Off my head there is a path

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Dean Barrett sent in this thought for the day from Yunnan Province:

The English rendering of the Chinese sign sounds somewhat profound and even poetic, but what does it really mean?

The sign gives voice to the personified plants, beseeching those who have come to walk in the woods:

Dàlù suí nǐ zǒu, bié cǎi zài wǒ tóu. 大路隨你走,別踩在我頭。
"Follow the main path as you please, but don't step on my head."

"Off my head there is a path" is charming, but I doubt that many English speakers will get the message.

It's also worth noting that the zài 在 ("on") in the second clause would be perceived by most speakers of Modern Standard Mandarin as ungrammatical (at least unnecessary), since cǎi 踩 by itself means "trample on; trod upon"). The reason it got stuck in there nonetheless is to fill out the pentasyllabic meter of the clause, so that it matches the five beat rhythm of the first clause. Clearly, the author of the sign was striving not only for prosodic effect, but also for poetic impact. Note that the two clauses rhyme.

[A tip of the hat to Bob Sanders, Gloria Bien, Cornelius Kubler, and Perry Link]



24 Comments

  1. Outis said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 8:33 am

    The 在 is unnecessary, but hardly ungrammatical. MSM is full of such unnecessary prepositions. In general, I feel that the less unnecessary prepositions there are, the more "classical" (文言) a phrase sounds.

  2. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Off my head there is a path [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 9:23 am

    […] Language Log » Off my head there is a path languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2942 – view page – cached February 4, 2011 @ 7:40 am · Filed by Victor Mair under Lost in Translation Tags […]

  3. Yao Ziyuan said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    Of course a good translation would be the US Naval Jack: DONT TREAD ON ME (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Navy_Jack).

  4. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    I think the expression is magnificent, and with a little punctuation could be Off my head; there is a path. Still, this takes some imagination–not what the reader expects in a well-written sign. At least the sign does not warn of imminent danger (to the walker).

  5. Neil Dolinger said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 11:59 am

    As someone who spends most of my weekends hiking in parks, I would have interpreted the English to mean that I would find another trail at the head of this trail. Once I had arrived at the trailhead I would have tromped off into the woods in serch of the other trail — exactly what the sign maker didn't want me to do!

  6. anya said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    Ian Hamilton Finlay comes to mind, who would mistranslate with poetry as the beneficiary, e.g. put "das gepfluegte [plowed] Land * the fluted land" on a gate looking out on the farmland surrounding his big garden Little Sparta at Stoneypath near Dunsyre, Lanarkshire

    (http://www.flickr.com/photos/cashen/278311254/)

  7. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 4:50 pm

    Slightly OT: Note that the two clauses rhyme. But the final syllables have different tones; does this mean that rhyme in Mandarin works at the segmental level (only)?

  8. Nijma said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 5:13 pm

    I too interpreted this as a "trailhead" marker.

  9. Jim said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

    'Slightly OT: Note that the two clauses rhyme. But the final syllables have different tones; does this mean that rhyme in Mandarin works at the segmental level (only)?"

    In Chinese poetry, not necessarily Mandarin, that is common (standard?) In jueju poems it is a rule of the genre.

  10. maidhc said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

    I think I could get it with better punctuation and a few additions:

    Stay off my head!—There is a path!

    next to a picture of a plant.

    I've seen some fairly similar signs in English, but always with the picture.

  11. Jing said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 5:44 pm

    The culture difference makes the translation hard to understand for native English speakers. People are not allowed to step on the lawn in most parks and gardens in China. A simple translation ("Please do not step on the lawn") would be better for people without this background knowledge.
    I totally agree with what Outis said that "別踩在我头" is the "classical" (文言) Chinese. The modern way of speaking would be "別踩我头" or "別踩在我头上", in which "踩" is used as transitive verb and intransitive verb. Both of them are grammatical.  

  12. Victor Mair said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

    @Outis
    I have canvassed a number of native speaker informants, and most of them consider bié cǎi zài wǒ tóu 別踩在我頭 to be ungrammatical UNLESS a shàng 上 is added at the end (pattern: zài 在 OBJ shàng 上).

  13. Atmir Ilias said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 12:32 am

    Dàlù suí nǐ zǒu, bié cǎi zài wǒ tóu.
    The study of the "別踩在我頭" should not be limited to its use in "formal way."
    別踩在我頭 is an ideograph that conveys its meaning through its importance-resemblance to a physical object, the head. It means "do not step on the main thing." Our ancestors thought that the head is the most important part of a human body. It seems to be that Chinese has missed something from the ancestor meaning, or we can not understand its deep signification.
    There exists an strange strong correlation between unities "the head" and "the most important" in Chinese.
    Looking at specific uses of words and phrases such as "the head" and "the most important", we can reveal underlying commitments. We need a concrete method for understanding the highly abstract concept of ideographs.
    The focus on how ideographs have changed over time is not important. We need to know the elements involved in the creation of ideographs. To gain also a better understanding of ideographs we need to look at how it is used and depicted in other languages as well.

