget the Chinese name, but which memorably provided the English translation "general mobilization of balls".

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 8:41 pm

    "China Aims to Tighten Its Borders Against Foreign Place Names" (NYT, 3/23/16)

  7. John said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 1:00 am

    To me, in the context of children's animated movies, 总动员 just means that several characters go on some sort of mission, which is basically the plot of these movies anyway. You could call that "general mobilization" if you want.

  8. Mr Punch said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 10:06 am

    The Chinese effort is, of course, evidence of an inferiority complex that is hardly justified by real conditions and trends. Nobody is telling, say, Las Vegas casinos to avoid foreign names. Sad!

  9. Jean-Michel said,

    March 28, 2016 @ 12:43 pm

    From the NYT article:

    Housing developments have been the biggest generators of odd names. Beijing alone has a Chateau Regalia, a Rose and Ginkgo, Merlin Champagne Town, Le Leman Lake Villa, Beijing Riviera and International Wonderland.

    Here the article seems to be conflating "foreign names" and "weird English names." "International Wonderland" in Chinese is (and, as far as I can tell, always has been) 幸福广场 "Happiness Plaza," which seems pretty ordinary to me. The "Beijing Riviera" is 香江花园 "Fragrant River Garden," which is a bit florid but not foreign. The "Chateau Regalia" is 丽高王府 "Ligao Palace," where 丽高 kinda sounds like "Regalia" but is also the sort of name often used by Chinese businesses, combining two auspicious morphemes (here, "beauty" and "high") that don't necessarily mean anything together. Someone who only knew the Chinese name without knowing the "Chateau Regalia" name would probably detect nothing foreign about it. The "Rose and Gingko" is 龙湖滟澜山, which strikes me as odd, but not because it's somehow "foreign": 龙湖 is simply "Dragon Lake," and 滟澜山 translates character-by-character as something like "glittering and rippling mountain." Perhaps 滟澜山 has a more specific meaning that I'm not aware of, but I'm pretty sure it's not a foreignism. I don't think any of these places would be affected by this policy of purism in place names, even if it were strenuously implemented—I can't imagine the government is going to start targeting strange-sounding English names when such names are probably only used (if at all) by the expat community (I doubt the Chinese people living in and around Rose and Gingko actually call it that instead of 龙湖滟澜山). Tellingly, the Chinese translation of the article drops most of these examples, keeping the borderline example of "Chateau Regalia."

  10. Bathrobe said,

    March 28, 2016 @ 1:24 pm

    There is a development in Beijing called 林肯公园 línkěn gōngyuán, which could be either "Lincoln Park" (林肯=Lincoln) or "Linkin Park" (林肯公园 is the Chinese name of the pop group), a rather glaring use of a foreign name. The English name of the development is, however, the far more innocuous "Link Park"!

  11. andyb said,

    March 29, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

    @Bathrobe: "I wasn't impressed with the Telegraph article…"

    I'm pretty sure that Jacob Stolworthy and Ross Jones did almost no research on this article.

    25 of their 30 entries come from a very similar "top 25" list posted all over the internet in 2011—including "Mr. Cat Poop" and "He's a Ghost!".

    That "top 25" list was apparently based on some anonymous "content creator" taking only the Chinese entries from a Buzzfeed article, then filling it out with additional entries from a Reddit thread that he'd barely read. The thread explained that "Mr. Cat Poop" was an error (a 1998 Chicago Tribune article implied that Hong Kong fans were laughing at the badly-translated Chinese title, but they were actually laughing at the tag line in the untranslated English poster; they issued a correction to clarify it the next day), and credited "He's a Ghost!" to a parodic Photoplasty (a cracked.com contest where readers submit fake (Photoshopped) pictures to fit a theme, in this case "Terrible Titles for Classic Movies"), but the listicle included them both as real translations, and dozens of slight variations of the same list have done so ever since.

    The Buzzfeed article was apparently based on another 1998 news article, this one from the New York Times, which includes the also-erroneous "Oh No! My Girlfriend Has a Penis!" The NYT issued a correction the next day that just says that title and many of the other Hong Kong titles (but no specific list of which) are inaccurate. Buzzfeed included all of them except that one; so did the top-25 list; so does the Telegraph.

  12. andyb said,

    March 29, 2016 @ 3:46 pm

    Since I tangentially mentioned cracked.com: They have a number of articles on this subject. Up to 2011, these were usually not only funnier, more accurate, and less insulting than the mainstream ones, but also had some interesting discussions of why the translation choices are made. Since then, they seem a lot more like the Babbel article translated to Cracked house-style (or, more likely, the Babbel one is probably just a ripoff of one of the Cracked articles).

    Anyway, I can't find old articles on their site anymore; they keep reorganizing and retitling everything, and, even though I know at least two of the articles (one early/good, and one later/not so good) are by Maxwell Yezpitelok/Mxy, neither one shows up in his list of articles. But if you can find them, they're worth reading. Somewhere, one of them points out that it's often the translation back to English that makes them funny—e.g., the Terminator movies often get translated to something that translates back to Exterminator, which is funny because you imagine a blue-collar plumber-cracked worker bombing your house for ants, but in most of those foreign languages, there is no such connotation for the word they used.

    Also, this is only tangentially related, but if you can find Jay Thomas's articles about foreign movie posters, they'll make you want to move to eastern Europe, and the past.

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