Xi Jinping and his rookery

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Bruce Humes saw this on NYT’s bilingual website in an article today entitled "China’s Leader Wears Many Hats, but Only One Jacket"*:

In summer, Mr. Xi follows tradition and wears a long-sleeved white shirt and dark trousers when mixing with ordinary folks. When accompanying officials follow suit, as they often do, they call to mind a rookery of emperor penguins. 

This is rendered in Chinese as:

Xiàtiān, Xí Jìnpíng huì yánxí chuántǒng, chuānzhuó báisè chángxiù chènshān hé shēnsè kùzi yǔ pǔtōng bǎixìng dǎchéngyīpiàn. Tōngcháng, péitóng de guānyuán yě huì xiàofǎng. Cǐ shí de tāmen, huì ràng rén xiǎngqǐ yīqún dìqì'é.


Bruce finds this highly amusing, and interesting, because:

1) Rookery is defined by one dictionary as "a breeding place or colony of gregarious birds or animals, as penguins and seals.”  According to Wikipedia, "A rookery is a colony of breeding animals, generally birds."

This usage suggests several things, including gathering together for the act of breeding, and highly imitative behavior, even cloning, none of which would ever be suggested in a PRC-based medium in association with China’s leadership.   Instead, for "rookery" the NYT Chinese translation just gives the colorless yīqún 一群 (usually translated into English as "a group", though it could also — according to the circumstances — be rendered as "flock / crowd / herd / pack / swarm / gang").

2) As is often the case with NYT’s bilingual news pages — which surprises Bruce, because it is a leading global newspaper — the Chinese rendition pales in comparison to the English original.

If the Chinese translation wanted to adhere more closely to the colorful language of the English original, they could have written niǎocháo 鳥巢 ("bird's nest", also used as the nickname of the 2008 Olympic stadium), qúnqīdì 群栖地 ("flock roosting / perching place"), or fánzhí dì 繁殖地 ("breeding ground") for "rookery".

We should not overlook another element in the wonderful prose of the NYT English, namely, these are emperor penguins, not just any old penguins.  Here the Chinese faithfully and felicitously follows suit with qì'é 企鹅.


*That's the bilingual version.  The monolingual English version is here, and the monolingual Chinese version is here.


  1. Rich Rostrom said,

    May 26, 2016 @ 9:58 pm

    "Rookery" in English has a plural implication ("a colony of gregarious animals"). "Nest" does not, nor "breeding ground" (both imply temporary habitation by a few individuals for breeding purposes only). So they wouldn't be good translations.

    However, "rookery" also implies a place where the referenced group stay, whereas Xi and his followers are not so confined. "Flock" would be the best word, IMO.

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 12:03 am

    "Follow suit" gives me a little dissonance when referring to clothing.

    What word is used in Chinese for a colony of penguins? Or a colony of rooks, for that matter? Wikipedia tells me they're found in China

  3. Jenny Chu said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 12:28 am

    Rookery can also have the sense of a place where tame / captive birds are kept. So would an "aviary" work? No, perhaps, because most aviaries have nets to keep the birds from flying away – certainly not necessary for emperor penguins, and probably not necessary for Xi's tame / captive accompanying officials.

  4. djbcjk said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 12:58 am

    Of course "rookery" can be facetiously used for "the act of rooking (i.e. cheating" see http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=rook

  5. Hans Adler said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 2:15 am

    The English text can get away with *rookery* because of the weird tradition of using highly specific collective terms for groups of animals. This has become conventionalised in a way that makes it hard to bear for a highly sensitive person with an actual sense of humour. But in this case it actually has a beneficial effect: Without this cultural background the catachresis would probably be a bit too much. But with it, people will just assume that *rookery* is an established collective noun for penguins, savour the connotations that fit the context and completely ignore those that don't. (According to Wikipedia, *rookery* is a collective noun for seals.)

    Any term for a stationary group, nest or breeding place would probably not work in Chinese unless it's sufficiently specific to penguins or it's sufficiently common to apply it to moving groups. Therefore, without knowing more than a few words of Chinese, I suspect that the word for *flock* is still better than the alternatives. I think it's better to leave a joke untranslated or make it less conspicuous in the translation than to draw undue attention to a poor attempt at a translation. If necessary, it can be substituted by another high quality joke in the vicinity – one that works well in the target language but not necessarily in the source language.

  6. maidhc said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 2:55 am

    "Rookery" is also used for a hideout for outlaws or bandits, like the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.

  7. languagehat said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 8:17 am

    "Follow suit" gives me a little dissonance when referring to clothing.

    That's intended; it's a clever little pun.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 10:16 am



  9. Brett said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

    I wouldn't call it "clever." Using "follow suit" as a reference to clothing is a standard gag, to the point that I no longer find it funny. In fact, I encountered the joke before I even knew where the expression "follow suit" came from. (My parents both knew how to play bridge, but they have never, so far as I am aware, played it in my lifetime. I did not understand the literal meaning of "follow suit" until I was a teenager and observed some people playing hearts.)

  10. postageincluded said,

    May 29, 2016 @ 10:53 pm

    I'll just add, late and tangentially, that "rookery" is rarely used for anything other than colonies of rooks in the UK. I've heard "rookery" used for other sea-birds, seals, and turtles, but this has the feeling of being rather specialised vocabulary for exotic species – I've never heard it used of a colony of puffins or seals in the UK for example, but penguins and sea-lions (unknown in British waters btw) are sometimes said to have rookeries in nature documentaries.

    Hans Adler has the wrong end of the stick in talking about the "highly specific collective terms" of English here. "Rookery" is not the collective noun for rooks – which would be a "parliament" or "clamour" (though these are really part of the parlour game of collective nouns and not really words anyone would use in an ordinary conversation), it's a group of trees where rooks regularly gather to nest (or, by analogy, a beach or ice shelf where pinnipeds or penguins gather regularly to breed), so even when the animals have vacated, the rookery is still there. As such it feels slightly wrong to my British ear to liken be-suited officials to a "rookery of Emperor penguins". It also seems slightly inappropriate simile, since "rookeries", when occupied, are general noisy, fussy, disputatious places – I imagine that the term was adapted for penguins and sea-lions because of that similarity to gatherings of rooks – but this seems an odd way to describe a group of Chinese officials.

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