  14. Lareina said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 12:48 am

    It's a sure progress from 'Husband and Wife's lung slices'!

  15. bryan said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 1:28 am

    "The culture difference makes the translation hard to understand for native English speakers. People are not allowed to step on the lawn in most parks and gardens in China. A simple translation ("Please do not step on the lawn") would be better for people without this background knowledge.
    I totally agree with what Outis said that "別踩在我头" is the "classical" (文言) Chinese. The modern way of speaking would be "別踩我头" or "別踩在我头上", in which "踩" is used as transitive verb and intransitive verb. Both of them are grammatical."

    "別踩在我头" is NOT the "classical" (文言) Chinese. In Classical Chinese, you'd use 勿 instead of 別 for "Don't" when especially used as a command. 我 is not used as an abbreviation of 我的 in Classical Chinese. Rather 吾 is used for "I or me / my / mine" in Classical Chinese. 头 is Modern Chinese, not Classical Chinese. 首 = head in Classical Chinese.

    The correct way to write it is "勿踩吾首 " = Please don't step on my head! in Classical Chinese. 別踩在我头上 = Modern Chinese via Mandarin but wrong. 在 shouldn't exist here at all. 上 doesn't make sense grammatically here. Better to use 顶 instead.

    The whole phrase would then be partly or wholly incorrect depending on how it's interepreted and used due ONLY to the rhyme of the last two characters in Middle Chinese from which the Southern dialects derive and do rhyme, like Cantonese or Hokkien / Fukienese / Minnanyu, etc… but they don't rhyme in Mandarin, but only slightly due to differing tones.

    It should be 大路隨你走, 请勿踩吾首 if you were to write it in Classical Chinese.
    It should be 大路隨你走,请不要踩我头顶 if you were to write it in Modern Chinese.

    The Chinese is a polite culture, so 请 makes it not only sound better but tells others who you are.

  16. bryan said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 1:39 am

    "Rather 吾 is used for "I or me / my / mine" in Classical Chinese. "

    EDIT:
    "Rather 吾 is used for "I / my / mine" in Classical Chinese. 我 = "me" in Classical Chinese.

  17. bryan said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 1:41 am

    "It should be 大路隨你走,请不要踩我头顶 if you were to write it in Modern Chinese."

    In the above, 我 is an abbreviation for "我的" in Modern Mandarin.

  18. bryan said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 1:51 am

    It's a sure progress from 'Husband and Wife's lung slices'!

    Well, how about "Married couple's lung slices"?!

    =

    夫妻 肺片, fūqīfèipiàn:
    夫, fū = husband(s)
    妻, qī = wife / wives
    夫妻, fūqī = husband and wife; married couple
    肺 = fèi = lung(s)
    片 = piàn = piece(s); slice(s), as in "piece of cake" or "slice of bread"

  19. bryan said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 1:53 am

    "Well, how about "Married couple's lung slices"?! "

    EDIT:
    How about "Married couple's lung pieces"?!

  20. svld said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 6:00 am

    If I'm to write it in Classical Chinese, it will be 大道任汝行,勿踏吾首/大道汝行,勿踏吾首 or 任汝大道行,勿踏吾首/汝大道行,勿踏吾首.

  21. C W said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 8:58 pm

    I have a similar photo here :)
    http://bit.ly/gAWPIU

  22. Charly said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

    http://lh4.ggpht.com/_WH1kR6wbF10/RhGDPJW2O_I/AAAAAAAABQ4/WTldzzh5NOI/IMG_3483.JPG

    A similarly poetic-mysterious sign. What does the Chinese mean, and does it rhyme?

  23. bryan said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

    花草无私 , huācǎowúsī = Flowers and plants are selfless
    花 = flowers
    草 = grasses
    无私 = selfless, unselfish
    无 = none, nothing; without
    私 = to be on one's own, to be in private

    人间有情 , rénjiānyǒuqíng = There's love in this world.
    人间 = world
    人 = people; person
    间 = interval; in-between
    有情 = to have love, to be in love
    有 = to have
    情 = love

  24. bryan said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

    请别碰我 = Please don't touch me
    我怕疼 = I'm afraid of being hurt

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